Story of a Match: Chelsea (again)

Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Match Analysis | 2 comments

I didn’t do a WBA report. Sorry about that. Pretty straight forward though: soaked up pressure, two good breaks and two good goals. Holty’s got speed, Ruddy was good, Ayala could have been sent off and WBA couldn’t finish their chances. So, with that out of the way, Chelsea came to Fortress Carrow along with the TV cameras, and everyone was predicting one thing: Torres would finally get in the goals. Facing a team that hadn’t kept a clean sheet all season, it was a fair assumption. No one really saw a 0-0 coming… so how did it?

Torres

…was a bit rubbish really. In fact, most of Chelsea’s attacking play was, but for the moment I will dwell on Torres. There had been plenty of talk around Norwich in the days leading up to the match about the difference in cost, and return, of Torres and Holt. If someone without any knowledge of football had seen Saturday’s game they wouldn’t have seen a £49.6m difference. They wouldn’t have seen a difference. Torres was abject to the point that I genuinely feel a bit sorry for him – in as much as you can feel sorry for a professional multi-millionaire footballer. He never chose to be a £50m player and he clearly doesn’t fit at Chelsea, has no confidence and has lost the cutting edge that genuinely once made him the best out and out striker on the planet. Against us he had one shot that I felt was going in, until Ruddy tipped it out for a corner, and one he should have buried but he slotted it wide from 8 yards. That was his contribution. Otherwise, he was kept quiet by Whitbread and Ayala, forced wide and never had much of an impact.

But like I said, this can be said of the Chelsea attack as a whole. The game reminded me a slightly diluted Liverpool performance, but we were much more of a threat and never totally dominated. Both teams managed to waste chance after chance, firing shots into the crowd and only pulling the odd save from Ruddy. Liverpool were more harshly done by with shots that hit the post etc, but in that game Norwich showed the character to come back and hold on. Against Chelsea we had grown, limiting their play and being a threat going forward.

Above you can see the comparison in their shots off target. Both got into double figures with the amount of shots off target and while against Liverpool it felt a touch like we rode out luck, against Chelsea we never did. They never seemed to have the edge of Luis Suarez or the confidence of Craig Bellamy. And if you compare them to the teams that have truly beaten us this year, neither had the class of Aguero or the sheer destructive nature of Bale. Both Liverpool and Chelsea showed by they are far off that title race.

Now against Chelsea, a lot of credit has to go with the way Lambert set the team up and how every player did their job to perfection. This was the first time this season that Norwich went with a traditional 4-4-2 formation, and it was a bit of a throwback. While we’ve shown complete flexibility all season, we’ve usually revolved around two systems; 4-5-1 or the diamond. Sure, we’ve played long, short, nice, ugly, wide, narrow… Lambert has the nous to sort a team for any opponent (because he’s a genius), but this was the first 4-4-2 we’d had, and it was set up with two contrasting pairs. In central midfield the ideal situation is to have a ‘passer’ and a ‘runner’. You want one who’s more comfortable in possession and one to be more box to box, hassling opponents and winning the ball. In Bradley Johnson and Fox we had this pair, players who’s own deficiencies are covered up by the other. A pairing of Fox and Wes wouldn’t have worked and neither would Johnson and Crofts. Just too similar. On the wings you had one pacey winger and one wide midfielder – Pilkington and Surman. It provides balance as one is able to be more attacking and support the forwards, while one is able to help protect the midfield, consolidate and shield the fullback.

These principles generally hold true even to the top teams. The best Man Utd midfield was a prototype of it – Keane and Scholes in the middle (runner and passer) and Beckham and Giggs on the wings (wide midfielder and winger). While the best teams can afford to tinker round the edges, it generally works as players fit into a system and you don’t leave yourself with any obvious holes. You have players who can pass the ball, players who can tackle, players who can attack and players who can defend.

With this in mind, the Norwich midfield did it’s job on Saturday to perfection. They were able to get forward quickly and Pilkington was a persistent threat to Cole down the right hand side. They were able to tackle, and Johnson was involved in plenty of battles in the middle. They protected the back four and they supported the front two. It was a case of making a midfield better than the sum of its parts – they did their jobs, and credit goes to both the players and Lambert. After the game Holt came out and said how the tactic had been to keep the middle of the pitch protected and generally try and force Chelsea wide and make them put in crosses.

And it worked. As you can see from the bottom graph with all of Chelsea’s passes, they didn’t have a great deal of the ball in the final third. Plenty of build up play but the midfield protected the defence and forced the ball out wide. The result you can see in the top half, with Chelsea firing in nearly 30 incomplete crosses. These were mopped up time and time again by Whitbread and Ayala. Ruddy was confident in coming to claim them, and we were then able to counter ourselves. It seems slightly contradictory as Chelsea’s best players started out on the wings – Mata and Sturridge. To force them to play down there seems to invite problems, but with Torres so short of form it isolated him and kept his chances down. We were given a bit of luck too when Lampard went off, Mata moved central and the useless Malouda played wide.

While they were putting an average attacking performance, we put in the best defensive show I’ve seen all season. Above you can see the interceptions and tackles made in our half. Time and time again Chelsea were attacking and the ball was mopped up by one of the back four. Tackling wise, we only lost 4 tackles in our own half in the entire game. Everything else was won, and this kept pressure off the back four and Ruddy for large parts of the game. There is no question that Chelsea had more of the ball and more chances, but they were half chances. We limited them through excellent tactical preparation and players doing their jobs on the day. No one let the team down.

This was epitomised by the two centre backs, Whitbread and Ayala. Both put in their best performances in a yellow shirt, especially Whitbread who I have been critical of in the past. Ayala did superbly to bounce back from a poor game vs WBA with a much more composed and effective one, constanly stepping out of defence to meet balls, getting his head onto crosses and passing it to a team mate. As ever he looks excellent with the ball at his feet, and if he continues the way he is he will be a bargain. Man of the match, though, was undoubtedly Whitbread who was just everywhere. He was clearing balls, tackling, sliding in to block crosses and starting attacks. It seems clear by now that this is the pairing Lambert wants to go with and barring a crap run of form or injury, I can’t see any changes being made to it. If they continue playing like this, it will work out fine.

All in all, it was a point that felt like a win. Part of this was getting the clean sheet monkey off the back, part of it was doing it against Chelsea. It was a disciplined, determined and clinical performance that showed exactly how good Lambert is, and how good he’s made our squad. These players are a rag tag bunch of lower league performers who kept Chelsea quiet for most of the 90 minutes and had chances themselves. They played out of their skin and showed the sort of resilience that will keep us up this season.

2 Comments

  1. Good to have you back; a great read as always.

    I think it’s interesting now we are into the second half of the season and playing teams we have already seen once before that we can compare the outcome to the previous encounter. Obviously things change; home advantage, injuries, suspensions, new signings etc – there are all kinds of variables – but it’s interesting nonetheless to see how the teams match up differently having gotten a sense of each other once before.

    As has been pointed out, Chelsea did have the majority of the play and more chances. But there was a major difference in our ability to keep hold of the ball from the game at Stamford Bridge:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards/5h9889I94EaL2B9n0H2d

    At Stamford Bridge in August we made a pretty woeful 125 successful passes in open play. This time we managed 311. That’s 250% better.

    You can also see this by the difference in the amount of tackles Chelsea had to make:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards/t9cta0Lv9BAbrD691s66

    In the first game, they only had to make 8 tackles on the ground – 4 in each half of the pitch. At Carrow Road, with Norwich making better use of the ball, they were forced to make 15, all but 1 in their own half. While they still had more of the ball the we did, we were much better at making good use of it. Rather than easily gifting it back to them every time through either sloppy passing at the back and hopeless long balls, we kept it well and did genuinely pose a threat in their half.

    As you pointed out, the combination midfielders in this game was well balanced and they linked well together. By comparison, in the first game, the quartet of Crofts, Johnson, Pilkington and Hoolahan, while all with their merits, simply didn’t gel as well. This time there was more of a linked progression in the midfield from defensive to attacking, with Fox providing more quality on the ball than Crofts, and Surman laying a bit deeper than Hoolahan. And while not appropriate for every game, this time it was pretty much right on. It’s worth pointing out too that while it may seem natural to expect to be better on the ball at home than away, we also kept the ball much better in recent away games at QPR (372 completed passes in open play compared to 204 at Carrow Rd) and West Brom (312 compared to 282), so it’s a continuing trend.

    Your point about Lambert’s ability to pick the right side based on the opponent is really interesting, and is something that I think will be invaluable over the second half of the season. One of the things that is always said about the promoted sides is how hard the second half of the first season in the Premier League can be. Time and again a promising first half season turns to tiredness and a collapse in form towards the end. Everybody knows the Blackpool story. But the thing with Blackpool was, that teams started to suss them out. They were always about being gung-ho and ‘surprising’ opponents. Since this was their one and only plan, by the second time they faced a side their opponents knew exactly what to expect, and they could change their plans or personel accordingly. Blackpool steadfastly, then stubbornly, and then stupidly continued to stick to this principle all through the season and it eventually failed. Lambert, by contrast, is absolutely willing to play whatever way he feels is the most likely to get a good result. When you have a team of players with considerably less experience, and often also skill, than the established sides, you have to be smart about how you use them. Lambert could genuinely be one of the most tactically astute managers in the country. There is a reason he has ‘never been doubled’ as Norwich manager. We’ve seen in the last three games, as we go up against teams for the second time round, how smart he has been about changing systems, formations and personel in order to address the team’s shortcomings from the first time facing the opponents. We are so far +4 points better off from the equivalent 3 fixtures in the first half of the season, and it will be really interesting to see what happens herein. While I obviously don’t expect us to stay 9th, I find it very hard to believe that we will suffer the same kind of collapse as some teams in previous years.

  2. Thanks for the tactical analysis…. Nice to have you back. I agree Lambert is a genious (perhaps Culverhouse is too). Would have liked to have seen Wizard Wes have 10 minutes… On the comparisons with Blavkpool, yes they did have 28 points after 21 games, but the bottom 3 teams all had more points than the 3 teams that are currently in the relegation zone. First point is then that it is likely that teams will need less than 40 points for safety come the end of the season as they did last year (I’m predicting 35 points will be enough to finish in 17th). Second point even if Norwich do have a similar run to Blackpool, I think they’ll still be safe (see first point). Third point, it took Blackpool 26 games to get their 29th point, Norwich are already on 29 points after 22 games.

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