I don’t want it to. I think David Wagner is a lovely guy and actually a decent coach. But I think his style of football won’t work here.
While there are a million different tactical formations, (base or transitional), there are only three distinct footballing philosophies employed among the vast majority of clubs these days.
The first and most basic is the direct or long ball approach, or “hoofball” to give it its unofficial title. No judgement here – whatever works for you – but it’s the least favoured option of supporters aesthetically and as such usually only used by teams struggling to compete with superior opponents.
The two other prevailing philosophies of the time are those of possession-based football, or of counter-pressing, aka the Gegenpress.
Possession-based football is Tika-Taka. It’s Barcelona. It’s Pep Guardiola. And in Norwich terms, it was Daniel Farke.
Gegenpress is “Heavy Metal Football”. It’s pressing the opposition to death and countering quickly. It’s Jurgen Klopp. And in Norwich terms, it’s David Wagner.
Both have pluses and minuses, and it’s in those details that I think Wagner could be doomed to failure.
Possession-based football has famously been hugely successful for Norwich at Championship level under Daniel Farke. Yet in the Premier League, it felt unsustainable and unfit for purpose.
I think the reason for that is that in the Championship, Norwich are a relatively big club. The natural state of affairs is for teams to come to Carrow Road in hope rather than anticipation, and be more likely to be pragmatic and cede possession. Therefore, with the right additions of technically-capable players who can keep the ball and create, a team like Norwich should be successful in this league, and they have been.
However, in the Premier League, their technical players are suddenly inferior to the vast majority of teams. The expectation is then that they’ll go from having the majority of possession in the Championship to having the minority in the Premier League.
The patient build-up looks increasingly risky with every pass as the most tenacious midfielders on the planet snap into the tackle and press you to death. And the high-line needed to keep the ball in the opposition’s half and create chances around the box is increasingly susceptible to counter-attacks and the quickest and most deadly strikers in the world bursting into the space behind that high-line.
Teams that are promoted and are possession-based tend therefore to struggle a lot more in the Premier League than those who play direct football, or the Gegenpress.
Gegenpress, on the other hand, is much more suited to teams promoted to the Premier League. Out of possession, Gegenpress teams quickly get behind the ball, making it difficult for the opposition to break them down. As long as they’re organised they become hard to score against and therefore hard to beat.
However, they may find it difficult to score themselves, as Premier League teams have technically adept players who are generally comfortable on the ball and don’t often turn it over in bad areas.
When they do, your attacking players not only have to be tenacious enough to harry the opposition into a mistake in the first place, but they also have to be quick enough to take advantage of the situation and lethal enough to take the chance when presented.
It’s the kind of formation that can win you a few 1-0 games and get enough points on the board to keep you up at the end of the season.
It’s a sad testament to how modern football works that scraping enough 1-0 wins to stay up in the PL is probably the limit of Norwich’s realistic ambitions, but there we are.
So from that point of view, Wagnerball makes sense for Norwich as a long-term project. Already this off-season we have seen a better defensive shape than last year, albeit yet to be tested in the heat of proper battle, but the signs are good.
The problem is at the other end in terms of creating and scoring goals.
The strikers have to be really efficient in taking chances because they’re less plentiful than when your team is dominating possession. I’m not saying Josh Sargent and Ashley Barnes can’t be that cutting edge, but neither have prolific goalscoring records or the rapid pace that usually would flourish in a Gegenpress attack.
They will however be great in terms of pressing the opposition, and, with the Andrew Omobamidele money, we could potentially buy a striker with that pace and finishing record.
However, chance creation is the real issue. You can’t rely on opposition mistakes alone to create your chances, so you need your midfielders and full-backs to have technical ability on the ball, strong positional awareness, and the engine to get up and down and press like crazy when out of possession.
And that’s where the real heart of the problem is.
There aren’t that many players who can do all of those things. Those that can are hoovered up by the big clubs, or at least those in the Premier League.
Trying to get a fullback who is good on the ball, can create chances, while being positionally sound, and who can press, at a Championship club? Good luck.
Now try to get two, plus capable backups for both. And then stock the midfield and wide areas with similar.
Because of those demands, it’s way more difficult to make Gegenpress work in the Championship than possession-Based football. In the Championship, with possession-Based football, you can play an Alex Tettey in midfield knowing he won’t contribute much in terms of possession, and his sole job is screening the defence.
Then you stack technical players around him to open the opposition up, and, within reason, they don’t have to be great defensively because you’ve got Tettey and the back four to do that, and you’re under less pressure because you have the ball the majority of the time anyway. You can buy players who excel in one specific area only.
With Gegenpress they have to be good in several, and we don’t have the money or the cache to acquire those players. That’s why Gegenpress is usually much more successful in the top leagues who can afford the very best players than it is in the lower leagues.
Gabriel Sara, Kenny McLean, Marcelino Nunez and Liam Gibbs are all good players and they each have admirable individual attributes but do they have that all round game, and can they marry defensive solidity with sufficient cutting edge to create from deep?
Occasionally yes, no doubt, but consistently enough to win a lot of games?
And you also need to have full-backs and wingers with those qualities too. Again, a lot of good players, but not a lot with the all-round game to make it work.
I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t see a scenario where we can make this system work. I can see a few 0-0s happening certainly, but Wagner is already on borrowed time after last season and that won’t cut it.
There’s a reason we haven’t scored at Carrow Road since February.
And while we can hope that we can generate a transfer kitty from potential player sales, the time needed for those incoming players to adapt to the system (and possibly even the country) is likely to be way in excess of the time we can afford to Wagner if he continues to be unable to field a team that can create and convert chances.