Stepping Up: Norwich City schemer Wes Hoolahan adapts to survive

It’s dog eat dog in the Premier League. Adapt to survive. Wes Hoolahan is doing a mighty fine job of making the step up from the Championship to the top flight with Norwich City – and he’s having to master a new role in the process, as Canaries fan Matt Wallace, who runs the Norwich blog Holtamania, explains.

Wesley ‘Wessi’ Hoolahan has had a rollercoaster of a career with Norwich. Bought from Blackpool, he was initially played on the left before spending time out of the team when Glenn Roeder complained about his fitness. He’s been through relegation and looked to be on the way out, before becoming the key man and best player on the team at the tip of our twice-promoted diamond. Now we’re holding our own in the Premier League, and while the diamond has been ditched, Hoolahan still plays a key role in the team. So how has his game adapted since our promotion?

The key role that Hoolahan played in our promotion sides was as a playmaker. He made things happen, played in strikers, scored goals and more. He was the focal point of our attack because his technique and vision on the ball more than made up for any limitations imposed by chronic dwarfism. Size has always been held against Hoolahan, used as a reason he can’t play as a central midfielder, but at the tip of the diamond it wasn’t an issue. He was creative and relentlessly attacking.

Unfortunately, unless you want to go down swinging like Blackpool, reckless attacking doesn’t fit promoted teams all too well. Norwich are still positive, never settle for draws and try to play good football, but there’s more of a balance to the team and Wes has become part of that. This has meant that the side of his game that has developed most, and is ignored most, is as a reliable, dependable central midfielder. One who can win the ball and then keep it.

After starting (and scoring) in the first game vs Wigan, Hoolahan didn’t feature against Stoke, a match that Norwich were leading 1-0 until the 94th minute. One thing I highlighted in my match report at the time was Norwich’s complete inability to hold onto the ball as time wore on, a self inflicted problem when you leave Hoolahan on the bench. Against WBA, trying to get back into the game, Hoolahan was brought on and demonstrated his ability to win the ball and keep hold of it. In his half an hour, he won 3 tackles, the same as our ‘ball winner’ Andrew Crofts managed in 90 minutes, and more than Andrew Surman in 60, and was excellent in distribution, picking the ball up deep and playing positive passes that tried to get attacks moving.

Since then, he’s become crucial in the Norwich engine room, now a five-man midfield where the attacking emphasis is given to the wingers rather than Wes. This means Hoolahan takes up more deeper, central positions, and plays frequent balls to the wings to start attacks, rather than being the focus of those attacks himself. Against Man United he was resolute in the middle of the bank of five, staying deep and intercepting the ball before reliably passing it off. In this he showed the sort of defensive discipline most thought he lacked. Against Swansea, he again holds a central position and plays passes to both the right and left flanks, getting Pilkington and Bennett on the ball and going forward.

The change in Hoolahan’s game can be seen in the stats. He’s got a goal but no assists from his games so far, a big difference from the attacking days in League One and the Championship. At the same time, he regularly beats his central midfield partners in interceptions and tackles. Against Blackburn he registered more successful tackles than David Fox and Bradley Johnson combined.

It is this all round game, where he can drop deep and win the ball, and then reliably find another yellow shirt, that has made him the most valuable player we have. Rather than having someone who can win it but isn’t good at passing, or who can pass it but doesn’t do enough to win it, Wes Hoolahan is showing he’s capable of both. In this, he’s become the most well rounded player we have.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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