Albion pick up their first points of the season as 4-4-2 shapes up against 4-4-2. Lambert's luck is still running thin. Are trends developing?


“I’ve saw it on the tape numerous times and – we’ll see.”
 – Paul LambertNorwich manager

Both teams surely felt they had to win, and could do, having had a slow start to the season. Norwich wanted to record their first win, having drawn twice already – Albion had been handed a difficult start to the fixture list and had conceded late in all their August fixtures leading to three losses in a row. Roy Hodgson denied this was evidence of a trend prior to the match.

 

                     General shapes - note emphasis on Tierney's arrow

 

A sombre start to proceedings could be expected, considering that firstly the stadium observed applause for Albion’s academy player Blake Melbourne, who has passed away after illness. Then, a commemorative silence followed for the September 11th 2001 attacks.

However, despite Hodgson’s lack of acknowledgment of trends, another continued: Albion scored early, breaking the sombre atmosphere. Steven Reidhad within the first minute played an early cross into the box – this was a theme throughout the match, and it was a similar ball by Nicky Shorey which activated a clever piece of combination play between Albion’s forwards. Shane Long shepherded former Albion centre-back Leon Barnett away, whilst Peter Odemwingie exploited the space and lack of guile between Ritchie De Laet and Tierney. Thus, within 2 minutes Albion had an advantage to which they held onto throughout the match – a similar tale to previous fixtures, but this time a success.

Wide involvement

Other than prior to Albion’s goal, this trend of early crosses – or the involvement of full backs in general – was very much a feature of Norwich’s strategy. This was usually fulfilled by left-back Tierney, who ventured forward on many occasions. Left-midfielder Richard Surman played slightly inside, leaving a channel open for Tierney. Because both sides matched each other in very similar 4-4-2 shapes, Albion were not able to counter Norwich decisively when they packed this zone – indeed, Dorrans often drifted inside too and went ‘missing’ for periods of the game. This is mainly because Dorrans was clearly instructed to use his passing ability from deep, rather than act as a winger and beat his opponents. Dorrans was best used when he sliced Norwich open with pinpoint through-balls along the ground, exploiting the opposing team’s static shape. This created several opportunities which were not capitalised upon.

Here we can see a diagram of the strategy involving Tierney. Passes to the left-back were usually from Lee Crofts, Surman, or Hoolahan (who replaced Surman). This essentially drew Albion’s players away from Tierney’s zone, until he played a cross, not choosing to beat Steven Reid. Meanwhile, the central players and the forwards attacked the box, with left-midfielder Bennett approaching the edge of the area to either attack the ball or recycle the play. Albion’s left-sided centre-back Jonas Olsson was often drawn forwards to stop play; it made sense to exploit the rather open wide channels. It’s fair to say that Albion were narrower than Norwich in their approach, with Dorrans’ strategy already covered, Jerome Thomasdid not adapt his usual game of cutting inside onto his right-foot, which resulted in some efforts on goal. A running theme was that Bennett or Naughton (usually the former) would foul Thomas lightly in order to disrupt the play on that side. Graeme Dorrans also received some heavy challenges, and it was most definitely a physical contest.

Matching formations

The tactical side mainly concerned the fact that the two formations were, essentially, the same. In defence Norwich dropped back, but when they possessed the ball they ranged further up the pitch and looked reasonably effective. This suited their formation, bringing the bands closer together. Norwich were however simply inaccurate, and were unlucky that the Tierney strategy did not pay-off. So much so that Paul Lambert chose in the midst of the second half to swap his strike partnership, with James Vaughan and Steve Morison replacing Martin and Holt. This pacier partnership benefitted from Hoolahan’s forward thinking, with the front pair combining with one of the midfielders in triangles in an attempt to pass around Albion’s matching lines. Generally Olsson played excellently, and although he was cautioned he had much to do and many of the challenges were perfectly fair – Gabriel Tamas, his partner at the back, looked suspect defensively and (importantly) mentally. Some poor clearances handed Norwich chances on goal, and he was turned and bypassed on one occasion, forcing Ben Foster to make a save.

On the above diagram I have indicated some important zones where the game generally hinged – firstly, Odemwingie and Long repeatedly tested the weak partnership of Barnett and De Laet. Barnett was always suspect in his days at Albion, and De Laet is a young player on loan from Manchester United. A goal, as well as a number of fouls resulted from this area. Secondly, I have already flagged up the physical battle between Jerome Thomas and Bennett. This tied up this side of the pitch, and effectively silenced and occupied (arguably) both teams’ best wide players. Bennett broke free on a number of occasions, though, as did Thomas. Thirdly, we have the battle between Olsson and Holt, which helped to decide the fact that Norwich’s narrative was one of wasted efforts rather than successful pressure. An extra player would have helped decide this, and Hoolahan’s introduction was late – a formation change would have been prudent by Paul Lambert in order to exploit the fact Albion were very much reliant on the Swede. Fourthly, Steven Reid’s zone was occupied by both Tierney and Surman, which did not allow Reid to come forward on many occasions. Paul Scharner also remained quiet on the attack on this side, although this is not a bad thing.

It is somewhat indicative that the main events occurred in these areas of the pitch, with it being generally end-to-end. Albion’s passing and ball retention was never good in this match, which Hodgson acknowledged in his post-match interviews. It is always difficult, however, to keep the ball when you have an opposing player tacked onto you, with both shapes being so similar.

Albion hung on however because Norwich were not clinical, and did not take the chances presented to them. This is also true of the away side: Albion missed a penalty (see below), had an effort by Dorrans power into the post, and Mulumbu fired wide having ridden the challenges of the Norwich defenders.

Referee decisions

The referee generally did not intervene throughout the match – Bennett could have been more strictly lectured for his contest with Jerome Thomas, for example. However, there were some immensely contentious decisions which I will cover here quickly:

  1. Albion’s penalty. Steven Reid was fouled in the box, even if it was lightly – this was a 50/50 decision. However, players such as De Laet had been heavily challenging Albion’s attackers previously, and this perhaps influenced the referee’s decision. Odemwingie attempted a Rooney-esque power penalty into the corner, but latched onto it with none of the power and not in the corner – youthful keeper Declan Rudd (who had an impetuous fluctuating game throughout) was able to save it at full stretch, having anticipated this technique from his approach.
  2. Tamas and Reid both shove players: the first was probably fair, and the second was a rash and cynical challenge brought about because of Norwich flooding forward in a swift counter-attack. A free kick was awarded but there was a real lack of steel in this phase of play, with Norwich bypassing much of Albion’s ball winning department.
  3. Tamas’ elbow. Since, Tamas has been charged by the FA for violent conduct. Vaughan had to receive plastic surgery following the game at hospital, and was definitely elbowed in the face. It’s my opinion that this was deliberate, and was in response to a foul on Tamas which had occurred previously, as well as a frustration with Norwich’s players attempting to claim penalties throughout the match (i.e. drawing Albion’s defenders into fouls). However, Tamas was clearly the aggressor here and should have been red carded – the resulting penalty could have easily changed the complexion of the result. Tamas is an odd player, being known for making rash or silly decisions but being a generally decent centre-back: when play breaks down however, or when he is forced to make a decision he often makes poor ones, such as Ryan Shotton’s goal against Stoke. It’s my opinion that he should be dropped in favour of a more intelligent player in his position.

‘We’ll see’

This match was, overall, an odd one. There is not much to say tactically, beyond the Tierney strategy and Dorrans’ role in distributing to the new front partnership. This is one symptom of why it was an ultimately unconvincing performance by Albion. Some fans have said it was good to ‘win ugly’. I’m pleased with the fact we were able to grab an early goal once again, and have reversed the trend from last season where we’d concede and fight back to win. However, with Tamas’ elbow it could easily have been another late goal conceded, and this is worrying no matter what Hodgson says. Almost every game Albion have played now they’ve matched a team in terms of shape, excepting Chelsea who looked flat when they were being dominated (a clue as to why their formation was not much help until they started using it to their advantage).  Following the game, Paul Lambert’s statement on Tamas’ actions has stuck in my mind, the phrase: “We’ll see”. Lambert is known for not mincing words, or saying things in as simple a way as possible. He often repeats the same praises for his players, and is not the most charismatic man to interview, unlike the ‘amiable’ Roy Hodgson. However, he got this word play exactly right. It was clear to Lambert that the FA would view the video evidence and charge Tamas for his foul play, and perhaps this would take some of the pressure off his side’s growing reputation for giving away penalties (all 4 of their Premier League fixtures have featured a penalty being conceded). In a wider sense, however, I must ask whether “we’ll see” if this is a real turning point in Albion’s season, or part of a trend of having to win the difficult way: the counter-part of losing due to key decisions. After all, I too have seen this on tape numerous times. We’ll see.