As a 3-month hiatus of Premier League football concluded, Norwich City and Southampton faced off. On one hand, Norwich were hoping to begin a late charge towards Premier League survival. Last season’s Championship champions were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table. Despite their growing reputation for attractive football, the Canaries have come under fire for their leaky defence – perhaps caused by an over-reliance on youth throughout the squad. For Ralph Hassenhüttl’s Southampton side, the task was clear. Continue in their turnaround – which spurred in November – drag themselves as far away from those bottom clubs and end a fragmented season in good form.
It was both clubs’ first taste of competitive action behind closed doors and would be a fascinating insight into how the teams had handled the break. It soon became clear that both sides would pick up where they left off pre-lockdown and Southampton condemned any idea of a late Norwich revival.
When Daniel Farke announced his starting XI, everyone was slightly shocked. The decision to start forward Josip Drmić alongside Teemu Pukki suggested that Farke was perhaps abandoning his preferred 4-2-3-1 in favour of a two-striker system. However, this was not strictly the case. Drmić instead occasionally played the number 10 role, allowing him to remain central and help join a relaxed 2 man press with Pukki when the game allowed.
Norwich, as ever, tried to implement high full-backs (Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis) to stay wide, join the attack and put Southampton on the back foot. The problem, seemingly consistent throughout this season, was that this left plenty of space in behind for Southampton to exploit. Either side of Drmić was Todd Cantwell and Norwich’s most creative outlet – with seven assists this season – Emi Buendía.
Ralph Hassenhüttl’s Southampton opted for a more traditional 4-4-2. Jan Valery and Ryan Bertrand occupied the full-back roles. Valery in particular provided a potent threat going forward, occupying the wide areas left free by the often-vacant Aarons and Lewis. In central midfield, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg sat in front of the back two (Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens) which allowed James Ward-Prowse to roam more freely, consistently becoming an option in attacking areas. Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond looked to swap wings frequently and rotated in their press alongside the front two.
Danny Ings’s Premier League goal tally this season is only bettered by Aubameyang and Vardy and the striker was accompanied by Michael Obafemi. Both strikers feature frequently in this tactical analysis as they were more than happy to drift wide, dragging a Norwich centre-back with them in the process, stretching an already struggling back four apart.
Effective early pressing
The Canaries deployed a simple press, whereby the man on the ball would be pressed by one Norwich player. This press would begin as soon as Southampton entered the middle third, and Pukki especially worked tirelessly all game to close down the opposition defence when they had the ball.
When Norwich won the ball back high up the pitch, they aimed to shift the ball out to the flanks as quickly as possible to get their dangerous full-backs in the game. Aarons was keen to cross the ball to the front two – Pukki and Drmić – who were starting their first game together this season. Buendía also enjoyed the early stages of the game and Norwich looked to get the Argentinian, who averages 2.6 key passes and 3.2 dribbles per game, involved as much as possible.
In the first ten minutes, this press was highly effective. Southampton did not come out the blocks with any sense of ferocity and were caught in possession multiple times. In fact, they conceded five corners, three shots and one dangerous free-kick inside the first eight minutes. It can be seen how Norwich would engage in this press below.
Though they start in that 4-4-2 shape, it is quickly neglected by the midfield and strikers in order to press the man on the ball. How this occurred is shown. The ball down the line is shut off by the Cantwell on the wing, forcing the next Southampton pass to go inside.
Another phase of pressing is shown below, with Cantwell applying pressure to Højbjerg in the right-back position. What’s notable are the single yellow shirts all in close proximity to a red shirt. There was no single pressing shape, rather, Norwich would simply chase the ball and aim to force a mistake.
The space on Southampton’s left-hand side can be seen at the top of the picture. Upon winning the ball, Norwich would try to shift the ball out to their creative wide players as quickly as possible. Southampton were caught out by this numerous times in the game’s opening stages but quickly grew into the game.
Southampton’s three-man press
A big part of Southampton’s success came through their efficient high press, which nullified the threat of Norwich’s young full-backs. An analysis of Southampton’s continued press showed them starting as a three, turning their 4-4-2 shape into a 4-3-3 when Tim Krul had the ball. The still frame below shows this with Obafemi shutting off the pass to Norwich centre-midfielder, Trybull. At the same time, Armstrong comes high and narrow to ensure that if the centre-backs were given the ball, they would be pressed intensely.
Ultimately, this forced Norwich to go long to beat the press in the hope of releasing their full-backs, who played extremely high. However, the use of a 4-3-3 shape out of possession by Southampton helped them sustain attacks.
Redmond, who was played in a left-midfield role, was extremely important in this pressing system. Given that Armstrong was often the player to join the front two to create a three-man press in the attack, Redmond played as a wide central midfielder in order to shut the pass to Aarons off – who Godfrey was constantly looking to give the ball to.
A perfect example of this is the frame below which highlights the importance of Redmond in making Ralph Hasenhüttl’s high pressing system function properly. As soon as Godfrey received the ball, Ings pressed intensely and shut off the pass to the central area to force the centre-back out wide.
Ings’s press was the trigger for Redmond’s direct pressing of Godfrey, where his role was to stop him playing wide to Aarons, leaving the Norwich player with no short options and forcing him to go long. This played massively into the hands of the Saints given the aerial ability of their defenders. Bednarek and Bertrand combined to win 11 aerial duels, which helped Southampton sustain the pressure on Norwich.
The effectiveness of this pressing system, but also Norwich’s inability to play balls in behind, resulted in clear-cut opportunities for the visitors. The most significant example of this was Ings crashing a shot against the crossbar in the first half, shown in the two still frames below.
This came from centre-back Stephens, who pushed high up the pitch to dispossess Cantwell in a central area. This left Norwich exposed to another counter-attack due to the extreme width of the full-backs and amount of men in front of the ball.
Stephens was able to carry the ball directly through the middle of the Norwich midfield and thereby create a three on two situation with Ings and Obafemi either side of the defender. Aware of the numerical disadvantage, Godfrey closed Stephens down on the ball. The left space outside of him for Ings to attack. Ings’s shot unfortunately hit the crossbar, yet this was another example of Norwich falling into the traps laid by the Saints’ high press.
Mistakes get punished
A running theme for Norwich this season is individual errors costing them goals. The first example of this came from Southampton’s first corner. Displayed below, all eleven Norwich players are in the penalty area, with a combined marking tactic of zonal and man-to-man. However, sat on the edge of the box – completely unmarked – is Southampton winger Armstrong.
It is a basic necessity to mark the opposition when defending corners, or else you get punished. On this occasion, Armstrong was allowed to charge into the penalty area, still unmarked, and get a shot away after the corner was drilled low into his feet. Cantwell was preoccupied by Redmond on the corner of the box, which allowed the space to Armstrong from the set-piece.
Fortunately for Norwich, Armstrong’s shot sailed over the bar. However, it was a clear warning sign of Norwich failing to do the basics. A clear mistake nearly resulted in the concession of what would have been the opening goal of the game.
A second example of Norwich’s individual mistakes resulted in the first goal of the game. From a Southampton throw-in, the ball found itself in the box – despite seven Norwich outfield players defending the throw. After a few scuffed kicks, the ball came to Godfrey who had an opportunity to clear the ball (pictured below). However, Godfrey failed to do so, letting the ball ricochet off his leg straight into the path of Armstrong, who was able to slot an uncontested Ings into a free penalty area. Ings curled the ball past Krul and scored Southampton’s first of the evening.
The Norwich mistakes did not stop here, and intelligent pressing tactics implemented by Hassenhüttl forced the Canaries into errors which ultimately gave up chances and determined the game’s outcome.
Issues with the Norwich press
Ultimately, the game was dominated by Southampton, and the pressing game that Norwich employed ended up working in their opposition’s favour. Pressing in this manner requires a high degree of fitness, something Norwich seemed to be lacking. It also resulted in Norwich’s attacking shape being distorted. They’d often lose possession right after winning it due to the passer having no viable forward options.
A press of this fashion with a relatively high line of engagement commits a lot of men forward. There is a huge danger of being left short at the back if the press is beaten, and this happened too often to a tired Norwich.
In this example, we can see seven Norwich players ahead of the ball subsequent to the press being beaten. This left a wealth of space for Southampton going forward (a five-on-three counter attack in this case) – something they exploited the fullest in the second half.
Norwich’s attempted build-up play
Norwich aimed to build their attacks from the back, starting with goalkeeper Krul. Centre-backs Godfrey and Klose would split to allow Trybull in the centre of midfield to drop and be an option. Lewis and Aarons would push as high as the halfway line out wide. In between them would be two central midfielders occupying the half spaces. These were often McLean and Buendía. This allowed Cantwell to push up in between the lines and link the play to the two strikers.
With this shape, the hope is that the central defenders will have an abundance of options – short and long – subsequent to being given the ball by Krul. The one-man pivot is an option inside. If he gets cut off, there should be a straight pass to one of the two central midfielders occupying the half spaces, who can turn out and feed a wide man or an attacker.
Often, Godfrey and Klose would either opt or be forced to evade the midfield men and hit the ball long to the wing or the strikers – this was highly ineffective. Despite being overloaded in midfield areas (and using the long pass a whopping 56 times to negate this), Norwich’s attacks were most effective when they played through the lines.
In the example below, Godfrey received a pass from Krul and he quickly shifted it forwards to substitute Mario Vrančić. After a positive first few touches, he offloaded the ball forwards to Buendía, who had made a smart run across the Southampton midfield. In these two passes Norwich broke the first line of defence and had got themselves into a positive attacking position.
After a neat turn, the Argentinian aimed to slot in Onel Hernández (not in shot), who had run from behind Bertrand to get himself into a position between full-back and centre-half. There was a lot of space in behind and if the pass would have reached its intended target, there would’ve been an excellent scoring chance.
This positive use of the ball between full-back and centre-back was used again a few minutes after this example. It was Aarons who had got himself in behind and in a position to swing in a dangerous cross.
However, examples of this intricate build-up leading to chances are few and far between. Southampton’s smart press led to Norwich being forced to play longer and wider. This didn’t suit Lewis and Aarons who were often outjumped and outnumbered by Southampton defenders. Despite high possession figures, ball retention for Norwich in the opposition’s half was very poor. Attacking returns therefore were not encouraging. Norwich managed just nine shots, a 36% aerial duel success rate and an xG of 0.87 (per infogol).
Farke wants his teams to be fluid in possession: Drmić was keen to drop off and get himself on the ball, Cantwell would drift way inside – far from his positional base at left-midfield, there was no consistency in the type of runs the full-backs would make, and the likes of Pukki and Buendía would prioritise channel-running and through-ball-chasing. As a result, the men in yellow looked very disjointed in the attack.
Such fluidity that Farke desired manifested itself as disorganisation. Apart from the examples given, attacks were poorly structured and Norwich’s main breakthroughs occurred following Southampton errors.
In the picture above, which displays a Norwich thrown-in, all ten Norwich outfielders are in shot. Throw-ins can be used as effective attacking outlets, but here, ten Norwich players seem to be occupying roughly 20% of the pitch. Spacing and ball retention in advanced areas was a huge issue for Norwich throughout. Their lack of shape in attack and defence allowed a smart Southampton team to brush them aside with ease.
Southampton’s use of the channels
Perhaps the recurring theme throughout the game was Southampton’s use of the channels. These wide areas were vacated by the extremely attacking Norwich full-backs. The ball put in behind the channels was often used in transition, with Obafemi benefiting by making some strong forward runs and causing major problems for Norwich. There were numerous examples of Obafemi exploiting the space left behind in the channels, and the below still frame is the perfect illustration of the tactic.
Norwich’s full-backs were extremely high in attack and virtually deployed as extra wingers with the aim of creating overloads in wide areas. However, because of Southampton’s pressing and dominance in midfield areas, they often left huge gaps in the wide defensive channels. With the pace of Obafemi, Southampton were able to get bodies forward extremely quickly and create chances for their forward-thinking players.
This tactic played a huge role in the second goal of the game, with Armstrong the beneficiary as he slotted home to make it 2-0 to Southampton nine minutes into the second half. As you can see there were huge spaces in wide areas once more, especially on the left-hand side of Norwich’s defence as Lewis struggled to recover from his high position in transition again. Their back four are highlighted below.
Another clever piece of forward play from Obafemi is illustrated here again. His intelligent run played a huge role in creating the space for Armstrong to drive into and score. Obafemi’s run across the centre-backs was able to commit Klose and Godfrey centrally, with the ongoing Armstrong almost entirely unopposed in the right channel.
The creation of this space is a result of Obafemi’s decoy run and the development of the attack in the frame below sees Obafemi run towards the left channel, while Ings is able to give the ball to Armstrong who is still unmarked in the right channel. Armstrong eventually cut back on his left foot and slid the ball past a helpless Krul, condemning Norwich to a 19th defeat of the season.
And lastly, the third goal, which really was the final nail in Norwich’s coffin, also saw Southampton using the channels effectively. Obafemi’s pace in behind to the wide left saw him gain an assist, which was more than deserved for a strong performance.
Yet again, Obafemi was released out wide where the full-back was absent, and he was able to show composure to hold the ball up and play it back centrally to the ongoing Redmond. The winger emphatically slid the ball into the bottom right corner to cap off a move that was characteristic of Southampton’s attacking strategy.
The domination of the channels was something that Norwich had no answers to. Despite being dominated in these areas, Farke was reluctant to adapt his tactics. Perhaps it is the degree of naivety in terms of tactical set-up which leaves them at the foot of the Premier League table. However, we must not neglect the astute tactics used by Hasenhüttl in this game, who continues to turn around Southampton’s season around in impressive fashion.
For Southampton, it was a Hassenhüttl masterclass. A smart, effective press was met by an equally smart and effective attacking system. They forced Norwich into a game which did not suit them at all, thus nullifying any attacking threat Norwich could have posed. Going forward, they were able to exploit an embedded weakness in Norwich’s system. Overall, their return to competitive action will have pleased Hassenhüttl and Saints fans alike.
In contrast, the break from football doesn’t seem to have helped Norwich, who now look doomed to relegation. Farke seems too stubborn to sacrifice Aarons and Lewis’ attacking threat in favour of adding much-needed defensive shape and structure. On the few occasions they managed to get forward, they struggled to break into the penalty area to create any clear-cut opportunities. Defensively, mistakes were rife and at such a high level – you have to expect to be punished.