Story of a Match: Man City
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.
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.