Connor Southwell: Can McLean solve City’s number 10 conundrum?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
There are very few criticisms that can be targeted at Norwich City, especially given they embarrassment of riches Daniel Farke has available to him and their current standing in the league.
The trio of Emi Buendia, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki has become revered in the division and have once again been the main supply line for City’s attacking endeavours this season.
Pukki’s goals and the creativity of the attacking midfield duo has enabled Farke’s desired philosophy and allowed the Canaries to threaten with the intelligence of their movement and talent.
Undoubtedly, when opponents are handed the team sheet and see those names appear, dread will be the overriding emotion.
Despite their creativity and quality, there is still one final piece of the offensive jigsaw that they haven’t managed to complete.
It isn’t just the United Kingdom that has a number 10 problem at the moment, it’s also true of Norwich City.
Marco Stiepermann was somewhat of an enigmatic figure in the title-winning campaign in 2018/19 - his physicality allowed Pukki to play on the shoulder and get in behind defences.
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The German was a major protagonist in their title assault, with his unique style as he netted nine goals and registered eight assists in 43 games.
Since that season, the players who have been deployed in that position, including Stiepermann, haven’t amassed that amount as a collective.
Ondrej Duda was signed in the hope of injecting top-flight quality in that role. Kenny McLean was tried there with some success at Goodison Park.
This season, Mario Vrancic has also played in that position but has failed to effect games with the same quality as he managed from a deeper midfield position.
Kieran Dowell signed in the summer with the intention of cementing that role within the Canaries’ set-up, but injuries have hampered his progression.
The 23-year-old is the long-term solution to the conundrum that Farke has been faced with. The news of a potential return for this afternoon’s game, albeit from the bench, is a very welcome one and hopefully the Liverpudlian can kick-start his career in yellow and green.
Buendia’s brilliance has helped mask over the issue, but maybe Farke can find the solution from within. During City’s FA Cup third-round victory over Coventry, many players received plaudits for their performance.
One of the more impressive performers was McLean; the Scot was deployed as a number 10 and combined the effectiveness witnessed in Stiepermann with the technicality and ball-carrying abilities that role demands under Farke.
Against Everton, he played almost as a target man. His aerial prowess allows City to mix up their deliveries and means Pukki can stretch the play, allowing them to play over a press if need be.
The escape route is so important for a side who want to dominate possession.
McLean is better suited to games that possess a high-tempo. He doesn’t have the capabilities of a Vrancic, who can pick out passes and dictate possession. Nor the rough and tumble of Ollie Skipp or Alex Tettey.
His energy is unrivalled, though, and is the perfect tonic to a more defensive operator.
When the 29-year-old joined from Aberdeen, his reputation of having a wand of a left-foot and being a set-piece specialist followed. That isn’t something that has been necessarily as visible during his time in Norfolk.
What McLean’s inclusion in a more advanced role would do is provide some thrust from an offensive sense and a defensive solidity out of possession. There is a selflessness to his game that is admirable – it’s partly why Farke described him as “irreplaceable” last season.
Deploying him as that number 10 would allow Buendia and Cantwell more freedom whilst ensuring City have that aerial outball should teams decide to press with velocity.
McLean has been in the best form of his City career in recent weeks.
Whether it’s the allure of the European Championships on the horizon or due to the competition in their ranks, the Scottish international has visibly raised his game.
In central midfield, he is a well-rounded option, but if the shackles get removed, then City have a bundle of energy capable of supporting both phases of play. The key for the Scot is now to display consistency as City search for a remedy to their number 10 problem.