Historical bias may lead us to believe that newly promoted teams, especially those who do not spend vast amounts, have a tendency to approach the Premier League in a defensive first approach. In the past three seasons, of the nine teams that have been promoted from the Championship, it’s fair to suggest that Brighton, Huddersfield Town, Burnley, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City all adopted a more conservative setup. This is not a criticism of that plan at all, quite the opposite.
Burnley, for example, are shining illustration of a club being run sustainably, maximising their strengths, minimising their weaknesses and consistently performing above budget and expectation to achieve quite astonishing results. There is, however, a growing feeling that this year’s promoted teams are all looking to attack the Premier League in different guises. This weekend gave us a clear indication of the styles, approach and key concepts of both Sheffield United and Norwich, and the impressive nature with which they have both taken to the Premier League in their very distinct systems.
When Norwich kicked off the Premier League season against Liverpool, I spent much of my time on social media defending their approach. I thought they were exceptionally brave, created dangerous openings and were at least expressing their way of playing on Liverpool. Perhaps defensively naïve, especially in transition, but an approach to admire. Skip to this weekend and the narrative has fully turned. Norwich were simply sensational in demolishing a Newcastle side bereft of any idea of how to cope with the Canaries flying system.
On paper Norwich setup in a 4-2-3-1. Very key there that I said on paper, because that formation simply does not exist when Norwich are in possession.
Under Farke, when in possession, the 4-2-3-1 becomes a very narrow three behind the lone striker. The players combine, swap areas they take up and invert both in behind and beyond Teemu Pukki to overload the centre of the pitch. Emi Buendia often drifts in from the RAM role to take up an inside right or even no 10 role while Marco Steipermann has a licence to drift and combine with the always forward bursting FBs.
Tim Kasteele defines innovation as “executing new concepts from existing ideas to add value”. In this sense, Daniel Farke and his Norwich side are the definition of innovation. The below image (taken from Whoscored) highlights the average positions of the Norwich players throughout the game. Average positions have their flaws which are widely known for people who study them, however in this instance it shows the “false winger” system that Norwich adopt.Farke has implemented a system in which the front three behind central striker Teemu Pukki have full positional freedom. This suits the abilities and strengths of those players, with the brilliantly lively Emi Buendia inverting from the right side, the young and classy Todd Cantwell inverting from the left. The players along with the central attacking midfielder Marco Steipermann all possess high tactical intelligence and an ability to understand space, movement patterns and take the ball on the half turn.The snapshot above shows this flexibility in Norwich’s build up play. Buendia (highlighted) starts on the right and then has drifted inside across to a central space as the move progressed. The space he vacates allows areas for ultra-attacking right back Max Aarons to burst into. Buendia is very spatially intelligent, ensuring he stays between defensive and midfield lines while also being close enough to the two ahead of him to create an overload in the box if a crossing opportunity arises.The above image highlights Todd Cantwell this time, nominally in the LAM role. As the ball is worked down the right, Cantwell takes up a central no 10 space, vacating the width of the left side role to LB Jamal Lewis. This again overloads the Newcastle midfield as Cantwell stays in the space between the Newcastle RB and the CMs. He is then able to receive and drive at the defence before playing into his forward, Pukki.Again, we can see intelligence of Cantwell, making an inverted out to in run, in-between FB and CB. Cantwell made this run numerous times in the game, causing countless problems for the Newcastle defence. The energetic midfielder was highly impressive, creating the most chances in the game with two assists and played a major part in the Newcastle defence being cut open, time and again.
In Stiepermann, Norwich have the perfect man to run this system through, the German is fantastic at understanding when to recycle possession and build patiently, or to play quick, vertical passes through lines of the opposition. In Leitner, Farke possesses his passing funnel or metronome. The German attempted 105 passes on Saturday at a pass accuracy of 90.5% – the most in the game – to put that into context Leitner attempted more passes than the three Newcastle CMs (Hayden, Shelvey and Ki) combined.
The key to Norwich’s “false winger” system working is the balance that both wide attacking midfielders are able to provide. Karun Singh (@karun1710) is a fantastic data analyst, prevalent on social media; he has created a metric called ‘Expected Threat’, analysing the threat a team carries throughout a match. The image below is Norwich vs Newcastle heat maps showing the areas with their expected threat (xT).
As expected, Cantwell’s left region figures but notice how the right hand side for the canaries is actually the most prominent threat; no surprise to Norwich fans given the ability, pace and thrust that Max Aarons at RB provides, but also showing the ability to combine through positional rotation between the three AMs and pop up in areas that may not appear on the team formation sheet.
Of course, any Norwich analysis from the weekend would be completely remiss without a short glance in the direction of the goal machine that is Teemu Pukki. The Finnish striker is the only player to have ever scored in his first two Premier League games. He has 4 goals from 10 shots and probably most impressively, those four goals have come from an expected goals value of 1.09. Expected Goals (xG) is a statistical model that looks to place a value on the quality of chances a team creates or a player has. The value is derived by looking several thousand shots from various locations, assist types and directions and seeing what the outcome was (goal or not).
From Pukki’s chance quality this season, he would be expected to score 1-2 goals (obviously you cannot score 1.09). This may seem insignificant in terms of sample size but Pukki has been outperforming xG for some time. Last season in the Championship, Pukki generated 22.98 Non-penalty expected goals. His return of 29 non-penalty goals was the highest over performance of xG in the whole league. He is a proven, elite finisher; able to take chances with one or two touch finishes whilst the Goalkeeper is still not set. He possesses a high level of intelligence to make the runs he does, is deceptively quick through acceleration phase and has excellent work rate.
Norwich may have games like at Anfield where their desire to insert their philosophy on the opposition causes them to concede chances, however, with Farke at the helm, the technical abilities of the players involved and the intelligence to combine in a squad full of continuity after minimal summer business, I think there will be more positive surprises than negative for the Norwich faithful, they could just be the surprise package.
The Blades are fast becoming one of the most well analysed teams on social media. The team that are bringing overlapping CBs to the Premier League have so far had to deal with general expert punditry claiming they are organised, compact and even direct. Sunday’s game against Crystal Palace went someway to prove how far the Blades are from those assessments and how Chris Wilder and Alan Knill might just be innovating once again.
In the Premier League, the Blades have been slightly more pragmatic in setup than the previous season in the Championship. United often lined up in a 3-4-1-2 system in the EFL, with a direct number 10 to link play between wing backs, midfield and forwards. In the Premier League, Wilder has adjusted that by lining up in a 3-5-2 with a flat 3 in the middle, meaning the introduction of John Lundstram as a more box to box, robust midfield option.For those uninitiated, Sheffield United are a fantastic tactical case study. Their method is, in short, based on creating numerical overloads through positional rotation and combinations all over the pitch. Their main ploy for creating those overloads is to allow the wide CBs, both strong, powerful runners, to drive forwards and overlap the wing backs in combination with a central midfielder on the inside to create 3 v 2s in either wide or half space areas (as depicted below).The Blades achieve this in a very unique way. In the example image above, the ball would be high and wide in controlled possession in the final 3rd on the left hand side, nominally with the left wing back Enda Stevens. Once Stevens settles on the ball, that immediately triggers the LCB, Jack O’ Connell to surge forwards beyond Stevens on the outside. This isolates the opposition full back as he now has two players to consider. At the same time, the LCM; normally John Fleck, but on Saturday Luke Freeman – who took up a starring role due to an early injury to the former – drifts across to link play with Stevens and create two passing options, one of the forwards will also drop back to create another passing angle; that’s three passing options for the player in possession.
To cover this movement, Oliver Norwood, who is the deepest lying midfielder, will drift to whichever side the overlap is occurring to cover the space vacated by the wide CB. The other players attacking will then often hit the box to provide crossing or cutback options for the inevitable wide overload effect. It’s quite frankly brilliant to see and one of the most well drilled systems in recent years. On Saturday, this was in full effect, especially for the goal of the Blades.In the image, Jack O Connell the Blades LCB has driven out wide in a LWB/LB area. David Mcgoldrick, one of the CFs also highlighted, has dropped back to link play and cover the run from the LCB. To allow O’Connell the space and Mcgoldrick the positional freedom to drift back, the LWB, Enda Stevens has actually taken up a CF area from his LWB position. It’s this positional rotation play that opposition defences are struggling to grasp as players drift into unfamiliar tactical areas based upon the triggers of the movement of others. Luke Freeman, the LCM, is the key man in this move in the end, but initially his run is a 2nd man run designed to link with Stevens and take out opposition players.As the move develops, we see O’Connell, the LCB, in a fully left-wing role. Freeman, highlighted in red, is now about to receive the lay-off from Stevens, remember the LWB in a CF position, and drive inside the opposition full back, who is concerned about Freeman and O’Connell. John Lundstram also highlighted here in red, and the eventual goal scorer, is quite a distance away from the box, but another facet to this system from Wilder and Knill is how much encouragement every player is given to drive into the penalty area to support attacks and provide options.The image above depicts the system even better in my view. In this attack the Blades have 5 players camped across the edge of the Crystal Palace box, the wing-backs are highlighted in red. What we see is yet again Enda Stevens in a CF role, being the 1st receiver. George Baldock, the RWB, is high and wide but starting to invert and has a numerical overload on the left back. John Lundstram has driven forwards from CM and made himself one of three make shift CFs, and Luke Freeman (the other CM) has drifted out wide left to fill the space vacated by Stevens’ move inside and occupy the RB. This is positional play and rotation of the highest level, to have the trust implicitly in not only the players in possession, but the covering from attacking players like David Mcgoldrick is very rare.
The wing backs Touch maps in particular highlight just how offensive and involved they are expected to be.
Enda Stevens’ Touch Map:George Baldock’s Touch map:
Stevens in particular is being asked to advance more into No 10 (CAM) or CF areas. This is a slight tactical tweak on last season, likely due to the lack of an actual CAM in the flat 3 setup. Thanks to OPTA we are able to see this difference in the ball involvements and positions Stevens is taking up, even on this small sample size:
Quick look at Enda Stevens after two games in the PL. Marginally fewer touches _really_ high up the field and less less touches in Sheff Utd's half vs in the Championship – but everything else indicates a largely similar role year on year? pic.twitter.com/Vgm9lU9rss
— Tom (@Worville) August 19, 2019
As the visual shows, Stevens is playing higher up the pitch so far this season and taking up more ball involvements in the zone 14 or just outside the penalty box area. As one of the Blades more technically gifted players, especially in tight spaces, this is an interesting tactical querk. Once again thanks to the brilliant Karun Singh (@Karun1710) we are able to see the main areas where the Blades were most threatening, both wide areas especially key, the right isolated to the brilliant Baldock and the left covering more area due to the Stevens, O Connell and Freeman combination.
The Blades are also deceptively effective defensively despite their attitude to front foot football. The Wing backs are exceptionally hard working and as the below image shows, the Blades drop into a back-five when the opposition has sustained possession.
The image depicts perfectly the 5-3-2 and the impact and work rate that the eight (5 defenders, 3 midfielders) have in a defensive phase. The idea is to allow the opposition to play in front of them but to block forward passing lanes, deny space in behind and ensure dangerous players are covered by two defenders. The Blades tend to press high in the 1st phase of an opposition possession, especially if the ball is deep in opposition terrority following a turnover, if they cannot win in the initial 1 or 2 press attempts, the whole team then drops into a mid-low block and sets into this shape.
One thing for sure about Sheffield United is that under the relentless brilliance of Chris Wilder, assisted by the tactical innovation of Alan Knill, they are going to drive forwards and impose themselves on the Premier League. They may be more pragmatic and dogged in games against the top-six, but given the opportunity, there’s no doubt that the overlapping CBs and Wing backs playing as a striker are coming to a TV near you soon.
By James Socik – @Blades_analytic