For many English football fans, Middlesbrough and Norwich City are very familiar sides. Middlesbrough was once a big name in the Premier League and they even reached a UEFA Cup final back in 2006. Norwich City had enjoyed top-flight football in recent seasons and they left a good impression for their style of play. Return to the present, both teams are aiming to secure a Premier League spot next season. But their situations are very contrasting.
Tony Pulis’ side are having their second season in the Championship. After an impressive start, they are currently in 8th place and still pushing for a playoff spot. But with only two wins in their last eight matches, things have become difficult for them. Under Daniel Farke, Norwich are flying high on the league table. Their squad is a mix of young talents and experienced players. Farke has also adopted a very catchy free-flowing style of play in both defence and attack. As a result, they are currently on a six-match unbeaten run and have maintained their five-point lead over Leeds.
Their late clash on Saturday was an interesting tactical battle between the two managers. At one end, Middlesbrough showed their intention to build a solid defensive structure. At the other end, Norwich with a high-tempo attacking play continuously threatened Darren Randolph’s goal. But there was only one team that could come out with three points, and it was Norwich. This tactical analysis will work out how Daniel Farke’s side got that crucial goal and secured three points.
Middlesbrough deployed their favoured 3-4-3 formation with Adam Clayton returning to their starting lineup. Pulis continued to trust his preferred back three which consists of Daniel Ayala, Aden Flint, and Dael Fry. Britt Assombalonga replaced Jordan Hugill to play as the lone striker up front. He was supported by former Norwich player Jonny Howson and Ashley Fletcher.
Norwich used the same lineup that helped them secured three points against Rotherham in the last matchday. League top-scorer Teemu Puuki had his third consecutive games without scoring. But his teammate Onel Hernández showed up at the right time to score the only goal. Kenny McLean continued his impressive form by winning six aerial duels and completed 81% of his passes. Jordan Rhodes was also included on the bench but Farke opted not to use him against his former club.
Middlesbrough’s distinctive style of play
Middlesbrough’s intention was to build a solid defensive structure in their own half right from the start of the match. This is a very familiar sight at every club that Tony Pulis has managed, especially Stoke City. He wanted his players to focus on the ball and prevent it from reaching the final third.
He tended to use a 5-3-2 formation when out of possession. George Friend and Ryan Shotton would turn their status from attack to defence and formed the back-line with the centre-backs. Meanwhile, Howson would also drop deep to support John Obi Mikel and Adam Clayton. They would create a shield in front of the defensive line, as demonstrated above.
Pulis also adopted an aggressive pressing game as he wanted his players to win the ball as soon as possible. Combined with the man-oriented marking system, it caused some havoc for Norwich throughout the match. The front three, usually Britt Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher and Howson, would press the centre-backs. But they usually left the ball-carrier with free spaces and suffocated his passing options. This would force him to play a long ball towards the striker.
In that case, Middlesbrough played with a high defensive line. Usually, the centre-backs would clear any long passes that came towards their own half. It’s worth noticing that the centre-backs’ aerial superiority and defensive awareness was key to this system. In total, they have registered eleven clearances and twelve duels won.
Middlesbrough could also change their status from attack to defence quite fast. Take a look at the players’ average position and you would understand why. They played in a quite narrow shape, and the distance between the midfielders was quite small. The defensive line would locate themselves near the halfway line. Mikel and Clayton would follow them mainly because they acted as a shield to prevent any counter-attacks from Norwich.
As mentioned earlier, Howson usually stood near Mikel and acted as a link between the striker and the midfield. The wing-backs are allowed to roam forward to provide threats from the flanks. But Friend and Shotton’s heatmaps showed another interesting point in Middlesbrough’s style of play. Friend usually provided width from the left-hand side and he was a great crosser in many situations. Shotton located himself in the middle of the pitch, but would still provide any through ball to Fletcher when needed.
Norwich’s adaptation to the game
Playing against a stubborn defensive structure is a challenge for Norwich, but Daniel Farke already had plans in mind. When in possession, they usually relied on through balls and long passes that came from Emi Buendía and McLean. Puuki would run the channels and attract Middlesbrough’s defenders’ attention. When that happened, the Finnish striker was creating spaces for Hernández and Marco Stiepermann to move in.
But Norwich couldn’t create any significant chances through open play due to Middlesbrough’s man-oriented marking system. The home side would overload with men in these situations, forcing Norwich to distribute to the flanks. Norwich players had no choice but to circulate the ball and wait patiently for spaces to open up. They also made crosses towards Puuki, but they were cleared most of the time.
When not on the ball, they created a medium block in their own half. Usually, the midfield would act as the first defensive line and their responsibility was to steal the ball. Surprisingly, three out of five players that made most tackles in the game were Norwich’s midfielders. McLean registered four tackles, the most in the game, Stiepermann and Buendía both registered three. In this situation above, we can clearly see a two-layer defensive structure being deployed by Norwich. Stiepermann acted as a spare man in this system, but his responsibility was to roam around and support the central midfielders.
They also adopted a pressing game similar to Middlesbrough’s. Puuki would press high up the pitch and following the ball at the same time. Meanwhile, his teammates slowly approached the opposition’s players and cut down a passing option. This system clearly showed its efficiency in the second half, especially when Middlesbrough tried to raise the game’s tempo. A similar pressed was also being deployed before Hernández’s goal and it occurred in just two seconds.
Although the match only ended up with a single goal, it still showed the way that both sides outplayed the other. Middlesbrough dominated the first half and prevented Norwich from finding an early opening goal in the process. Their stubborn style of play had shown its efficiency but they still lack a bit of sharpness in finding that crucial goal. Tony Pulis will have a lot of things to do if they want to secure that promotion spot to Premier League.
Norwich had accomplished their mission to get three points from the match, and they are now one step closer to promotion. Daniel Farke has demonstrated a very catchy style of play throughout the season and also in this match. He could also switch his tactic based on the strength of their opponent, that’s another advantage for Norwich. But Premier League is a very tough competition, and they surely don’t want to follow Huddersfield’s trail up to now. It’s very interesting to see what changes might Farke bring to Norwich in order to help them adapt with the Premier League next season.
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