The Canaries have yet to enjoy a taste of victory in the English Premier League. Handed a difficult opening set of fixtures, Norwich City has responded by showing a bit of inexperience at this level, conceding a penalty in each of the first three matches. However, they’ve earned two draws and appear set with their tactics, playing their influential attacking midfielder, Wes Hoolahan in the center of the pitch pushed in behind the strikers. Without Hoolahan in the lineup they’ve been unable to maintain quality passing and, as a result, managed to hold very little possession. As Hoolahan battles fitness over the international break, Norwich City must face the fact that without a fully fit Wesley Hoolahan there has been a dearth of quality passing through the midfield, most recently highlighted by the possession against Chelsea.
In the most recent Premier League match Hoolahan was withdrawn after just 61′ and the rest of the match played even more one-sided than the opening hour. Norwich held just 28.7% possession. By Opta Stats they attempted 202 passes and were successful on just 35 for 67% success. Note that The Guardian has different numbers, finding 250 passes for Norwich with 157 completed at 62.8%. This is an important distinction because the chalkboards included here, via The Guardian, reflect those numbers. Regardless of the statistics utilized, Chelsea was dominant from the start and Norwich was even worse following Hoolahan’s departure. While Hoolahan was on the field they attempted 179 passes and completing 118 for 65.9% success fate. Following his withdrawal the team attempted a further 71 though they completed just 39, a paltry 55% – a full 11% fewer completions.
Seven players have earned EPL minutes in the midfield for Norwich this season. Of those, only Hoolahan and David Fox have managed to complete more than 77% of their passes. Further, Hoolahan is able to complete a pass every 3:10 he’s on the field. That is the second best behind David Fox’s 1:45. While Lambert has used two formations in the EPL this season, it would appear that his preferred formation would be using a diamond in the midfield, employing a defensive midfielder to hold midfield while Hoolahan is deployed behind the strikers in an attacking midfield role.
In the Wigan match, Norwich lined up with Hoolahan in the attacking midfield spot, with Fox playing the defensive position. That match saw Crofts to the right and Surman to the left. The second match saw Pilkington take Hoolahan’s position, Johnson replace Fox and Bennett replace Surman on the left. The Chelsea match witnessed the return of Hoolahan but Lambert elected to play a very defensive 5-3-2 with a flat midfield. Hoolahan was handed the center of the pitch, with Crofts again on the right and Johnson taking a wide left position. This formation was obviously terribly unsuccessful, not only because of the score, but because it left Norwich with nothing to do but defend as Chelsea launched 18 shots, with 7 on target. While the effort of the club can not be doubted for a moment, and truly the Canaries showed they’re up to challenge of EPL football, for the club to have a chance at victory Hoolahan needs to be given the ability to push the attack and be supported in midfield by another player, preferably Fox.
While Fox has played just 90′ in the EPL this season, he did also play the full 90′ in the Canaries unfortunate Carling Cup exit at the hands of MK Dons. It’s hard to draw much from that match except that the Canaries were simply not good enough, and the matches that will matter at the end of the season are going to be those in the EPL as survival is paramount and any Cup loss in bound to be forgotten in the elation of a continued stay in the top flight. Fox’s 90′ in the opening match was played behind Hoolahan, and the majority of his successful passes were made in the defensive half. Opta statistics had him attempting 40 attacking half passes, but completing only 29. However, when used in tandem with Hoolahan in the midfield, they’re able to provide the best combination of passing that Paul Lambert currently has at his disposal.
Norwich has been able to score a goal in each of their opening three fixtures, but their clearly going to need additional scoring if they’re to stay up. While they’ve scored three, it has been only 1 for the strikers and increased link-up play through Hoolahan and the wingers will be needed as the season progresses. As can be seen from the three chalkboards, Hoolahan is attempting and succeeding on providing that link.
Hoolahan’s passing numbers against Chelsea reflect to problems with the current Norwich midfield. The first is the obvious lack of possession. In 61′ Hoolahan was able to attempt just 19 passes. Compare that to the 90′ that he played on opening day against Wigan, at right. In that match Hoolahan was able to complete twice as many passes in just an additional 30′. The second is that they’re to quick to give away possession once they’ve gotten it. As the chart at the top of this post illustrate, the average midfielder is giving away possession on more than 25% of their passing attempts.
Without possession Norwich will be additionally reliant on the quick link-up play as they will hope for counter-attack goals to keep them in the match. In the Wigan match (Fox, above right; Hoolahan, below right) both central players attempted a number of longer passes, with Fox finding little success with his direct approach through the center, while Hoolahan fared better playing longer passes to and from the wing. Wes’s desire to play long attacking ball’s to either wing is again evident in the Chelsea match (left) where he found success on the left, but his possession was severely limited and, despite the goal by Holt, Norwich did not threaten Chelsea’s goal.
Hoolahan has been particularly good in the attacking half this season, attempting 45 passes and completing 33 (73.3%). He is making the most of his time on the ball, Opta has Wesley making 87 touches and having just 1 loss of possession. This retention of possession is of particular importance where he has been asked to hold the midfield and cue the attack. Crofts has been similarly exceptional on the ball, and has secured possession well, passing at 77% and with 129 touches having just 2 loss of possession. Norwich have shown that they’re not only capable of scoring, but that they have the resolve at the back. What they’re lacking at the moment in the link between the two. This is Hoolahan’s role in Lambert’s side. Wes, in just 151′, has made 14 final third entries. While his passing has not been to the same high standard in the final third he is still completed 66% of his passes. In addition, Wes has been attempting to link the attack through long balls. Over his first 151′ he has attempted 14 long passes, completing 11, in addition to playing 6 long balls, of which 3 were accurate. This field-vision and confidence in his ability to spark the attack.
Hoolahan also displays one trait that will be integral to Norwich’s chances. He has been even in his distribution. Over the 20 attacking passes that he has played to the wing’s he has distributed 9 to the left and 11 to the right. This equality has the direct benefit of keeping all avenues of attack open, and the indirect benefit of requiring opposing defenses to account for all 10 outfield players. Hoolahan’s willingness and ability to look to both sides of the field while on the ball, while not sacrificing pass accuracy, is an under-appreciated ability. As Norwich look forward to a series of matches that will help to define their season, they will hope Lambert has a full compliment of players for selection. As their season may well hinge on the immediate future, their immediate future would appear to hinge on the fitness of Hoolahan. It is of the utmost importance that they have Hoolahan back and healthy.