Golf is one of those rabbit holes that I know if I got too close to I could easily fall into. So most of the time I steer clear.
As a man who shares a tiny house with a wife and four kids, the benefits of a quiet, gentle stroll around a golf course are obvious, but with a season ticket for Norwich, plus a handful of away games every year, and an unhealthy addiction to the NFL that occupies my Sunday’s during the autumn and winter, I’d be pushing Mrs H’s boundaries of tolerance if I took on another sporting hobby. So it’s an occasional round of pitch and putt only for me.
One of the aspects of golf that intrigues me though is the golfer’s bag. Not the instrument itself but its contents and the rules governing them. A golfer can only carry fourteen clubs with them at any one time, which raises tactical questions. Do you carry your full set of woods and sacrifice an iron or two? How many wedges do you take? Some golfers will stoically remain loyal to the same fourteen clubs for every round, whilst others will swap clubs in and out depending on the course they are playing and the weather conditions on the day.
The process of building a football squad has always reminded me of the golfer constructing his bag of clubs. Ideally you want to give yourself as many options as possible so you always have an answer to any problem that may emerge. You may have some of the nippiest wingers in the league but can any of them cross? Your midfield may be technically excellent but have you got anybody that can win them the ball to play with it in the first place? It has been Stuart Webber’s job to assemble a bag full of golf clubs, and it will now be Daniel Farke’s job to select the correct one’s to tackle those tricky rounds that lie ahead.
So how has Webber done?
Goalkeepers are like putters. They’re a pre-requisite and everyone has one. You can try and make them fancy but at the end of the day they do one very important job. We currently have four for Farke to choose from and, despite the circus that has unfurled before him, Angus Gunn has done nothing to suggest he shouldn’t be one of the first “club’s in the bag” each game.
In the centre of defence, the preference (in English football at least), has always been on having one big lad to win everything in the air, and a quick partner to mop up beside him. The Millwall defeat showed exactly how much we missed the former in that particular game, and it’s credit to Webber that he acted so quickly to address the problem by bringing in Grant Hanley. Whilst Hanley is not without flaws (as half of Twitter has hastily pointed out) he definitely fits the bill of an aerially-dominant big lump at the back. Whilst the purists who have embraced the technical intricacies of the Farke revolution may think Hanley’s unrefined skill set is not what we want, I’d argue that at this point in time it is what we need.
Whether we have a partner for him with pace is another issue, and one that could be alleviated with the use of three centre-backs of course. Again, Farke’s selection of the right instruments for the job will be crucial. As different options are tried however, it’s not difficult to see Hanley as the immovable object, in more ways than one. The defence is likely to be based around him.
The full-back positions are relatively set, with Pinto and Husband the natural options. If switched to wing-backs then Stiepermann and Wildschut will come into play. The only possible variation to this could come when Jamal Lewis returns from injury, or if Farke goes full Pulis against a team that likes to hoof it (did someone say Ipswich?!) and fields a backline of Klose-Zimmermann-Hanley-Martin, which sounds both awesome and terrifying.
Husband is a concern for many after a slow start, but he’ll be given time to prove himself and Webber has done his job and provided sufficient options. Judging whether he’s made the right choice on quality is a task for later in the season.
Whilst question marks remain about pace in the centre (particularly for a team intending to hold a high line and condense the play in the opposition’s half), with the additions of Zimmermann, Franke, Hanley, and Raggett in January, Webber has given Farke options to play with at the back and refreshed an area of the pitch that has remained stagnant for years.
There are as many different varieties of midfielder as there are empty seats in Portman Road. In defensive midfield one of the most popular options is an all-action hard-man, usually a strong personality, snapping at the opposition, geeing up the troops, and using intelligence and experience to fill any defensive holes that open-up. Think Roy Keane, Claude Makelele or Gary Megson. I’m not sure we have that. It’s easy to see why we were strongly linked with Hanno Behrens who is that sort of midfielder, but alas, that move didn’t happen.
We have the other option, which is the “Wardrobe” style midfielder, a big lad, usually a bit clumsy, who literally sits in front of the centre-backs like an immovable piece of furniture, wins balls in the air, and who specialises in picking up loose balls and playing simple passes to a team-mate. Alex Tettey has made his career playing this role. The problem is the role does not fit with the Farke philosophy. Tettey, and those that play the role, aren’t generally the most technically gifted and don’t fit in a possession-based system. The rare athletes that do have the size and strength to protect the back line, and the technical ability to pass and move effectively are not found at this level. They are snapped up by the big clubs academies at the age of 14, so precious are they.
Our deepest-lying midfielder is Harrison Reed, who has performed admirably thus far. He is tenacious, committed, possesses good passing and movement and is comfortable on the ball. He doesn’t, on his own, provide an effective barrier to the defence though. Teams like Millwall and their big strong forwards know that Reed can’t compete in the air, and that leaves us weak in the middle. Our only other option is Tom Trybull, and he appears to be more of a deep-lying technical player in the mould of Reed, which would offer no great improvement.
We can circumvent this lack of physicality in defensive midfield in two ways with the current squad. Either bite the bullet and play Tettey, or get creative with a back three. If you were to play, say Klose-Zimmermann-Hanley, and found that Reed was struggling, you could squeeze Klose and Hanley in at the centre of what would effectively be a back four and give Zimmermann license to move forward when he deems appropriate and help Reed deal with the threat ahead, preventing him from being overrun.
It’s not an ideal solution, and nor is Tettey in Farke’s system, but we have some big problems in terms of winning balls in midfield and shielding the centre of defence. We have no natural solutions in the squad, so we have to get creative. This is perhaps, Webber’s biggest failing of the window, in that we have not brought in a player that can protect the defence and offer an upgrade on Tettey.
Elsewhere in midfield we have ball carriers aplenty, with Reed a highly-capable “water-carrier”, maintaining good defensive discipline whilst taking the ball from the defence, playing simple, accurate passes to prompt attacks in the style of a Deschamps, or for those that go back a few years, a Mike Phelan.
We don’t have a “quarterback” in midfield that takes the ball from deep and sprays 40 yard cross field passes as Crook, Fox or Dorrans have previously done, but that’s not a role that fits with the new system. A club that Webber could sacrifice from the bag.
Maddison provides a level of comfort on the ball that we haven’t seen in the heart of the City midfield for many a long year, and which has already earned him many a cynical ankle tap from bemused opposition. His ability to slalom in and out of challenges and maintain control of the ball before finding a colleague has been one of the plus points of the season thus far.
Originally billed as a straight-forward number 10, Maddison has played much deeper than expected, and there’s a sense that both he and Farke are trying to define exactly what his role should be. Going forward, I’d like to see him develop into the mould of a Gascoigne, using his ability to wriggle away from challenges, and his passing to create chances for others. It’s imperative that we provide a solid base for him to play though, because without a strong defensive midfielder behind him, he looks vulnerable to losing the ball and this removes his ability to try creative things and take people on.
Vrancic is a work in progress, but once he gets to grips with the Hurly-Burly of the English game, I can see him easing into Andrew-Surman-lite territory. Good passer, links up well, but as with the rest of our midfield, could do with protection behind him because physically he struggles.
Do we have a box-to-box player that can influence events at either end of the pitch? Probably not. Other than Tettey we have issues with having able bodies to get back and help the defence and I don’t see many of our midfielders being the type to burst into the box late and meet a cross. Most, such as Hoolahan, Pritchard, Murphy or Maddison, prefer to be the one outside the box clipping in the ball that dissects the defence. Replacing Jonny Howson was never going to be easy though.
We have good options on the flanks, with Murphy, Wildschut and Stiepermann, and with Wes and Watkins nominally able to play out there (albeit they drift inside) we shouldn’t have any problems putting out an effective side. We also have Glenn Middleton likely to push for a breakthrough soon too.
Wes remains, in golfing terms, a gadget club. A specialist piece of equipment that nobody else has in their bag, as only one was ever made. And it doesn’t matter what the course or the conditions are, it’s comforting to have in your bag because you know this old club and its strengths and weaknesses. And you know it has often given you moments of magic. Despite the first signs of rust, you trust it to deliver.
In attacking midfield, along with Wes, we have Murphy who provides the speed and directness we need, and Pritchard’s return is anxiously awaited. Naismith has filled in here and there but I still have no idea if or where he fits. He’s an expensive club that we’re persisting in because he cost a lot but he very rarely produces results, yet you can’t just throw him away and nobody else will buy him off you. Whilst Farke likes his intangibles, such as work-rate and leadership qualities, he doesn’t score goals, he doesn’t create goals, and he’s not a great passer. He also lacks a natural position. He remains a conundrum.
Up front we have a willing channel-runner and workhorse in Jerome, albeit one who is struggling in a system where first-touch and accuracy are more important than pace and power. In Oliviera we have a mobile sharpshooter, a modern-day twist on the old-fashioned fox-in-the-box; he offers more in terms of build-up than the one-dimensional tap-in merchants like Lineker or Rush, while still fulfilling a similar role as the selfish goal-getter. Marley Watkins is still an unknown quantity in what he brings as a striking option and it will be interesting to see how he develops from his current billing as “utility forward”.
For me we are missing two clubs from the bag here. Firstly, we don’t have a pace option. No Simeon Jackson or Rob Earnshaw to stretch the defence. Again, I think this is system based, and a club that Webber has sacrificed from the bag. With possession being King, we don’t want to play hopeful balls into space for forwards to run onto and potentially lose out on. We do have Murphy or even Wildschut who can give us pace up front if needed which is the compromise.
Secondly we don’t have a target man. A man that, when we’re a goal down in the final minutes and the opposition have pulled all their men back, making it impossible for us to pick our way through, can get above them all and win a header near goal. A Roberts, a Holt, dare I say, a Morison. I can understand why because again, a striker like this wouldn’t fit the system as a starter, and their worth would only come at the end of games when we have to batter down a barn door. Perhaps you could throw up a centre back in that scenario?
Personally I would have preferred one more striking option, be it a target man, or a pace option, but Webber has chosen to carry the minimum in this area.
Overall, considering the squad he inherited, I think Webber has done well. There is an obvious issue in defensive midfield still so it hasn’t gone perfectly, but we are a work in progress. A team cannot be reconstructed with a new philosophy and successfully embedded in only one transfer window. We have seen a welcome overhaul in the wage bill, and a vast reduction in the average squad age, which was equally necessary.
Webber has given Farke a decent bag of clubs to have a swing with this season. I don’t think we have a club to dig us out of every bunker we may find ourselves in, but we have enough to function at a decent level. It’s now up to Farke to select the best options from the bag at the right time.
It’s going to be an interesting round.