Story of a Match: Fulham (A)
Some of you went because it’s easier to get tickets. Some of you went because it’s not that far to London (or far from where you live, in London). But some of you went for revenge. Revenge, revenge, revenge. You know it. I know it. We all wanted it. That afternoon in 2005 sticks in the back of the throat of most Norwich fans, and what better way to put it behind us than turning them over on our first visit back… well, it didn’t happen. But at least we didn’t lose 6-0 again, right? Because after 12 minutes…
I did a post a couple of weeks ago about the virtues (or lack thereof) in certain ways of playing, on whether it’s ‘better’ to play like Swansea or Stoke. I think I’m more of a pragmatist because, though I like attractive passing football, the result is what matters. Well, today we played like Swansea. Bad Swansea. We passed the piss out of Fulham…
Chalkboards like that are what I want to see from Norwich – dominating possession, overrunning teams and imposing their play on the game rather than reacting to the opponent. Only, you’ve got to make it count. Remember all those times we Norwich fans have ribbed Swansea about their attractive but fruitless football? About how we’ve beaten them despite their passing carousel? Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. That was us today. Here, look…
That’s the passing maps of when they lost 2-0 to Stoke. Lost. They absolutely dominated the ball and lost. Today, we dominated the ball for most of the game but only made it count towards the end. There’s a few reasons for this, and how we ended up losing, so I’ll start first on the formation.
We played 3 at the back, just like last week, with Naughton and Martin as wing backs, behind a midfield of Surman/Fox and Howson, with Wes off Morison. A lot of fans were nervous about this system as we’ve not played that well with 3 at the back at times (I actually thought it was pretty effective last week), but it’s worth noting that it’s not the system/formation that’s really the problem, it’s the personnel used within it. The players are encouraged to play patient, passing football out of the back, but not all of them are able or comfortable enough with the ball when under pressure, passing it back to Ruddy under the slightest bit of pressing. On top of the, Kyle Naughton, who has been generally good in his loan spell, is very positionally indisciplined. He goes wandering forward and doesn’t keep his line often, nor does he keep tracks on oncoming wingers. This was evident in the first goal as he tears after Duff down the flank as Ruiz approaches on goal, though it was the 2nd goal that he was more responsible for. The first was a poor spillage by Ruddy who you would want to hold onto the shot. The second was a good throughball to Duff who was all on his own as Naughton had gone wandering too high up the pitch.
As you can see from the passes he received during the game, he was getting them overwhelmingly in the opposition half. This is a bit of a blunt instrument to make the point, but it indicates just how far up the pitch he was and why, without good concentration, he was constantly leaving gaps at the back and assuming the back 3 would cover for him. It was little surprise to see the system change at half time and in the 2nd half he was a bit more disciplined back there.
Throughout the first half we had long spells of possession without doing much with it. Howson had a notably good chance and probably should have scored, but for all the pretty patterns and lovely passing, we were doing it all in front of Fulham and they were happy to let us play, much like they were at Carrow Road earlier in the season. In fact it surprises me that Lambert took this approach given their stubborn play back in December and their ability to soak up pressure, but I guess he wasn’t expecting to be chasing a 2 goal deficit so early.
As you can see, for all our first half possession, we only hit 1 shot on target. Fulham did more with less; they made Ruddy work, they made him pick the ball out of the net and they kept us on our toes with excellent counterattacks. They were comfortable with us playing that way, so a change in system was no surprise.
Another byproduct of Naughton playing left-back (as well as Pilkington being injured and Bennett being on the bench) was out lack of width. We were constantly trying to build play up from the back and through the middle, and as such we had no threat from the flanks, making us predictable and easy to defend.
As you can see above, Ruddy was constantly passing it short to the defenders to get attacks going, but when they did they were overwhelmingly central. You can see the cluster of Fulham tackles in the central area of the pitch in front of their goal where they just waited and soaked up pressure. Only once or twice did we get down the flanks and try to get balls into the box. With Naughton being right footed, he was constantly checking inside and never tested the fullback down the line, making his play predictable and making the fullbacks job all the more easy. A way to avoid this would be to play Drury at left back and either Naughton or Martin at right back, a solution which provides width. However, the system seemed to accommodate players rather than incorporate their strengths, and it’s probably easier to play Naughton and Martin than Drury and one other if you know what I mean.
With our wing play limited and passing not really breaking through, Simeon Jackson was brought on at Half Time and we tried to stretch Fulham more. He is usually excellent at running the channels and opening space up, but he didn’t have one of his more successful afternoons. The team played most of its good football through Howson, Fox and Hoolahan but still struggled once it got into the final third. Either sloppy passing or crosses that were simple catching practice put an end to most chances. When a goal finally did arrive it was through the very hard working Wilbraham, something I was chuffed to see. He’s worked his socks off whenever he’s had a chance, and he’s deserving of the goal. The man he replaced, however…
..needs to sort himself out. I’ve defended Morison plenty on here and on twitter, and I do genuinely believe he gets undeserved criticism and stick. However today he was just ineffective. For the first 20 minutes or so he provided a decent presence up front, chasing defenders and closing angles, but for the rest of the match he was anonymous. He received the ball a total of 17 times, often at the end of long passes or balls into the channels, so it’s always going to be hard when running that line on his own, but his output was terrible. 3 completed passes all match. Zero shots. When Jackson came on he actually became worse and offered no thread whatsoever until he was subbed. I’ve got time for Morison and his early season form wasn’t fluke, but whether it’s morale or injury, he needs to sort it out. Today was a golden chance with the absence of Holt and he didn’t take it.
One player who did take his chance was Ryan Bennett who put in a cracking performance at centre back. As well as being reliable with the ball he was solid in the tackle, getting into good positions and on two occasions saved certain goals with brilliant last ditch blocks. Norwich blocked 4 shots during the match, and 3 came from Bennett. It was an excellent debut and introduction to the travelling fans and he looks a player we will grow to love.
Finally, a brief word on this midfield triumvirate. These three players were at the heart of everything we did today, and Wes especially was outstanding, one of the best performances he’s put in a Norwich shirt. Something I’ve always banged on about, always talked about, is the need for good passing. You just invite pressure on your defence if you needlessly give it away and in these three you’ve got players who are excellent at finding yellow shirts and keeping possession. Now, in the case of Fox that means being the first Norwich player to rack up over 100 passes in a match this year, and the criticism will fairly come that very few of them were incisive or attacking. In effect, he played for us today the role that, say, Leon Britton plays for Swansea – being the stable, calm, deep midfielder that keeps things ticking over while the others (Wes and Howson) were more attacking, more direct and trying to get the ball into good positions. Fox’s job couldn’t really have been done in a standard midfield 2 as you need that player to offer more going forward, but in a midfield three he takes some of the defensive burden while the others offer more going forward. These players all offer something different but are all in great form, and with a bit more incisiveness and decisiveness (looking at you Wes) then they could offer a hell of a lot of support to the wings/Holt up front.
Lots of passing, not much end product. After 12 minutes I was worried, and was thus pleased to see us fight back into it and get the goal back. We aren’t going to go everywhere and get points and the performance at the end showed enough to suggest it wasn’t a pointless exercise. Lambert will have learned from the tactical experimentation, you’ve got good showings from our new boys again and we’ve completely outpassed an established team on their own turf. It’s in front of goal we need to start looking now – and boy did we miss Sir Granty Holt today.