Are Norwich City getting bullied in the top-flight?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
There was a beauty to watching Norwich City operate last season.
The manner in which they passed the football, with purpose and technique, was akin to art.
That footballing philosophy laid the foundations for a Premier League assault, with many excitedly anticipating City's return to football's promised land. By and large, the Canaries have displayed performances that prove they do possess the ability to win games at this level, namely Manchester City but also the Everton and Arsenal fixtures.
Increasingly, it appears as though City don't possess the physicality or the nous to engage in the arm wrestles needed to assert themselves in this division. They are regularly exposing a soft underbelly whenever teams opt to press them with intensity and intelligence or seek to deploy a game that is focused on aerial combativeness. Fundamentally, City possess a team of technicians capable of winning games when time and space is permitted by the opponent.
Daniel Farke, following the 2-1 defeat to Southampton, claimed his side were bullied during the defeat.
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"We were bullied twice on set pieces. To be 2-0 down at half-time for a young newly-promoted side is tough," said Farke.
Since his appointment, the German has adopted a preferred method of zonal marking at set-pieces, as opposed to the favoured man marking approach witnessed for decades in this country. Theoretically, the aim is to take the onus away from individuals and instead place it onto how you deploy the system as a collective unit. Principally, that stems from occupying a zone as opposed to a man before ensuring the player defensively protects that pocket of space they occupy.
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Danny Ings cunningly deconstructed that defensive positioning for Southampton's first goal whilst Ryan Bertrand profited from the lack of attention given to him by City's zones.
When City do find a method of clearing the initial phase, often that comes at the expense of conceding the ball for a second phase to build from the box. Zonal marking requires a whole side to act collectively, meaning there isn't an outlet to press opponents or receive the ball to relieve the mounting pressure.
Shane Long and Ings don't possess the height that City faced at Turf Moor against Burnley's strike force, but the nature of zonal marking means those players are gaining a run on City's defenders.
That's not to say there is a static nature to those defenders movements from set plays nor that Onel Hernandez could have pre-empted Long winning the flick-on that saw Bertrand convert.
City sit 19th in the table for aerial duels won, only Arsenal are below them.
It isn't merely at set-pieces where City are struggling to compete but a concerning trend is emerging surrounding how they respond to teams that deploy an intense press against their preferred passing style.
Burnley did it. Brighton did it. Southampton are notorious for adopting it. There shouldn't have been a shock surrounding the volume of the Saints press given Ralph Hassenhuttl has graduated from a Red Bull school of footballing methods that sees their preference for their cohort of clubs to be energetic and consistent in the press.
City couldn't contend with the speed of it, they didn't possess the technical proficiency to break it. Their passing game is built on limited touches but their laboured approach at St Mary's restricted options going forward.
Southampton could then swarm the transition and flood bodies forward, leading to the tactical fouls that saw James Ward-Prowse invited to produce moments of quality.
That context prompts further questions surrounding whether City's youthful exuberance is capable of managing those moments within games that often prove to be the decisive factor and whether they seek new recruits in the January window.
Experience seems a word City have treated with an air of caution since Stuart Webber and Farke walked through the doors at Colney. Stung by the deals that saw Steven Naismith and others arrive in that January window in 2016, a fresh approach was adopted in an attempt to alter the dynamic on the pitch.
Given their perceived naivety from set-pieces, some be will calling for an injection of experienced professionals with the aim of solidifying a backline that has become the joint leakiest in the division.
The approach to the window will be fascinating, especially if City do find themselves within touching distance of their competitors outside the bottom three. Should it seem as though a long march back to the Championship is the reality, then that list of targets may alter radically, with a view to a rebuild next season.