There is no place in Daniel Farke’s system for lumping balls long to a six-foot-three number nine to hold up or flick on. But in Teemu Pukki, City have a more nuanced version of the classic lone centre-forward.
The Finn, who has conquered the Championship again this season, is of average height, slim build and prides his game on movement, yet still fulfils many of the functions expected of an old-fashioned striker.
Admittedly, long balls forward to Pukki are little more than a waste of time but if alternative methods are found, the 30-year-old can do for the team what the likes of Chris Sutton and Grant Holt were good at: holding the ball up, bringing others into play, and creating space for advanced midfielders.
Pukki can’t bring an aimless hoof under control but in this current setup that isn’t what’s required. Classic long ball teams sit deep, looking for the target man to get them up the pitch just beyond the halfway line.
Although Norwich tend to play much higher up the pitch, the Finn still aids similar ball progression, as the areas he receives the ball are far more advanced than with traditional target men.
Here, in the recent 4-1 win over Stoke, Pukki drops to receive the ball with his back to goal. He’s in the classic position for an old-fashioned target man to receive the ball, but instead of it being lumped forward to him, a precise pass is played into his feet.
From this position the ex-Celtic man can find Emi Buendia in space or work the ball wide to Max Aarons, while emptying space in the Stoke backline for teammates to exploit. This passage of play eventually finished with the opening goal for the Canaries.
Here, Pukki does something similar. Slightly deeper as City look to defend their lead, Oliver Skipp’s headed clearance finds Pukki in his own half, with his back to goal. In this situation he’s vulnerable to a Stoke press, and if he loses the ball it could be fatal. A traditional target man would’ve preferred to knock this down to Mario Vrancic aerially, but because Pukki is so good with his feet he can find him from this position.
This style of target man also suits Farke’s system so perfectly because it means lay-offs are far more secure when it comes to retaining possession. Vrancic doesn’t need to deal with a bouncing ball at the risk of being tackled, and can instead pass straight out to Todd Cantwell. The space Cantwell has is again opened up by the Stoke defender pushing forward to deal with Pukki as he holds the ball up.
Here, in the 2-0 win away at Wycombe Wanderers, Pukki makes a trademark lay-off. It comes to nothing but pays dividends later in the match.
Now wary of this tendency from Pukki to change the angle by acting as a target man, five Wycombe defenders respond to his movement by drifting towards the right-hand side of the pitch.
This creates space on the left for Dimitris Giannoulis, which Buendia exploits with a long diagonal pass. As the Wycombe full-back quickly pressures the ball, space is left in the half space and City have a route into the box.
Pukki’s hold-up play isn’t only an asset in build-up play, but also when directly attempting to create chances. The number 22 is excellent at retaining the ball in the box, and his patience is key to his effectiveness in this area.
Here, against Coventry City, Pukki receives the ball deep in Sky Blue territory but at an angle with his back to goal. Underrating his strength and hold-up play, the opposition defender attempts to win the ball, allowing the striker to turn and shoot at goal.
Pukki’s importance as a technically capable focal point for City to look for is underrated. He’s a key option in the tricky but all too familiar puzzle that is breaking down a low block and is excellent at timing his movement to offer for this pass. Of all the aspects of the City striker’s game, his ability as a new kind of target man may be the most underrated.