After watching another poor City away performance at the weekend, on Canary Cast – the podcast I’m on with fellow MFW writer Joe Hinchliffe – we looked at the Wolves team and noted how they were better than Norwich in every department.
As well as having better players, I was impressed by Wolves’ defensive solidity and how Nuno Espirito Santo learned from his mistakes in the previous fixture. Wolves can be defensively solid while still playing good football, so it got me thinking, is it the current formation that’s holding Norwich back?
The 4-2-3-1 is what Daniel Farke has used for the majority of his Norwich tenure. This allows two defensive midfielders to cover the marauding full-backs and for the three attacking, introverted midfielders to leave space out wide to be used by said marauding full-backs. They become the outlet.
As shown last season, when City have a lot of the ball this formation works perfectly, with the three attacking midfielders able to have the freedom in the final third to create for the lone striker, usually Teemu Pukki.
In Farke’s first season we all know the struggle the team had in scoring goals. This was largely down to the forwards Farke had available to him and their playing styles. City created a number of chances in the German’s first season but just could not take them. Pukki changed all of that last season with his 29 goals.
This season has been a different story. Norwich haven’t had as much possession against stronger opposition and even when they have had more of the ball than their opponents, the press has been far more aggressive. Burnley (a) and Brighton (a) are two perfect examples.
A big issue has been the formations City are lining up against. In the Championship, a lot of teams played two central midfielders or three deep-lying central midfielders, meaning that whichever combination of Tom Trybull, Mario Vrancic, Kenny McLean or Alex Tettey were chosen, they had more time and space to move forward with the ball from those deeper positions. McLean or Vrancic, in particular, were able to drift forward and offer even more options in advanced positions.
In the Premier League, a lot of teams play with three attacking midfielders like Norwich, and playing against a far more aggressive press has meant City, time and time again, have given the ball away in poor positions. And only having two defensive midfielders against the opposition’s three advanced midfielders has meant another playing needing to come out of position to help cope with the overload. The knock-on effect has been that City are then short in another area, which has often been exposed.
With Norwich sitting back more often this season and the wide attacking midfielders needing to track back and support the defensive midfielders, it has meant the central attacking midfielder (Ondrej Duda currently) and Teemu Pukki are often the only attacking threat and left isolated.
Duda and Pukki, for all of their qualities, are not quick, ball-carrying players like an Onel Hernandez, meaning City struggle to get out quickly on the counter-attack. Against Arsenal, City had Hernandez on the pitch and scored a couple of goals on the break due to his ball-carrying abilities.
But, due to inconsistent displays and injuries, Hernandez has only started seven times and without another player of a similar style in the squad, they have struggled to counter-attack with any real gusto.
For me, a formation that has been used by Farke in the past could be the answer in this league: 3-4-2-1.
He went to this formation in his first season for a number of games and while offensively City didn’t look great, the side kept five clean sheets in a row for the first time in the club’s history. We also saw this formation a few times last season, usually in the last 15 minutes in games – for example, Forest at home and Bristol City away, where Onel Hernandez again played a key part at wing-back.
I believe if Norwich hadn’t had such cruel luck with injuries this season, Farke would have tried this formation to see if it could make the team more solid. I feel that with two other centre-backs alongside him it would allow Ben Godfrey to step out with the ball and have more options ahead of him.
Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis wouldn’t be as exposed as much in wing-back roles, instead they would simply have to offer width as and when it is needed. In midfield, you have a choice of being able to stick with two central midfielders or, like Wolves did against us, drop an attacking player and have three in there so you are not overworked or outnumbered in the most vital area of the pitch.
Finally, up front you could then have a Josip Drmic playing alongside Pukki in a 3-5-2 or have two attacking midfielders in a 3-4-2-1. The beauty of this formation is it can branch into a number of others with a couple of tweaks, depending on the opponent you’re facing.
These formations have become popular since Antonio Conte came to Chelsea and won the league, mainly using that same shape. This year Sheffield United, Wolves and Newcastle use a version of it and tweak it in every game.
Newcastle, while looking a fairly poor side, are structurally solid and I feel with Norwich’s attacking talent we could reduce the number of chances we give away in games and would have a better chance of seeing games out.
While I’m not saying it’s the answer to all of our problems, I think in this league it would help reduce the number of issues we seem to have in-game.
Thankfully though, I only have to write about these things and not actually implement them!