In EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs major five leagues, only Barcelona are currently on a longer unbeaten run than Norwich City, which demonstrates the CanariesÃ¢ÂÂ impressive consistency in recent weeks.
Chris Hughton has managed to turn around NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs 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.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂ 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. ItÃ¢ÂÂs not complicated, but itÃ¢ÂÂs very efficient.
For all the defensive steel Norwich have showcased, the most impressive thing about HughtonÃ¢ÂÂs strategy is that heÃ¢ÂÂs found a great balance between defence and attack. No fewer than three creative players are fielded behind lone striker Grant Holt Ã¢ÂÂ Robert Snodgrass, Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington have started NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs last eight games, as Hughton believes heÃ¢ÂÂs found the perfect combination in the final third.
Hoolahan is given something of a free role behind Holt Ã¢ÂÂ he contributes relatively little when Norwich donÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt simply wait for knock-downs from Holt, heÃ¢ÂÂs a key part of NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs transitions from defence to attack.
Although heÃ¢ÂÂs a very creative player, Hoolahan often has to wait for long periods before finding a clever pass Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ they defend solidly, then attack at pace. Hughton likes to field Ã¢ÂÂinvertedÃ¢ÂÂ wingers Ã¢ÂÂ on the opposite side to their stronger foot Ã¢ÂÂ something Pilkington has discussed at length with FourFourTwo Performance. Ã¢ÂÂAlways practise with your left foot if itÃ¢ÂÂs weaker,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. Ã¢ÂÂBecause 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
In NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs system, as the wide players attack speedily, theyÃ¢ÂÂre 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, theyÃ¢ÂÂre much less effective when trying to beat opponents Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ he made seven successful tackles and five interceptions, a staggering number for a wide midfielder.
This weekendÃ¢ÂÂs clash with West Brom will be an interesting battle Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ West Brom started the season brilliantly but have fallen away in the last couple of weeks, while itÃ¢ÂÂs the opposite story for Norwich. This should leave HughtonÃ¢ÂÂs side confident of picking up three points at the Hawthorns.
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