Robin Sainty: Norwich City boss needs to sort out his jigsaw pieces
PUBLISHED: 06:00 01 September 2018
In the opening minutes of last Saturday's game the Leeds defender Luke Ayling found himself closed down by Jordan Rhodes and left exposed by his own goalkeeper who had rushed from his line with no hope of getting to the ball first.
His response was to calmly dribble past the stranded Bailey Peacock-Farrell, reverse direction and play the ball to the feet of a waiting team-mate, and while I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy watching a City defender produce a similar manoeuvre, it spoke volumes about the self-belief that courses through Leeds United at the moment.
If there were to be a blueprint for the way in which City are trying to play then surely Marcelo Bielsa’s side are it, but on Saturday they demonstrated comprehensively just how far the home side are from achieving that goal.
That’s not to say that City didn’t have their moments in an opening period that promised much, but once Leeds had been gifted not one goal but two, the game gradually petered out as a contest as the visitors’ assured possession football smothered the Canaries’ increasingly stilted attempts to get back into the game.
Leeds proved emphatically that there is nothing inherently wrong with playing out from the back, but whereas City’s version all too often resulted in their centre backs passing sideways before being forced into a rushed clearance, the visitors were always able to find a midfielder in space.
The key to that was movement; whereas City players were often static when receiving the ball, their opponents were invariably on the move when a pass arrived, making it so much easier to drive into space.
The other thing that stood out was how many ‘blind’ balls were played by Leeds players because they had absolute confidence in where a team-mate would be. I understand that one of Bielsa’s innovations at Elland Road is extended sessions in which players work solely on their movement off the ball, and if that is indeed the case it’s clearly working.
City were simply unable to cope with that movement as Leeds players popped up again and again in acres of space, yet as the game went on they found less and less room themselves as they were pressed unmercifully.
So, where do City go from here? The opening 15 minutes showed that they can move the ball quickly and incisively, but football matches last for 90 and by the end there was a definite sense that the team had run out of ideas, with Daniel Farke apparently unwilling to change a system that clearly wasn’t working.
It is still very early in the season, but there is no doubt that Farke needs to get some results under his belt to head off a groundswell of criticism and he will know that his side must bounce back strongly if the rumbles of discontent are not to develop into something louder and more sustained, particularly with the stresses of the derby making the atmosphere more febrile than it would otherwise have been.
Any suggestion that Farke’s job is under serious threat at this stage would seem to be extremely premature, but the patience of fans isn’t infinite.
Tuesday’s performance from the shadow squad was as uplifting as it was unexpected, and it will have provided the manager with some genuine selection headaches for Sunday’s game, but more crucially it will lift the mood amongst the majority of City fans.
Whilst I wouldn’t expect sweeping changes from last week’s game, the performance of players like Emi Buendia, Max Aarons and Ben Godfrey amongst others has also reaffirmed that, unlike last season, there is real strength in depth in this City squad.
Last season expectation levels were lowered because most of us realised that Farke didn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw. Now that he has, the question still to be answered is whether he can assemble them effectively?