In Defence Of… Defence


For all the flak directed at David Wagner this season, argues contrarian provocateur Nathan Hill, he got it right yesterday.

Yes, it was dull. But Southampton more than contributed to that themselves. After all, they were the team with 75% possession and more than 700 passes. We may have our own issues around playing identity but Russell Martin’s football bores me to tears. For all that dominance in the more meaningless metrics, I’m sure those clamouring for him to become our manager would quickly lose patience with the lack of direction and penetration. 

Ironically, for all their perceived control they’re not proactive. They’re reactive. They pass and pass and pass and pass to an exceptionally tedious extent, waiting for opponents to gas themselves out and leave gaps. Or commit tired, clumsy fouls or play a hospital pass minutes after chasing shadows. It’s death by a thousand cuts, if allowed to be. Discipline, concentration, and mistake-free football, however, tends to nullify them. For once this season, Norwich actually had a bespoke strategy and they carried it out well, managing also to not defeat themselves with a defensive howler – something worth celebrating these days.

His teams hog the ball yet don’t produce the volume of chances you’d expect…

Russ was left completely aghast at both the scoreline and Norwich’s obdurate approach, but this has been a recurring theme throughout his managerial career so far. His teams hog the ball yet don’t produce the volume of chances you’d expect, while also looking vulnerable when they do occasionally get turned over. In the first half, they produced one slick move and hit the woodwork; in both halves, they had a few efforts blocked and headers off target. In the second half, they inflated the shot count further with a couple of audacious long-rangers.

But it’s all pretty scant because, as mentioned, 700 or more passes. Their most clear-cut opening came about quite fortuitously in stoppage time. They didn’t look capable of completely slicing open a back five not exactly blessed with pace – aside from the returning Grant Hanley’s deceptively quick bursts. He was excellent, let’s not gloss over that, with a performance complete with the usual party trick of buying a free kick having barely been touched. Given his age and the nature of his injury, you’d have feared not seeing him again. On this evidence, there’ll be nothing to worry about in that regard.

On the other hand, opposition teams find it relatively easy to create high xG opportunities against them when they’re able to break out of their own defensive third. Even in the first half, in the rare instances Norwich strung moves together the likes of Rowe and Sainz were able to drive at the Saints’ back line as freely as Leeds did to us a couple of months ago. Their midfield looked just as porous as ours has been at times this season. Pretty alarming for a team vying for an immediate Premier League return – but that’s for them to fret about. In terms of clear sights of goal yesterday, it was actually more even than people realise. Rowe’s run and pass to Sargent, who teed up Sainz to ripple the side net, was the one of the most direct and purposeful passages of play all afternoon – until our equaliser.

There’s just no evidence to suggest we could’ve gone toe to toe with Southampton.

It’s the 25% possession figure that has particularly rankled here and make no mistake, it will never be acceptable against more ordinary Championship opposition. However, having seen what we have of the 2023/24 Norwich City, looking pedestrian and lacking in ideas even while winning the statistical battle, there’s just no evidence to suggest we could’ve gone toe to toe with Southampton. A faster, more open game, they win comfortably. Or we get a repeat of the Leeds debacle and we’re lamenting more awful game management.

Similarly to the derby before Christmas, it was the most effective way this squad could compete against a superior side. As sad an indictment as that is, this is where we are. We can’t suddenly start zipping about and play our way out of tight areas – we’ve seen those deficiencies laid bare, it just can’t be done with these players. For the most part, when we were pressed by Southampton we struggled to navigate a way around it. Surely that reinforces the argument against playing them at their own game?

None of us will be parting with another £550 a year to see a team that willingly surrenders so much of the ball to Sheffield Wednesday or Huddersfield.

I’m very much taking a game-to-game approach to attending Carrow Road at the moment, and the renewal of my season ticket is by no means a given. I very much understand and would, on any other day and in any other circumstances, wholeheartedly agree with the damning verdicts across social media and by other columnists. None of us will be parting with another £550 a year to see a team that willingly surrenders so much of the ball to Sheffield Wednesday or Huddersfield. As we’ve already seen, however, that’d be difficult given they would already have set up shop deep into the Barclay and River End concourses.

With the boot on the other foot, we were quick to bemoan the inability to break down Preston, who showed absolutely zero attacking intent. I was much more dissatisfied with that showing and I know I’m not alone in that – Shane Duffy bit back at a section of restless grumblers after reducing the tempo to a snail’s pace late on. 

Following several uninspiring displays and against a backdrop of growing supporter unrest, I totally get the frustration at this one. I want entertaining football as much as anyone but I also want to see smart and effective football. But sometimes, and hopefully only once or twice a season, you do need to dip more into column B than column A


  1. Rick says:

    At last a reasoned, intelligent analysis of the game instead of an emotional outburst about ‘that isn’t the way we play’ or even more pathetically ‘it was boring’. It reminds me of the Champions League final where Man City’s ‘art of attack’ met Inter Milan’s ‘art if defence’. You could also compare Farke’s set up against Man City when we came out 3-2 winners. Nobody was bored that day even though we only produced 3 shots on target.

    I also agree withe the analysis of Rusty’s approach to the game which took him to Swansea and then the saints. This is an extreme example, but the modern game demands a flexible tactical approach rather than a fixed way of playing. Yes, we need to strengthen the squad so we can play more attacking football, but in this case Wagner’s strategy was the right one.

  2. Roger says:

    Agree we set ourselves up to thwart Soton and did, for the most part. Their goal we gave possession and then made a horlicks defending their right wing. It is true the fast incisive attacks were us, which includes a dubious offside in the build up to McCallum’s goal.

    Going forward I would keep McLean at CB, when fit Sorensen as shield in front of back 4 (or Forshaw). I think midfield and attack pick themselves now (Sara, Nunez, Rowe, Sargent and Sainz) occasionally bring on Idah as shadow no 9 behind Sargent / either side.

    No room for Barnes, Duffy or Gibson in my opinion.

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