When Norwich won promotion with virtually the same team that had dropped out the season before, pundits expected them to go back down. Alex Neil hasn’t given up though, and Norwich look good at the moment. Chris Lincoln looks at their tactics.
If you had offered Alex Neil 15th place and a spot six points above the relegation zone at the midway point in the season back in August, I am sure he would have grateful received it. The Scotsman rejuvenated the Canaries when he arrived in January, leading the East Anglia side to promotion from the Championship with an unbeaten record on the road. He looked to continue with the same attacking and creative brand of football in the Premier League, but the former Hamilton Academical manager has realised the need to adapt to the unforgiving nature of the English top flight.
Neil did not see the need to change a winning formula in the opening of weeks of dining at the top table of the domestic game. The yellow and greens looked to take the game to their opponents but, despite a spell of playing well tinged with hints of bad luck, they only picked up three victories in their opening twelve matches. Since ending up on the wrong end of a 6-2 battering at the hands of Newcastle United in front of the Sky Sports cameras in October, Neil has looked to set his team up to contain opponents before looking to use their pace and power in attacking areas to exploit their counterparts. The jury is still out on just how successful this tactic is for Norwich and if they have enough quality and nous to keep their heads above the drop zone come May.
Defensively Norwich have found themselves under immense pressure from the critics. Alex Neil favours four at the back, but has flirted with three supported by two wing-backs, particularly against the stronger sides such as Manchester City. Yet the Canaries had just one clean sheet in 18 Premier League fixtures before Christmas, as every team bar Swansea and Aston Villa exploited their lack of pace in central areas. When Norwich play with three central defenders, Russell Martin tends to drop into a sweeper role, thus allowing the opposition attackers to play further up the field and keep onside. Supported by runs from central midfield and strike partners, the Norwich defence have struggled to keep up with such moves. Such a tactic squeezes the space in front of and between the defence, whilst Neil’s favoured formation with four at the back allows free areas in the channels. With 11, 12 and 8 blocks respectively for Russell Martin, Sebastian Bassong and Ryan Bennett, it is fair to say the Canaries defenders have coped well when faced up by opposition attackers. The trio also have 396 clearances between them, with Bassong leading the Premier League charts in this area, proving that they cope well at reacting to the second ball. Yet the Norwich defenders lack pace, allowing the faster players of the English top flight to work the channels between the back line with consummate ease.
Norwich City often find themselves on the wrong end of the possession statistics against their opponents, thus Alex Neil tends to ask his central midfielders to contain and protect the defence. The likes of Jonny Howson, Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Alex Tettey and Gary O’Neil have done a lot of chasing when faced with more technically able opponents this season. Against their relegation rivals, Wes Hoolahan has been selected in a more attacking midfield position in an attempt to get on the ball and support either Cameron Jerome or Dieumerci Mbokani in the lone striker role. An issue Norwich have found without Hoolahan is that the central midfielders find it difficult to make up the ground to support the striker after being pressed back to defend against the opposition. Hoolahan has 29% of his entire team’s assists with six from 21 in total. Yet at 33 years old, when the Irishman does play, he struggles to complete the full 90 minutes.
Norwich City do benefit from the physical strength and willingness to pressurise from both Cameron Jerome and Dieumerci Mbokani. When they are able to hold up the ball, their most likely support network comes from the wide areas in Robbie Brady, Nathan Redmond and Matt Jarvis. The wingers have put in 171 crosses between them, with Brady attempting 100 of those.
When the service has been provided, the likes of Jerome and Mbokani have struggled to apply the finishing touch. Despite being the only Premier League striker to score against both Manchester clubs this season, Cameron Jerome has just three goals from 23 shots at an average of 0.15 goals per game. Congolese Mbokani also has three goals, though from 15 shots, at an average of one goal in every four appearances.
One bright spark who has been introduced by Alex Neil in recent weeks is Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe. The former Club Brugge midfielder is another Norwich player who lacks pace, but makes up for it with strength, desire and flair. The Belgian looked promising in the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, changed the game in Norwich’s favour against Southampton and looked strong against Manchester City last weekend.
So what extra players do Norwich City need to stay up? They have already signed Croatian right back Ivo Pinto to strengthen the defence, but could do with another centre back with pace to help track the runs of the faster Premier League attackers. The Canaries have a wealth of experience in central midfield and, with the likes of Alex Tettey and Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe shouldering the playmaker burden along with Wes Hoolahan in recent weeks, should be strong enough in the middle of the park. A box-to-box player could help support the attackers when Norwich counter-attack. With Nathan Redmond currently this season’s top goalscorer with just four goals, Alex Neil would do well to add a finisher to his squad.
The final verdict: Aston Villa and Sunderland look doomed to be relegated so Norwich City are likely to be fighting to keep out of 18th place with Swansea, Bournemouth and Newcastle. However, a couple of shrewd signings mixed with picking up points against the teams around them should keep Norwich afloat.
Written by Chris Lincoln
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- Norwich City: Will the Canaries be flying above the relegation zone in May? - January 19, 2016