After losing two consecutive games – at home to both AFC Bournemouth and the league Tottenham Hotspur – City’s Under-21s were eager to turn things around last Friday when Blackburn were the visitors to Colney. And they did so emphatically.
They performed to an excellent level, dictating proceedings from the first minute to the last, despite manager Alan Nielsen being unsatisfied with the team’s start in both halves. It was refreshing to watch them dominate possession and patiently look to create openings, as sustained spells of pressure have been thin on the ground so far this season.
They showed flexibility in both the defensive and attacking set-ups of the team, and placed a huge emphasis on stretching the pitch as wide as possible, ensuring they created space across the attacking third by playing in a 3-4-3 formation when in possession.
An additional structural point when they are in possession is that their wide players roam into central areas, especially Finley Welch. This is a smart move by the coaching staff as Welch is very good at collecting the ball from deep and driving forwards into the attacking third, beating players in the process.
The centre-backs are also aligned in the process of stretching as high and wide as possible, allowing the team to build up from the halfway line.
This was the general shape when Welch collected the ball from deep.
The yellow rectangle (above) demonstrates the areas in which the centre-backs were positioned for build-up situations in the middle third. The pink stretched rectangle represents where the wing-backs would be when the ball is on the left side. The advantage of having an orthodox ball-carrying left back, in Guilherme Montoia is huge, as it makes Norwich a more dynamic outlet in possession, due to the fact he can do more than just cut inside.
Finally, the green rectangle showcases Welch picking up the ball in a deep position, with his fellow attacking teammates preferring to stay on the right. An observation that could be made from that diagram is that either Pedro Lima or Ken Aboh should be closer to Welch, but due to Welch’s and Montoia’s quality, they trust them to navigate in a tight area, waiting for them to hopefully progress the ball into the box.
However, their standard formation without the ball is a structured 4-3-3, where they attempt to play extremely high while maintaining a short distance between the back line and the central defenders. This was showcased against Rovers where Lima, Forsyth, and Aboh were the forward three tasked with blocking passing lanes to the central midfielders.
This resulted in Welch moving into the middle bank of three alongside Brooke and Manning, with a traditional back-four of Montoia, Wilson, Renecke, and Adegboyega.
I’m a huge fan of Adegboyega playing as a right-back when out of possession as his ability to defend one-on-ones is very strong. An example that epitomised his strength in winning one-on-one duels, was an outstanding slide challenge on his direct opponent, which he timed to perfection.
Moving away from the structural elements of the U21s team, Norwich’s first goal came from a wonderfully executed through ball from Lima, which evaded the Blackburn defence and found Ken Aboh, who put City ahead with a composed weaker-foot finish
The Canaries doubled their lead in the second half with another sensational goal; Lima timing his run to perfection to meet an outstanding deep cross from the left from Montoia.
People that follow me on X/Twitter will know my thoughts on Montoia returning to the starting XI, which were hugely positive as he adds an attacking threat on the left side. That’s not to say that Wilson, Renecke, and Forsyth did a poor job in his absence but just that the young Portuguese full-back adds more quality from an attacking perspective. This was shown with the assist to Lima; whipping in a dangerous swinging cross from deep.
Montoia shows an abundance of courage when it comes to ball carrying too, comfortably driving forwards and centrally negotiating past opponents with ease. After two slight injuries, the club must keep him fit as he’s an integral part of the team, especially from an attacking perspective.
Another player who impressed and was arguably the player of the match was Brazilian talent Pedro Lima. On Friday night, Adian Manning and Lima switched positions with the latter occupying a more advanced role as a number ten, while the former dropped deeper into a double pivot role with Harry Brooke.
One of the many positive elements of Lima’s play on Friday was his ability to play quick passes in the attacking third, which made Norwich a threat due to their speed in possession. Lima showed an incredible ability during the match to turn away from his marker with pace, allowing City to penetrate in all attacking areas of the pitch.
Since making his debut for the U21s, the one thing that always stood out with Lima is his preference to play at a high intensity. Everything he does is done quickly, and when it’s done effectively too, he looks like one of the best players on the pitch. A case study that demonstrated this in full flow, was City’s third goal, where he carried the ball from his half into the attacking third, before playing a perfectly executed pass to Welch, whose effort was saved before Aboh scored from the rebound.
In addition to Lima’s execution, his technical quality is also of a high level. Throughout the game on Friday – and across the last three months – Lima has been accurate with the ball at his feet, especially in deeper areas after receiving the ball from the goalkeeper. After he controls well from a goalkeeper’s pass, he quickly offloads the ball in one or two touches to gain momentum in possession.
Aboh’s two goals last Friday, take him to eight goals this season and make him the PL2’s fourth top goalscorer. This demonstrates an improved composure in front of goal after he had some difficulty last season converting his chances, especially with the U18s.
Another player to impress was holding midfielder Harry Brooke. As each game has gone by this season, his comfort at this level increases and his positional discipline is exceptional, which allows his teammates to affect the game in forward areas.
Brooke also showed a tendency to play forward on more occasions, as well as being a consistent threat from set pieces. With that consistency in mind, a loan move must be the next step for Harry as this is his third year of Under-21 football.
City’s fourth goal was scored by Joe Duffy, and it was a similar scenario to Aboh’s second goal, as the keeper failed to hold onto the ball, allowing Duffy to capitalise from close range. It was the attacking midfielder’s fourth goal of the season, which is hugely impressive after coming back from a long-term injury in October.
Another topic that needs to be discussed is Wilson’s and Renecke’s faultless performances to earn the development side their second clean sheet of the season. The pair were consistent with their distribution, as well as containing the Blackburn strikers to a good standard. Wilson, in particular, grew in confidence throughout the game as he was carrying the ball into midfield, something we haven’t seen often from him.
Elliot Myles also came off the bench for his PL2 debut – a brilliant achievement for the 16-year-old – although his mind will now be fully focused on the FA Youth Cup game in eight days.
Overall, the U21s performed to a high level last Friday night with some players taking real responsibility to create openings for the side. The U21s have only one more fixture remaining before Christmas, away to Wolves.
- Under 18s v Leeds United | Carrow Road | Friday, December 15 (17:00 KO) | FA Youth Cup.
- Under 21s v Wolves (a) | Monday, December 11 (19:00 KO) | EPL Cup