That infamous sage, Homer J Simpson once beguiled the world with one of his legendary pearls of wisdom which goes along the lines of:
“Alcohol: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”.
As well as being a cracking one-liner, I believe that it can be applied to one current conundrum in the Norwich team. That of James Maddison.
Bear with me on this because your immediate response may be that Maddison has been THE shining light in previous weeks. If there has been one player that we can rely on to play well it’s been Maddison. So while him being a solution to problems is obvious, how could he be the cause of them?
I am a huge James Maddison fan but I think we need to use him differently. I don’t think he’s best employed as a number 10.
In recent weeks the defence has tightened up considerably. Our run of three defeats hasn’t changed that. All teams concede goals and ours have been far from the gratuitous foldings at Villa and Millwall. Everything can be improved but we are at a stage where our defending is not a weakness, and is average at worst, and in all likelihood, up there with the best in the league.
Our attack however, has been powder-puff and reliant solely on the promptings of Maddison, particularly when Josh Murphy has not started. To counter this, teams have packed their defensive midfield areas choking off the space that Maddison thrives in and making it impossible for Norwich’s short-passing game to pick a way through the massed-ranks.
It hasn’t helped that our wide players either drift inside like Wes Hoolahan and Mario Vrancic to add to the congestion in the middle, or those that can stay wide and get round the back such as Murphy and Yanic Wildschut are not finding anyone with their crosses.
Ivo Pinto and Marco Stiepermann at full back have been a better source of balls into the box which speaks volumes. And when the ball does make its way through, Jerome has been misfiring more spectacularly than a James Corden stand-up routine.
This isn’t Maddison’s fault of course. That he’s become effectively our sole source of creativity is testament to his ability. But it also creates a problem because he isn’t able to be effective when he doesn’t have space, and teams have worked that out.
To find that space that he needs, Madders has dropped deeper and deeper to pick up the ball and try to start the attacks, even to the extent of taking the ball off the centre-backs and “quarterbacking” the team. And he’s having to do it more and more. This leaves a gaping hole behind the increasingly isolated Jerome, and also encourages the opposition midfield to push on as there is less of a threat in their defensive midfield area.
This ability to “push back” our most creative player has helped the opposition adjust their lines and seen poor teams pressure us into mistakes further up the field than we should be allowing them, especially at home, and goals have been conceded as a result.
I’m not for one second suggesting that we drop Maddison. Despite the best efforts of my kids I haven’t lost my mind yet. But I am suggesting we redeploy him.
The most fluent attacking play we have produced for many years was last season when we played with a 4-2-3-1 much as we have now. The big difference between the deployment of the systems is that when we were ripping teams apart at Carrow Road last term our attacks did rely on short-passing and intricate interplay as they do now, but our skill players had space and time to move and create. (The finishing was also considerably better too to be fair).
The reason they had more space and time is that we had multiple threats and so the opposition couldn’t simply crowd out any one player to stop us. We also carried an attacking thrust from the two defensive midfielders which added an extra body, or even two, and the opposition crumbled under the avalanche of creativity.
The formation at the end of last season when we were running riot featured Graham Dorrans taking the ball off the defence and spraying it around, Jonny Howson alongside him springing forward to join attacks, behind an attacking three of Alex Pritchard in the number 10 role and Hoolahan and Josh Murphy coming in from the wings, adding pace and guile. And Nelson Oliviera up front finishing everything off.
That we currently miss Pritchard and Oliviera is obvious. Any team in the Championship and many in the Premiership would. And with the return of Pritchard hopefully coming soon, the question of how to fit him and Maddison in a team together will begin. No doubt many will say it can’t be done. They’re saying the same about Maddison and Wes now. And they said the same about Pritchard and Wes last season until we started them both together and we started carving up defences left, right and centre.
I think we can recreate what we had last season that defences found so irresistible. But it means using Maddison deeper, and employing changes based on whether we’re home or away.
At home we’d use Maddison in the Dorrans role, taking the ball deep, spreading the play, starting the ball rolling. Alongside him you’d have Trybull or Reed in the Howson role, getting up and down the pitch. You don’t need two purely defensive midfielders if you’re at home and dictating play with outstanding attackers like Murphy, Hoolahan and hopefully Pritchard soon as well.
Away, you’d still have 4-2-3-1 with Maddison one of the two defensive midfielders but you’d base the system on the “hinge” principle, which Norwich used successfully with Tettey and Howson in the early days of Alex Neil’s reign. It involves both midfielders remaining in front of the back four when defending but once the team is in possession, one of the two players remains back whilst the other rotates forward to join the attack. The obvious way to do this would be to play Tettey with Maddison and let him off the leash to attack when we can.
This would be very different to the Villa and Millwall shambles where Maddison was part of a midfield that looked lightweight and unable to cope. In that 4-1-4-1 formation Maddison was deployed as one of two central attacking playmakers with Harrison Reed trying to stem the tide of opposition attacks by himself.
As much as Maddison would still be utilised in an attacking sense he would need to take on some defensive responsibilities. But he’s a quick learner and an extra string to his bow would add an extra zero to the transfer fee we inevitably receive when one of the big clubs come calling for him. If he can successfully implement the role, it would be a natural fit for young Adam Phillips to understudy him as well.
If Maddison could be utilised deeper, where he’s free to start moves and has the space to create, at the same time as he makes way for a Pritchard return, we can get back to being the attacking force that we proved last season we can be, while boasting a much improved defence.
Maddison is physically stronger and more mature than he was in August and I think he’s ready for more responsibility. While he can’t be “the solution to all of life’s problems”, a re-tasked Maddison could mean that we go into January without feeling the need to spend any “D’Oh”…
Sorry, couldn’t resist.