Norwich City 3 Bristol City 1: a tactical perspective
Last season, it was Ian Holloway’s Blackpool that won promotion to the Premier League playing attractive football despite a relative lack of investment. This time, Norfolk is the home of their potential successors. Tangerine Dreaming, a superb tactics blog on Blackpool FC, examined the Canaries as they met Bristol City in a vital televised clash.
Winning the centre ground is vital in football matches and Norwich did this with some ease, but it was almost in vain as the advantage they gained was soon taken away with fresh impetus from the Bristol City bench. However, Norwich have a growing reputation as a team who battle to the final whistle and Paul Lambert made a crucial move off his own bench to ensure a deserved victory.
Lambert had no major selection dilemmas coming into the game and Norwich lined up in their preferred diamond shaped 4-1-2-1-2 which is fluid in its application. Keith Millen set his Bristol City team out in a 4-4-1-1. For Norwich, David Fox anchored the diamond with Wes Hoolahan at the tip behind the targetman Grant Holt, and Simeon Jackson as his supporting forward. Bristol City had Nicky Maynard starting in attack with David Clarkson dropping off him to link midfield and attack. In central midfield, the visitors had little evidence of creativity with two holding midfielders in the shape of Marvin Elliott and Kalifa Cisse.
The theoretical battle here concerned Norwich’s central dominance brought about through strength in numbers, with Bristol City attempting to work the ball wide to get Albert Adomah and Martyn Woolford in “one on one” against the full-backs. In truth, the game settled into this pattern as Norwich controlled possession from back to front, building up play and using Holt as an outlet. Holt also added variation due to his dominance in the air. When out of possession, Norwich pressed really hard and high up the pitch and never let the away side settle. This forced them into mistakes. Out of possession, Hoolahan dropped in to more of a three as Norwich resembled a 4-1-3-2, helping to stifle the space for Bristol City’s two central midfielders.
Bristol City looked to hit the front early with long balls and tried to play Norwich on the counter, but they couldn’t get the ball wide enough or quick enough and, in reality, their wide men were being forced to defend. As a consequence, they struggled to get forward.
Millen conceded the first half hour battle to Lambert as, at 1-0 down, he matched up Norwich’s shape by bringing Adomah inside as a centre forward alongside Maynard, Cisse as the holding midfielder in the deep, with Elliott and Woolford flanking them. This seemed to give Millen’s side a bit more strength in the centre and they soon created a chance by releasing Adomah through the middle, exposing the Norwich back line to his pace. However, the benefit was brief as Norwich controlled the majority of the first half with 61% of the possession.
The second half quickly settled in to a similar pattern as the first, but the match swung on substitutions from both managers. Millen introduced Brett Pitman and Jamal Campbell-Ryce and it was the latter who looked to get on the ball in the hole behind Maynard and run at the defence. Bristol City’s shape looked more like at 4-2-3-1 at this stage, they were much sharper on the break as a result and found the equaliser through a quick counter; Campbell-Ryce released Adomah who found the net. It seemed like the visitors had hit the right combination in order to get something from the game and they started pressing Norwich further up the pitch, forcing them to hit wasteful longer passes.
However, it was the next substitution that settled the game. Lambert took off Jackson, who had run hard and looked to break beyond the defence but had little composure in front of goal. Hoolahan was pushed up and out of the tip of the diamond as Henri Lansbury dropped in there and they combined to score the second. Hoolahan acted like a striker to hold up the ball and then released Lansbury, who broke fast and direct from his deep starting position. Norwich gained a late third after Lansbury’s pressing and work rate unsettled the Bristol back line as Andrew Surman swept up the ball and made it three.
Norwich have a robust, physical presence in the form of Grant Holt, who allows the side to flex their style from considered passing build-ups to a longer, more direct approach. It was telling in this match that in the first half, Holt barely lost a contested header. As he started to lose aerial duels around the hour mark, Norwich lost a little bit of their momentum.
Bristol City, meanwhile, really wanted to try and get Adomah one on one running at Marc Tierney. For his goal, he showed a great willingness to get beyond the defence and did so with his chance in the first half. However, Adomah only really started to enter into isolated battles when Millen moved him inside. When offering himself on the flank, his crosses were poor and failed to find their target.
The key man on the night was Hoolahan, known for his ability to commit defenders and beat his man. He ensured Liam Fontaine was sucked into a rash challenge to win the first minute penalty, but in truth it wasn’t his running with the ball that was key here. In fact, he was very efficient in possession of the ball and looked to unlock the defence with his passing – a great example of this was when he released Jackson in the 51st minute. However, Hoolahan was also vital in the pressing by Norwich and worked hard to close down the space afforded to Bristol City’s central midfielders, which contributed to the control they had in the middle.
Norwich were worthy winners here, but Millen will be happy with his tactical changes in this match and he will take that as a positive to carry forward to the final games of the season. Lambert has a side that is fluid, flexible and excellent on the ball. Should they sustain this kind of form and stay injury-free then they’ll be strong contenders to start next season as members of the Premier League.
If you enjoyed this, make sure to check out Tangerine Dreaming – a blog looking at how Blackpool have managed to attain their success and how they can maintain their top flight status. And, of course, Zonal Marking – the inspiration behind it all.