The reports from Colney pre-Southampton were that the players were confident and that Farke was unusually bullish about his side’s chances of hitting the ground running after the enforced season hiatus.
For 20 minutes, this looked well-founded. The Canaries looked sharp, and they were dominating possession. Obviously, there was some rust and we gave away the ball a little too easily, and in areas where we really shouldn’t but the signs were that Farke’s brave switch to an uber-positive 4-4-2 was working.
However, along came a drinks break, and it was at this point that the game changed. Hasenhuttl, who was probably as surprised as everyone else by Farke’s change of formation, and his ever-busy team of iPad clutching analysts, had been paying attention to the events of the first 20 minutes. They adapted and changed.
With Norwich being the aggressors at home it would allow the Saints opportunities to counter-attack, and with City’s formation that pushes their full backs to be auxiliary wingers, the centre backs would be stretched to cover the wide-open spaces at the back.
The best way to capitalise on that was simply to play narrower when Norwich were in possession, get bodies in the middle of the field to fill holes and prevent easy balls out from the back, and press Tom Trybull to prevent him from being the deep-lying quarterback that he had been to start the game.
By half-time it was working. Trybull, with someone always snapping at his heels when receiving the ball, was left with no choice but to play it back to a centre back or Tim Krul. With their fulcrum neutralised, City could only get the ball forward from their centre-backs. Timm Klose looked comfortable with this, but with the narrowed Southampton midfield filling gaps and not allowing easy passes, it was difficult to find a yellow shirt that wasn’t already marked and was forced to return the ball deeper and so the move effectively returned to square one.
Ben Godfrey was more aggressive. He’s a good footballer, and a decent passer. He’s young, fast, and strong. He can move the ball from centre-back in ways that nobody else at the club can, and it’s part of the reason he will in all likelihood remain in the Premier League next season while his teammates are heading to Rotherham and Coventry.
However, youthful exuberance, while sometimes effective, can also be risky, and his runs forward were a little too ambitious, and his passes on the day a little too hopeful. Godfrey has been our best bet to beat the press all season, but on a day when all players were struggling to shake off the effects of three months without football, expecting him to play like Beckenbauer and create openings from the back was way too big an ask.
So we gave the ball away. A lot. Our attacking players simply didn’t get the ball after that first drinks break.
Forget everything else that followed. The mistakes, the marking, the formation switches that followed. This was where the game was lost.
The reason we are bottom of the table is that teams have realised that Norwich can be stopped by removing their ability to pass from the back. This is the real story of our season.
We have technically good players. But even technically good players have to lay the ball off if they receive the ball with a marker parked up their backside.
So, what’s the answer? If it’s that simple to stop a team playing from the back why isn’t everybody doing it? Do we go long and bypass the packed midfield?
There is no simple answer unfortunately. It’s part of why the Premier League is the most difficult league in the world. But clearly, it’s possible to achieve.
There are several things I think we can address immediately that will help.
Firstly, and most importantly, the players need to move more and support each other more. A player on the move is much more difficult to mark effectively than one who is static, back to goal, waiting to receive a pass. It requires the player passing to them to complete a mildly more difficult pass, but we have to trust in the technical attributes we know we have to do this.
I have far more confidence in Godfrey hitting Trybull on the move as he spins off a marker from 15 yards, than him trying to thread the needle with a cross-field pass over 40 yards.
As well as helping each other with movement, the players need to support each other. Southampton isolated Trybull far too easily. For all Kenny McLean’s positive attributes, he’s not great at making himself available for an easy pass in deep positions.
When you play with a 4-2-3-1 as we do (aggressive experiments against Southampton apart), the key to the entire team is the “Hinge” – the “2” in the 4-2-3-1.
Ideally, when you’re defending, both players would shield the centre-backs, with one looking to track any midfielders looking to break beyond the defence. When attacking, one sits and shields while the other joins in with the forward play. To play this role you need to have two tactically astute players, who combine well and work together. At this stage I don’t think we have that.
Trybull is comfortable on the ball but not particularly positive or attack-minded. He looks after the ball and plays simple balls but he’s rarely a creator. He can tackle but is not physically dominant or an effective shield.
McLean is a good all-round physical presence, has great technique and can pass. But equally, he doesn’t make assists for goals, he can’t shield the defence, and too often he isn’t where you need him to be or expect him to be either offensively or defensively. When he came into the team at the back end of last season it was the start of us wobbling over the line to promotion, and when he’s played as part of a two in defensive midfield this season we’ve struggled to create and been exposed through the middle on multiple occasions.
I’m really not trying to tear down McLean here – he’s actually been one of our best players overall this season – but you have to question whether he’s a good individual that doesn’t work well as part of a team at the highest level, and whether his attributes lend themselves to being part of that hinge system.
Alex Tettey is the best shield we have, and really the only one we have. For all his limitations going forward, we only look defensively capable when he plays. The two-man partnership also works better when Tettey plays because the other players actively work to give him an option as they know he can’t pass particularly well, rather than expecting the more fluid Trybull to play balls he ends up not attempting.
Mo Leitner remains an enigma. A metronome with the ball, he plays short, uncomplicated passes, but unlike Trybull he can play them both forward and back, and has great technical ability to move the ball around and get it out of his feet to give himself a yard when he’s marked.
But defensively Leitner offers no cover. He’s simply a body on the field when teams are attacking through the midfield. That’s not to say he doesn’t try, but he just can’t defend and at PL level that gets exposed. Whereas he’s more likely to offer a passing option than McLean, he won’t stick a foot in like him either.
Mario Vrancic is the best attacking option we have from the hinge by far. His range of passing exceeds everyone else’s. His ability to move the ball forward and glide through the lines is unparalleled within the squad. There’s also a little bit of magic about him. He’s a catalyst for interesting things.
Defensively Vrancic is not overly astute but he can win tackles and his anticipation is good but, equally, he’s not consistent. When the going gets tough in a game Mario can disappear. Or ping a 20-yard pass randomly into the stand for no reason. Or let his marker wander past him into the box while he remains oblivious.
Like most City fans I love all these players. They’re fantastic lads, and they’ve given us some great memories, but they’re here and not at a bigger club for the simple reason that they all have weaknesses to their games. Our best chance is to try and marry up the two that work best together and help the team most for the remaining games.
For me, I’d go for the solidity of Tettey and the potential magic of Mario, but it’s very much an individual choice and arguments can be made for and against all of them. It feels like an area we need to consider in the summer, and certainly one we need to improve the next time we have a crack at the top tier.
The final area we HAVE to change is the attacking press. In the Championship we were masters at winning the ball high up the field and using the space that became available to rip open the defence and score.
This year we’re standing off and allowing the defenders time to play it around at the back. Emi Buendia and Teemu Pukki are the only ones who’ve had any consistent success at making attacking challenges.
Todd Cantwell, while willing, isn’t that type of player. Ondrej Duda certainly isn’t. Lukas Rupp can definitely win the ball but struggles to do anything once he’s got it.
I’d bring back the much-maligned Marco Stiepermann in the middle of attacking midfield. For all the criticism he’s received there aren’t too many players who’ve linked up in as many assists as him, and certainly none from as few starts. And the one quality that Stiepermann possesses in spades is his work rate and willingness to close the opposition down.
In a relegation dog-fight I’d take Stiepi’s qualities over those of the more-gifted but less robust Duda every time.
I’d also bring back Onel Hernandez at the expense of Cantwell. Todd’s had a fantastic season, but he offers us more of what we already have with Buendia and Duda, as a floating attacking midfielder that comes inside and can play a killer ball occasionally. He’s not as tenacious or aggressive as Onel, and he doesn’t win as many balls back.
Hernandez also offers us the direct and aggressive wing play that adds an extra dimension to our attack which has been missing all season. Let’s test these defences more. Offer them different problems. Switch Hernandez and Buendia’s wings during games to keep testing them.
Let’s become more aggressive in the attacking third, and in Farke’s words… “be the protagonists”.
That’s how I would go about fixing the potentially unfixable for the final games. Sam McCallum, Melvin Sitti and Danel Sinani will hopefully be part of a longer-term solution next season but with what we have right now, I think we need to get pragmatic and we need to get more aggressive immediately.
Then let the chips fall where they may.