After years of stubbornness and unrelenting trust in the process under Daniel Farke, Dean Smith’s tactical flexibility gives the Canaries a new edge.
There were few Norwich City fans who could calculate the required solution as Josh Sargent went through his introductory warm-up on Saturday afternoon.
The American was preparing for a crucial second half, ready to replace an underwhelming and non-match-fit Todd Cantwell with City lucky to be level at the break. It had been too easy for Southampton to reach the edge of the Norwich 18-yard box and the Canaries had looked largely impotent in their rare forays forward.
A Teemu Pukki header may have earned the home side a lifeline, but the overwhelming sentiment was ‘over to you Dean’, and the overwhelming pattern was Saints dominance. We’d seen this all before.
The panicked defending, the early goal conceded, the air beginning to escape the popped balloon as the atmosphere fled Carrow Road in the same way; there are countless examples of similar situations, not least Southampton’s last visit to NR1 at the beginning of Project Restart.
City fans had been trained to accept this, to welcome the inevitability of the missed opportunity to earn Premier League points. In the Canaries’ previous 36 top-flight games in which they’d gone behind, 0 points had been earned by the final whistle. We knew what was going to happen.
And then it didn’t.
Minutes before Sargent was hopping from cone to cone Smith had decided how the American would change the game. “We never got to their ‘sixes’ early enough or high enough up the pitch,” he concluded of the first half. “We ended up dropping into a low block too early. We wanted to win the ball back in their half. Josh (Sargent) came on and did well, gave us legs and we went and played in their half [in the] second half.”
A defensive shape that had looked like a 4-5-1 sprung into the billed 4-3-3, Sargent’s energy dragging City up the pitch and greatly reducing Pukki’s isolation. The resulting loose balls often found Milot Rashica, the third of the trio, and the Kosovan produced one of his best halves in a yellow and green shirt.
Gone was the chasm between lines and gone, therefore, was the visitors’ capability to attack space with speed, and all because of the changes Smith made when he recognised the problems his side were in.
That capability has not been in the Norwich arsenal for a long while. No team facing a relegation rival at home with half an hour left should be as resigned to defeat as Farke’s City were when Leeds United’s second goal went in three weeks ago. The feeling when Rodrigo’s strike slipped past Tim Krul highlighted the tactical limitations on the bench at the time, and played a significant role in the demise of Smith’s German predecessor.
That a replacement has been found that combats one of Farke’s key failings is testament to Stuart Webber’s pinpoint recruitment, even if Smith had been on the ‘A’ list for a while.
Whether the Birmingham-born chief of the dressing room can repeat the trick against Wolverhampton Wanderers remains to be seen. Ideally, he’d like to avoid a similar start but- as Farke fatally failed to recognise – proactivity is key and every opposition is different.
Against a side that presses much less aggressively than Southampton it may be that Sargent is not needed, and with increased flexibility comes a recognition that that’s OK. So tethered was Farke to consistency that a winning team was almost always a starting team, no matter the circumstances.
There will still be a degree of intrigue and a frantic consultation of social media by the Norfolk masses next Saturday at 2pm, and that’s refreshing after the frustrating predictability previously present in the lineup.
Whatever Smith decides to do for his second match in charge, the new boss has proven that City fans can expect it to be the most likely team to beat Wolves, rather than the easiest team to put together.
If the nature of the Canaries’ win on Saturday was an indicator of what’s to come, they’ve solved one of their key issues already.