Story of a Match: 12/13 Fulham (A)
7 years ago, on a scorching hot day in West London, Norwich’s Premier League dream unfolded around them with a dismal 6-0 defeat to Fulham on the last day of the season. Chris Hughton’s first game in charge, on the first day of this season had an unfortunate parallel. Coming in with a mandate to strengthen our leaky defense of last year, we clearly didn’t get off to the best of starts. Unlike that game, of course, we have another 37 chances to set things right.
Any 5-0 defeat first demands a look at the defense. New signing Michael Turner came in to partner Ryan Bennett in the centre, with Martin and Tierney returning at full-back. Unfortunately, just like last season, City were consistently guilty of making things too easy for the other team.
For the first goal, Tierney is culpable of letting Duff get in behind to latch on to a long ball – most disappointingly, they’d already had warning of this move a few minutes earlier, but failed to address it. Tierney lets his man get past him too easily, but it’s also worth noting that the space between him and Turner is also part of the problem – these two should be closer together, restricting what is an acre of inviting space for Duff.
The second came for a corner won by a Ruiz chance moments after this image (some credit to R Bennett for a great saving tackle to delay the inevitable). The problem again is that we gave too much space to Fulham’s attackers. Ruiz, just inside the centre circle, should have plenty of attention from our defenders, but unfortunately, Turner (in the left CB position) is drawn towards the ball – a job which should be left to Bradley Johnson. This leaves a massive space in the middle for Ruiz to breeze through, while R Bennett is occupied with another man on the far side. The midfield too, ought to do a better job of tracking Ruiz’s run. But we failed on all accounts.
The third had a slice of misfortune about it – a speculative Petric effort takes a big deflection off Turner to wrongfoot Ruddy. Turner though must take some responsibility – as you can see in this image he doesn’t do enough to close down Petric in the first instance, and then performs a completely lucklustre shoulder turn in an attempt at blocking the shot. You can’t legislate for the flight of a deflection, but there are good and bad ways to block. With six Norwich players in the vicinity of two Fulham players, one of whom is on the floor, there is no excuse not to be putting more pressure on the ball. Turner’s lazy attempt is atrocious, to be honest. A complete lack of effort.
Turner, again was partly responsible for Fulham’s fourth – R Bennett, the right CB, is tight to Petric on the edge of the area, But Turner has given Kacaniklic, right in the middle on the edge of the area, too much room again. Petric receives the pass and makes a deft flick through to Kacaniklic who gets clear of Turner and finishes. Russell Martin, at Right Back, doesn’t help by not keeping the line either. Once again, we are not overrun, but Fulham were sharper and more switched on every time.
The final nail in the coffin was Sidwell’s emphatic penalty, which came about from Turner’s clumsy challenge – it was a desparate attempt to make up for a fluffed clearance a second earlier. But just as in De Laet’s debut last season, Turner has had a mare. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this back four is actually markedly different to the one we played for large periods of last season – Turner is completely new, obviously, Bennett only came in towards the tail end of last season, Martin was often moved into centre-back and Tierney didn’t play after Christmas. Unfortunately for us, I think this unfamiliarity was telling. They don’t yet seem to have developed a good understanding as a defensive unit and are still prone to individual mistakes. Both fullbacks look vulnerable (even last year, it quickly became clear Russell Martin was better suited to playing centre back), and Turner still has a lot to prove. For the time being we don’t look any steadier than we did last year.
Aside from the goals, our performance generally was underwhelming. The first 10 minutes or so showed promise; some neat passing moves between the midfielders and good link up with Holt. However, as the game went on, our grip on the game loosened completely.
We continually resorted to long balls up to Holt, which was disappointing for two reasons – a) because it’s not especially exciting or pleasing football, and b) because it wasn’t even working. The image above shows the passes both teams attempted in the final attacking third of the pitch (Fulham on the left, Norwich on the right). The two clear differences between us and Fulham are that Fulham completed more passes in number, and with better accuracy and completion rate than Norwich, and that a much greater majority of our passes came from deep. We seldom even got the ball into the attacking third, and when we did, we couldn’t keep it. Grant Holt, while a physical presence, is not actually that suited to playing a lone target man role.
This image above shows Aerial Dules – i.e. balls won or lost in the air (again Fulham is left, Norwich on the right). The proliferance of purple triangles around Fulham’s area in Norwich’s diagram shows that Holt (and later Morison as well) was not winning many of the long balls played into him. Then, even when he did win the ball, he was isolated and often had no-one to pass it on to. He was our most dispossessed player – a sign that he was having to wait too long for support. Holt causes defenders trouble, but often it’s by getting in the way, winning free-kicks and being a general nuisance – not necessarily by continually winning long balls.
This problem was confounded by the ineffectiveness of our midfielders. Snodgrass has been played just off the striker in pre-season, but here it was a flatter midfield 5, with Snodgrass playing further right, and Surman, Howson, Johnson in the middle and Pilkington left. It’s a conservative formation, but one we did have success with last season, with early season wins against Bolton, Sunderland and Swansea. But those wins actually came with Morison playing as the lone striker, not Holt, and our midfield contained a David Fox who continually came deep to collect the ball, and a Hoolahan who got forward and linked with the striker. Yesterday we didn’t quite have either. Bradley Johnson was the deepest of the three, but he does not continually demand the ball and keep things moving like David Fox, or, more relevantly Fulham’s Mahamadou Diarra who dominated the passing in the midfield yesterday. Diarra provided the perfect pivot for Fulham’s attacks by picking the ball from their back four and starting moves. The images below show where Johnson and Diarra received passes – Diarra got on the ball twice as much, and generally in deeper positions.
The inability to provide this link means, inevitably, that the defense play more direct. Yesterday, this didn’t work because Holt didn’t win enough balls, and when he did, he didn’t have enough support. The flat midfield 5 was maybe too rigid, neither coming deep enough nor getting forward enough. This probably was a result of the new manager wanting a moderate approach with the team keeping things tight in the first away game of a season. Unfortunately when you set out that way and then concede a couple of sloppy goals, you are left in a difficult situation. To Hughton’s credit, he changed things immediately at half time, bringing on a second forward in Morison, but it felt like the game was already lost.
It was an immensely disappointing start to a campaign. With the off season managerial change around, it felt more important than ever to get off to a good start. The initial anguish of losing Lambert was replaced with a cautious optimism of Hughton’s appointment. But the truth is it will inevitably take a bit of time for the new manager, players and style to bed in. Chris Hughton hasn’t had long to work with these boys - which doesn’t excuse the performance of course – but, cliches notwithstanding, it is only the first game of a long season. Hughton has got some learning to do about our squad, as do the squad about his philosophy, about who exactly is suited to particular roles and whether those roles are suited to our team. With Whittaker and Garrido potentially to come in our back-line could yet be steadier, but I think all Norwich fans would be pleased with more reinforcement.