In part two of his pre-season mini-series, Connor examines defending 2017-style and how it will fit into Daniel Farke’s vision of a future Norwich City…
Defending. An art form once perfected on the Carrow Road turf by Duncan Forbes and David Stringer in their own inimitable, physical way has slowly evaporated.
With the horror show of last campaign still lingering in the mind following the exasperating fragility of Alex Neil’s defensive line, many are hoping the Webberlution provides an altogether more uplifting outlook.
Ultimately, the exodus of the previous protective shield is a damning indictment on the staleness that developed throughout a stagnant third of the pitch. But as the feelings of disappointment transitions into optimism, focus turns swiftly onto the new season.
Supporters seek drastic improvement. And rightly so.
Whilst many Norwich fans will want to see defenders who head the ball tremendously far and tackle with intensity, in the mould of the aforementioned Norwich legends, the reality will be a contrast.
The ball playing centre back
As I touched upon in my analysis of the goalkeeping position, the focal points of the centre halves will be something progressive to City. Daniel Farke has expressed numerous times his desire to establish his footballing philosophy through the use of ball-playing centre backs: defenders who are technically very good and look to dictate the tempo of the game through ball possession and, vitally, retention.
Developed in the depths of Europe, the ball-playing defender enriches a side looking to be predominately possession based. Whilst many football fans think this is a glorified and over-hyped fantasy that can only work in the slower tempo leagues – like Italy and Spain to name but two – if used well it can support the shape of a team who want to control proceedings.
Formerly, the orchestrating of the team came from the engine room of the duo deployed in the central areas of a traditional 4-4-2 but as the continental influence has enhanced and influenced the English game, now the offensive patterns of play often begin from the moment the goalkeeper receives the ball.
From here, the centre-backs will split at a wide angle and seek to receive the ball on the back foot with a first touch, which allows them to attack the space and squeeze the pitch to allow the more creative players to offensively impact the game. If the opponent goes for a more higher pressing game, which should be anticipated from Championship rivals, this gives the player three options at a minimum; the full back, the defensive midfielder or the goalkeeper.
Even throughout recent years, this role has accelerated substantially. Michael Mancienne was considered one of the best technical defenders (of his generation) that England had to offer, yet despite his decent distribution, Mancienne failed to take the Bundesliga by storm and is now carrying out his trade in Nottingham.
The ball-playing centre-back was a role that meant defenders received it from the back and quickly located full-backs to promptly begin attacks. But now it’s more patient. More fluid. And this will be evident at Carrow Road from August, as a large percentage of Norwich’s possession will be carried out in the third closest to their goal.
I anticipate that supporters who want to witness more conventional defending will be left in a general malaise as they murmur with discontent. Before Webber’s appointment, I remember listening to soundbites of him discussing the transition of philosophy in Yorkshire and how fans wanted the ‘tippy tappy nonsense’ to be replaced with two up front. It needs time to develop and breathe, it’s a process.
Timm Klose will be massive. Technically, he is our best centre-back and has shown his defensive quality in the self-proclaimed best division in the world. Although he’ll miss the opening game at Fulham I expect him and, possibly, Marcel Franke to be the partnership going forward (when Farke plays with a back four), with an emphasis on risk taking and looking at overloading the play against high pressing teams.
Daniel Farke has come to enrich us. As a fan base we must ultimately support that change. Patience is imperative.
The tweaking of the full-backs
Under Alex Neil and Alan Irvine, Norwich operated with full-backs that, in all honesty, were more offensively than defensively based. Often would I look at average player positions and discover Ivo Pinto and Mitchel Dijks hugging the halfway line after being granted a license to roam.
The point of this was to allow the more attacking players to overload the centre, making the combination play around the penalty area more creative. This is reflected in the sheer amount of goals Norwich scored last season. Conversely, this had an impact on the defensive side of Norwich’s game.
As teams penetrated the sides of the stricken Norwich defence it came to resemble an open floodgate. Farke’s full-backs will be reined in and, as you’d probably imagine, built from a more technical foundation.
Furthermore, the full-backs will be more conventional and balanced. Despite being offensive when City are on the ball, they will sink into a flat back four when City aren’t in possession. It’s crucial this shape is flat and the line compact to reduce the chances of a killer ball penetrating and splitting the back line.
Players like Pinto and James Husband will be taught to grant the winger more space and look to overlap only when is critical, not at any opportunity. By underlapping or overlapping a winger, you automatically reduce his options in a 1v1 situation; leaving the winger with a more reactive decision than proactive. It’s about footballing intelligence and awareness of space.
More has been demanded of the full-back position in recent years, but they won’t be marauding forward like in days of old. It will be a more conservative and balanced use of full-backs in hope of achieving a more settled back line.
There is no doubt that City supporters will want to see a defensive line that favours solidarity and simplicity over stagnant and disconcerted structures. The introduction of a continental approach in the ball-playing centre-back and more balanced full-backs could marry these objectives together.
For Farke, it’s still very much a work in progress.