David Freezer: Has possession become a dirty word for Norwich City in the Premier League?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Is possession the enemy in the battle for Premier League survival? Norwich City certainly seem to be making a strong case for that statement.
I've been enjoying a week of holiday time this week, with my better half's 30th birthday coinciding with City's game at Southampton on Wednesday, and as she's not even remotely interested in football I had the rather unusual experience of watching the match the following morning.
Given it was the first Canaries game I'd missed of 2019 and the first since the 4-3 win over Millwall in November of last year, you can imagine that I managed to totally switch off and not think about the game at all...
So, having kept a sneaky eye on the score, I knew roughly what to expect and it felt like a post-match analysis session that players must dread so much after a defeat, as their coaches point out what they were pleased with - and pick apart the mistakes.
This occasion won't have needed too much in-depth analysis as Daniel Farke's squad re-lived the previous night's disappointment, as set-piece failings were clear to see without the benefit of a replay.
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From Todd Cantwell conceding an unnecessary foul in a dangerous area, to Danny Ings getting ahead of Ben Godfrey from the subsequent free-kick delivery, and Ibrahim Amadou marking fresh air as the corner came in from which Ryan Bertrand made it 2-0. Undone by the basics.
It doesn't matter if you're playing in the Premier League or the Anglian Combination, not reacting to the danger as it unfolds at set-pieces will cost you - let alone when the opposition boast a set-piece expert with the unerring whip of James Ward-Prowse.
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That's not to say it's easy, far from it. When you do watch the replays you can see that Kenny McLean was just centimetres away from getting his head to the ball first and preventing the opening goal, that Godfrey strained every sinew to try and block Ings' flicked header, but these are the fine margins that are talked about so often.
And for the second, while zonal marking makes sense in theory, it's no good if you don't adjust appropriately. Not one of the City players takes a look over their shoulders to see Shane Long sneaking into prime position so that he can spring unopposed and nod on to Bertrand, who has similarly barely been given a look as he darts towards a ridiculous amount of space inside the six-yard box.
Overall it was clear that City had the ability to hurt the Saints if they could have just avoided such costly moments, adding to the feeling of disappointment at an opportunity missed, but it didn't look to be quite the abject display some have made it out to be.
Yes, those set-pieces concessions were frustrating but aerially Farke's team have improved recently, winning a season-high 28 aerial duels at Southampton. Christoph Zimmermann won the most, eight of them, so no surprise there.
Yet possession seems to be a problem. Last season when City dominated teams it usually led to a win because they had the superior ability. At Southampton it was 60pc of possession. The 2-0 home loss to Watford was the season high so far of 66pc, the 5-1 loss to Villa was 58pc, the 2-0 defeat at Burnley was 59pc.
Then look at two good results last week, winning 2-0 at Everton with 43pc and drawing 2-2 with Arsenal on 40pc, as well as September's 3-2 win over Manchester City with just 31pc, all matches in which the Canaries looked dangerous and clinical on the counter-attack.
So is it time to acknowledge that City are better without the ball at the moment, to change the mindset? Farke wants an underdog spirit, well, you don't see many underdogs dominate possession in the Premier League.
That may be easier said than done against Chris Wilder's impressively organised and determined Sheffield United tomorrow, with just three teams averaging lower than their 45.6pc of possession and only Burnley averaging more than their 23.1 aerial duels won per game.
Yet the disappointing midweek result on the south coast hasn't changed my expectation for this match at all. City are good enough to win games at this level, not consistently, not yet, and that is frustrating.
But they have the quality to hurt teams as long as they can keep the back door shut for long enough to allow them to get ahead in a game - and a striker in Teemu Pukki who is clearly good enough to convert chances in the Premier League, with his eighth of the campaign reminding us all once again of the class and confidence the flying Finn possesses.