Watching the way Pep Guardiola has constructed this Manchester City team has been purely joyful. A philosophy centred on possession and intricate technicians, and after a difficult first season many had written Guardiola off. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that City could go unbeaten this season. They are simply exquisite to watch.
Possession has been the way to go for Guardiola’s side and admittedly, they have some of the world’s best technical players in Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, to name but two.
The trend of possession being dominant hasn’t trickled down into the second tier however…
Last season in the Championship, four of the five teams averaging the most possession finished in the top six of the division. The only team who didn’t from that list was Norwich City. Reading, Fulham and Huddersfield played incredibly technical, possession based football.
One of those sides ended up in the Promised Land, the others have started life under the same managers in Slaviska Jokanovic and Jaap Stam. They have found life harder this season.
Stam and Jokanovic are coming under increasing pressure to get results with their respective sides languishing in mid table, yet they are both still averaging the highest amount of possession in the division. So what’s changed?
Interestingly, now the top five sides with the highest average possession are all residing outside of the top ten. It’s simple to point towards refereeing decisions and inadequate defences as the reasons for this statistic but the problem is deeper.
Due to its success last campaign, teams have constructed sides to be more resolute and with a counter-attacking edge. Sides built by Wilder, Warnock, Bruce and Rowett all sit in the top six. Teams have adapted to nullify those boasting high possession games. Those who believe they are ‘playing football the right way’ are left to persevere with a philosophy they promised prior to their employment.
Norwich are sitting in that list of sides enjoying the most possession.
Evidence of this shift is evident at Carrow Road as teams defend deep and doggedly before scoring from a counter-attack or set piece. How do you respond to a possession based philosophy? Teams have defended with symmetry between their defence, midfield and offence. Norwich don’t contain the quality to pass teams into submission either.
Tactics seem to have peaks and troughs whereby they emerge quickly – see Leicester’s counter attacking – and the issues Chelsea have had with their 3-5-2 formation this campaign. Teams and analysts behind the scenes conjure up a solution to nullify it, and thus something else takes the driving seat.
How do you get success in football? You get it by emulating those who have had success previously. Norwich appointed Stuart Webber in an attempt to replicate the success he had constructed at the John Smith Stadium.
In the early periods of this season, teams in the Premier League opted to copy Chelsea’s 3-5-2 which won them the league with the most Premier League wins in a season in history. Chelsea has been inferior to the two sides in Manchester, noticeably the blue section.
But because his team lacks the quality to pass through teams with energy and quality in the same way Manchester City do (for obvious reasons), Daniel Farke may have to shuffle his philosophy.
This just isn’t a season for possession.
This is a season for defensive resolve and organisation to prevail. Wolves are hardly a possession focused side and British managers aren’t renowned for possession football, yet eight of the top ten are British coaches.
This is a polar opposite to last season.
The football Guardiola deployed and commercialised in Catalonia was branded as ‘sexy’ and the way football should be played. This is a somewhat romantic idea. Guardiola underperformed in his debut season as teams picked apart his makeshift and unfinalised side.
The gulf in class is evidently colossal, but you have to wonder what this Norwich side will look like a year into production. Perhaps the stars will align and possession will prevail in this division once more and if so, be sure that Norwich will be at the top of the pile.
Norwich are a season too late to the possession based party.
However, City must improve the lateral edge and slow build up play when on the ball and in doing so must combine this with a defensive shape that is vigorous and rehearsed.
The season where possession is dominant will return, maybe not next season or the season after, but Farke has a deep belief it is the right way and thus change shouldn’t be forced upon him in the long term. The alternative is a return to a British defensive coach, and next season teams will be better suited to nullifying that tactic.
Possession is the reason Ipswich failed last campaign and the seismic shift to organisation has seen Mick McCarthy’s men now on the verge of the playoffs. McCarthy has invested in goal scorers, and admittedly, their football has been predominately floor based, but little has changed.
After all, it’s what you do with the ball that counts and Norwich haven’t created enough. Let’s hope they can maintain that performance level from the second half against Sheffield Wednesday and supporter’s optimism will return while the apathy departs.