Story of a Match: Man City

Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Match Analysis | 9 comments

This is a tough one to look at. Where does the line fall between “it’s away at the Champions elect” and “we’re getting hammered and I don’t like it.”? I said before that I’d be happy enough if we conceded less than 5 goals, so we went and lost 5-1. How much of it was self inflicted, and how much was down to the sheer class of the opposition? I said post-match that, in the long run, this game is just a footnote in the march of Man City for the title, and irrelevant in our quest for safety, and I stick by it, but that doesn’t make losing 5-1 any easier to take. Basically, what I’m asking is – at what point can you criticise a newly promoted team losing away to the worlds richest? Everyone has their own opinion, and everyone’s entitled to it. Here’s mine.

Losing the midfield battle

The Norwich team that played today was the same that played at home to Arsenal. I don’t mean in personnel, but in gameplan. This wasn’t the approach that saw us get creditable results away at Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool. Against Arsenal we lost the midfield battle, not surprising when you’re playing against some of the best in the country. Today we lost the midfield battle, again not surprising when you’re up against Yaya Toure, David Silva, Gareth Barry et al. These players have won World Cups and Champions League trophies. Toure alone was an absolute colossus, dominating the middle of the park better than any player I’ve seen this season.

Over 100 passes, mostly within a tight space between the half way line and our box. He pulled the strings of a brilliant Man City team and was a wall in defence. With players with such class as Silva and Nasri making runs off him, it was always going to be a long, long afternoon, and the way Norwich shaped up for the first 45 minutes showed as much. Lambert had again left Fox and Wes on the bench, the two Norwich players who are most at home in possession and able to find other teammates, but both suffer the criticism of not being strong enough in the tackle/winning the ball. A midfield three of Surman, Crofts and Johnson protected the back 4 with Bennett and Pilkington sitting deep to protect fullbacks. It was a very, very similar set up to Old Trafford, with a bank of 5 in front of a bank of 4. The only difference is that when we had possession, we didn’t have a particularly creative player to turn to. This resulted in us clearing it, or hitting it long for Morison, and the ball coming back at us 20 seconds later. It was as park-the-bus tactics as I’ve seen from Lambert, and you can see his logic. We are not as good at Man City, and we are away. Keep it tight, keep it close, and then work our way into the game. Going in at HT only 1-0 down is nothing to be sniffed at, but the overall performance of the first half was lacking in something. It didn’t have the spark that made our other away games so memorable.

The passing heatmap above is for Man City in the first 45 minutes. Their passes were overwhelmingly in the Norwich side of the pitch, and they just bode their until the goal came. When it did, it was a little toe poke from Aguero after he sold half the team on a dummy. While it was the least they deserved on balance of play, it was also fair to say Ruddy was not overly threatened. He didn’t have a lot to do, as Norwich soaked up pressure until cutting it out on the edge of the box.

You can see from the interceptions chalkboard above where they all clustered. Norwich were content to absorb pressure, but when Man City tried to pass it too intricately or work it into the box, there was almost always a Norwich player there to cut it out. As a defensive performance, it was very good, and that has to be commended. It was turning those interceptions into chances that was proving difficult. Morison had a dream of a chance early on in the game, almost identical to the one he had vs Chelsea. Having won the ball wide, he raced in on goal with only the keeper to beat, but having took a touch too much/too heavy, he lost out and it came to nothing. Otherwise, we struggled to keep hold of the ball.

Above are the chalkboards showing Norwich passing before the introduction of Wes and Holt, and after. Two things are notable. First, the proportion of long balls is much lower once they’re on the pitch as Norwich were able to play through midfield. They showed a bit more comfort on the ball and the introduction of Wes is a clear reason for that. Secondly, we were simply connecting with our passes more, and this increased more when Fox was introduced a short while later. For the first hour we had a pass completion rate of 65%. For the final half an hour it was 77%. Fox was one of only two Norwich players (the other being Russell Martin) to complete all but one pass.

Possession stats are easy to ignore and most of the time Norwich are going to have less of the ball as we come up against teams that are better than us. It is easy to look at a team like Swansea and say that having the ball is not everything as they struggle for goals and points away. The fact is, you aren’t conceding goals when you have the ball, and being able to find another yellow shirt is key to building up attacks and relieving pressure on the defence. And yet, Wes and Holt came on, and Man City scored three more goals. Does this vindicate Lambert’s decision to leave them out? Not for me. When you look at the three goals conceded (Toure, Balotelli and Johnson), only one came from a specific Norwich error. The other two came from good buildup play, a great finish by Toure, and very good off the ball movement from Balo as he crept between the two centrebacks to slip in.

I sound like a broken record with my almost weekly claim that Fox and Wes should be starting games when they’re fit, but I know I’m not the only one. I’m not going to sit here and suggest that playing these two from the start would have altered the result, but it would have changed the Norwich approach to the game for the first 60 minutes. It was our ability at Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool to get men forward, put passes together and work our way into the box that provided a threat. Once these players were introduced today, we offered more going forward and it eventually told with the goal from Morison.

And so it leads me to think about the thought process of leaving them on the bench for a game we were always likely to lose. Everyone saw the impact they had on the QPR game, and the general impact Wes has had throughout the season, and it’s a gutsy call not to play them. If he had done so, and we had still gone on to lose heavily, what would the result have been? A drop in confidence of those players who did well vs QPR but were deemed not good enough to play Man City? A drop in confidence of those brought in, considered good enough but shown not to be? And now, having lost heavily, Lambert has the option of recalling these influential players for a home game, lifting the crowd and team in the process? I’m not suggesting at all that Lambert deliberately didn’t play them, expecting defeat and choosing to keep them in his pocket for next week… but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Conclusion

We got shafted by the best team in the country. How much of that is our fault? Some of it. How much of it is because they’re a great side? Some of it. You look at their 2nd goal, a calamitous error on Ruddy’s part, and can see the wind being knocked out of our sails as the scale of the task grew enormously. You look at our team selection and might wonder, as I do, whether he chose the team best prepared to win today, or whether he was protecting some with an eye on next week. One thing I won’t really accept, and I don’t think the club do, is a making-up-the-numbers attitude. Every game does matter, even the away ones at world beaters, and I always want the club to improve, to play well. Today was the first time I thought we played as promoted deers in the headlights, and it’s both because of our tactics and because of their talent. As ever, it’s down to both teams. Did we give a good account of ourselves? Certainly more second half than first. Will this game ultimately matter? Probably not. Could we have approached it in a different way? Yes.

As ever, thank you to the lovely folk at the Guardian for the chalkboards.

9 Comments

  1. “Fewer” than five goals. X

  2. Someone stole my name!

    I think the first thing to say is that I agree – this result means very little to our season. We’ve only lost by the same margin as Swansea, Tottenham, Blackburn, gone one goal better than Man Utd, and one worse than Villa and Wolves. It’s obviously hard to take such a comprehensive defeat, but basically we’re in the same boat as everyone else.

    But as you say, putting the result aside, it was still a bit of a disappointing performance. Again, part of this lies of the feet of Man City, who can be so good they will make anyone look bad, including many teams a lot better than us.

    But still, you can’t help but just feel we could have given a better account of ourselves. It’s probably harsh to single players out, but I thought Bradley Johnson had a shocker.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards/7H16Mol01V6402mtmeOK

    This compares his passing from the Liverpool game where we fought hard for a point, to yesterday’s collapse. Against Liverpool he completed 45 passes, spread pretty well around the pitch. Yesterday he made 16 passes, and gave it away 15 times, including one shocking quick free kick on the edge of our area which gave them an immediate chance on goal. Pilkington also, seems to have lost that spark he had a little earlier in the season, having put in sub par performances in each of the last three games. I don’t mean this as a slight on these two, who have been among our best players this season, but it does raise some questions about team selection:

    Clearly, the players will be subject to dips in form, bouts of tiredness, and off days over the course of the year. For all the stats one can look at, there are things that happen every day on the training ground that impact Paul Lambert’s decisions for the weekend’s game. Not every player can play every game, and personnel will have to be rotated. Especially in the coming month as the fixture list gets very congested. Sometimes Lambert has got this rotation spot-on. Bringing Russell Martin back in CB after a few games sitting out was a great move. I also think that Surman has done quite well in the last couple games after a period warming the bench. His timing of substituting Grant Holt on has directly led to 5 gained points.

    But the rotation of the central midfield still bugs me. I’ve compiled some statistics from the games so far:

    Adding up the minutes they’ve each played, not including cameo substitute appearances of fewer than 15 minutes:

    Johnson has played 1100 mintues
    Hoolahan 900 minutes
    Crofts 685 minutes
    Fox 670 minutes

    Over an average 90 minutes:

    Fox makes 47 passes at 83% completion rate, 1.6 tackles and 1.1 interceptions.
    Hoolahan makes 38 passes at 87% completion, 1.2 tackles and 1.4 interceptions.
    Johnson makes 34 passes at 76% (it was 78% before his terrible display at Man City) 1.7 tackles and 2 interceptions.
    Crofts makes 28 passes at 77% completion, 1.8 tackles and 1.3 interceptions.

    Johnson has been picking himself. In him we have a good all-round midfielder, and he justifiably has played most games. In fact, apart from the first match at Wigan, he had played the full 90 in every game, before coming off for last 15 at Man City. He also consistently comes out on top of the ‘distance covered’ statistic. I have no problem with his consistent selection, although as I showed above, I think it might now be time to give him a game off. Hoolahan is Hoolahan. We all know.

    Now I realise it’s not as simple as saying Fox should always play instead of Crofts. I think Crofts has a big role to play in the side. Indeed, against QPR, I think Crofts was great. In my comment on the QPR match I explained I thought Crofts played a huge part in preventing the QPR midfield playing. There are certain games, and certain times in other games, when having a Crofts in the midfield is important. But comparing these stats, it’s so clear, that when it comes to keeping the ball, we really need Fox. Not only that, but based on these basic numbers, it’s highly unfair to Fox, and also Hoolahan, to be labelled as ‘lightweight’ or ‘luxury’, as they statistically ‘get stuck in’ as much as anyone else. Fox own passing ability aside, he also makes everyone else’s passing accuracy improve. It’s becoming a habit – but Leon Barnett’s passing stats again tell the same story:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards/E9M0hEgAHNy0WYBX877J

    You can look at Barnett’s passing from any game in which Fox plays and see something similar. Since we were in Manchester again I’ve shown his board from the United game. A similar tough away game at a top 2 side. 10 completed passes. 100%. Yesterday, only 8 out of 16, 5 of which were back to Ruddy.

    The results of the games also show we fare better with Fox:
    When playing with Fox, we have a form of DWWLWDDL, taking 12 points from a possible 24.
    When playing Crofts, it is DDLLLLWL, taking 5 from 24.

    I really don’t mean to be harsh on Crofts. But so far this season, his selection over Fox has been one of the trickier things for me to understand. Still, for all this, on the whole we’re having a great season, and yesterday’s results doesn’t change anything. Paul Lambert has got us 10th in the Premier League, and that’s Awesome.

  3. It’s an interesting one isn’t as only the completely deluded expected anything out of this game. What I found frustrating though was, for the first time I felt the team accepted that from the start.

    Having said that, for someone who has scored frequently over the past few games Morison has also missed 3 gilt-edged chances too in my opinion and his chance against Man City high-lighted his two major weaknesses for me, one being taking easy chances and two being his first touch/control. His passing is pretty poor too along with his effort rate off the ball. That being said he has to miles upon miles of running with no reward which is a very tough job and without Fox or Hoolahan on the delivery to him is pretty poor. It’s funny as he is scoring but, for me, he still has a long way to go to prove himself.

    If he had put that away, had Bennett lobbed Hart instead of going round him, had Ruddy not gifted the second goal to them after we’d started brightly and worked so hard to go in only one down the game could have been very different.

    That’s the difference, the final decision and finish at this level is crucial when playing teams of vastly superior quality as we’re not going to create 20 odd good goal scoring opportunities. Also, I felt we could have done more, in truth, all 5 of their goals were stop-able!

    Goal one: Pilks should have cleared, Barnett should not have dived in, Crofts should have been slightly more round behind Johnson. Having said that it was class.

    Goal two: Tierney did the right thing to leave the ball, he was under no pressure and had no Man City player behind him. If Ruddy wanted it cleared he should have shouted loud enough to be heard back in Norwich, he didn’t, he took his eye off it and flapped. Very poor.

    Goal three: Wes didn’t track Yaya Toure back and then when he got back decided it was best to watch what he was going to do. That being said, there was a huge gap left for him to run in to and I think the nature of the second goal after such hard work knocked us for 6.

    Goal four: Track you runners! If you watch it, Barnett looks right at MB and decides fatally to try and play him offside when he was far too deep to do so. Great movement, yes, bad tracking, yes.

    Goal five: Wes tried to show boat and got caught out and we then decided to stand and watch as a unit both on the Komany’s pass and Johnson’s finish. Pretty poor, but the heads had well and truly dropped and the legs were tired due the constant wave after wave of Man City attack and possession.

    The possession stats are rather embarrassing reading and a symptom again of badly played long balls by people not good enough on the ball.

    All that said, we were out-played and out-classed in every area of the pitch and rightly so, I suspect a couple of their top earners cover our entire wage budget.

    I think 3 or 4 – 1 was about right, 5 was a bit harsh. I’m not just saying that because I predicted 4-1!

    What this does do, however, is give Lambert the perfect opportunity to bring in Whitbread and/or Ayala and perhaps move Russell Martin to Right back. Funny how things turn out!

  4. Oh, and if we’re going to be proof-readers too then it should be Pre-match not post, I think that’s what you meant anyway. There’s a couple of missing words too, but they really are not that important; great analysis:)

  5. Parking the bus against these quality players ain’t gonna prevent them scoring. Having one man only to aim at to relieve pressure is futile when he has questionable control and therefore isn’t good at holding the ball up – that is if the ball ever gets to him when the two best (the only really good ? ) passers in the squad are not selected. The result is the ball just keeps coming back relentlessly. There has to be an alternative out ball, so 4-4-2 has got to be the holding game – have 2 outlets, with a man out wide and a central hold up man. We had exactly this problem in the first half against Arsenal. I think PL is a godsend to this club but there were times last season too when I thought he has tactical limitations, and I wonder how soon it will be before he gets far enough up his learning curve. He too has some mistakes to iron out.
    And how do you think he and MacN will play the January window? No good bringing in any more who don’t improve quality – but how will that be done without busting the pay structure and possibly the esprit de corps?

  6. All good points chaps. I think with criticism on the goals, it’s worth nothing that Aguero’s and Toure’s were class finishes. It’s ridiculous that Aguero put it through that many players, but that’s why he cost as much as he did. As for Toure, Wes tracked his player, he was just a yard away from him, and again the finish was sublime. I wouldn’t be overly critical and point these out as individual mistakes (such as we’ve seen for other goals), and more that the players were simply that good.

    Completely agree about the Fox/Crofts bit, as you’re probably aware Daniel. I’m a huge fan of Fox and I think he should be starting. Johnson seems to be the undroppable midfielder but this is sometimes where the stats, such as I use them, don’t tell the whole story. He’s had as many poor games as good ones, completely stinking up the pitch against Swansea, Blackburn etc. And yesterday he was beyond useless with the ball. It’s fine dishing out the platitudes about how far he runs etc, but he’s been lucky to play so often when players around him, like Wes, get dropped for less. I’m not saying he isn’t good enough, just that his form would suggest a game or two on the bench.

  7. Always enjoy reading these match reports.

    My view is this, when you play a team like Man City, your aim should be to push them as far as you can. Make them do something brilliant to score a goal. Aguero produced a terrific finish but with the other goals I think questions will be asked about our defending.

    It’s difficult to account for individual errors. When Morison missed his chance it’s easy to say that it points to his limitations, but he’s scored four in five so he’s still doing a good job. It’s harder to account for similar errors as a defender, I don’t think our defence (as a unit) can get through a game without making a costly error, someone always seems to fuck up at some point and cost us a goal which undermines otherwise quality defending, but no clean sheets highlights that the team are not doing their job’s well enough defensively.

    I agree we have to keep the ball better, to take the pressure off the defence by keeping possession which means Fox has to play from the start. Obviously PL knows his players better than us, but in an ideal world Fox needs to start every game.

    January is going to be huge, we must strengthen the squad. The second half of the season is always harder than the first (ask Hull and Blackpool) and you need quality signings to keep the buzz going that promoted teams play with at the start of the season. I think we need another Bennett/Pilkington type player and an alternative to Fox as a playmaker. I’d also love a top notch, quality centre half for Christmas and a happy relegation free new year.

  8. Here’s a thought for you :
    We agree Crofts not up to this level ; I agree Johnson needs a bench spell – poor passer, poor decision maker ; you don’t fancy Lappin (who I think might surprise you, but PL doesn’t seem to want to risk), so how do we then line up?

    I have my doubts about all our central defenders at this level, but I’ll go along with Zak coming in, but with who? Prefer Martin at RB over Naughton, not at all sure about Barnett so would risk the inexperienced Ayala aloingside Zak.

    Would play de Laet as the holding midfielder sweeping in front of the back four.

    Starft with :
    Ruddy, Martin, Ayalaa, Zak, MadMark ; de Laet, Fox, Surman, Wes, Holt, Pilks – Pilks if he’s encouraged to take his man on !
    Subs : Rudd (but he should be out on loan getting game experience), Naughton, Barnett or Ward, Johnson, Morison, Bennett, Lappin.

    Move on in Jan : Crofts, Jackson, Wilbraham
    Bring in : 2 x Midfielder, C Martin, possibly G Francomb, an experienced sub GK. (Pity Tom Adeyemi not quite ready yet).
    Plus a whippet striker who can read the game, make intelligent runs and play off a big man like Gh or SM, AND put his chances away!

  9. Having watched the game on MOTD it was clear that the whole team needs to tidy up its frailties around defending and giving the ball away. Gary Neville can be a boring off chuffer but he goes on about not defending with your legs open – this would have saved us one goal. Tidying up the first touch would probably have seen Morison score an early goal. Not always playing at 100 miles an hour is another option – keeping the ball and controlling the pace of the game – however all of the above will only come through playing more games in arguably the world’s best league. It will come through adopting different drills in training and generally developing good players into becoming very good players – most teams except for Man City have had one good tonking including Man U and Arsenal – this was ours and let it stay that way – goal average will be all important at the end of the season. OTBC

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