Tuesday night’s trip to St. Andrews was evidence that something is changing; Aitor Karanka led a relegation-threatened Birmingham City into battle against the league leaders and *didn’t* park the bus.
He instead opted for an energetic press that barely resembled the Blues’ setup at Carrow Road last October, ditching target man Lukas Jutkiewicz and encouraging his forwards to put Grant Hanley and Christoph Zimmermann under pressure deep in the Norwich half. The worrying fact for Daniel Farke is that this yielded results, in the form of an equaliser.
Loose passes from Oliver Skipp, Tim Krul and Zimmermann that were, admittedly, partially down to the poor pitch, resulted in a high turnover of the ball for Birmingham, eventually culminating in Ivan Sanchez’s close-range finish. The Blues’ goal validated Karanka’s methods, which were by no means original.
Aggressive pressing by robust sides were identified as the antidote to Farkeball as early as September 2019, when Sean Dyche set his Burnley team up to pressure Jamal Lewis and Ibrahim Amadou, bringing the Canaries crashing back down to the Turf Moor earth with a 2-0 loss having beaten Manchester City 3-2 a week earlier.
Several other teams, most notably Manchester United and Southampton, proceeded to use this strategy against City with success. There was a feeling that, with Farke’s specially trained squad unable to adapt, they had been nullified as a threat.
Upon the Canaries’ Championship return fear of City’s superb attacking talent meant teams dropped off again, inferior sides aware that their less tactically intelligent and press-practiced players would leave space to be easily exploited by the likes of Emi Buendia, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki.
Performances like those of Swansea and Barnsley in recent weeks reminded managers that a high press was an effective strategy for winning points from the Canaries after they had dominated the first half of the Championship season, but herein lies the problem for those that stand in Farke’s way.
Just because a team can identify how to beat another doesn’t mean they can enact it. Paul Warne’s Rotherham attempted to use pressing to their advantage at Carrow Road, an attempt that may have been effective had his defence been pacey enough to maintain the advanced defensive line a high press requires.
Warne admitted to The Athletic after The Millers’ 1-0 loss that he may have been naïve, while highlighting his main problem: “I knew it before the game but all Norwich’s players were quicker than mine. That’s my fault, I suppose.” If Warne had centre-backs with the speed possessed by the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and John Stones, he would’ve created the perfect system to beat Farke.
This is the dilemma the German must confront. Should the Canaries achieve their increasingly realistic goal of promotion they will, as they unsuccessfully have previously, come up against the quality that allows systems like Warne’s to smother their ball-playing centre-backs.
At that point Farke can no longer rely upon the perfectly legitimate Championship tactic of backing his side’s superior quality, but instead must out-plan his managerial adversaries, something he had mixed success with in 2019/20.
The new pressing opposition trend has also created a new type of match for City fans to watch, leaving the slow, cagey battles of autumn and winter behind and replacing them with hectic end-to-end affairs, where Pukki and co look twice as likely to get in behind but the back four look twice as likely to concede.
The majority of where the game is played seems to have reversed; where previously Norwich had camped in the opposition half, playing passes around the edge of their box waiting for a gap to appear, the game now seems to be played in the defensive half, trying to stay calm and play through the lines before launching Pukki into the masses of space left between the rival backline and its goalkeeper.
Interestingly, while the class of opposition was vastly different, two goals from the aforementioned Manchester City and Rotherham games were similar in essence and both reflected this pattern. Cantwell’s lead-doubling goal against the former came after good work allowed Marco Stiepermann to play Pukki into acres of space before he squared for the number 14, and the Rotherham winner came from smart build-up play before Pukki was set clear into an empty 40 yards to finish.
There’s evidence that Norwich City can outmanoeuvre opposition with their trademark style, but it will require another level of thought going forward.