In City’s 1-0 win over Barnsley, it was levelled at them that their lack of adaptability was to blame for a difficult first half.
Pundits on NR1Live lamented the Canaries for their failure to go long and take advantage of the Tykes’ high defensive line. While passing out from the back is regularly criticised by the greats of the ’80s and branded dangerous, there are several reasons why it can be effective, and why it works for Norwich City:
Part of the make-up of Daniel Farke’s squad that makes passing out from the back so viable is the athletic ability of their centre-backs. Ben Gibson, Grant Hanley and Christoph Zimmermann are expected to drop almost parallel with Tim Krul in order to receive the ball from goal kicks and are the start of every attacking move, especially since Farke softened City’s hectic press in an attempt to save energy.
A key skill in this phase of the build-up is the ability of these players to drive forward with the ball, helping bypass the first line of opposition defence and opening up passing angles. Gibson and Zimmermann are particularly adept at this, and are comfortable using their large frames to hold off attackers when doing so.
Gibson’s ability to drive forward was missed sorely during his brief spell on the sidelines, and was evident as an asset as soon as he took to the pitch as part of a back-three against Watford. Farke recognises the importance of having athletic centre-backs who are comfortable on the ball, so much so the moved Ben Godfrey into the middle of defence because he possessed these attributes.
The Yorkshireman was originally a powerful midfielder comfortable with driving into the final third, creating chances and scoring goals. The importance Farke places on a defender, like Godfrey, is shown by his decision to sacrifice goals (the late equaliser against Reading in 2019 is the perfect example of what he could’ve provided from midfield) for a centre-back that can drive forward.
The next phase in the build-up play, and key in avoiding danger when pressed, is the availability and confidence of midfielders to take the ball from their defenders. With attackers dragged in to pressure the centre-backs, space is created just behind them, meaning that, if it’s worked properly, there is time for City’s technical players to find passes and hurt the opposition.
A lack of good passing options for the centre-backs leaves them vulnerable to the press, and with a lack of passes available the only option they have is to go long, or risk losing the ball close to their own goal.
These midfield options are so key in passing out from the back that Liverpool focused their entire tactical approach on stifling Manchester City’s two deep midfielders when the sides met last November, placing their two strikers at the feet of the Citizens’ Gundogan and Rodri when Guardiola’s centre-backs were in possession.
Alex Tettey’s progression in this role is evidence of what Farke demands from his midfielders. The City veteran was rarely involved in building attacks when the German arrived, but is now comfortable splitting the two centre-backs and offering an option. Tettey recognises that his own ability to create chances is limited, and therefore often ends up returning the ball to Krul or finding a full-back.
This may be frustrating at times, but it helps relieve some of the pressure on the team when being pressed intensely, as they were during Barnsley’s visit. The Canaries are patient enough to know that they can’t pass forward every time one of their players gets on the ball.
English football in the ‘good old days’ (as I’m sure Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis would tell you they were) saw the ball wasted far too often – out for a throw-in or comfortably rolling to the opposition goalkeeper – because players were too keen to make something happen right now.
Farke’s set-up ensures that the risks are minimised, giving Emi Buendia the opportunity to make three successful through-balls from ten attempts, rather than giving Zimmermann a 1/100 chance.
On Buendia, it’s players of his ilk who necessitate passing out from the back. The likes of the Argentinian magician and Todd Cantwell are two of the highest quality players in the dressing room, and must be used properly if City are to stand their best chance of success. Long-balls would take them out of the play, providing the pair with more neck-ache than possession.
They also wouldn’t work for Teemu Pukki, our star goal scorer who would be lost in a direct system. The acquisition of Jordan Hugill offers the Canaries that dimension if desperate, an option that doesn’t look favourable when comparing his and the Finn’s strike rates.
Pukki thrives on passes on the floor and angled runs, offering very little in the duel-winning stakes. Only two of his 52 Norwich goals have been headers, one of these unceremoniously spilled by Declan Rudd. His technique thrives in one-on-ones, the precise finishes he provides most effective in the area between six-yard-box and penalty spot.
All those calling on City to occasionally mix it up should also note that Pukki doesn’t turn into prime Peter Crouch when Farke wills it, and Buendia doesn’t suddenly become a pacey winger whose main attribute is crossing.
Stuart Webber has recruited the likes of Przemyslaw Placheta and Hugill to give the side a different dimension when it’s needed, but it’s still true that training sessions are dominated by ball work and sturdy determination to improve the squad’s ability to fulfil Farke’s ideology.
This style of play has taken City to one promotion already, and they’re well on their way to a second.
Farke certainly won’t stop asking his team to play out from the back, and he doesn’t need to.