Premature to write off Norwich City’s system
Paul Lambert had every right to be unhappy on Saturday evening. Having sent his team out in a formation designed to be able to contain and then hit the opposition on the break, the last thing he needed was to lose early goals and have to chase the game.
That meant that a central defender had to be sacrificed to get another striker on, resulting in a switch to a 4-4-2 formation, and that in turn has led to some fans questioning the viability of the three centre back system.
While the system was also abandoned at half-time against Wolves, I think it may be premature to write it off completely, particularly as we were 2-1 up in the latter game.
Given that Lambert clearly has a preference for centre-backs who are comfortable on the ball, the three centre back system with wing-backs is actually a logical option for City and may be worth some perseverance.
Playing with wing-backs can work very effectively although there is always the issue of what to prioritise. If you play with attacking players in those positions you could have problems if your side have to do a lot of defending.
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Equally, if you use natural fullbacks as wing-backs you may be less effective in terms of getting to the by-line and delivering crosses.
There are also questions to consider further up the field. Do you take the aggressive option of two up front or do you strengthen midfield with an extra body and play a lone striker?
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I think what disappointed me about the system on Saturday was the fact that City were unable to stretch the Fulham defence laterally, despite the formation being designed to maximise width, and very few crosses were delivered from dangerous positions. In addition, Fulham's second goal caught City completely square at the back, something that shouldn't happen with that system.
English centre backs are generally brought up with the flat back four where they're expected to pick up a man, but three at the back means that one of them should be free to either sweep or step into midfield with the ball. That player is key to the effectiveness of the system, both in attack and defence, and it was noticeable that when Whitbread started to push on City had their best spell of the first half.
It's not so long ago that the generally held view was that the diamond was the only system that we looked totally convincing with, but in the last 18 months or so things have moved on significantly in terms of City's adaptability. Inevitably there are teething problems when new things are introduced and it can be frustrating for fans. However, it's much more meaningful to try a new system in a live situation rather than in training or even a pre season game.
While formations and systems are always a good talking point it's important to realise that one isn't necessarily superior to another. Both teams have the same number of players, so it's fundamentally a question of how well plans are executed, but the problem of only being able to use one system is that other sides will find and exploit your weaknesses. For example the diamond has been countered very effectively by teams with high quality wingers, so the more options you can use, the more you can keep the opposition guessing.
The future of the three at the back system will ultimately depend on whether Paul Lambert feels that the players currently at his disposal can make it work. However, even if it's shelved for this season I wouldn't be surprised to see it again next term, and perhaps it may even have an affect on City's summer transfer dealings.