Whilst football has evolved and reinvented itself in the more modern years with discussion over philosophies, brands and tactics, one survivor of the era before the globalisation and commerciality of the game is the art of defending.
Whilst being a fan of Pep Guardiola’s rebrand and the Dutch with their free flowing football and false nines, the reality is all of this wouldn’t be viable, or prosperous, without defensive solidity.
It’s forged careers for Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and, to a lesser extent, Jose Mourinho; all know how to defend unprepossessingly, and prior to the international break, Norwich simply didn’t.
After that break, the change has been almost miraculous.
This spell of results has seen Norwich keep three consecutive clean sheets for the first time in five years. Chris Hughton was the catalyst for those results, and this record was set in the most fruitful period of his Norwich career.
If City could expand this record to four clean sheets, that would be the first time since the early 2001-02 season, when a back four consisting of the likes of Adam Drury, Malky Mackay, Craig Fleming and Darren Kenton. Eerily, this spell followed a 4-0 defeat to Millwall. City made the playoff final that season, I’m sure most City supporters would allow for that particular moment in history to repeat itself.
But, more recently, how have City evolved from a fragmented defence to a solid one so rapidly?
Strap in. I’m going to channel my inner Gary Neville and explain the difference in shape and positioning that Farke has adopted in an attempt to be defensively secure.
I’ve even used my own Microsoft Word version of the MNF analysis screen. Hard-core or what? (Apologies for the lack of definition; the editor’s fault, not Connor’s – Ed).
Prior to the international hiatus, Norwich’s defensive positioning, behaviour and application left an altogether similar bitter taste in the pallet of the fans. This acridity was seeing a hackneyed defence suffer the same fate as those who had fallen before it. On Farke’s arrival, he discussed his team being the ‘protagonists’ of the game, and they were, just of their own downfall.
Against Aston Villa, Norwich’s defence was far too voluminous in regards to positioning. The centre backs, on this occasion Marcel Franke and Christoph Zimmermann, were isolated with a 1v1 situation with the Villa attacker.
Husband and Martin are occupying positions too far wide, leaving the player with the ball options to play down the side, through the middle or over the top of Norwich. An attacker shouldn’t be given this freedom, simple.
Defending isn’t about individual talent or moments of inspiration, but a collective identity and belief in the same end goal. Norwich were exposed, full of apparent technicians who were lazy defensively.
Mario Vrancic loses his midfield runner. That has now become a 2v2 situation and City’s centre backs are exposed terribly by an underperforming midfield. Reed is therefore required to press the man in desperation to restrict the long range effort, but is doing effectively a multi role.
When defending as an attacker or midfielder you want to force the opposition into areas where your teammates are ready to lay a tackle. When approaching their attacker, you must position your body as to force him into the area where your helping defenders are. He will either be forced to pass the ball into trouble, where your teammates can attempt to win the ball.
It is imperative that Norwich condense the middle with more players. Not only is the defensive shape a tool to nullify personal, but also space too. At this moment, the attacker has a multitude of options to attack and penetrate Norwich in their defensive third of the pitch. Not good enough.
Also worth noting how flat footed Norwich’s players are. They must start on the balls of their feet to increase reaction time, particularly against faster strikers and Keinan Davis is more proactive than reactive, sadly the same can’t be said of the Norwich defence.
Finally, it’s about reducing space and the width and openness of the City shape, in this example, is farcical. What is needed is a greater body of defenders but also a structure to the defensive phase. Transition needed to be stronger and the shape required more work.
Fast forward two weeks, and Norwich travelled to Sheffield United with a clarity of their defensive framework. Farke, quite brilliantly, rehearsed his ideologies to the remainers at Colney whilst those parading in the colours of their respective national teams were thrown onto the waste heap for the duration of the two weeks.
A brazen City with a new mind-set travelled to Bramall Lane, exhibiting their graft to the Yorkshire punters who grew increasingly impatient with Farke’s team’s new style.
My first point is to witness the drastic improvement between the shapes. In the first image, Norwich aren’t in control of that particular phase of the game, they aren’t making Villa work enough with the ball, conversely, here, they are in control and stand as a collective body of players as oppose to the individuality of the first image.
The back line is simply exquisite. A compact, dense back line which is so difficult to break down due to the tightness and their occupation of space. The centre backs (in this image Pinto and Zimmermann) are closer in regards to proxemics and the spatial features of the defence work successfully in the nullification of the central channel.
Talk about individuals is nonsensical, whilst Klose has been a dominant figure and mentor to Zimmermann, those around him have stepped their game up.
Alex Tettey is the shield in the image. He is actually occupying a wonderful defensive position. Tettey is occupying the space between the centre backs which is susceptible to a killer pass between the central defenders to create a 1v1 opportunity. With Tettey forming a crucial part of this triad, he has completely nullified this threat.
The player on the ball is left with a singular option, to play the ball wide, by the time the ball has reached the winger, Wildschut has got tight to his man to win possession. Wonderful, top quality stuff.
Admittedly, these are two examples of a ninety minute game, but both highlight the seismic shift in defensive shaping and perhaps, finally, Farke is justifying the ‘best coach in the league’ tag heaped upon him by his sporting director. This is elite stuff and the aforementioned character deserves praise.
From the Carrow Road boardroom all the way back to furthest reaches of the South Stand hope has returned with revitalised hope. This new-fangled approach to defending has been around for centuries, but not present in Norfolk for years.
Momentum and continuity is key. This must be maintained for success to be achieved.