Against Villa, we lacked creativity, with Josh Murphy having to fill the void left by James Maddison and Wes Hoolahan.
Against Millwall, Daniel Farke chose to play all three but struggled to find that defensive support to compete against a physical Neil Harris team away from home, with Christoph Zimmermann benched for a game where his build may have suited the game on paper.
The statistics of the game wouldn’t surprise anyone – Norwich dominated, though Millwall dominated in successful tackles, clearances, interceptions and tackles attempted. And whilst out of their 11 shots, only five were on target – four resulting in a goal. They made their chances count, however little possession they had.
Five games into the season, City fans have seen some unbearable results and performances but it was last Saturday’s defeat against Millwall that was possibly the biggest reality check that something was not falling in place.
We knew it wouldn’t be straightforward – we entered the season at the height of uncertainty. A new structure at the club, a new head coach, new background staff, a new squad and a new season. And in reality, we based our optimism on Huddersfield Town’s success last season with David Wagner and there was good reason to do so.
Stuart Webber had been the man to hunt Wagner down for the Terrier’s job and most likely saw the same in Farke that he did with Wagner. Both had seen similar success with Borussia Dortmund II. Both liked to see their teams dominate possession in their games and play short passes – it was football that looked pleasing on the eye.
Wagner and Farke played completely different formations during their time at the club but both preferred a sole striker up front – Wagner would opt for the 4-2-3-1, whilst Farke chose 4-1-4-1. And whilst both managers have retained their favoured formations for the most part upon their arrival here, it was the winning formation for Wagner last season – though the same could not be said for his first season in charge – whilst Farke’s choice has resulted in questions over City’s ability to keep a clean sheet.
Even against Villa, Farke openly mentioned the fact their opponents have one of the best England internationals of the past in their team in John Terry, whilst we had Zimmermann who had played in the fourth tier of German football. Many questioned Farke’s underestimation of the Championship or why he hadn’t gone for experienced heads who had played in the league for years – though the signing of Grant Hanley might have changed that.
A change of formation may also be required, especially as we see a team of players adjusting to the Championship and potentially prone to errors. It would be easy to say “copy Wagner” but in reality, there is more to it.
City fans know the 4-2-3-1 formation well – it was Alex Neil’s favourite and when you look at the holding midfielders of the past, it’s clear to see why. Although Alex Tettey isn’t going to solve every problem, he will provide the bite and physical toughness needed against teams such as Millwall and others, particularly when playing away from home.
With City dominating possession, they need to plan for opponents to attack on the break, through a long ball or even through forcing them into errors. Millwall knew they’d barely see the ball and when they did, they knew they had to make it count, yet it seemed to have been something that surprised City against the Lions, leaving them exposed.
Harrison Reed has already proved what he can do – albeit still a young player plying his trade, he has become the centre-piece of Farke’s team, forming the protection of City’s defence yet also adding the connection to the attacking players. He has a 91% pass success rate – though you’d expect high percentages throughout the team with their short pass style – while he has one of the highest average passes per game rate. He’s not afraid to put his foot into tackles and although he may not be the tallest, most physical player on paper, it’s clear to see why the 22-year-old has been likened to Paul Scholes.
Reed has also had to do more covering of players than maybe he would have in the past. With Ivo Pinto and James Husband both being asked to push on, either as wing-backs or traditional full-backs, Reed has had the responsibility of covering them whilst they track back. That may be why someone like Alex Tettey, Marco Stiepermann or Tom Trybull (though our knowledge is limited to the Charlton game) could help if Farke opts for 4-2-3-1.
Using an additional defensive midfielder in the team could allow Reed to cover Pinto and Husband but at the same time, wouldn’t see the defensive holding midfielder missing or the central defenders over-exposed on a break.
Whilst it’s become obvious City’s defence needs that protection, the Millwall and Villa games saw two complete opposite attacking set-ups, and whilst playing Hoolahan and Maddison together can work wonders in some games – as we saw in the latter stages of last season with Alex Pritchard – it isn’t guaranteed to work week in, week out.
Sometimes City are going to need a physical team, with a hint of creativity but not so limited that it’s down to Josh Murphy to do everything that would fit in that category, as we saw against Villa. Other times, they can be let off their leash and run riot, which Alan Irvine worked out during the latter stages of last season.
Sometimes we’ll have to play them out wide and although many will look in horror at the thought of Hoolahan being out there, Pritchard and Maddison have both seen success in such positions when played there as it also allows them to cut in. But other times, Farke will have to rest Hoolahan – maybe more often than we’d like.
And sometimes Maddison has had to show a defensive side to his play – something maybe you wouldn’t expect from a natural Number 10. Not forgetting his off-the-line clearance against Swindon, Maddison has proven he is unafraid to make tackles and interceptions – sometimes dropping back enough to support Reed.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we do have options. Plenty of ways to do things differently. Farke has shown he’ll allow his team the time to turn things around but will happily change the game plan or make the necessary substitutions. But, admittedly, he has also got it wrong before the game has even kicked off, as he and his team adjusts to the Championship.
Farke will continue to keep working to find that balance to find a resilient yet creative team. He’ll get it wrong, he has got it wrong, but time is hopefully still on his side to get it right.