The belief that a player must be of a certain build or physical capability seems to have been eradicated from the game, with players such as Wes Hoolahan proving that height and stature aren’t the only qualities that make an effective footballer.
What became apparent as I watched Norwich City’s Under-23s, however, was that even in a side built for technical play, pace and power are still valued greatly.
Just a glance at the names who are held in the highest esteem from David Wright’s under-23s begins to reveal this.
Andrew Omobamidele, vice-captain of the side before being moved up to Daniel Farke’s senior squad, has similar defensive capabilities to centre-back partner Jon Tomkinson, who is arguably better on the ball, but is much more physically capable than his American teammate.
The greatest aspect of star man Matthew Dennis’ skillset is his pace, a trait that sees chances regularly created when he runs in behind. Dennis needs to improve his finishing but is still one of the first names on the team sheet.
William Hondermarck, particularly impressive in the 3-2 win over Plymouth’s first-team earlier in the season, secured a League Two loan move in January to Harrogate Town. Perhaps the most exciting of Hondermarck’s contributions in that match was his assist for Tyrese Omotoye, a physically impressive centre-forward who has since played for the first teams and is now on loan at Swindon.
The academy’s tendency to produce physically adept players stretches back further, Adam Idah being the perfect example. Idah, City’s tallest striker by the time he was 18, impressed enough to become the Canaries’ third-choice centre-forward and started in the Premier League for the first time at Old Trafford last season. Gassan Ahadme, a slighter striker who produced similar numbers to the Irishman, currently finds himself cut adrift on loan at Real Oviedo.
The physicality of players may not only be an attempted strength that the academy looks to produce, but also a preference of Daniel Farke. The German opted to start central midfielder Jacob Sorensen at left-back for 16 games straight rather than include the under-23’s Rob Nizet, a decision I was surprised by given Nizet, a product of the revered Anderlecht academy, had impressed me most of all when watching the development squad. Nizet’s only significant weakness is his strength in duels.
The fact that physical stature is a common denominator of the players most highly thought of in the Under-23s, along with the fact that Wright most regularly deploys a 4-4-2, may lead you to believe that they play a more traditional English style; an assumption that would be incorrect.
The development side is modelled on the first team, and passing out from the back is a common feature but, as explained by Stuart Webber, to play two strikers gives the club a greater chance of producing what is football’s most valuable commodity.
Physicality aids this approach in some instances, and Scottish midfielder Reece McAlear is key. McAlear, who’s appeared once for the first-team, offers a drive in midfield that allows the young Canaries to bypass the opposition press. The 19-year-old’s positional play is excellent and the passing angles he offers the centre-backs when in possession both allows them to offload the ball when required and to drive forward when he’s marked. The Scot’s willingness to receive the ball deep is a quality lacking in the first-team, and he could provide a good option in the coming years.
Although it is true that more slight players such as Todd Cantwell and Jamal Lewis have come through the academy system in recent years, it’s important to note that their development didn’t start under the current regime. Cantwell signed when he was 10 and Lewis joined the club in 2014. Josh Martin’s first team induction shows that the club aren’t afraid to introduce technically good young players when they’re ready, but youth recruitment is generally focused on a base of physicality and athleticism.
With the run of goalless games (ended at the weekend with the win over Stoke) leading to calls for greater variation in City’s play, the next generation may well provide not only that but also a backbone that was lacking in last season’s Premier League failure.