Harder than ever to predict Norwich City’s starting eleven

One of the regular tasks in previewing any Norwich City game is putting in a call to the local newspaper reporter covering their next opponents to swap a bit of team news and bring each other up to date with the latest injury situation at “our” respective clubs.

Part of that exchange of information involves trying to give your counterpart in Swansea, Stoke or Sunderland an idea of how the Canaries will line up in terms of the starting eleven and formation, while he or she will return the compliment.

This is always a hazardous business since the conversation invariably has to take place before City boss Paul Lambert has held his pre-match Press conference. Even on the few occasions when the Colney briefing falls ahead of your deadline, detail on injuries is often sketchy unless there is clearly no chance of the player being involved, as has generally been the case with James Vaughan, Marc Tierney and Daniel Ayala over recent weeks.

And regardless of injuries, trying to predict which eleven fit players will appear on the team list under the heading Norwich City has become an almost impossible task this season – more so than ever before – let alone having a stab at which of four, five or six different formations will be used. Correctly forecasting seven or eight of the side is regarded as a minor triumph when the teamsheets are delivered.

To illustrate the point, since the turn of the year, City have made a total of 65 changes in 15 games, including the three FA Cup ties.

There were four changes for the game against Fulham at Craven Cottage last Saturday – one of which was enforced through Grant Holt’s suspension – five against Wolves the previous week, four at Newcastle, five against Wigan and three at Stoke. The biggest turnaround of the year so far was six changes for the visit of Premier League champions Manchester United after key players had been rested for the FA Cup fifth round tie against Leicester eight days earlier.

As the last six league games have delivered just one victory and only four points out of a possible 18, you might suppose this argument to be heading down a certain path, namely that too much chopping and changing has had an adverse effect on results.

Most Read

After all, Lambert named an unchanged starting line-up for six Premier League games in a row in September and October – and City’s record of three wins, two draws and an undeserved defeat at Manchester United suggested there was a lot to be said for continuity.

But it is not quite as simple as that. In the first eight games of 2012, when the Canaries recorded six wins and a draw, there were no fewer than 34 changes. Squad rotation, it seems, has its merits – it is all about making the right changes for the right game, what Lambert calls “picking a team I think will go and win the game”.

If so, it has become more difficult to settle on the right formula in recent weeks. To the untrained eye, City look to have started the last six games with six different formations.

For the visit of Manchester United, the Canaries opted for a conventional 4-4-2 with Holt and Simeon Jackson up front and wide roles for Anthony Pilkington and Andrew Surman.

At Stoke it looked more of a 4-4-1-1, with Elliott Bennett supporting lone striker Holt.

At home to Wigan, the diamond formation was back in favour with Wes Hoolahan operating behind Holt and Jackson, and Andrew Crofts given a rare outing on the right side of midfield.

The team at Newcastle had more of a 4-1-4-1 shape with David Fox protecting the back four, Pilkington and Elliott Bennett playing wide and Steve Morison the lone striker.

Against Wolves a fortnight ago, City began with three men at the back in Russell Martin, Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread while Simon Lappin and Elliott Bennett played on the flanks and Hoolahan supported the two strikers – until the formation was revised at half-time when the unfortunate Lappin was withdrawn.

It was three at the back once again at Fulham but more of a 3-5-1-1 with wing-backs forming part of a five-man midfield and Hoolahan supporting Morison, once again leading the attack on his own. Again the three-man defence was abandoned at half-time, all of which makes one wonder if it is worth persevering with against Everton tomorrow.

It is hard to recall this City side ever looking truly comfortable with three central defenders. The system was tried in the Championship last season at home to Sheffield United and away to Burnley, when it was also jettisoned after 45 minutes. If the opposition have only two strikers, or in Fulham’s case just one, one wonders at the need for three centre-halves.