Creative trio see high-flying Norwich only bettered by Barça

ZonalMarking.net editor Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse how the in-form Norfolk side transformed their season...

In Europe’s major five leagues, only Barcelona are currently on a longer unbeaten run than Norwich City, which demonstrates the Canaries’ impressive consistency in recent weeks.

Chris Hughton has managed to turn around Norwich’s season after a disastrous start to the campaign, apparently by taking advantage of the lack of internationals in his side and using the two international breaks to relentlessly drill his players into a good, solid defensive system.

There’s nothing complex about the way Norwich defend. Last season they switched formation almost every week under Paul Lambert and conceded far too many goals, but Hughton orders his side to keep two solid banks of four behind the ball – and the major adjustment is in terms of the defensive line. Against tall strikers they push up in an attempt to keep him away from the penalty box, against quicker forwards they drop closer to goal, denying space in behind. It’s not complicated, but it’s very efficient.

For all the defensive steel Norwich have showcased, the most impressive thing about Hughton’s strategy is that he’s found a great balance between defence and attack. No fewer than three creative players are fielded behind lone striker Grant Holt – Robert Snodgrass, Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington have started Norwich’s last eight games, as Hughton believes he’s found the perfect combination in the final third.

Hoolahan is given something of a free role behind Holt – he contributes relatively little when Norwich don’t have the ball, often staying high up the pitch like a deep-lying forward, rather than an attacking midfielder. However, the interesting thing about his passes chalkboard is how deep he drops to link play – he doesn’t simply wait for knock-downs from Holt, he’s a key part of Norwich’s transitions from defence to attack.

Although he’s a very creative player, Hoolahan often has to wait for long periods before finding a clever pass – against Wigan, for example, his assist for Pilkington was the only chance he created all game.

The form of the two wide players has been particularly impressive in recent weeks – they defend solidly, then attack at pace. Hughton likes to field ‘inverted’ wingers – on the opposite side to their stronger foot – something Pilkington has discussed at length with FourFourTwo Performance. “Always practise with your left foot if it’s weaker,” he says. “Because then you can mix it up: you can go down the line and cross, come inside to shoot or play one-twos with the strikers.”

In Norwich’s system, as the wide players attack speedily, they’re encouraged to shoot. In the Canaries' most recent Premier League fixture, the home win over Wigan, both Pilkington and Snodgrass took advantage of their stronger foot by attempting a few shots from the edge of the box.

Interestingly, they’re much less effective when trying to beat opponents – only two of their eight attempted dribbles were successful.

But their defensive work was impressive, with Snodgrass particularly effective at protecting his full-back against Wigan – he made seven successful tackles and five interceptions, a staggering number for a wide midfielder.

This weekend’s clash with West Brom will be an interesting battle – the two sides play similar 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1 systems, and both sets of wide players contribute effectively at both ends. The major difference is form – West Brom started the season brilliantly but have fallen away in the last couple of weeks, while it’s the opposite story for Norwich. This should leave Hughton’s side confident of picking up three points at the Hawthorns.

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