With Mario Vrancic’s contract set to run out this summer and the Bosnian midway through an impressive season, some Norwich City fans have been calling for a new contract, worried that his creativity would be a big miss if promotion were achieved.
Disappointing performances in the 2019/20 season and Vrancic’s age have left the club worried, however, and they may be right to be.
One of the issues the number 8 has been plagued by in his spell as a Canary is the debate around his best position. Originally brought in as a box-to-box midfielder but occasionally deployed in a deeper ‘regista’ role, Daniel Farke declared in the summer of 2020 that he now saw Vrancic as an option in the number 10 position, where he faces competition from Marco Stiepermann, Kieran Dowell and Todd Cantwell.
Vrancic most prospered in his favoured 8 role in the famous 3-1 victory over Leeds in 2019, showing his classic slick passing, his ability to get forward and score- bagging a brace- and a tenacious quality in the tackle that we’ve rarely seen since. The problem for Vrancic is that Farke’s system has since evolved to include two deeper 6s and one clearly defined 10, who usually plays so high up the pitch that they become more of a second striker than a midfielder.
Vrancic has proved effective in this position when up against a defence which isn’t used to dealing with the unpredictable movement of a player given a free role.
He provided the perfect example of this in the second goal of the recent win at Cardiff City, dropping deep to receive the ball, leaving marker Marlon Pack caught between following him and staying in his deep midfield role. This left Will Vaulks to leave his role to mark Vrancic, who waited until Vaulks’ tracking created space behind the Bluebirds’ midfield, releasing the ball to Kenny McLean as the Scot was running into that space.
The difficulty in this role comes with the step up in quality provided by Premier League defences, who are better organised and are used to dealing with players who operate in a free role and require defences to reshuffle their marking; Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne examples of this.
This suggests that, within Farke’s system, Vrancic is more suited to a deep-lying playmaker role, receiving the ball between the centre-backs rather than dropping deep from the attack to obtain possession and relying on disorganised defending. The Boss did deploy him in this role occasionally in the Premier League, although the problem this provides became painfully obvious in a 4-0 loss at Old Trafford in January 2020.
Away against a struggling Manchester United team that saw a match against the league’s bottom side as an opportunity to get back on track and to show that they could play the proactive football fans had been begging for since the start of the season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils pressed high and aggressively, Vrancic dispossessed second-most of the entire Norwich side and forced to misplace 10 of his 42 passes.
He was substituted after 65 minutes, replaced by Ibrahim Amadou. The rarity of midfield appearances from Amadou shows how desperate Farke was to withdraw Vrancic, this performance having a significant impact on the amount of game time Vrancic saw for the rest of the season.
The quality of pressing in the Premier League is much greater, and with sides such as Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester City also to play, even dropping deeper fails to afford Mario the time he needs, a positional change Farke has used regularly in the Championship to encourage greater involvement from him.
Space and time are so key to the way that Vrancic plays, being used as a pure number 10 or a pure number 6 aren’t viable options, and Farke is unlikely to overhaul his system purely to accommodate the Bosnian. He’ll turn 32 before next season and releasing Vrancic may be unpopular, but it could prove to be a smart decision.
I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong but if Farke’s men are to make a more serious go of it than last time Stuart Webber must be more ruthless, more clinical in his assessment of the quality of this squad. There’s no denying the ability Mario Vrancic possesses, but the tactical demands of the Premier League just may not suit him.