In part three of his pre-season mini-series, Connor looks at the City midfield and how things are about to change…
With two high profile casualties of two of City’s engine room, a reconstruction under surgeon Farke is well under way. He has inherited a midfield that lacked movement and coherence and, despite the reinforcements of Mario Vrancic and Harrison Reed, the middle phase of the pitch is still very much a work in progress.
While the continuity of figures like Jonny Howson and Graham Dorrans evaporate to pastures new, Norwich seek to reinvent the system that played a part in an underwhelming campaign under Alex Neil.
Neil operated with a ball winning midfielder alongside a more energetic midfielder who could get around the pitch. But it became predictable and stagnant. It was based on a conventional set-up, with the duo tasked with either a stylistic duty to defend or attack.
This balance, conjured up by the brazen Scot, was moderately successful when City were in possession of the ball, but lacked the structure and knowledge to complete the defensive side of the game.
No movement, defensive positioning or flair. And this summed up the humdrum and lethargic City midfield.
Under Farke, the dynamic is set to change dramatically.
The Defensive Midfielder
We’ve witnessed a variation of defensively minded central midfielders but in recent years we haven’t witnessed a midfielder who is merely programmed to be defensive in nature. This shielding of the back four will solidify Norwich’s defensive shape, but it’s not a negative use of a player.
Despite his more protective mentality, the defensive midfielder – most likely to be Harrison Reed – is the primary link between the first and second third of the pitch. His distribution of the ball needs to be strong and Reed’s implementation of this deep lying playmaker role will need elements of grit and guile and will be key to the transition from defence to attack.
As I’ve referenced in my analysis of the sweeper keeper and roles within the defensive unit, Reed will the player who receives the ball from the centre-backs and looks to find a more offensive player.
This role is pivotal to the transition of the ball between the thirds of the pitch.
The beauty of a defensive midfielder is that ultimately, if he goes unnoticed then he’s most probably had a good game. For Reed, this season isn’t about scoring 15 goals and registering ten assists; it’s about the enhancement of his tactical and positional game.
This role smacks of simplicity. Give it, get it and move. That is Reed’s job on the ball as he will be a frequent protagonist when City are in possession. His position doesn’t allow him to roam forward; it allows others to.
Off the ball, Reed will be the man who sits patiently in front of a compact bank of four and occupies the gap the central defenders vacant between them. It stops the opposition use of a killer ball through the heart of City’s defence and will leave teams opting to play down the flanks and over the top of a, hopefully, finely tuned and cohesive back four.
This continental approach of allowing a defensive midfielder freedom in movement and use him almost as an anchor man is a progressive attitude which will help drill in Farke’s philosophy. As Andy (Head) referenced in his brilliant article about the tactical shaping of the side, he was correct in his observation of Reed being the translator of Farke’s cuter messages.
From the outside, this looks a piece of acute tactical brilliance. Let’s hope that translates come August 5.
The change in the central areas
This is an area where Farke’s philosophy is arguably most visible. If it is, as expected, a 4-1-4-1 gracing the hallowed turf come August, then the reinvention of the central midfield areas is as exciting a tactical change, for us geeks, as they come.
By combining the ‘number 10’ creative offensive midfielder with the deeper role of the conventional central midfielder is seemingly inventive and innovative. I’ve certainly not witnessed anything like it in my years as an avid football consumer. The combination seems logical and creative, with Farke adding personality to a robust defensive core.
The execution of the standalone number 10 creates a greater creative emphasis on the centralised midfielders. On the ball, a license to roam and create angles to receive and move the ball in a positive way. Mario Vrancic, James Maddison and Alex Pritchard have the talent to be an offensive and creative force to both get goals and create goal scoring opportunities.
The fluidity of the trio within the midfield will be critical this season, with the creativity being the heartbeat of this system. They need to find a balance between solidarity and grouped pressing conversed with fluidity and positivity on the ball.
In these exhibition matches, Maddison has dropped into a deeper position and, particularly against Lowestoft, which I witnessed firsthand, dictated the tempo and intensity of Norwich’s midfield play.
He is looking increasingly like the prodigy we all anticipated he could develop into. His loan move at Aberdeen complemented with a manager who is increasingly embedding young players into this system, sees Maddison become a prime candidate to occupy that role. Technically superb; tactically aware; and physically capable.
If he continues to develop at the rate he is, we could have a prized assert on our hands.
On the ball, Norwich will be heavily reliant on the duo, whomever they may be, to move cleverly and systematically locate pockets of space that will allow them to open up their body shape and penetrate opposition defences with a killer pass to the striker. A lot of attacking play is dependent on the success.
Off the ball, the transitional process of the game needs to be rapid and well-rehearsed to nullify the threat of counter attacks and to nullify the central area of the pitch. In the press the players will press as a team and squeeze the game into the opponent’s half to launch quick attacks.
To summarise, the central midfield areas will have a substantial impact on the success of the team. It will be the heartbeat and driving force of the attacking aspect of the game but also have a substantial impact on the defensive shaping on the team. The middle of Norwich’s pitch is set to evolve significantly and become a more creative and robust unit.
In the final part, which be live early next week, Connor looks at the roles of wingers and strikers in the Farke set-up.