One of the more interesting aspects of Norwich City’s tactical setup this season has been the movement of their central midfielders in possession. Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean are regularly seen receiving possession and covering in deep full-back positions.
So, how does this work and why do they do it?
The first thing to note is when in a passing move this happens. While the centre-backs have possession Skipp is generally the central option closest to them, staying in his traditional position as you can see here in the recent win over Brentford.
Skipp generally remains between the opposition forward and midfield lines, Farke preferring to break lines with forwards passes when possible rather than using Skipp as a wall pass to change the angle for Grant Hanley or Ben Gibson. The Tottenham loanee often does play the ball backwards but usually having tried to find space to pass the ball forwards or wide.
Skipp is usually the deep-lying midfielder in this situation, although McLean does occasionally drop and perform the same role, especially when the opposition press is aggressive and more options are necessary.
Once the ball has advanced beyond the midfield, the deep-lying player moves wide into a third centre-back position, both offering a new passing option and increasing the number of players required to be pressed by the opposition, helping bypass a high press laterally rather than vertically.
Perhaps most importantly, though, this provides cover for City’s marauding full-backs, helping eliminate the spaces left in wide areas of the pitch. Rotherham manager Paul Warne highlighted this area as one he tried to exploit against the Canaries, telling The Athletic “[Norwich] play with an abandonment. Their full-backs bomb on really high but they do leave the centre-backs vulnerable. I’m not saying Norwich are very open but if you are able to win the ball, you are able to exploit those areas down the sides of the centre-backs.”
Here Skipp moves into the wide area vacated by Max Aarons, who he’d found with a pass having received the ball deep.
Brentford highlighted Aarons as a threat and doubled up when the right-back received the ball, but Skipp’s covering nullified the threat created when the full-back was dispossessed.
Skipp and McLean’s ability to do this highlights not only their tactical intelligence and understanding, but also the strength of their partnership. Although the fact that the Englishman is right-footed and the Scot left-footed makes it more convenient for Skipp to cover Aarons and McLean to cover Dimitris Giannoulis, the pair switch where appropriate.
Here, McLean had drifted from his left-of-centre position into a central deep-lying position, carrying on his run into a right-back position and evading opposition marking by doing so.
McLean’s movement into this position, combined with Mario Vrancic dropping deep before pushing forward with Skipp, created space in the middle of the pitch and eliminated the first line of the Bees’ press.
Daniel Farke’s preference for being proactive and focusing on what his team can do on the ball suggests these options are the reason behind his decision to move his midfielders into the backline, but defensively it’s helped deal with an issue that was becoming a significant leak for the Canaries.
In the reverse fixture, the first for makeshift left-back Jacob Sorensen and without Skipp or then-midfield partner Lukas Rupp covering wide, Sorensen took a throw-in high up the pitch and possession was lost. This created space for Brentford winger Bryan Mbuemo behind Sorensen, which he exploited to cross for Ivan Toney, who scored.
Here, in a recent win over Bristol City with Skipp’s new positioning well established, he quickly drops into a third centre-back position, ensuring that if McLean takes the throw-in forwards and loses the ball, the space vacated by an advanced Sorensen won’t be free for attackers.
A noteworthy nuance of this system is that, while traditionally it’s been common for defensive midfielders to drop into the defence and convert it to a back three, this has most commonly happened by the centre-backs splitting and the midfielder dropping between them. Manchester City’s Rodri is the archetype for this practice, a favourite of Guardiola teams going back to Sergio Busquets in 2010.
Instead Skipp and McLean, as outlined, drop wide and Gibson and Hanley shuffle across, a clever move that allows City’s strongest defenders to occupy the centre of the pitch when dealing with a counter-attack, a move that may well have been inspired by the exposing of Christoph Zimmermann’s lack of pace.
As seen below in a 2019 draw with Reading, the lack of cover in wide areas meant Farke’s centre-backs were regularly drawn into wide areas when the ball was lost there, leaving them exposed.
While the current first choice pairing are quicker than Zimmermann, the positional shift required from the centre-backs previously to cover wide areas leaves a huge space on the other side of the pitch, given the fact that Farke’s full-backs push forward in symmetry.
In the Championship few teams boast the technical ability required to switch the play at such a rate, but in the Premier League this tweak could prove vital, especially given the tactical trend in the top division for wingers such as Mo Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Riyad Mahrez to play almost as wide strikers.
This tweak also perhaps explains Farke’s preference for using Mario Vrancic and Lukas Rupp in the number 10 role in recent games.
The main issue with using the central midfielders as wide cover is that this can leave City exposed through the middle when Skipp and McLean’s movement is mistimed or ill-judged.
Vrancic, while not known for his defensive contribution, likes to play deeper than the likes of Marco Stiepermann and Kieran Dowell, providing a layer of protection they wouldn’t.
The Bosnian’s fantastic performance at Elland Road in 2019, during which he made five tackles and three interceptions while scoring twice, offers a glimpse of his proficiency in this role.
What this tweak to Farke’s system shows is that, no matter how complex, the German is continuing to learn and to improve his setup, an encouraging sign for next season amid the doubts created by 2019/20.