Schooled in Hughtonball, many Norwich fans highlighted a visit to the City Ground as a potential banana skin. What transpired was that Chris Hughton’s trademark 4-4-1-1 was his undoing, against a City side in full flow.
Although a pair of flat lines of four are easy for players to understand and implement, the rigidity a 4-4-2 formation is the issue with it. Here, the split between the second ‘4’ and the ‘1-1’ is clear here, as well as the flatness of the midfield line for Forest.
Without a designated defensive midfielder, Hughton’s 4-4-1-1 conceded space between defence and midfield, neither James Garner nor Ryan Yates specifically responsible for dropping to cover.
Kieran Dowell felt like Christmas had come early.
The ex-Forest loanee, starting for the first time in 2021, models his game on drifting into this space. Here, he provides a first warning, firing just wide having found space on the edge of the box.
But Forest persisted. Here, the space Dowell has is astounding. With two passes or one clever turn from Todd Cantwell, the no.10 is free to run towards goal, the opposition midfield standing no chance of catching him up.
He eventually did make them pay, smashing home from 20 yards to double the Canaries’ lead. As Daniel Farke told The PinkUn post-match: “The manner how he linked our play was quite important.”
This space wasn’t solely exploited by Dowell, and was also the basis behind Lukas Rupp’s impressive performance – producing two assists from this space – as well as Cantwell’s sizeable contribution.
An early trend in the first half that helped Farke’s side in the second was Jordan Smith’s eagerness to go long. The Forest keeper was in possession four times in the first 25 minutes and kicked long every time, negating the need for the Canaries to press and preserving the energy of the front line. Cantwell’s considerable energy even in the final throes was particularly notable.
Forest going long also suited City. Although on paper the Reds’ attacking duo of Lewis Grabban and Cafú looked aerially threatening, the pair won just one aerial duel between them. Grant Hanley won five.
Another fantastic performance facilitated by opposition tactical decisions was that of Dimitris Giannoulis, who contributed one of his best performances in a yellow shirt. Cantwell’s movement and Forest’s obsession with tracking him dragged right-back Cyrus Christie inside, creating space for the Greek international to attack. Here, Cantwell drifts inside as Kenny McLean looks for a pass. Christie follows.
This creates space for Giannoulis, who is found in an advanced position by the Scot.
The only other occasion when a side paid such close attention to Cantwell was the recent Middlesbrough home game, Giannoulis’ first in the side. Not used to playing with his new teammates and not as of then completely sure of his tactical responsibilities, it’s understandable why ‘Mr. No Brakes’ struggled to take advantage of this space.
It’s likely that Neil Warnock devised this system while expecting a rather conservative Jacob Sorensen to play at left-back, explaining why he allowed such space. Giannoulis’ performance against Forest perhaps explains why other sides have yet to adopt Warnock’s approach, despite the fact that Boro won a point at Carrow Road.
City’s early goals clearly influenced how the rest of the game unfolded. Chasing the game against a side particularly comfortable in possession, Forest were forced to press but, out of practice and used to playing in a low block, they were disorganised and open. The Reds may have been towards the top end of the pitch, but the Canaries were under very little pressure.
Here, Forest’s forward players attempt to press but leave huge gaps, allowing Norwich to comfortably play out.
McLean failed to finish what would’ve been a fantastic team goal.
Although in the second half Forest improved and Hughton made changes to counteract the problems that had appeared in the first half, the damage was done.
With City in sustained possession the midlands side dropped into a 6-3-1 formation, as seen here, as Christie tucks into a centre-back position and Sammy Ameobi flanks him.
This allowed the full-backs to mirror the movement of Cantwell and Dowell, and the wingers to nullify the threat from the Norwich full-backs, although it sacrificed Forest’s chances of getting back into the game early.
Fearful of a thrashing, they attempted to consolidate their position before striking late, when Lyle Taylor, Glenn Murray and Alex Mighten were introduced to liven up the attack. It’s arguable that the Mighten could actually have provided the defensive security Hughton looked for when switching to the back six.
Here, as often following his introduction, Mighten pins Max Aarons back, forcing the full-back to deal with his strength in one-on-one situations. Had the winger started, Aarons would’ve been forced into more defensive responsibility, reducing his threat while bolstering the Forest attack.
Instead Hughton attempted to condense the centre of the pitch by using left-footed Sammy Ameobi on the right and natural central midfielder Luke Freeman on the left. What he failed to see was the impact Giannoulis, Aarons and Dowell’s perfectly timed movement would have.
The tactical issues with Forest were a factor in their downfall, but the large majority of the credit must go to an outstanding performance from City, even without their main man.
Farke believes it was one of the best performances of the season, and it’s hard to disagree.