Story of a Match – Sunderland (A)

Posted by on February 1, 2012 in Match Analysis | 2 comments

Taking on Sunderland was always going to be a tricky task. Thanks to the work put in by Martin O’Neill the Black Cats had shot up the table in recent weeks, with more or less the same players, and Norwich were never going to face the demoralised, unorganised side that visited Carrow Road back in 2011. I don’t think many people quite expected the performance that did go in though, as Norwich were completely outclassed in defeat. There’s a couple of reasons why, so lets look at them.


This match, more than any other this season, had a bit of a sideshow running towards it. Lambert’s professed respect for his old boss was such a driving story that Sky devoted most of their pre match buildup to it, and ultimately Lambert has to bear the blame for the result out there. This isn’t to excuse the players who were below par, but it was clear after just a couple of minutes that the team and system that was set up was wrong for the occasion. It’s easy to say that in hindsight of course, but I wasn’t the only one saying it pre match. With Sunderland supposedly more vulnerable down the wings, playing a narrow diamond midfield seemed the wrong option, and then you look at players like Fox and Pilkington who were left out of the starting lineup. The result was that, for the first 35 minutes, Norwich struggled just to string passes together.

We struggled to get players onto the ball, misplacing almost as many passes as we completed. A lot of these were aimless long balls with both Morison and Holt unable to win many headers. The red arrows you can see above show each incompleted pass and you can see just how many we lobbed forward. No one looked comfortable in possession but the midfield in particular was absent. Hoolahan looked to be trying too hard and things weren’t really coming off, Surman was less influential than in recent games and the pairing of Crofts and Johnson were way, way below par. Crofts has regularly struggled at this level but against Sunderland he was notably poor, always wanting too much time on the ball and getting dispossessed. Johnson was regularly caught in possession and, as ever, susceptible to runners from midfield. This disjointed, slow performance was summed up by the slack defending which led to the second goal.

The above footage is crap but you can more or less see what I’m going to be getting at. In the first frame, Sessegnon has the ball as Sunderland break. He nutmegs Johnson who is taken out of the game, and Naughton has begun to face up to try and cut out any further run. Unfortunately he is incredibly out of position, leaving a massive gap behind him. In the second frame this is exposed as Sessegnon passes out wide to Campbell. At this point Zak has to make the decision to come across and try to cut out the cross. This leaves Ayala as the only centreback in the middle, marking McClean. Any other runners need to be tracked by either Martin or Naughton, both then catching up with play. As you can see from the third frame, neither do. Zak, having been sucked out wide, is missing from the goalmouth and Martin is too slow in picking up Sessegnon, a player who was 20 yards in front of him in the first frame. This collection of individual lapses gifted them the easiest goal they could want.

That more or less summed up the first 35 minutes. They dominated while we struggled to pass the ball properly, which is frequently the case when Fox isn’t playing. Both Surman and Hoolahan were below recent form but you know both Crofts and Johnson are more runners than passers. Without a stable presence in the middle in Fox to help control the ball, we looked ragged and devoid of ideas. The pattern changed after about 35 minutes though, as Sunderland dropped back and began to play more on the break. They absorbed a lot of our passing but once we got about 45 yards out from goal, they started pressing very high. It forced us wide where, until 60 minutes, we didn’t have wingers, or forced us to keep it in defence.

If you compare our passing for the final 55 minutes, we had over 100 more passes than them, but overwhelmingly down the flanks or in defence/the centre circle. We were never allowed to really go through the centre of the pitch, a bit of a problem when all your midfielders are there, as Sunderland executed a pressing game that really held Norwich back.

This can be shown by the tackling heatmap above, showing they didn’t wait for the defence to be put under pressure as the midfield and strikeforce were constantly on our heels and making tackles much further up the pitch. This leads to Ayala and Zak passing it about a lot but getting nowhere, before it gets to a fullback who then tries to launch it up to either Holt or Morison. It was clear in the first half that with a diamond we were getting nowhere, but it took 60 minutes for Lambert to make any changes, bringing off Wes and Johnson for Bennett and Pilkington. And this is why:

We played two big strikers but never serviced them from the wing. Holt, on the left, never once received a ball from wide, while Morison did just 4 times. Otherwise it was long balls through the middle or coming deep to collect it. Our big strikeforce was unable to really impact the Sunderland defence because they never had crosses to attack. Once Bennett and Pilkington came on it took all of 90 seconds for a cross to get whipped in and Morison shaved the post with a header. This was the setup that Norwich should have started the game with, and it was a rare mistake for Lambert to make.

The rest of the game followed the same pattern. They let us have the ball in our own half but the moment we tried to step up, they pressed and caused mistakes and broke. The third goal came from a counter attack and was unfortunately turned in by Ayala. Of the outfield players I would only name Zak and Naughton has having decent games, as the rest looked tired, one paced and second to every ball. Wilbraham came on late on and was better as a target man than either Holt or Morison, constantly winning balls and finding another Norwich player. It would be nice if his vocal critics would recognise this.


It was always going to be a game that we would struggle to get anything from, such is their form, but I think Norwich fans feel particularly disappointed because of the manner of the defeat. There was never really any spirit or drive from the players who had done this so well all season. The looked anonymous, and it’s hard to take anonymous when you get given effort every week. It’s hard to take defeat when everyone could see where it was going wrong before we were even one down, let alone three. This game was always less important than the Bolton match on Saturday, and three points there will easily make up for this as it’s another win against a rival, but I think fans will be right to expect a much improved performance. We want to see players earn back their place in the side and, if they do, games like this will be easily forgotten.


  1. Spot on, Jimmy. Pl seems to have a blind spot or stubborn streak or both – and this isn’t the first time. I’ve never bought into the “received wisdom” that he’s a tactical genius – too many flaws for that, but usually made up for by luck and the fighting spirit he’s engendered in the squad – superb man management and motivation on his part. I shared your fears before kick off and I’ll bet many others did too. The second caller on the Radio N phone-in did and his critique was very much the same.

    Why oh why did PL persist until 60 mins? I’ve castigated poor old Gunnie for watching idly while Colchester took his team apart – and now PL does the same. Wonder what if anything IC said to him in the dugout or at half time. Perhaps I/we shouldn’t get carried away by one aberration, but we better give Bolton a good trimmin’ out to make up for it.

    Good for you to stick up for Wilbraham. I regularly defend him and wish he’d had more game time to show what he can do but his contract’s up in June and I expect he’ll be on his bike. When he ended his goal drought at Leicester last year it came after a quite dazzling performance on the night – such a pity for him that he also picked up the injury that ended his season.

    Had to chuckle at your Loons feature. Do I detect a very slight softening of your opinion about Chris M? By all accounts he’s doing well and his workrate is excellent and above what Palace are used to. Contract up June 2013 – will he get another chance here, I wonder . . .

  2. I have to say, for the first time this season, it looked like we just gave up. Our hunger, drive, late comebacks and wins are well known. Lambert always says the players “never know when they are beat”. But for whatever reason, I got the impression this wasn’t the case on Wednesday. Lambert got it wrong at the start, for all the reasons you’ve pointed out. This doesn’t happen often, but even rarer is the case that he doesn’t change it up. Even against Man City, probably the most dominated we’ve been this season, we at least came out fighting in the second half, and while ultimately fruitless, we did at least battle on to get a goal. Against Sunderland we looked resigned, Lambert and Culverhouse slumped in the dugout, the players heavy-footed, and just never got going.

    It was basically done to the midfield. Crofts showed his usual weaknesses. Johnson, whose performances have sometimes been up and down one, was decidedly down.

    He didn’t manage half as many passes as against Chelsea the week before, he was less accurate, made only a handful in Sunderland’s half, and barely one going forward. He notably lost the ball a couple of times in dangerous areas, and wasn’t much better defensively either, getting totally mugged for the goal.

    Hoolahan was totally anonymous. Surman came out with the most credit, but it was nothing more than an average performance. When Bennett and Pilkington came on, we looked slightly better, getting a few good crosses in, but it was already way lost by then. You can’t say for sure if it would have been different setting up like that from the start, but combine probably the wrong system with poor performances from the guys playing there, and it’s about as strong a case as there is for suggesting so.

    Still, the reaction the past couple of days seems to have been positive, and hopefully that will set us up for a good result on Saturday.

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