Mistakes have been made on and off the pitch for City
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Your Posts is a new project which allows you to voice your opinions on the big sporting stories – Mike Taylor looks back at where he feels Norwich got it wrong during this suspended season.
In 2014/15 Leicester were seven points adrift of safety with 29 games played. They survived and next season won the league.
They played with an attacking three of Mahrez, Ulloa and Pukki (sorry Vardy). Now I don’t believe the latter would happen but if Leicester survived from the same position as City then surely the league cannot be terminated early and automatic relegations and promotions applied as football tries to deal with all the sporting and financial issues around the global pandemic? Leeds always fall out of relegation too, don’t they?
However, whilst people can’t marry, attend funerals or visit terminally ill loved ones, whilst grandparents cannot see grandchildren, whilst two year olds cannot ride on a playground swing in an otherwise deserted village, whilst maybe even parents cannot see their own children there is no way on this earth that football should be allowed to resume, including behind closed doors. If footballers can play a contact sport for 90 minutes, swap sweat and share a dressing room then the rest of the world must be allowed to start spinning again first.
That being said, this season was over as a competition before Christmas. I’ll argue it was thrown away during two infuriating transfer windows. This will be an impartial but impassioned analysis that tactics this season have been flawed. I don’t intend to rant or to be an armchair quarterback but please consider this piece as an opinion from a season ticket holder of over 25 years.
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Although fabulous to watch, I worried about our expansive style last season and argued it would be unsustainable with promotion. There were many Championship teams that were our equal over 70-80 minutes but we had an X factor and ability to capitalise late in the game, late in the season.
I also worried that we lacked a squad from which a starting 11 could be transformed mid-game with only one or two substitutions, especially without a replacement to offer what we had from Rhodes.
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I don’t believe we would have been promoted were it not for the points recovered and gained by Rhodes and Vrancic as substitutes and to a lesser extent, with Hernandez playing on his natural right side.
Therefore I expected limited but necessary strengthening in the pre-season. Instead, without signing a number nine, I’d argue we started this season with a weaker team than which won promotion. That must be a record of sorts.
Summer recruitment was poor and I failed to see how the few signings actually facilitated change; We didn’t gain many tactical options. Byram has been brilliant, but then we signed only Amadou and PRoberts and he was a right winger (like Hernandez); therefore we remained without a left footed player except Lewis. (For a period this season both Byram and Hernandez were paired together, both wrong footed on the left).
We clearly had no number nine and if the rumours about planning for a three-man defence were true, then to rely on only four centre backs in my opinion was irresponsible. Thereafter January was another opportunity to regroup. A loan number nine (Scott Hogan?) A loan defender? (Maya Yoshia or Matt Miazga?). Instead we signed two further technical number 10s for me (Duda and Rupp).
Let’s also be utterly clear.... Buendia supplies Pukki better than Duda. Stop re-inventing the wheel.
Rupp looks reasonable and fits the mould but like Hernandez he is right footed; we remain without a natural left footed attacking option (Kamil Grosicki would have been excellent, suiting various formations including the ‘diamond’).
We also remain with a squad devoid of enough running stamina, physical power and goals from central midfield, aka Bradley Johnson or Jeremy Goss. I also don’t think there is enough pace either centrally or wide (Murphy twins) and finally Pukki clearly needs proven, reliable help.
These squad limitations combine to stifle formation options. We do not have the players for 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 because they historically rely on a number nine, we don’t have the pace to play 4-3-3 (a formation that would suit the Murphy twins in particular) and to play 3-5-2 either wastes the technical talents of Duda, Buendia, Vrancic and Leitner or it forfeits a second striker.
However, an abstract variation on that is closest to Danie Farke’s favoured 4-2-3-1 with ‘plan B only ever being a tweak of plan A’.
I am desperate for DF to succeed but I am uncomfortable with how he limits himself with his matchday squads. I often look at a bench before kick-off and look at the starting 11 and I often wonder to myself: ‘Who will he swap with who to maximise the effectiveness of a substitution?’
If, for example, I see Vrancic on the bench but Duda, Buendia and Cantwell all starting on the pitch, I don’t see how that substitution will change a game because it’s like-for-like. Limited changes.
If I can bore you a little more, please read further.
4-2-3-1 is a formation that makes the introduction of a second striker difficult. It is a formation that leaves our full-backs exposed. It leaves our central midfield out-numbered. It leaves Pukki isolated, and vitally it takes too long to move the ball through any transitions. Teams can re-group before we can effect an attack.
However, DF believes that with minor tweaks 4-2-3-1 can allow for a second striker by shifting to a ‘diamond’. I dislike that concept because to invoke a ‘diamond’ from 4-2-3-1 involves a significant change of shape (it certainly is not a tweak of plan A). The ‘diamond’ changes can only be made if the starting 11 are adaptable, especially with the athletic and well-drilled ‘wide diamond’ players.
DF routinely starts with Duda, Buendia and Tettey and they are not, politely, adaptable but instead they are specialists. The consequence is that for DF to make his ‘diamond’ work he needs to make two concurrent changes, perhaps even three or more if he wants even more attacking onus. However, the qualities of the wider players in a ‘diamond’ are largely absent in this squad; I’d say only Rupp and Cantwell naturally fit the intelligent, wide athletic mould.
If I were to pick the four in a diamond it would be Rupp and Cantwell, Tettey and Buendia - precisely the player variation DF has not played. The result, to me, is that DF’s attempt to ‘tweak’ into a ‘diamond’ with initially only a single subtitution always looks unbalanced until all subtitutions are exhausted and then there is no scope for Plan C.
To best work with the players we already have, 3-4-3 would be my preferred system. I think, looking forward, it would be prudent to establish a back three because that is the safest survival strategy if we are to get promoted again and I believe that a three-man defence creates better long-passing angles, particularly in counter attacking transitions.
We have brilliant natural wing backs in Lewis and Aarons/Byram. Whatever the goal scoring variation, there must alway remains a robust defensive platform. I also urge us to try and play without the reliance on multiple midfield playmakers, because it costs width and impacts defensive resolve. We also lack pace and power at the very tip of our attacks, clearly highlighted in countering Pukki this season, play a high line against him and stifle Buendia and Norwich look impotent.
Yet we persevere. The blunt, alternative effect of Stiepermann or Drmic being advanced of Pukki (rather than vice-versa) could be a revelation. I think you could especially debate Pukki on the right of an attacking three (not a winger or as a midfielder) rather than as the point, ditto Cantwell on the left.
Pukki (and recently Cantwell) have been excellent defensively and both personify how DF wants to play between the lines, both are as involved in as many as they score. Pukki won’t score if he doesn’t get the ball, but to me he’s first on the team sheet. Tweak how we use him. Couldn’t Vrancic (or Leitner) and Tettey operate together in central midfield if we play 3-4-3 given how I envisage Todd and Pukki could aid defensively, particularly in the channels?
That’s three strikers, three centre backs, a balanced middle with Vrancic spraying the ball to three attacking options, and genuine width because Lewis and Aarons are initially more advanced, are covered by wider centre backs and assisted by Cantwell and Pukki in the attacking channels ‘playing through the ranks’.
Wing backs aside, there is a lot of depth in this squad for 3-4-3 and more attacking and defensive tweaks available to necessity. You can readily see the ability to change shape with those players or bolster them defensively in midfield with McLean for Vrancic (or with Rupp amongst the front three) or to tinker it in attack with Buendia or the pace of Idah. There are many subtle tweaks with 3-4-3 but we start with too many players dedicated to 4-2-3-1 and a switch to a balanced attacking formation is NOT achievable with substitutes because too many player changes are required.
I think Drmic looks ineffective as a substitute because the ‘diamond’ is too narrow and a player like him (or Rhodes) needs the width of, for example, Hernandez.
We’ve now seen every possible player combination and variation and 4-2-3-1 looks creative in attack (without many wins) but vulnerable in defence. The balance never seems struck. Perseverance with that formation has been the downfall of Amadou, Leitner, Trybull, Stiepermann and Vrancic as each has failed to establish himself in 4-2-3-1. If those players have failed to adapt to 4-2-3-1 is it not time to play a formation that suits or is a clear out is required?
My words are not moans, they are an impartial analysis. The BBC, Sky Sports and newspaper pundits/analysts repeatedly highlight that our approach is too one-dimensional, albeit that we were the ‘best bottom of the league team ever’. Despite those observations, to me, we’ve never truly shifted away from 4-2-3-1.
This season should be a grounding for many and we should all be clear about what lies ahead next season in the Championship. We were promoted very much on an X-factor last season and we are now known to be exploitable in defence and without a supply line, impotent in attack.
DF is brave and his introduction of youngsters last season shouldn’t be under-estimated. Let me be absolutely clear, I want him to stay and grow with Norwich City, but I’m pragmatic so I want to see significant changes soon. A failure to reinforce our attack or supplement our back four cost us this season before a ball was even kicked.
Let’s not let history repeat itself.
Get it started by signing Yakou Meite as the point man in 3-4-3. It is very feasible that unless we bring something new to the party, next season in the Championship could be a massive anti-climax.
If anyone wants to debate specific player positions or the tactics I’ve mentioned please comment below and I’ll endeavour to respond in detail but moreover in these awful times of separation from loved ones, stay safe and stay positive.
And let’s not forget where Leicester City sat after 29 games in 2014/15.
Thanks and OTBC
“Midfield Mike” Taylor
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