Aside from the fact that it depicted Norwich winning a Wembley final, the film Mike Bassett: England Manager is perhaps most well known for the eponymous heroes reaction to all too familiar failings in his England side.
With Bassett feeling the inevitable pressure from all sides as his reign as England boss descends into farce, he grimly offers, by way of response, the vow, “Ladies and Gentlemen, England will be playing four-four-f*****g-two” -a damning indictment on not only his own coaching and tactical shortcomings but on a system that, even over a decade ago, was already seen as being past its sell-by date.
This system does, of course, have a ‘history’ as far as English football is concerned. England’s 1966 World Cup win owed much to Sir Alf Ramsay’s rejection of the popular 4-2-4 system in favour of strengthening his midfield by withdrawing the traditional winger from his team in favour of wide midfielders, thus earning his team and the formation he chose the sobriquet “wingless wonders”. That 4-4-2 system-and all variants of it since-has rarely employed a winger in the traditional sense (ie) the touchline hugging and fleet of foot maverick whose sole job was to get the ball and run at the opposing full back, his intent being to reach the touchline before delivering a cross for two central strikers to feed off.
That 4-2-4 system was compelling stuff. The wingers of old rarely needed to worry about chasing back and supporting their back four else marking someone at a set piece. They were the 007’s of the football world, free of the muddy quagmire of mid-pitch to dash the white lines and wreak havoc, the inkling that something might be about to happen spreading its way through the crowd whenever one of them got the ball, dropped a shoulder and set off on a run. Think Darren Huckerby in full flight, one of an ever rarer breed.
They haven’t all gone and the romance of the touchline hugging winger will never be forgotten. They are, however, now seen as an indulgence rather than a necessity, a gamble amidst the discipline and tactical rigidity that marks out the modern game where the priority now seems to be enter the field of play with a common intent of not losing rather than winning. It’s a subtle difference but a very real one.
Thus, when avoiding defeat is the overriding issue and you are taking nothing to chance – the last thing any football Manager is going to do is play a couple of orthodox wingers. And, with Premier League survival the absolute, overwhelming and critical goal for Norwich City this season, it is why we are unlikely to see our own wide players given the leeway to adopt that role by Chris Hughton – the risk involved is simply too great.
Much has been said about Hughton’s preference for the 4-2-3-1 line-up this season. It is perceived as being negative, a system that packs the midfield at the expense of leaving just one man leading the line in attack. It is a thankless task that Grant Holt has carried out with no little valour and effort this season – but with little tangible reward as far as goals scored is concerned. As a result, both he and the Manager have been the brunt of much criticism, with many of Chris Hughton’s loudest critics those that are simultaneously lamenting for the return of Paul Lambert’s more attack-minded footballing philosophy, including the adventurous diamond formation that he often employed last season.
As a consequence of this, there is increasing demand for Chris Hughton to abandon his devotion to the 4-5-1 system and play, as Mike Bassett would say, “f*****g 4-4-2” –with added winger. This would mean allowing Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington the freedom of the touchlines, permission given to stray no further back than the halfway line and to be a willing and ever present outlet for the ball, ready to surge forward, their mission loud and clear: get the ball across and into the penalty area for the predating strikers – likely Messrs.Holt and Becchio to feed from. However, as Ramsay and England demonstrated in 1966, a ‘true’ 4-4-2 system doesn’t allow for the traditional winger. In other words, the call is for Norwich to revert to 4-2-4.
Entertaining? Yes. Creating chances? Yes. Exciting? Hell yes. Anyone who remembers a Crossan, Neighbour, Gordon, Eadie or Huckerby doing just that in Canary days of yore will certainly vouch for that. But practical?
Football has always been in love with the winger. Formations during the early years of the game for example seemed almost suicidal in comparison to today’s game, the default line up of most teams being a 2-3-5 formation, featuring three central strikers with wingers on each side. It was introduced into the game as means of providing some sort of balance between attacking and defending. So, for example, when a side was defending, the two (!) defenders would take care of the oppositions wingers whilst the three players in midfield would counter the oppositions three forwards. Simple yes – but, when it worked, staggeringly effective.
Norwich’s record win, a 10-2 romp against Coventry in 1930 saw four of the five man frontline selected for that match get all of the goals between them with, tellingly, the man in the centre of the quintet, Thomas Hunt scoring five. When it worked-it worked very well as that result shows. However, when it didn’t work, you tended to get overran-which is exactly what happened to Coventry that afternoon, lining up with exactly the same system themselves. It was reckless, entertaining and sometimes spectacular-but it was never going to last.
Hence the tactical revision to 4-2-4 which, in itself, evolved towards 4-4-2 and, in today’s game, the preference for 4-2-3-1-from five players in attack, to four, to two and now to one. Footballing evolution?
Because football has evolved and, rightly or wrongly, Norwich City has to evolve with it. Because the lesser species that refuse to do so will fall by the wayside – which is exactly what happened to the Dodo. And, in a flash of footballing joie de vivre just two years ago, the swash buckling Blackpool side, bravely – but ultimately foolhardily – led to their Premier League extinction after a year spent trying to buck the trend. And, for all the praise they got, the accolades, the popularity of their game throughout that 2010/11 season, would they swap places with Norwich City now – dour in play and tactics, a perceived antithesis to their flair and opportunism?
You bet they would.
And would we swap our own position in the Premier League now with theirs in the Championship if it meant we had a legacy of being a side that at least went out and entertained, scored goals and strove to win matches and admirers, all too often at the expense of a point? A few might I guess. But I don’t think it would be that many.
‘Win at all costs’ has been replaced as a footballing maxim by the new creed which declares ‘Whatever the cost, don’t lose’. Subtle but telling. And symbolised by those ever changing formations and, with it, the roles of those magnificent men in the shirts that were once numbered seven and eleven. When football was fresh, new and naive they were forwards in their own right, two speedy members of an attacking pack of five. As time progressed, they have found themselves travelling further and further back on the field of play, from outright attackers to wingers to what they are now, ‘merely’ wide midfielders – the occasional darting run and mesmerising cross part of their wider picture rather than their basic remit.
Football seems to have invented itself as a sporting means of entertainment – but with added caution that has seeped into its ranks especially in the last decade or so when survival in the Premier League is paramount, and, for clubs such as ourselves, a finishing place of 17th or higher considered successful. Should Norwich stay up this season it will be considered as one of the most remarkable achievements in the clubs history.
The rewards are obvious and tantalising with the domestic TV deal from next season estimated to be worth a minimum of £3 Billion – with Norwich’s percentage from that diamond encrusted pot being more than enough to guarantee healthy financial security for a considerable period of time – something which is as crucial to us as it is in all of the clubs in the Premier League aside from the top six.
And with around fourteen or so clubs all as desperate as one another to be part of the unprecedented riches available next season, who can wonder at the methods being taken to ensure that is the case. Take QPR who have thrown money at the problem – a clear example of speculating to accumulate, their January investment in Christopher Samba alone costing them £12.5 Million as well as his wages, reported to be £100’000 a week over four and a half years. Do the maths if you like – but clearly a total figure that Norwich will never be able to match – or, as importantly, would ever contemplate coming even close to matching.
However, if Samba plays a big part in ‘arry and Co staying put in the land of milk and honey this season – then it’s money well spent, rash as it may seem now. Likewise Southampton, a club who saw fit to dispense with the services of the much respected Nigel Adkins in order to bring in Mauricio Pochettino – a case of their board trusting him more with their future and finances than they might have Adkins. The decision was seen as madness on a scale with QPR’s investment in Samba at first-but if Saints stay up will it be worth it, will it have been justified?
Desperate times, desperate measures – and, again, underlining the importance to clubs of staying in the Premier League, no matter what the cost is, either financially or in terms of their reputations and sanity within the game – the questioning of which will matter not one jot in the respective boardrooms at Loftus Road and St Mary’s if both clubs are still part of the elite come August.
So what do we do at Norwich in order to best preserve our status as a Premier League club? Throw money at the situation a’la QPR? Throw caution to the wind and attack-attack-attack? No. There was money available in January to spend, we were all made aware of that. The problem is no-one wanted it, at least not the amount we had and were prepared to spend.
What about taking the Southampton route and sacking our Manager in order to get someone in from the continent? Of course not – such a move would have been seen as even more ridiculous than theirs to remove Adkins from his position – plus who would have wanted to come here under those circumstances – and what could they have added that Chris Hughton hasn’t already got? With both of those options rightly ruled out, there was only one realistic option for the club to adopt in order to beat the drop, that rather revolutionary one that involved doing it by playing football.
Hence footballing coats are being cut according to the cloth that we have. With relatively limited resources and an enormous debt to be repaid in May, the importance of our staying in this league is beyond critical, whilst the possible consequences of dropping out of it (if you think the ‘parachute money’ guarantees a quick return, ask Bolton, Blackpool, Hull, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Wolves and Birmingham – for starters – if they felt that way as well?) are unthinkable-from both a footballing and financial perspective. We therefore have to do whatever we can with the resources that we have in order to survive in the traditional manner – by getting as many points on the board as possible.
Hence the type of football now being played. Plus the reluctance of the Manager to give his wide players carte blanche to escape their tactical responsibilities and play with abandon as traditional wingers-exciting? Yes. Sensible? Probably not. And, above all else, the solid emphasis on creating a team that is difficult to beat and difficult to score against.
It hasn’t been easy and sometimes the spectating that has gone with it hasn’t been easy either. But if it means that we live to fight another day of Premier League football next season then it will have been worth it. The clear intent of the Manager and club this Summer will be to bring in players of a higher quality than some of those we already have-as has been shown with the acquisitions already made this season-meaning that the type of football the club plays and what we pay to watch-might just be a similar upgrade to our newly acquired financial status.
Short time footballing pain this season for long term footballing gain in the seasons to come? I’ll take that.