Many pundits and fans looked at Norwich’s side at the start of the season and like Swansea, predicated them to get relegated straight back down to the Championship. This view was enforced by the fact that they failed to make any high-profile signings leaving the team effectively filled with Championship players. Compare this to the investment at QPR who signed Barton and Shaun Wright Phillips, a side that sits way below Norwich in the Premier League. However, Norwich have scored more than any other team in the Premier League outside of the top five. (Joint with Blackburn Rovers)
Of the 8 players signed by Norwich 5 were signed from Championship sides, yet in spite of this Norwich are 9th in the Premier League, which is incredibly impressive considering the negativity surrounding them when they gained promotion. Players such as Grant Holt and Pilkington have been impressive, and Steve Morrison, signed from Millwall, has been a revelation, scoring 8 goals this season.
Paul Lambert himself was a Champions League winner with Dortmund in 1997, has transferred his qualities as a player to club management. With Norwich sitting in the top half of the table, 11 points off the drop, very few pundits would even consider them for relegation now as the club is consolidating its position in the league this season. Paul Lambert deserves much of the credit, firstly for his ability to put together a team capable of surviving in the Premier League with only meagre finances at his disposal, as well as for his tactical astuteness.
Whilst they don’t enjoy anywhere near the same levels of possession as Swansea, who are also adapting to life in the Premier League with great success, Norwich have proven to be a potent attacking force this season. It should be noted that of the sides 32 goals 12 have come from set-pieces, more than any other side. But they still have 17 from open play, which ranks them as 8th, higher than Liverpool.
Much of Norwich’s success is as noted down to tactics, specifically the fact that they employ a direct style of play that has surprisingly seen them play more long balls than any other side in the Premier League. Their emphasis on long balls plays to their strengths as Grant Holt and Morrison are able to hold the ball up upfront and bring midfield players such as Pilkington into play, which has seen the two forwards contribute 6 assists between them as well as 15 goals.
This direct style of play, whilst not appreciated by all, is clearly playing dividends for Norwich. With few real quality players at Lambert’s disposal he must be praised for the way he has galvanized his side into a formidable Premier League side who are capable of scoring goals. Players such as the aforementioned Morrison, Holt and Pilkington were barely heard of prior to this seasons exploits.
It is certainly somewhat hypocritical that the mainstream press have not criticized Norwich for their use of long balls in the way that sides like Stoke or Bolton have come under fire in the past. However it is a mistake to equate direct football with negative football. Norwich have enjoyed a very low number of passes per game and whilst they’re top of the long ball table, Spurs who are known to be expansive and exciting are second. And of course if Norwich were negative they would not have conceded in each of their Premier League games this season. The main difference between the sides is that Stoke create less chances, only 9.9 shots per game compared to 13 for Norwich, as well as this there is a physical aspect to Stoke’s game which has led to criticism in the past, which can not be leveled at Norwich in the same way despite the physicality of Morrison.
Norwich usually set up in a traditional 4-4-2 with two wide men that look to get balls into the box at any chance possible, Pilkington and Bennet provide the service from out wide with Holt and Morrison as stated looking to score goals. The aerial presence of Norwich’s side is what makes them so effective from set-pieces. They have scored more aerial goals than any other side in the Premier League with 13. Essentially Lambert has got Norwich playing to their strengths. We have seen sides in the past try to implement a style of play that is not suited to the players at their disposal, such as Owen Coyle’s Bolton who have tried to adopt a ball playing style which has seen them near the bottom of the table.
The goal for Surman against West Brom at the weekend was absolutely typical of this style of play, the defender fired it out from the back, and eventually the ball was played into the box for Surman to finish on the volley.
The one point of concern for Norwich is their inability to keep clean sheets. If teams begin to ‘find out’ how the side play, as was the case with Hull and Reading in the past it may leave them particularly vulnerable. So far Norwich have conceded the third highest shots per game with 17.2. The reason for this however is that Lambert, as stated sets his side out in a 4-4-2 which can leave the two centre-midfielders somewhat open, especially in a league where a lot of teams use 3 man midfield. Being over run in the middle can leave the back four unprotected especially if one of the two centre-mids breaks forward, which could explain why Norwich face so many shots per game.
Were the side to concede less shots per game they’d have to play a third centre-midfielder as a screen, which would certainly detract from their attacking exploits. As currently the two forwards work in tandem to hold the ball up and bring others into play, as previously noted. With just 1 on top they’d be much more reliant on midfield support which would make Norwich a less successful attacking force.
Lambert’s versatility has also been crucial for the side’s success. His ability to interchange between formations dependent on opposition has been a large component to the clubs success. As stated he shifts between a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-4-2. In recent weeks opting for Simeon Jackson, a more mobile option than Grant Holt, to partner Morrison, perhaps to work the channels and track back more. As well as this the side have at times used a 4-1-2-1-2 with Hoolahan at the top of the midfield diamond, although the majority of Norwich’s play is wing orientated.
The signing of Leeds captain Jonny Howson will help bulk up a squad that is somewhat light. The central midfielder who managed an impressive 10 goals from midfield last season can contribute in both the attacking and defensive side of Norwich’s games. Thus far their direct style of play has most certainly been a contributory factor to the clubs high league position. The tactical success of the Norwich side, at least in the offensive third, has to be credited to Paul Lambert, who with limited funds, has built a team that thus far looks likely to stay in the Premier League. Avoiding a second half of the season slump is essential and despite being 9th, and having just experienced back to back EPL wins, staying up is still crucial for Norwich. The style of play is somewhat in contrast to Swansea’s short passing game but with both sides thriving in the EPL it would be refreshing for both clubs and if QPR can experience a resurgence under Hughes, for all promoted teams to stay up which at this stage is certainly plausible.
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