Story of a Match: Blackburn
For the first time this season Norwich went into a game as comfortable favourites. Blackburn, on a downward spiral and bottom of the league, were tired out from a midweek cup game and Kean is still under pressure. We had just earned a point at Anfield. So, at the end of a scarcely deserved 1-1 draw, why did expectations differ so much from reality?
One thing worth noting about Blackburn is they aren’t where they are because they have crap players. There is a lot of quality in the squad, especially in the form of Nzonzi, Hoilett, Rochina, Samba and Dunn. The first three were especially on their game, dominating the midfield in a way that Fox, Johnson and Wessi were unable. The defence was more solid though, and for 46 of 47 first half minutes they were reasonably comfortable. Leon Barnett stood out, as he always does, as he repeatedly gets in front of strikers and clears the ball. With the ball, however, an interesting picture emerges..
Russell Martin is Barnett’s safety blanket. When Leon doesn’t know what to do with the ball, he slides it left. This is often, as Leon is never really comfortable in possession. Martin, the better passer of the two, is then given responsibility for building out of the back by either involving the midfield or hitting the wing. The result was this…
The play in the first half was overwhelmingly on the centre/centre left of the pitch. This would highlight why Pilkington had a more notable first half than, say, Bennett; he was simply involved more with the ball, as thats where the play was built up. Thus the pattern of the first half was set. We were reasonably solid at the back, though prone to backing off and letting Blackburn play, and then we built from the back and used Pilkington and Tierney to provide attacking threat. This all changed when Blackburn went ahead.
One thing that has been notable over the last 3 games is the drop in form of Bradley Johnson. After he came into the team he was on fire, even getting into the provisional England squad. Since then, he’s had 3 very poor games, and none was more evident than yesterday. He was repeatedly bypassed in midfield as the excellent Nzonzi and Rochina ran the show. But even his supposed strengths, the distance he covers and the ball winning side of his game, was missing.
Above you can see a comparison of the tackles (blue being successful) that he made vs WBA and then vs Blackburn. The difference is huge. In fact yesterday, Wes Hoolahan made more successful tackles than Fox and Johnson combined. The problem with a Fox/Johnson partnership in midfield is that neither player is that well rounded. While Wes has an excellent defensive game to go with his creative spark and drive forward, Fox is a great passer who doesn’t win the ball a lot, and Johnson is normally a great ball winner who is alright at passing. You would hope that the strengths of one makes up for the drawbacks in the other, and that has worked so far this season – until recently. When one is off form, that side of the game is then missing in midfield, and yesterday we were completely inept at winning the ball back.
This is more pronounced in the Premier League than it ever was in the Championship. Rather than repeatedly being the dominant team and being able to dictate games by our own tactics, as a smaller team with less quality, we are playing a more reactive game. More and more we are surrendering the battle in midfield in order to play down the wings, and it’s generally paid off. Pilkington and Bennett have had good starts to the season and have reaped the benefits of a new tactical system that prioritises wing play over controlling the middle. This shines a light on the problems inherent in wingers; they make an impact at points in a game, then spend long periods of time waiting for the ball to be played to them. If a team is then unable or poor at winning the ball back, the wingers can seem a bit redundant, or even out of position if they themselves go looking for the ball.
Just look at the difference in the number of interceptions made between the two sides. Norwich made 4 in 90 minutes. Four. We’ve had individual players get more than that in previous games. Whether you look at yesterday as just an off day or whether you think Blackburn had done their research and neutered our midfield is up to you. But no one looks at Blackburn and thinks of good passing football, but yesterday they showed they could do it, and on top of that they showed the desire and drive that we had shown at Old Trafford and Anfield.
Finally, we look at the clearances. Blue dots represent clearances that reached a team member, red went straight back to the opposition. Blackburn have many more blue dots than we do, and the by product of this was they relieved pressure on their defence. When, for large parts of the 2nd half, Blackburn were knocking the ball about and we were aimlessly hitting it out of defence, it was just coming straight back. Wingers/strikers etc need to help out here by finding space and helping to keep the ball, but its also a byproduct of having a 1 striker system. They can’t win every ball hit their way and the result is so much pressure being put on the defence. As admirably as Leon and Russell have played at CB so far, there were times they were a bit too slack, a bit too loose with the ball and it ended up putting pressure on themselves.
In the end we got back to 3-3 and it was more about chance than design. The deflection was a nice slice of luck and the penalty is definitely arguable (and amazing stones from Holt to hit such a good penalty at that stage of the game). The fact is we let in 3 goals, at home, to the team bottom of the table, and there was a reason for it. The play was generally slack and the introduction of Holt and Jackson helped change the game. Both put in 100%, really put the Blackburn defence on the back foot and put their names in line for a start. I would personally expect a change or two for the Villa game with Russell Martin, Fox, Johnson and Bennett all possible candidates for a move to the bench, and Holt definitely in line for a start.
All in all, every point counts and at the end of the season this may be the point that makes the difference. Any last minute goal feels like a win, but the overall standard of play was lower than that shown against bigger teams, or recent home win vs Sunderland and Swansea. Whether it was smart play from Blackburn or complacency from Norwich is up for individuals to decide.