Norwich City have been a surprise package in the Championship this season – surprising not just with their results but with the manner in which they’ve achieved them. With German coach Daniel Farke at the helm, Norwich have surpassed most pundits’ pre-season predictions of mid-table and impressed with their style of play.
Farke rose to relative prominence achieving promotions with then sixth-tier SV Lippstadt, a team he also played for before coaching. While Farke has said he initially wanted to be a sporting director, he took coaching badges to better understand how football clubs operate on the pitch, as well as off, and discovered a gift for the role.
After leaving Lippstadt, he was offered a coaching job in charge of Borussia Dortmund’s reserves where, again, he impressed, while working alongside Thomas Tuchel and under the excellent Dortmund Sporting Director Michael Zorc; Farke’s grandfather had played for Dortmund in the 1950s.
Farke joined Norwich after the Norfolk club recruited former Huddersfield Town sporting director Stuart Webber, who had overseen the Terrier’s appointment of another Dortmund reserves boss, David Wagner. Webber’s role at Norwich, and his close working relationship with Farke, cannot be understated. In an interview with Training Ground Guru, Webber explained his philosophy at Norwich: “Employ someone who can implement a certain style of play, be open-minded in the transfer market and promote young players from within.” Webber and Farke have followed successful examples from Germany, like Dortmund, where a close relationship between sporting director and coach is well-established and viewed as key to the club’s development.
Farke has certainly been empowered to develop his style and despite a bumpy first season at Norwich, after which the Canaries finished 14th, the club have retained faith in what he’s seeking to achieve and backed him, both in the market and off the pitch, with an overhaul of the academy and training facilities. Norwich’s transfer dealings have, according to Transfermarkt, brought in around £70m in the last two seasons, while only spending £20m. They’ve been particularly active in the Bundesliga 2, signing Mario Vrancic from SV Darmstadt, Marco Stiepermann from VfL Bochum, and Onel Hernandez from Eintracht Braunschweig, among others, while also finding real value elsewhere: Emi Buendia cost only £1.5m from Getafe, while Moritz Leitner cost the same from FC Augsburg; Teem Pukki was signed on a free from Brondby IF, while Christoph Zimmerman was also a free transfer from Dortmund reserves and Tom Trybull joined for nothing from ADO Den Haag. No big names, no big fees, but a host of excellent, undervalued players. And this approach, marrying seriously astute transfer business with an overall structure at the club, is paying dividends, with Norwich occupying an automatic promotion place and with a strong infrastructure.
Farke has explained his footballing philosophy. In an interview with Nick Miller, published in the Independent in July 2017, Farke stated: “I don’t like my teams just to be compact and to react, I like to act. I like to have the ball – if I could choose I would have the ball for 90 minutes…To be successful you have to find a good balance between offence and defence, to work without the ball, but our main tactic is to work with the ball, to be in possession.” Indeed, according to WhoScored’s data, in the Championship only Swansea play fewer ‘long passes’ in total, while Norwich play the third most ‘short passes’ in the league and with the joint second best accuracy
While Norwich City may have shown some flexibility, or perhaps inconsistency, towards the start of Farke’s reign, at this point his 4-2-3-1 is remarkably well-oiled and can deploy the same overall approach game-to-game with only subtle adjustments for opposition.
Defensively, Norwich press situationally and very effectively. Pukki and Stiepermann close down the centre halves and the goalkeeper, while the full-backs support the press in wide areas in the opposition’s half.
Norwich will then fall back into a sort of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 mid-block, depending on whether the opposition are attacking wide or centrally, but with players, especially the central midfielders, springing out of this block to press should the opposition take a bad touch or start passing backwards. Norwich’s low block also sees plenty of pressing, especially in wide areas, while the defensively-minded midfielder, Tettey or Trybull, will also rush forwards to block shots or intercept passes.
It’s also worth noting Norwich’s initial low block shape often looks like a three man back line, especially if they are falling back against a counter-attack or if the press is broken out wide. This is because one of the full backs is pushed high to support the attack, often Max Aarons on the right – left back Jamal Lewis will then tuck in to become the left-sided centre back, while the right-sided centre back pushes wide into the full back’s space, giving Norwich a degree of cover even when they’re caught out with a turnover high up the pitch.
Norwich press well and often create turnovers through interceptions or tackles, but the value is as much in disrupting the opposition build-up by forcing passes into certain areas, usually wide or long, as it is winning back the ball high up the pitch.
In transition, Norwich are a great combination of incisive and patient – if a break is on, for example if one of the central midfielders can direct a vertical pass towards Pukki or Stiepermann, or there is space to run with the ball out wide, then Norwich commit immediately to the attack.
However, they can also be patient if the chance isn’t there. Tim Krul, yet another free transfer, plays the ball to the centre backs or the deeper-dropping central midfielder, Tettey or Trybull, and Norwich will move the ball up the pitch while rotating possession between this diamond of players, until there is space for the attacking players to explode into. Ben Godfrey, the centre back, is also used to bring the ball out against teams who press high, before looking to hit the central midfielders or full backs.
Norwich’s full backs get very high, especially Aarons on the right, which enables a clustering of attacking players towards the central column of the pitch and also encourages switches of play that catch the opposition out. There is significant movement – for example, Emi will drift wide to receive the ball, lay it off to Aarons on the overlap, and then push forwards into the central area or the channel between full back and centre back as Aarons drives forwards to act as the winger. This allows Norwich to get bodies into the danger areas, as the full backs provide so much of the attacking width that the wingers can play narrowly in support of Pukki and Stiepermann.
On the left, Onel Hernandez carries the ball well and leads Norwich for dribbling, so Jamal Lewis often does not get quite as high on the overlap, but offers supporting runs and cuts inside ahead of Hernandez. The excellent Bosnian midfielder Mario Vrancic often drifts wide left as well from central midfield, taking the ball wide before passing it in to Hernandez to run at the opposition defence. The allows Norwich to outnumber the opposition out wide to create space for Hernandez’s dynamic running, while also ensuring that they have players in the box to receive crosses.
Up front, free signing Pukki has been lethal in front of goal; to date, after scoring twice against Ipswich, he has 20 goals and five assists at 0.72 goals per 90. Pukki is tireless, running the channels for other players to find space inside, popping up in the box to score himself, and chasing down the centre backs and ‘keeper in the press.
Behind him, Stiepermann, a converted defensive midfielder who can also play left back, has a freer role. He will sometimes stay in the ten slot to link the direct vertical passes from midfield to the attacking trident, and is often used as an aerial out-ball because of his height. But he also drifts wide left or right to help create overloads or provide late runs into the box from the opposite side of the pitch to where possession is.
Norwich are a superb team who play excellent, possession-based football. They can be patient when needed, but possess the dynamism to attack relentlessly and at pace against opposition who sit off. Defensively organised too, Norwich have all the tools to cement automatic promotion. They’ve acquired players intelligently, developed academy prospects such as Aarons and Lewis, and, crucially, had patience in Farke despite a glitchy first season. Norwich have a clear philosophy that they’re executing well, and it shows.