Saturday’s matchday squad against Middlesbrough raised concern among some, especially playing a team second in the Championship, who were unbeaten, hadn’t conceded since the first game of the season and, more importantly, were exactly the physical team Tony Pulis wishes for.
My favourite tweet at the release of the line-up was… “It’s like Farke is wanting to be sacked. Leitner, Tettey, Stiepermann…”
Yet Farke stuck to his guns (uh oh).
- He made Alex Tettey captain – a player whose revived sense of confidence since his goal against Preston has taken him back to his best. He trusted his instincts about Marco Stiepermann and continued to keep the Carabao Cup game against Cardiff City in the back of his mind.
- He took advantage of Emi Buendia’s versatility, which also saw the playmaker spending the final games of the 2015-16 season at Getafe figuring out how to play at right back.
- He recognised the quality of Moritz Leitner and took him back to where he played last season – as a deep-lying playmaker.
- He recognised Norwich would need an experienced centre-back in Christoph Zimmermann, who grew into English football towards the latter end of last season and had helped City to clean sheets against Boro last season, to solidify his defence, if he was to opt for Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons to complete the backline.
- And formation-wise – he went back to his roots and played 4-2-3-1. His most used formation last season. A formation that offered the midfield a structure they had been longing for.
Yet there were bound to be quibbles and questions about Stiepermann’s involvement as a number 10 when a playmaker of Buendia’s quality is proving to be the £1.5m bargain we’d all hoped he’d be at number 10..
Oh, James Maddison – what have you done to this club? You’ve ruined this for everyone else who wants to play in the number 10 position.
But Stiepermann is everything a City number 10 shouldn’t be.
At 6ft 2, he doesn’t fit into the mould we’ve been used to – we’ve had Wes Hoolahan (5ft 6), Alex Pritchard (5ft 7), Maddison (5ft 9) and then we’ve welcomed Buendia, who at 5ft 7 looks like he’s come out of a duplication machine. It’s the stereotypical height of a playmaker.
By comparison, Stiepermann’s appearance looks clunky, out of place, yet it somehow worked.
He had the fourth highest amount of passes in City’s squad, including three key passes – just under half of those entered the final third, five were counted as key passes leading to a shot and three were through balls (including that ball which pushed City into the penalty box the goal). Taking all all these aspects into account, passing wise he became the most influential player.
And let’s not forget about the height and physical presence he brings to the team, which only helped stabilize a defence, which has been somewhat nervy throughout the season, by committing fouls, sticking a foot in and contributing to the team’s defensive work further upfield. It not only took pressure off City’s defensive set-up, especially Tettey, but also opened up opportunities to break up play and potentially attack, which we were given a glimpse of when the German nearly set Teemu Pukki away after dispossessing Dael Fry.
City have usually struggled to compete and dominate against a physical Championship team, especially when number 10s and playmakers are left muted – but has Stiepermann given Farke a solution to this?
Against Cardiff and Middlesbrough, Stiepermann showed his hunger for the ball, intelligence in picking out his passes, acknowledgement in runs being made before the opposition had realised and, despite his lanky appearance, he was the opposite to slowing down play in pivotal moments.
Maybe he doesn’t have a place in the team – only a minority left the game knowing exactly what his role was.
Maybe Farke doesn’t even know where he belongs, he just knows that he belongs somewhere and as long as he continues to perform and encourage those around to do the same, does it matter?
But why play a born playmaking number 10 like Buendia on the wing? I have every belief Farke has done his research on this matter and we all know in a Farke line-up someone invariably plays out of position.
Buendia’s versatility will be an asset for City, Farke touched on it during the Argentinians arrival and, while we shouldn’t expect him to be playing right back any time soon, Buendia may be more known as a like-for-like replacement for Alex Pritchard. At Cultural Leonesa, he rallied up six of his seven goals as a left winger, whilst four of his 11 assists also came from that position. And more importantly, he suits that 4-2-3-1 formation.
Buendia is not a lost cause on the wings – he’ll cut in (once again making him Pritchard’s replica). By playing Max Aarons and Buendia together, it also balanced the team.
So often have we seen attacks triggered by Jamal Lewis and Onel Hernandez down the left-hand side. But with the pace and link-up play on the right channel, Aarons and Buendia proved to be yet another driving force who instead occupied the right wing, with the former also providing the Argentinian the protection to “live dangerously”, including occupying a more central role when necessary. Perhaps for Buendia, it’s less about where he plays in midfield but more, as long as he does play in midfield.
Against Middlesbrough, and to a lesser extent at Ipswich, Buendia added something ‘new’ – feistiness, the desire to tackle as an advanced playmaker and even the desire to keep possession of the ball (a quality which even the very best creative players in the Premier League aren’t renowned for) but, more importantly, also a desire to keep the ball was the reason for the goal.
Buendia’s awareness to the oncoming danger and accuracy in his sliding toe-poke saw City refuse to rue the missed chance – unselfishly, he didn’t want to risk shooting, he knew Pukki was the “safer” option.
Having a playmaker in Buendia is not only a joy for the crowds but one for Leitner. So many times this season, he’s been an ideal candidate to be criticised, to be called “overrated”.
He’s an important player on the pitch – he could even be City’s most important player by the end of the season. He can dictate play. Throughout the season, Leitner has seen the most touches of any City player on the pitch. His heatmaps prove him to be the player every fan wishes for – a player who covers the pitch. Yet something wasn’t clicking.
Farke wished Leitner would be a number 10 – he’d be utilised there in his younger days and Farke played him there when they were both at Bayern Munich II. But sometimes admitting defeat causes no harm.
He isn’t a Maddison, nor is he a Buendia. It’s not a comparison of who’s better, a comparison shouldn’t even exist – they’re completely different players who can spark inspiration into the team. And possibly, his goal against Ipswich will be one of only a couple for the season.
Leitner is a deep-lying playmaker. He is the link – everything goes through him. Playing so deep and alongside a solid and experienced unit like Tettey to protect him enables Leitner to have the space and time to pick out passes to unlock vital moments in the game.
With a playmaker comes that flexibility and range of passes meaning Leitner has the potential to make something of nothing or perhaps, more importantly, on the counter-attack – “get the ball away” may have a new meaning. It’s a match made in heaven – Tettey can focus on his job in breaking up opponents’ attacks, safe in the knowledge that all he has to do afterwards is get it to Leitner. With a team full of runners, giving Leitner freedom and protection to carry out his role could be vital in City’s attacks this season.
On Saturday, Leitner made 107 passes with 97 of them being accurate, equalling a pass success of 92% and including two key passes. In that statistic, apart from Timm Klose (55), Leitner had the most forward passes (52), whilst 33 of his passes were targeted for the final third, including four long balls.
Mo’s ability to cover the pitch should also be realised as an asset. Even by watching the highlights of the game, there’s an instance where Leitner’s readily available attitude sees him set off an attack by supporting Zimmermann in bullying Assombalonga and quickly setting off Stiepermann on a run before joining in the attack himself to link up play across midfield.
Having Buendia roaming free further upfield will only benefit Leitner in the same way it complimented his play alongside Maddison – he’s not the only creative player on the pitch. And while being spoilt by the presence of Hoolahan, Pritchard and Maddison was a dream, neither Alex Neil, Neil Adams or Farke could figure out how to make it work, without players being out of position or those who were built to operate wide missing out.
With Leitner playing deeper, we get a ‘kinder’ problem – whilst it won’t stop players missing out, it does mean two creative playmakers can play together at their best. Something we all wanted with Hoolahan, Pritchard and Maddison but never got to see.
Middlesbrough was a wakeup call – at 3 pm, we gathered it would be a similar one to the lesson we were taught by Leeds a few weeks earlier. Instead, by 5 pm, there was hope and optimism that this team of youngsters, rejects and experienced heads could be something special if Farke knows how to play it.
September’s international break will either prove to be Middlesbrough catching a delayed flight back from their holidays or it will prove Farke looked at what was in front of him differently, took a risk no one else saw and found a list of ingredients and combinations in a structured midfield, which work in the Championship and against a physical team.
Things still need time to click but maybe that’ll be the beauty of this season.