By Graham Ruthven
Norwich City’s relegation from the Premier League was confirmed as soon as Paul Lambert left the club for a new challenge at Aston Villa. Without the man who had taken them to two successive promotions and established them in England’s top flight, they were doomed.
On the day of Lambert’s departure, some British bookmakers had the Canaries as odds on to suffer the drop from English soccer’s top flight. Plus, there was second season syndrome to contend with (the soccer equivalent of the second album curse).
But just as Wigan have proved it’s possible for more modest clubs to establish themselves among the Premier League elite, Norwich have too.
Lambert’s replacement, former Newcastle United coach Chris Hughton, has so far managed to match his predecessor’s top-flight success, taking the Canaries to within just four points of the Champions League places.
However, what is most remarkable about Hughton’s continuation of Lambert’s legacy is that despite retaining much of the same squad, he has created a style of his own at Carrow Road.
“If the opposition have a small centre-forward they will want to thread balls through, work the lines and play into feet or the channels,” Hughton told FourFourTwo magazine.
“Pressing high up the pitch won’t let them do that. Don’t press man-for-man, as they will just work the ball around you and create chances to score.”
This strategy to press high up the field was evident when faced with Tottenham and 5ft5in striker Jermain Defoe at White Hart Lane in September. Spurs’ inclination to use Gareth Bale on the left wing as a channel to create opportunities in front of goal was countered by Robert Snodgrass, who made the most challenges on the Norwich team.
Out of the top ten players with the most interceptions seven were Norwich players. Even Grant Holt, the prominent focal point to the Canaries’ attack, weighed in with three interceptions.
By pressing so intensely on Spurs in possession Norwich were able to establish an advanced platform when they did regain control of the ball, reflected in the fact that Russell Martin made more passes in the attacking third than any of his teammates.
Such a strategy was also apparent in last week’s 4-3 win over Swansea, another dynamic and mobile side like Spurs, with Snodgrass once again Norwich’s top tackler and interceptor, and Javier Garrido, a left back, in the top three of the Canaries’ most active attacking performers.
In some ways Hughton has reversed the traditional roles and responsibilities of defenders and attackers, expecting defensive awareness from his attackers and attacking instinct from his defenders.
When Hughton deviated from his high pressing system for a trip to Stamford Bridge in October in favour of a conservative, counter-attacking strategy, Norwich were humbled by Chelsea in a 4-1 defeat.
That was their last defeat in the Premier League, with the Canaries currently on an unbeaten run of nine fixtures, which has included wins over Arsenal and Manchester United.
As the season has progressed, Hughton has identified Anthony Pilkington as his strongest attacking hub, shifting the weight of his side’s balance towards the 24-year-old on the left wing.
But in trusting him with the majority of attacking possession Hughton frees up Snodgrass on the right side to exploit the space vacated by opposition defenders forced to counter Norwich’s control of the play around Pilkington.
Hughton might not have displayed Lambert’s knack for identifying and poaching players at a lower level and proving their worth in the Premier League yet, but that does not mean the former Newcastle manager has not shown shrewdness in the transfer market.
One player Lambert was not able to rely upon was Sebastien Bassong, who has become integral to Hughton’s system at Carrow Road. Rather puzzlingly, the French-born Cameroonian’s impact at Norwich since joining from Spurs in the summer has gone largely unnoted.
Bassong’s importance to Norwich can be examined by looking at his most common pass combinations. Whereas most central defenders will develop an understanding with a deep lying defensive midfielder, Bassong consistently looks to pass into his full backs, with Garrido and Steven Whittaker (two more Hughton signings) his most common pass combination.
As per Hughton’s strategy in the aforementioned games against Spurs and Swansea, this allows Norwich to fashion a high platform to press the opposition backline. Furthermore, by quickly shifting the play into the channels Norwich eliminates the likelihood of having their own central basis pressed by a high opposition line.
As Norwich closed out a season that saw them record their highest league position for almost two decades (since 1993), many asked whether things could get any better for the Canaries.
Under Lambert, Norwich were often accused of using Holt as an apex for an abrasively direct and physical game. It might have counted against the former Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury Town striker when England manager Roy Hodgson came to picking his squad for Euro 2012.
That allegation can be angled at Norwich no longer. Under Hughton the East Anglian side have become a tactically aware and dynamic outfit, headed by a manager that understands and embraces the modern game. If Norwich were old-fashioned under Lambert, they are now decidedly contemporary with Hughton.