Ben Lee: The key trends behind Norwich City’s early season progress
Ben Lee is a City season ticket holder and author of the NCFC Analysis twitter account, who unpicks Canaries’ games with an analytical report highlighting tactical strengths and weaknesses.
During the international break, Ben has unpicked the key tactical trends behind the Canaries productive start to the Championship campaign.
A Double False Nine and a Midfield Box:
· Creating the box
· Numerical advantages
· The art of provocation
· Bounce passes and third-man combinations
· A settled-play diamond
After an encouraging pre-season, David Wagner’s Norwich have further boosted fan optimism with an exceptional start to their 2023/24 Championship campaign. It has been a start highlighting just how far Norwich have come since last season, not least due to their tactical quality and new-found versatility.
The opening stages of David Wagner’s first full season as Norwich head coach have also provided some interesting subplots for fans to discuss. Be it Sara’s quality, Rowe’s breakthrough, added time goals, or the new roles for City’s front two.
Perhaps the most significant of those subplots has gone largely under the radar, so this article will breakdown Norwich’s ‘double false nine’ and the subsequent ‘midfield box’.
Creating the Box
The creation of a midfield box is not an uncommon feature of modern sides, with elite managers like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Mikel Arteta being notable exponents of such structures. But it is worth outlining how most midfield boxes are created.
Let us take Pep Guardiola’s Man City as one example. Guardiola’s side often create a midfield box in settled play: the phases of play after the deep build-up.
Last season, Guardiola’s City often created this box by inverting a full-back alongside the single pivot, while two advanced midfielders completed the box; the other full-back remained alongside the centre-backs to create a back three. This is the same pattern Enzo Maresca, Guardiola’s former assistant, has employed in his new role as Leicester City manager.
But it is important to recognise the distinction between settled play midfield boxes and those created in the deep build-up phases. In these phases, Roberto De Zerbi’s incredible Brighton are most structurally comparable with Wagner’s Norwich. Although it would be wrong to go much further than structural comparisons, given the quality of Brighton.
Wagner’s Norwich and De Zerbi’s Brighton both create a midfield box from a 4-2-4 shape in their deep build-up. This box is created by two forwards dropping into the space ahead of a double pivot, while the wingers remain high and wide.
It is not unusual to see a false nine, but two deep-lying forwards – or a double false nine – is more uncommon.
The value of a midfield box is best understood in the context of a game situation. If an opponent presses in a 4-4-2 shape, for example, they risk conceding a 4v2 central overload if the front two are drawn to press.
But single pivots are becoming more common in contemporary football, with managers often lining up with three central midfielders: typically including a single pivot behind two number eights. Central to this influx of midfield trios is a desire to generate numerical advantages in possession.
However, pressing with a midfield three is still likely to create a numerical disadvantage against a midfield box. The 4v2 overload we saw with a 4-4-2 press is replaced by a 4v3. The pivot is now caught between the deep-lying centre-forwards.
Here we see the value of a double false nine; while one deep-lying centre-forward would fail to overload the opponent’s single pivot, dropping two strikers into the space between the lines creates a 2v1 beyond the initial lines of pressure.
In such situations, opposition centre-backs have a decision to make. In a 4-4-2 pressing structure, centre-backs may choose to jump onto the double false nine to prevent a 4v2 overload but, in doing so, leave their full-backs in wide 1v1 situations with vast spaces behind.
While they are less significant, these problems remain in a 4-3-3 pressing structure. With the single pivot inevitably drawn to one false nine, only one centre-back is needed to jump onto the free striker, leaving a spare centre-back to defend the space behind.
But leaving such spaces relatively empty brings significant risk. Typically, wingers are some of the more direct players in a team; in other words, they are most suited to taking players on with pace. Allowing these players space behind the last defensive line is fraught with danger.
The key to creating spaces and numerical advantages behind opposition lines of pressure is to provoke it.
The Art of Provocation
Regardless of an opponent’s press, they will always leave space somewhere. If they press from the front, space will be created behind the initial lines of pressure. If the centre-backs join the press to prevent these advantages, the space will be behind the defensive lines.
The challenge comes with adapting to the press that faces you. As David Wagner often says, the key is to “play football in the right spaces”. The higher an opponent presses, the further away the space will be and, therefore, the more vertical a team needs to be to find that space from their build-up.
Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi explains this by saying, “The possession always depends on the opponents’ pressure. The tougher the pressure, the more vertical ‘further development’ (build-up).”
Coupled with that is the idea that ‘if you want to reach a space, let it remain empty’: hence the double false nine. By drawing the centre backs into midfield, dangerous spaces are left unguarded behind the defensive line.
If Gunn, Duffy, and Gibson successfully draw the opponent’s centre-forwards to press, the midfielders are forced to jump onto Sara and McLean. If the opposition centre-backs are late to join the press, Barnes and Sargent become free; but if the centre-backs successfully jump onto the Norwich front two, they leave space for Fassnacht and Rowe to attack.
Therein lies the value of provocation. Provoking pressure in the deep build-up phases is the key to beginning this chain of space creation. In training, David Wagner has been heard saying, “Goalkeeper, calm on the ball. If you have no pressure, you stay and invite the pressure.”
De Zerbi has explored the means of provocation, with players often placing the sole of their boot on the ball, a gesture which may seem frivolous. But De Zerbi explains this gesture with reference to the notion of provocation, saying: “Unconsciously, the sole gives the opponent the urge to come at you harder, which is actually what you are looking for.”
This is the art of provocation.
Bounce Passes and Third-Man Combinations
Manipulating pressure and creating space are pointless if the team in possession fail to play into the right areas. In view of this, the challenge moves from provocation to accessing the advantages it creates.
A major advantage of Norwich’s midfield box is the connection it creates between their double pivot and the front two. With players in close proximity, the relationships between them are maximised, thereby facilitating ball progression.
Given the relatively short distance between Norwich’s centre-backs and double false nine, the front two are often accessible via ground passes. With passing lanes to Sara and McLean frequently blocked by pressing strikers, the double false nine may be the best outlets.
Once City’s front two receive the ball, Sara and McLean become accessible via bounce passes. The front two can also play bounce passes to the advancing full-backs who could, in turn, play through balls to the wingers attacking the space left by pressing centre-backs.
These patterns are known as ‘third-man’ combinations. The first man in the pattern is the player making the initial pass, and the second man is the player receiving it. Crucially, the ‘third man’ is the player making an off-the-ball run into space to receive a pass from the second man. In the absence of a third-man run, the second player is vulnerable and may be caught in possession.
Bounce passes and third-man combinations allow a team in possession to access players who would not be accessible via a direct pass. If these passes and runs are timed correctly, they can be the most effective way of achieving vertical ball progression.
A Settled Play Diamond
Once Wagner’s Norwich advance beyond their deep build-up, their 4-2-4 often transitions into a 3-3-4 shape, with Kenny McLean dropping into a back three. Gabriel Sara occupies the space ahead of McLean, while the full-backs overlap beyond inverting wingers.
But Ashley Barnes frequently drops deeper than his strike partner, occupying the space that a typical number ten normally would, thereby creating a temporary 3-diamond-3 shape, or a ‘settled play diamond’.
Against a 4-4-2 formation, this diamond creates a 4v2 numerical advantage in midfield; but, most importantly, it creates clear positional superiority with the inverted wingers and false nine taking up positions between the opponents horizontal and vertical lines.
If the pressing side line up with a midfield three, however, while the numerical advantage remains, Norwich no longer have positional superiority. The central midfielders are in position to mark the inverted wingers, while the single pivot can engage the false nine. In such a situation, provocation and positional fluidity become vital to create last-line overloads and wide 2v1s.
It remains to be seen how the injury to Josh Sargent will impact the offensive cohesion and efficacy we have seen from David Wagner’s Norwich this season, but the signing of Hwang Ui-Jo suggests the German coach is keen to stick to the rotations we have seen in the opening games of the season.
Upon his arrival, the South Korean forward described a conversation he had with David Wagner in which the Norwich head coach explained that “the forwards link the play”, while Wagner himself proclaimed that Ui-Jo is a player who “totally fits into our idea of football”.
None of that suggests there will be a significant structural deviation owing to Sargent’s injury; instead, perhaps the biggest test of Norwich’s structure will come against organised and well-executed presses.
Hosting Leicester, for example, will be a key indicator of the level Norwich are really at.