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.
Hugely interesting and entertaining read. I found myself nodding in agreement in particular with the points about stiepermann, who has had a poor season, although I certainly don’t malign him, and the pace of Hernandez. Buendia and cantwell are poor options out wide at this level and we need some devil in our play.
Let’s see what happens, hopefully it doesn’t end in more humiliation.
Colin B says
We have no choices in defence.
Tettey must play. I agree with you that Vrancic is a good option. I think Leitner should be the best option but for some reason Farke has lost faith in him.
Given Todd’s performance last week I would drop him for Hernandez.
I am not sure about Steipi in the centre of the three. It might be Cantwell’s best position.
Good honest read trybull for me is very poor it needs to be tets and Mario the best we can do as others so poor .the new formation wasn’t working on Friday saints were up near our box and arrons and Lewis were still in opposition half on a few occasions can’t defend properly like that .godfrey for me isn’t good center half he would make good partner for tetey we get steamrollered through the center of defense every game not enough strength or pace from these players in this league wont mind seeing 3 at back but haven’t got players to effectively do this keep well
Tim Ball says
Great analysis Andy.
For me I would, all players being fit, in an away match have played a back 3 of Hanley Klosse Zimmerman then 2 holding midfielder players in Godfrey and Tettey with Jamal and Max as wing backs with Pukki up front and then fit 2 other players from Stiepemann, Vrancic, Mclean, Cantwell, Buendia, Henandez, Leitner, Rupp and Trybull from the players left depending on the opposition.
Buendia has to play most games though I still wonder if Mclean’s best role is as a number 10, I would have liked to see more of him there. Todd too has played well this season so is another who would feel unlucky to be omitted.
But the truth is Zimmerman, Hanley, Klosse, Vrancic, Hernandez and now Byram have missed so many games this season Daniel Farke has been handicapped all year.
So for Wednesday I would go with Krull, Aarons, Godfrey ( who now has to swop sides and it doesn’t help him) Klosse, Lewis at the back. Then Tettey and Trybull as holding midfielders.
Bendia or Catntwell midfield with Vrancic and Mclean as number 10 with Pukki upfront.
I know it is a surprise to see Trybull there but I feel we need to protect the defence far more than we have and Tom’s best performances have always come when partnering Tettey.
Buendia or Cantwell is a hard one, just Emi I think.
Cyprus canary says
An interesting summary of the good and bad points of the individuals in the group, some which I agree with some I definitely do not. My view is that we have too much touch and feel about us and not enough grit. The major problem for me is that the manager is unable to modify his philosophy to suit the players he has at his disposal. We definitely need some power in midfield Godfrey would be much better in that role in my view. Trybull, Leitner and Vrancic have all failed to live up to expectations elsewhere- why would that be different here?
I still believe that we could have survived this season if Farke had learned to change where required including use of subs. That’s the “temporary “ fix you seek.
I fear for the longer term future I’m afraid to say.
Some very good observations Andy in the aftermath of Friday’s dismal showing. I hadn’t realised that the change came about after Hasenhuttl had had words with his players at the first drinks break.
I made the comment on Martin’s article yesterday that I felt that McLean and Trybull (aka LeanBull) didn’t work and I’d rather see TettBull. IMO, the idea of replacing Todd with Onel is excellent and Mclean seems to be struggling a little.
The Transfer Window is going to be interesting to see who stays and who leaves. I read an article a few days ago that most of the ‘young guns; should stay and gain more experience etc and I’m hopeful that some will, as if they go for a move to one of the ‘big 6’ they’ll be lucky to get much game time, but we’ll have to wait and see what transpires.
I affraid trybull has not had one single good game in the prem this season last season I loved him this season been total garbage one for the transfer list .
martin penney says
That’s a really good analysis I can agree with Andy, and it looks like everyone else agrees with you as well!
I particularly agree with Chris’s comment “Buendia and Cantwell are poor options out wide at this level and we need some devil in our play”.
Whatever happens this season, and I believe the script is now written, there will be significant mitigating factors.
The horrendous injuries, VAR and the small matter of a global pandemic it really has been a season unlike any other.
And yet, why do I still feel that at times we haven’t helped ourselves?
One of best performances in my view was Arsenal at home. We looked a decent, balanced team and bar some outstanding goalkeeping would have won comfortably.
To this day, I find it odd that Amadou was deemed good enough to play this fixture in the DM role and yet after one poor half against Southampton is never seen again. I seem to recall that even Tettey was quoted as staying he fully expected him to take his place – what on earth went wrong?
The much maligned McLean played number 10 in this game and looked a real threat, but again is never seen in this role afterwards.
Our midfield has regularly been described as ‘powder puff’ by pundits and fans alike. We seemingly had the options to change this, but for whatever reason haven’t done so.
As always there may very well be reasons that as a fan I’m simply not partial to, we’ll probably never know.
I expect to see changes tomorrow night with Tettey and Onel added in for some steel/directness. Let’s at least restore some pride from our remaining games if nothing else.
Stephen Godbold says
Something certainly went on with Amadou – and Roberts come to that. We know from Oliveira that Mr Farke does not countenance disagreement. Which is not necessarily a bad thing but does also mean that Leitner won’t be playing much for us again before he is on his way.
As for the current options – revolutionary I know, but I’d like to see Hernandez scaring the centre backs by playing more centrally – coming off the touchline in a deeper position rather than playing through the middle. I’d also like to see a “shoot on sight” policy. Pukki and/or Cantwell/Buendia should be much more mobile than they were against Southampton, slowing down the oppositions wide men in the middle and stopping the crossfield ball which undoes us so much. There is only room for one of Cantwell or Buendia in this team – Cantwell has had a lot more success this season than Emi.
Tettey and Vrancic both have to play. The back 5 picks itself, but the fullbacks must be narrower and the centre backs need to hold their positions with a lot more discipline. I’d play Leitner rather than Trybull or Maclean, but if he’s not in play Maclean is the least worst of the two options.
Most of all though we have to work harder – like we did last year; chasing back as if their lives depend on it. Getting back up quickly rather than whining. Moving the ball faster.
I don’t mind losing against better teams, and Southampton were a better team – but I don’t want to see us give up so easily again.
I feel that, with 8 games to go, now is not the time to be experimenting with new formations. So, we need to go back to what got us here in the first place.
It’s a gamble, but Stieperman should come back in. I like Duda but he’s a bit lightweight and that’s not what we need right now.
Cantwell always starts for me with Onel a good option later on, although I’m not convionced yet that he’s PL quality.
As for “the hinge”, Tettey and Rupp for me. Trybull and McClean had had enough opportunites and failed to staked a claim.
Most importantly though, whoeve he picks, need to believe that this can still be done.
I feel that despite the merits of individual players and Andy summarises them well.,we have problems in all departments apart from GK (as long as Krul keeps fit).
Defence.-we cannot defend high balls into the box.-recipe for disaster.
Midfield ,Apart from Tettey on a good day,we have no ball winners ,lose possession too easily and give the ball away too much when we do have it .
Strikers- Drmic must be a shadow of the player he might have been. Pukki looks lethargic and uninterested we lack any cutting edge apart from the odd foray by Hernandez.
Overall the team looks unhappy and short on confidence and fitness..I also question the qualty of first team recriuitment viz Amadou,Duda and Ropp none of whom fill me with confidence or lead me to believe they should be playing at the expense of Martin (Josh) Idah, or Adshead even ,who at least is a midfild terrier and will always give 100%.
In all very disillusioned with our response tto the Premiership challenge when compared with Sheff Utd. We maythink that promotion will be a reality again but believe me it won’t unless we undertake some serious investment in talent as opposied to players from the second tier in Gefrmany My only consolation is that Villa are nearly as bad as us and have spent squillions in the process.
Come on Mr Farke give youth a chance to show what they can do in the remaning games .We are down realistically so what is there to lose,and they will have gained invaluable experience.?
Manofthe south says
In the absence of any comment.to Manofthesouth may I say I agree with every word!