Surprise is no doubt a characteristic element of football, it’s one of the reasons we love the sport.
It also happens to be one word that we rarely use to describe Manchester City. Their fluid passing, tantalizing movement, ruthless efficiency, and habit of winning are so familiar to the footballing world that it seems to be a part of natural law rather than the traits of a football team.
Yet that perception of Man City was shattered on Saturday at Carrow Road, where the Canaries soared to a 3-2 victory over the Champions. It has been described as one of the shock results of the Premier League era, and no doubt it was unanticipated. Yet scratch beneath the surface and one realizes that Daniel Farke’s team is no ordinary promoted side and that the footballing world should perhaps temper their bewilderment.
Norwich is an intelligently run club. Their sporting director, Stuart Webber, was at the center of Huddersfield Town’s surprising run to the Premier League and was the man who spotted the talent of David Wagner, the current Schalke coach. Webber is someone who is committed to implementing a philosophy within his team, and ensuring that the proceedings of the club both on and off the pitch contribute to that philosophy.
It’s one of the reasons that he allowed Daniel Farke time to bed in when he was first appointed as the manager. A mediocre 14th place Championship finish in the 17/18 season gave rise to a dominant 18/19 season in which Norwich impressed not just with their results, but with their style of play.
The efficacy of Norwich’s passing, pressing, and counter-attacking against City has been meticulously cultivated over the past few seasons. It’s a tribute to both Farke’s coaching ability and the excellent club structure at Norwich, for their willingness to commit to a specific playing style and ability to identify the right types of players for minimal prices. Which has combined to enable Farke to construct a side capable of executing his preferred style.
It made comments about Norwich’s lack of significant summer spending reflective of the way in which pundits and fans view success in football. We often conflate more summer spending with a higher probability of success, yet this not often borne out by the facts. Rarely is it mentioned that continuity is perhaps the most valuable asset to a team. Particularly for a team that plays a style as technically, tactically, and physically demanding as Norwich, such coherence within the team enables more effective execution of the coach’s ethos.
It makes the club’s minimal output on new players an advantage rather than a hindrance. Norwich has been able to tie down several players to longer-term deals, avoid significant debt, and revamp the youth academy and training facilities. Such investments are crucial to any team, yet are often forgotten in the discourse of club spending and how a club can attain success.
All of this is to say that while Norwich’s ability to play the type of football they did against City was undeniably impressive, it was not necessarily shocking. Their ability to pass around the City press, quickly create chances on the counter, and unsettle them with their pressing is the reflection of intelligent club management and coaching. It is the way they have always played, and their actions both on and off the pitch suggest little desire to deviate from it.
What was surprising about Norwich’s performance was their defense. They sat back in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1, assertively pressing out wide and denying the City attackers time and space to attack. Individual performances of the likes of Sam Bryam and Ben Godfrey seemed to illustrate the general confidence of the side and spurred the team on to an impressive defensive display.
What was particularly noteworthy was Norwich’s ability to track the runs of the City midfielders and forwards, keeping up with their constant movement while maintaining a solid defensive shape. Such defensive acumen is not commonly associated with the Canaries, and it’s difficult to say how exactly they were able to maintain such concentration. Perhaps it’s the challenge of playing the Champions, the product of specific routines that were practiced during the week, the reflection of added desire and imputes from fringe players who were given the nod due to injuries, or something else entirely.
Regardless, it was a truly surprising sight to see a team that has already shown its defensive frailties so effectively quell the threat of the most potent attacking team in the country. They still conceded two goals, which is perhaps more a reflection of City’s attacking prowess, yet their ability to control the game and prevent a barrage of chances being created against them was brilliant.
Whereas Norwich benefitted from the coherence of their team and standout individual performances, City suffered from the direct opposite. In defence, City seemed to lack the chemistry and understanding that they had last season, and individual errors cost them goals, as has been the case throughout the start of the season. The injury of Aymeric Laporte and departure of Vincent Kompany no doubt play a role in this. The two were integral to City’s defensive success last season, and their replacement pairing of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi are a largely untested partnership.
Both players, while undeniably talented, are capable of sloppy mistakes, and this has no doubt impeded City’s defensive solidity. This has not been helped by the inclusion of Rodri, who is still getting used to the hugely demanding role he has to perform. Fernandinho’s excellence in the defensive midfield position sometimes went unnoticed, yet it was vital to City’s ability to build attacks and protect the backline. Rodri has all the skills to perform this role to a similar level, yet it will take time, and his growing pains may be showing in City’s inability to stop counter-attacks and protect their center backs adequately.
However, it shouldn’t be too much of a concern for Guardiola, who will no doubt resolve his team’s shortcomings in due course. Yet against a team of the attacking quality of Norwich, those weaknesses were their downfall. The narrative of City losing the title already is obviously misled, but it does make their quest for the three-peat more challenging and intriguing to witness. Even more interesting is Norwich City, who have injected bravery, imagination, and new life into the Premier League.