Chris Hughton saw his tactical gameplan to stifle Stoke City in midfield and operate on the ball with bags of energy work a treat on Sunday lunchtime, as Norwich City deservedly ran out 1-0 winners at the Britannia Stadium.
The morale-boosting victory over the Potters has pushed his side up to 14th in the Premier League table and will certainly help ease any early fears that were starting to emerge about whether Hughton has what it takes to maintain the impressive progression that has revolved around the club over the last couple of years.
A first-half Jonny Howson strike subsequently earned the coveted three points for the Canaries on their travels and although every player performed to their manager’s exciting strategy extremely well on the day, Leroy Fer’s Man of the Match influence in all areas of the pitch was pivotal in deciding the tie by the slenderest of margins.
Structure and Position: What Hughton Wanted and Got from His Players
Whilst Stoke continue to adapt to Mark Hughes’ new regime that encourages ball retention and less direct play, Hughton instructed his players to attack their opposition at a high tempo from the first whistle in a solid 4-3-3 formation, which would easily fall back into a 4-5-1 system when in defensive mode.
The overriding idea was to quickly press Stoke’s players in numbers, with Ricky Van Wolfswinkel even dropping deeper from the striker position at times, in order to make them panic when in possession and to exploit that by sharply intercepting and breaking forward with high intensity.
Alexander Tettey, who made 5 interceptions and won 83.3% (5/6) of his tackles, was deployed in the heart of the Norwich midfield to contain Charlie Adam from dictating the hosts’ play through a fabulous range of crisp passing and to protect the backline.
Both Russell Martin, who made the most passes in the attacking third (18), and Martin Olsson were constant threats down the flanks in support of Norwich’s inverted wingers Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington, whilst Fer brought great energy as a box-to-box man and helped give Howson the platform to push forward alongside Tettey.
The visitors forced Stoke into making several errors in their passing in the first-half and kept hold of the ball themselves really well. In the second-half, Norwich were a little more reserved as Hughes evidently got at his players during the interval to show more charisma when trying to move the ball into the box faster, although Ryan Bennett, who won 100% (6/6) of his aerial duels compared to defensive partner Michael Turner’s 57% (4/7), both ultimately dealt with Kenwyne Jones’ physical prowess all match.
Despite having a minor 43.9% share of the ball overall, Norwich limited Stoke to the same amount of shots as they had (8 each), with only 1 testing John Ruddy in goal, which was imposing considering they were the away side. In the end, the key difference was that Hughton’s men made the ball stick upfront a lot more fluidly in comparison to Stoke and Fer’s composure and presence on the ball was also eye-catching and he could prove to be one of the bargains of the season should he manage to keep up the same level of performance all season.
Passing and Control: Why Fer Can Be the Player Norwich Have Been Crying Out For in Midfield
After a failed medical prevented Fer from joining Everton for £8m in January, despite going on to play the remainder of the season for FC Twente, Norwich were quick to pounce on that mishap this summer and its understandable why.
It’s been a little bit of catch-up with Leroy but I think with each day, each training session and each game he is feeling more and more at home with the English game and that can be the case that it takes a little bit of time for somebody to settle down and as it does with a lot of players. Again, I thought he was excellent. – Hughton on Fer’s overall performance against Stoke City.
Hughton spoke of the importance of trying to get into Stoke’s faces in the early stages of the game in his post-match press conference and Fer’s cool head and low sense of gravity when in control of the ball was pivotal in keeping things balanced and ticking over nicely.
Norwich, who have addressed last season’s lack of pace through the capture of Nathan Redmond from Birmingham City, were also craving for somebody who could produce an exquisite pass into the final third with an apparent ease from the centre of midfield and Fer is unquestionably the answer to that conundrum.
The Dutch international completed 100% (19/19) of his passes in the first-half where Norwich took control and that reduced down to a still notable 92% (33/36) overall, as Stoke grew stronger and presented more questions in the second. He was asked to be prominent in both territories, as Tettey was deployed to tackle whilst Howson was to attack, and 90% (9/10) of his passes were completed in the attacking third of the field.
Not only does the 23-year-old show a strong level of maturity when in his own half, as 100% (6/6) of his passes were successful in the defensive third, but he’s a forward thinking midfielder at the same time, completing 100% (17/17) of his forward passes, and will often pop up with the decisive ‘pre-assist’ in games.
Having been educated at the renowned Feyenoord academy alongside many other precocious talents ready to shine in Europe such as, Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi for example, Fer is arriving in England with an innate understanding of how to be comfortable on the ball and that showed against Stoke, as he flourished by completing 2/2 take-ons to supplement his quality passing.
Creativity has never been a problem for Hughton’s side, with Snodgrass conjuring up 67 chances (46% from open play) last season, but they’ve needed an intelligent distributor of the ball from the centre, rather than on the wings, that will also help his team-mates out when they’re in tricky situations by recycling possession and Fer, who has completed 77% of his passes in the final third after the first six games, looks as though he can be that much-needed figure.
Defending: How Fer Will Also Share the Responsibility of Breaking-Up Play with Tettey
Whilst Tettey will generally be the chief man asked to put a foot in and guard the back four in matches, Fer, who was nicknamed ‘The Bouncer’ for his physical stature during his days in the Eredivisie, can equally break things up and start attacks.
We certainly wanted to play the game at a fairly high tempo in that first-half and we didn’t really want to allow Stoke to get into any sort of rhythm in their game because we know they have been playing well of late. We saw the performance at Arsenal and although they lost the game, I thought they played very well. But we wanted to have an energy on the ball ourselves to perhaps give us that little bit more confidence by having a bit more on the ball, a bit more possession and I thought we did it really well.
– Hughton explaining what his scheme to break Stoke down was.
Fer was crucial in Hughton’s pressing methods paying dividends in the end, as not only was he triumphant in his challenging but he allowed the likes of Howson to press further forward and when it switched to attack, both Olsson and Pilkington thrived down the left-hand side because they knew Fer provided the insurance in case they lost possession.
He recovered the ball more times than anybody else (10) did during the match, whilst winning 75% (3/4) his tackles and making one block and one clearance apiece.
After the opening six games, Fer (28) has won possession more times than the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin (27), who topped last season’s tackling charts overall, and Marouane Fellaini (26), whilst it’s only taking him 16.07 minutes to do so. He is also the joint-ninth most effective tackler at the moment with 21 (80.9%) successful challenges in the division.
Tettey, who completed 83% (40/43) of his passes and 6 successful clearances (three from inside his own box), was indeed the main steward of Norwich’s defence from midfield but it’s a plus point that Fer wasn’t called upon to be as involved in defending as he was against Aston Villa the weekend before – completing 83.3% (5/6) of his tackles and making one interception – because that meant he was able to cause increased havoc further up the field and as a result of his one chance created, Norwich won the game.
Interestingly enough, despite being booked for a foul, it was actually Fer who was the most fouled player on the pitch (4 times) which again speaks volumes about his quick feet and eagerness to go forwards, although he was very lucky to have not given away a penalty after a deliberate pull on Jones’ shirt in the box during the second-half.
Stoke’s Marc Wilson committed the most fouls (4) during the game, as Norwich’s right-hand combination of Martin and Snodgrass in particular caused him some problems when they drifted inside.
Hughton’s tactics to prevent Stoke from passing their way to another positive result under new-man Hughes were totally spot on and Norwich can use this win as a springboard to really kick-start their season, as Fer continues to look like a gem in midfield for the supporters to cherish from stands.
Some Stat images from Four Four Two’s stat zone app, powered by Opta.