Norwich have tried various formations and systems over the years, to varying success, but with the arrival of Daniel Farke, given the brief to establish a “Norwich-style” of play, it appears we are to be set-up in a way we never have been before.
4-1-4-1 is the style favoured by Farke and which he used to great effect in Dortmund. On face value, it makes a lot of sense. The miserly total of 25 goals conceded in 34 games by Farke’s men last season shows how effective it can be defensively, which is the area we most need to improve upon this time around. And when coupled with the ability to play two ‘number 10s’ in the middle of the park it also suits the players we already have at our disposal.
So what can we expect from the new system?
There’s no easy way to break this to some people…. there’s going to be fannying around at the back this season. The emphasis will be on retaining possession which means long thumps upfield are out and patient passing between defenders awaiting a gap to move the ball forwards will be the way to go.
This will involve using the keeper as part of the passing carousel so brace yourself for shouts of “hoof it!” from those with a faint heart. On the plus side, we’ve brought in a goalkeeper that has spent the last year training under Pep Guardiola, one of the biggest proponents of keepers being able to play with the ball at feet.
I doubt Angus Gunn will flinch too much when the opposition start to harry as he knows from experience that the closer you draw them on, the more gaps appear for us to exploit.
Away from home expect us to sit deep and encourage the opposition on to us in that manner. At Carrow Road we’re likely to hold a higher line with Gunn heading off any trouble if the Centre Backs are challenged for pace, but the patient build up will remain the same.
Banks of Four
Ahead of the back four will be a defensive midfielder and then, what looks on paper, like a flat four ahead of them, reminiscent of the old Mike Bassett style 4-4-2 of tactical days gone by.
The benefit of 4-4-2 was always that it lent itself to easy defensive organisation with the aforementioned two banks of four meaning that every player knew where he was meant to be. This will be no different but instead of flat banks, look for the full backs to come narrow so that the back four press close together and close up the gaps that were so apparent last season.
The wingers will then be expected to shuttle back and help defend in wide areas, while the two central midfielders in the middle four will try to provide a barrier to the centre-backs.
One of the big question marks will be how effectively the likes of Alex Pritchard and James Maddison, previously given less tactical responsibility in a free creative role, can take on additional defensive duties in the middle of the park.
While it might not come naturally you sense that if they can embrace the role, they’ll emerge better all-round players which can only benefit the team and them as individuals. Wes Hoolahan and Steven Naismith, scrappy characters anyway, will I suspect, have few problems tucking in and joining the battle. Sometimes the older dogs are the happiest to learn new tricks.
The Importance of the Defensive Midfielder
The defensive midfielder is a key man in this system. Depending on where the ball is and how the play is developing, he can adopt a number of different defensive roles and it will be fascinating to see how Farke utilises him.
If City are being hit with a lot of crosses from wide, a DM in a 4-1-4-1 may tuck in between the CB’s to form, effectively, a fifth defender. I’d expect this to happen if we’re trying to hold on late in a game and I can see Tettey being utilised here, maybe from off the bench at the expense of a forward.
Equally the DM may band together with the two CM’s and plug the channels between the narrow back four, which is where their organisation skills are paramount as it’s usually the role of the DM to take charge in this area.
Whil Farke and Riemer will undoubtedly drill positional responsibilities into every player, it’s the DM who acts as the coach’s voice on the field and ensures that the game plan stays on track, defensively at least.
Hunting in Packs
Another advantage of a 4-1-4-1 is that the DM can act as an extra man. This means that if, say, an opposition full back is on the ball and under pressure from one of our wingers, one of the central midfielders can join in the pursuit and the DM can slot into their position without the team losing its shape, allowing us to double up our efforts to steal the ball from the full back.
If our striker also joins in the pressure increases three-fold. It’s an ideal way to create pressure, particularly against teams that try to play out from the back, and a potential goal scoring opportunity can emerge from these overload situations.
As much as the players will be coached on how to retain their positions, a lot of emphasis in 4-1-4-1 is on transition; the art of reacting quickly to a change of possession.
If we lose the ball to the opposition, look for our players to make short immediate bursts back into position if they had moved around as the attack developed. I’m willing to bet good money that a lot of training time has been allocated to this, and to maximising players’ ability to sprint back into position at a moment’s notice.
If we win possession, look for the Murphy’s to go long, hoping for an accurate deep ball behind the defence they can use their pace to get on the end of. Also look for Wes, Pritchard, Maddison, Naismith and Mario Vrancic to try and find a pocket of space close to the man who’s won the ball as they’ll be the ones expected to play those balls.
At the same time, if the pass isn’t on, don’t expect them to try it anyway. Retaining possession is key in this system, and we know that we have the players who can break teams down with passing if we stay patient.
The days of having a big immobile lump who hangs around the penalty area hoping to bundle the ball home through brute force alone are gone. Teams cannot afford to sacrifice a member of the team to one specific job in this way anymore. Whereas Nelson Oliviera, Cameron Jerome, Carlton Morris and Marley Watkins are all capable goalscorers, they will be expected to work with the team and for the team.
In the same way that the DM will be expected to fill in for another player’s defensive position if they stray from where they would normally be, the striker will also be expected to filter back and make up the numbers if required.
In the case of us going down to ten men, don’t be surprised if we play 4-1-4 with nobody up front. Retaining the two banks of four is imperative in this system and the centre forward role is of secondary importance to keeping that defensive shape.
The striker in a 4-1-4-1 doesn’t stay on the shoulder of the centre-back but drifts in between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield. When out of possession he’s expected to harry the defence on the ball, but to do so intelligently, not wasting energy on running the width of the field but looking for opportunities to join up with other team mates to try and win the ball in key areas.
In possession he can be utilised in a variety of ways, and again, it will be interesting to see how Farke deploys his strikers. The most popular way is to have them peel off the centre-backs and drop into the old-style “number ten” role; receiving the ball and then laying it off to one of the four players behind them as they rush forward.
This could be particularly effective when you consider the embarrassment of riches we have in attacking midfield. It does involve a certain amount of self-sacrifice from a striker as they’re often more involved in the build-up than the final shot at goal.
You sense that Jerome may be more suited to this level of teamwork than Oliviera but our ‘Portugeezer’ proved last season that he can drop off the defenders and drive from deeper with devastating effect and some great long-range shooting.
Anyone who remembers Chris Hughton’s Plan A, B and C tactic of getting the ball to Robert Snodgrass and watch him slowly lumber forward on the right wing with the ball glued to his left foot while the opposition had sufficient time to not only get back but take a short nap, will probably have an inherent distrust of inverted wingers.
And whilst away I’d expect us to stick to conventional wingers on their natural flank, encouraging the opposition to play through the middle and compress the play, at home it’s more likely we will try and do what we did so successfully at the end of last season.
With Wes on the right and Josh Murphy on the left the angles open up for Murphy to come inside and shoot off his favoured foot, or in Wes’s case, to play floated balls into the box or play those devastating triangles with Pritchard and Oliviera.
It also means that space is vacated on the wings for Pinto and our new left-back to exploit, adding an extra dimension to the attack. While I don’t expect the full-backs to have as much licence as afforded under Neil, the benefits of playing the way we did at home at the end of last season are obvious and can be accommodated in a 4-1-4-1 and so I’d expect Farke and his team to want to retain this element.
If we lose possession when the full-backs are pushed forward, this is when you will really see the transition phase come into play and players’ sprinting back like somebody’s dropped a Nando’s Black Card in our penalty area.
Away from home it will be a lot more conservative though and there may be times that Martin is seen as a more solid option than Pinto when the defence is intending to play narrow and provide less going forward.
This season has a freshness and uncertainty that is hugely exciting and tactically it’s going to be different to anything we’ve seen before. I’m intrigued as to exactly how Farke deploys his 4-1-4-1 formation as while the elements I’ve described are classic 4-1-4-1 tactics, he will undoubtedly have his own style of implementation, which may well differ from my suggestions.
He will also have to make it work with the players he has at his disposal. There will be bumps in the road as the players adapt and we may have to make a few mistakes early on before we learn from them. But if we stay patient, this invigorating change of direction could be the making of us.
After two years of Alex Neil’s stubborn 4-2-3-1 this change feels as good as a rest.