The Villa game should be a lesson to us in what our short to medium-term future might hold.
For those who don’t know, that was a team that Dean Smith built. Jacob Ramsey exemplified the qualities of a wide player in 4-3-3 and what a fabulous goal he scored. There is currently no player in our squad capable of scoring that goal.
However, a goal like that perhaps explains why we’ve seen early chances given to Przemysław Placheta by Smith and Shakespeare (S&S) because he at least has the running metrics absent in more technically talented players like Todd Cantwell or Kieran Dowell. A technically improved and more confident Placheta could at least match that pace and directness.
S&S are also responsible for the other star players of Villa on the night. Pound for pound, they built that Villa squad to mirror the overall quality of top teams like Liverpool. Sure, Villa spent a lot of money, but the value for money in the modern transfer market shouldn’t be sniffed at. Matty Cash and Matt Targett, Ezri Konsa, John McGinn, Ashley Young, Tyrone Mings… Steven Gerrard has inherited a team of real quality and it is a testament to what S&S know is required of players at this level.
The lesson is that you don’t need to match quality, only match output….. it is about achieving effectiveness in a certain position. For example, Targett and Cash bring identical attributes as Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold, but within a viable budget. All aforementioned fullbacks ensure a tactical brief is fulfilled. At Liverpool, you get world beaters but Villa have fullbacks capable in any game in the Premier League.
Do Mathias Normann and Billy Gilmour fulfill the tactical need that Alex Tettey and Mario Vrancic completed? Does Dowell enable transitional play like Marco Stieperman could? Transposing these concepts into the budget at Norwich has always been paramount in my thinking. It is almost about ratios – you don’t need world beaters but you do need round pegs in round holes.
I believe that S&S will wisely apply our budget to appropriate, effective, signings in the future.
Speaking of round pegs, Jacob Lungi Sorensen. I think we have all been united believing in Sorensen’s abilities. I love the guy, but my opinion has always been that he is a player that needs to ‘face’ play. He reads the game superbly and is so calm on the ball. I don’t believe, at this level, he can establish himself in centre mid or as a fullback but when he faces the ball the lad is a revelation.
I always said I’d prefer him on the left of a centre-back grouping and his performance against Ronaldo confirmed it. Lungi was absolutely brilliant. Partner that lad with Grant Hanley and City have a defensive partnership sustainable even in the Premier League. A natural left and right-footed pairing.
Elsewhere, Kenny McLean is also proving his worth. The incontestable quality for midfielders within the budget confines of a club like NCFC are the running metrics and other physical markers. Even in the modern game, I believe Gary Holt would still make the grade, unlike Lukas Rupp and Gilmour who blow hot and cold every time they play.
McLean is so fundamental to this team because he is literally the only midfielder with stamina and reliability. Sure, Normann is a better technical player, Gilmour too, but McLean never ever shirks a challenge and he is effective in what he does.
As most folk at MFW agreed during the summer, McLean is a character who is fundamental to the operation, he sets an example, he is a leader. S&S will know enough, they will want to find the right mix around him in midfield, but I think they over-estimate his abilities when in recent games when they’ve advanced Kenny as a #10, which is technically beyond him, in my opinion.
It has also been well-documented about our frankly impotent attack, and that is where I see the greatest challenge to S&S. I was adamant early in the season that 4-3-3 was inappropriate to the NCFC squad, and I retain that opinion.
Primarily, I said then and I reiterate now, Teemu Pukki is not the ideal foil for a three-man attacking group. I’d argue the case for him playing a bit wider or deeper, playing off of a physical target-man, provided that the subtleties of the formation allowed him to still be on the shoulder of his defender and that he be central enough to be a direct threat.
But in a 4-3-3, I don’t see that Norwich have the quality in wide areas to exploit Pukki’s threat. Obviously, we no longer have Emi Buendia and we cannot afford a like-for-like replacement either, but nor should we. A #10, within City’s budget is easy to defend against. Elias Chair at QPR looks brilliant, but I think City need an alternative strategy (in the long term) to supply Pukki.
A #10 comes with other tactical impositions, it enforces other qualities into the starting 11, and the bottom line is that City don’t have those players.
Todd Cantwell is also worthy of a debate. I’m amazed at his performances recently, which have not been anywhere near good enough. We concluded in the summer that in a 4-3-3. Cantwell is not a winger and he looks hopeless in this formation. Physically, I’m also a bit confused – he sprints so much slower than he did two years ago, he seems to have lost muscle mass and his shots are weaker.
This doesn’t appear to be just about match sharpness, there appears to be something restricting him and I’m afraid that the consequence is that he is not presently suitable. On the right of the three, only Josh Sargent has proven himself so far, but clearly there are fair question marks over his end product although I am confident he will evolve into a player Norwich need.
Drawing conclusions to all of this, with 4-3-3, I still see the same limits that I saw previously, and with this squad those limits are profound. However, S&S have made us far more tactically capable and the team is far more resolute even if the results are not good enough.
Maybe there will be a big revolution in January but to play 4-3-3 effectively, I think too many changes are required for it to be viable.
Just review that Villa performance on Tuesday… Sure, you can fairly compare qualities in Douglas Luiz and Matheus Normann, but City simply don’t have the wider midfielders to compare with Ashley Young or John McGinn. McLean, the stalwart at NCFC, can’t play like that, and to compare academy products like Cantwell to Jacob Ramsey is… incomparable.
You can’t even compare the athletic qualities of our team with other relegation rivals: Nathan Redmond or Cantwell? Saint-Maximim? Maxwell Cornet or Conor Gallagher, even Bryan Mbuemo is twice the athlete.
This isn’t about fitness levels, it’s about pace and power appropriate to a tactical position in a base formation. 4-3-3 didn’t suit our players in the summer, it still doesn’t. Gilmour and Cantwell don’t go into the same XI, and neither gets the best from Pukki.
I think the way NCFC score more goals only comes from adding a striker to the mix alongside Pukki. We can’t reinvent the attacking midfield players because we blew the budget that way this summer. We can’t replace Buendia in 4-2-3-1 and we certainly can’t drop Pukki to try something different because Idah and Sargent are not good enough.
It is hard to tinker the midfield without forfeiting McLean or Normann and if we could unearth the perfect player to best merge Normann and McLean, then that player probably isn’t Gilmour (and it certainly isn’t Pierre Lees-Melou or Rupp).
Dimitris Giannoulis was sensational against Man Utd but we lack a left-footer ahead of him, let alone two others needed in a 4-3-3. Brandon Williams, in my mind, naturally moves to the right if we cash in on the brilliant performances from Max Aarons, but in all honesty, do we even have a right-footed attacking player of good enough standard ahead of either?
Is Williams as good as Max? Nope, but would he do a good enough job if he switched flanks? Yes.
Would selling Max then enable signing a player to complement Pukki and another to extract the best balance with McLean in midfield, given the likelihood of Normann staying beyond the summer?
Absolutely. I trust S&S to make these calls when I’ve not trusted Stuart Webber to make them on behalf of Daniel Farke previously.
Effectiveness in position, not necessarily brilliance in a position. Round pegs in round holes.
This is the challenge to S&S in January and beyond, and what we end up settling with as a base formation will be based around what is financially viable.
Partnering Pukki, forfeiting attacking midfielders, exploiting the different qualities of Normann and or McLean. Pairing Hanley with a better left-footer.
Doubling up on Gianoullis to extract his offensive instincts.
It’s all about answering these questions with the fewest possible signings… quality over quantity.
The self-funding model at our club is viable with S&S as long as they are left to pick their own players. Their appointment is a subtle evolution in the sporting director/head coach model but it is the one where I expect Norwich to fulfill that Premier League ambition… but it might not be this time around.
I’d love to talk through any tactical opinions in your comments.