As we endure the third international break of the season you can forgive Norwich fans for having their minds away from the action at Wembley after a mixed start to a season full of expectation.
Before last weekend’s win against West Ham, Norwich had found themselves in the bottom 3 for a period of time and tensions were reaching breaking point as fans were becoming frustrated with Chris Hughton after a 2013 record had seen 7 wins in 29 games. The record is the same as Swansea and West Brom, but with the added qualm of Hughton’s conservative style of play; 5 of Norwich’s 9 Premier League goals this season came in 2 matches – and with a humiliating 7-0 defeat away to Manchester City the pressure is on the former Newcastle and Birmingham manager.
A breakdown of this seasons results compared to last season, with Cardiff taking Wigan’s place and Hull taking Reading’s, shows that Norwich are in a worse position by 2 points with a considerably worse goal difference of -9, although it should be taken in consideration that the Manchester City fixture had a swing of 8 goals.
With all teams having made either managerial changes or improvements to their squads it can be difficult to judge whether the team is superior this season or gone backwards, but a closer look shows Chris Hughton will need a bit of luck to aid his future aspirations with Norwich.
Key Players have struggled to replicate form this season
In the Premier League if you are outside the ‘top 6’ group of teams a key player underperforming will always make life difficult, but when you have a collection of important players who are all struggling it is a nightmare. Sebastian Bassong and Robert Snodgrass have both struggled to pick up the form that saw them come first and second in the fans’ Player of the Year vote last season, while John Ruddy is yet to reach the great form that saw him break into the England squad and receive interest from Chelsea in the summer.
Bassong’s poor form saw him dropped for last Saturday’s match against West Ham and the lack of a proper pre-season due to surgery in the summer for a knee injury has been a main factor in his struggles. The critical importance to the side last season had been highlighted during the matches Bassong missed – 17 goals were conceded in the four matches without Bassong – and Norwich are paying the price for not signing a back-up defender in the transfer window.
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Chris Hughton” quotestyle=”style02″]Seb[astian] is a fine player and I think where he perhaps has found it difficult is he missed the whole of pre-season and he has found it hard to get that consistency. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
Chris Hughton summed up the situation perfectly in his post-match interview and without that consistency from Bassong that was so important to Norwich last season the defence have been lacking the calm and confident aura previously held.
Robert Snodgrass has received the main brunt of criticism from fans for the teams’ disappointing performances this season; taking the ball from van Wolfswinkel – the designated penalty-taker- and missing, didn’t help his cause nor did a Andres Villas Boas-style moan at fans for booing. Fitness has also been a problem for Snodgrass, who was rushed back into the side despite not being match fit due to injuries for Pilkington and Bennett, and his performances have been affected. The poor distribution from corners (too many have found the man at the front post while only 34% have found a teammate) and crosses have been an issue for Snodgrass, who would argue the attacking player needs to be in right area as much as the quality of his delivery. With the Scottish international playing on the right wing and preferring to cut inside onto his left foot, the play can sometimes be slowed down too much making it easier to defend. An example of this was the home match against Aston Villa where only 4 out of Snodgrass’ 20 crosses found a Norwich player.
Last season’s problems still evident
For a team who conceded 4+ goals on seven different occasions, including 4 against Aston Villa in the League Cup, you would think their problems were on a defensive front, yet the main problem Norwich encountered was their poor attacking play and that has continued into this season. The 13 headed goals Norwich scored last season accounted for 33% of their overall tally – the highest percentage for any Premier League club. Snodgrass created the most chances for the Norfolk club and this highlights the strongest part of their attacking play. With this in mind alongside the lack of through balls threaded through central areas, it’s rather evident that Norwich like to attack down their wings; but, it has become predictable to the opposition and decreases the difficulty of defending. This attacking style has resulted in difficult starts for new signings Ricky van Wolkswinkel and Gary Hooper, who both prefer to have the ball fed through the defence to create a one-on-one and possess brilliant movement in the box to allow the winger to thrive if they can spot run – but, it is just something that hasn’t occurred thus far.
Another problem Norwich suffered was their poor away form, particularly when visiting the bigger sides where conceding late goals has become a consistent problem for the side. The trips to White Hart Lane and the Etihad have received the most criticism from fans, and rightly so, after the attitude of “let’s get it over and done with” surrounded the team on both occasions. The conservative mindset that reoccurs for the majority of away games has seen Hughton lose and the isolation of the striker mean attacks constantly break down and make Norwich a frustrating side to watch away from home. An added example of this, since the beginning of last season Norwich have only won 3 times away from home and this campaign’s record is 1 win/4 defeats – nothing to get excited about.
Injury to Alex Tetty has already had a big impact
When you’re near the bottom and struggling everything goes against you, or so we’re told. Chris Hughton would currently vouch for that, after finally finding the perfect formation to get the best out of his players the key player in that system, Alex Tetty, suffered a knee injury and will be out until the New Year.
The 4-1-4-1 formation has seen encouraging performances against Arsenal and Chelsea, a great away win at Stoke and a relentless attacking performance at home to Cardiff which was ruined by a master class in goalkeeping by David Marshall. With Tetty playing in the holding role it allowed Leroy Fer and Johnny Howson to venture further forward, and gets the best out of Howson, which improved Norwich’s attacking play. The games that followed the Cardiff match, where Tetty was injured in the dying seconds, saw 0-4 and 0-7 defeats to both Manchester teams, and whilst it was not the sole reason for the defeats, no Tetty meant Norwich lacked the shape to prevent the defence from becoming overrun by the opposition – something that occurred during the Arsenal match when Tetty was sacrificed for more attacking impetus and ultimately saw two late goals conceded.
Overall, Alex Tetty has been one of the better players for Norwich this season and the stand-out performance by the Norwegian international was away to Stoke City. With the record of 5 tackles, 3 interceptions and 9 clearances, Tetty shackled Stoke’s attack which allowed Norwich’s defensive line to stand up and press Stoke high up the pitch to win the ball back quickly.
More importantly for Norwich is Tetty’s passing record, despite receiving criticism in the past from fans. Leaving the complicated stuff to his teammates and playing the ball short helps Norwich to keep possession which they have struggled to do in the last 12 months and is a stark contrast to his defensive midfield replacement Bradley Johnson, who has a passing accuracy of 77% compared to Tetty’s 90%.
The inability to retain possession proving costly
A major issue for Norwich has been their inability to retain possession which has repeatedly seen attacks break down too easily and unsurprisingly no team can succeed without the ball. As noted in the previous section, Bradley Johnson’s distribution has been an issue and a reason why he has lost his place in the first XI. Johnson’s fondness of hitting the ball out to the wings can be an effective move, but on many occasions the ball has not found a recipient or the ball has been too difficult to control. The example of this (shown below) is against Everton where Johnson’s long ball accuracy of is the worst of the season and against a team who like to keep the ball.
Playing the ball out of defence has become a big part of modern football, but this has not been evident at Carrow Road this season. John Ruddy has 170 long balls this season, but only 48 have been successful meaning 122 passes have gone straight back to the opposition and that averages out at 11 per game. This is especially a problem when you are playing better teams and not expecting to have a large amount of possession; the swift return of possession can result in relentless pressure on the Norwich defence, pressure evident in games against Tottenham and Manchester City who both had 69% possession. Norwich have an overall possession average of 45% and passing accuracy of 79%, which can only be acceptable if the team were scoring goals on a regular basis.
The more advanced position of Johnny Howson this season has seen his passing abilities been utilised better and is no surprise that he has made the most total (411) passes for Norwich. Howson also has made the most attacking passes (259) alongside a passing accuracy of 83%, making him pivotal for the side if they are to improve on the poor performances that have been on show so far.
Players to have impressed this season
Not everything is doom and gloom in Norfolk though with individual performances standing out in the form of Nathan Redmond, Martin Olsson, Leroy Fer and Johnny Howson. The latter was the only player out of the impressive lot that didn’t join in the summer and after difficult periods last season, where he was played out of position as a defensive midfielder, has come to the fore with 2 goals and some exquisite dribbles forward reminiscent of his brilliant solo goal away to Manchester City on the final day of the last season. With Howson now in a more attacking role he has excelled and with these improved performances, Norwich fans have (quietly) started a Howson for England campaign.
Nathan Redmond and Martin Olsson have added much needed pace in the Norwich side as they have struggled with the counter attack, both in terms of dealing with the opposition – a reason why Aston Villa managed to leave with 3 points in September despite Norwich dominating possession – and taking advantage of space in behind the opposition defence. Redmond’s direct and no-fear play ala Andros Townsend has seen him make the most dribbles (27) and shots (20 – with 8 on target) for Norwich, which is important for a shot-shy side.
The best business in the summer transfer window though by Chris Hughton was the signing of Leroy Fer for £4m and the Dutch midfielder has already heard the plaudits from fans despite the controversial incident against Cardiff. Fer is the complete midfielder, with the ability to help defensively having the most tackles (27) and ground duels (67) for Norwich, and in attack, creating the most chances from open play (12) as well as making 15 shots from midfield.
The victory against West Ham will see talk of a turning point in Norwich’s season, but these comments have already been heard before after wins at Stoke and Watford, so will no doubt fall on deaf ears as all the talk needs to be on the pitch. With 3 of their next 4 matches away from Carrow Road, recent away performances will need to be forgotten quickly and Hughton could find himself hot under the collar sooner rather than later. With the performances being so inconsistent it is difficult to predict how the season will pan out, but Hughton, coaching staff and fans will be expecting improvements to what has been a very mixed first third of the season.