Norwich City (H) Match Preview

Latics welcome play-off chasers Norwich City to the DW Stadium on Saturday afternoon with our lads hoping to extend their unbeaten run to four games under Shaun Maloney. It’s been a good start for the new boss with two draws and a win from his opening three games, but he’s made it very clear the squad won’t be taking their foot off the gas any time soon.

Wednesday night’s game away at Bristol City showed a new side to Latics. Having conceded the first goal of the Maloney era after some poor marking from a wide free kick, we were tasked with coming from behind and did so very well. We dominated spells of the game, particularly early on in the second half, and came away with a well deserved point.

Opponents Norwich are in a tricky patch at the minute with inconsistency hampering their play off chase. New boss David Wagner has three wins and three defeats from his opening six games and is keen to ensure the Canaries don’t lose touch of the top six, especially against a ‘weaker side’ like Latics.

Latics Team News

Shaun Maloney made some bold decisions with his team selection for the Bristol City game in midweek and on the whole you’d have to say they paid off. Ashley Fletcher replaced Will Keane and netted his first goal for the club, whilst Thelo Aasgaard deputised for Callum Lang who went on to make a significant impact off the bench.

Defensively we were without Omar Rekik once again but there might be a chance he makes it back for this one. That being said, Ryan Nyambe and Tom Pearce’s impressive showings in the LCB/LB position might make his reintegration into the side slightly less certain. This is also a pretty tough game to throw someone not 100% fit into, so maybe an appearance off the bench suits him slightly more.

Ben Amos wasn’t really troubled at Ashton Gate and could do nothing about the hosts’ only goal. To be honest he was let down by those in front of him on that occasion as he didn’t have another save to make, but looked much more commanding and reassuring when coming for crosses and dealing with loose balls in the box.

Jack Whatmough, who was arguably at fault for the goal alongside Christ Tiehi, and Charlie Hughes put in two solid performances on the whole. Hughes especially brings so much to the side, particularly in possession, and has settled into his spot in the first team very well. There’s no doubt in my mind that the pair will start this game.

James McClean discussed his desire for Ice Hockey esq punch ups to replace ‘handbags’ on the football pitch after another angry incident with an opponent. His aggression could end up costing us one day which we can’t afford to happen, and with Tom Pearce back fit again that LWB position is certainly ‘up for grabs’.

In midfield the Max Power X Christ Tiehi partnership has become a thing of beauty, with both standing out as star performers on Wednesday night. The ‘engine room’ is an area we’ve struggled to get right this season at times so to have a settled and solid combination in there is only good news. Tom Naylor provides excellent steel off the bench too should we need to see this game out late on.

In attacking areas we’ll be forced into one change as Danel Sinani is unavailable to play against his parent club. If I’m being honest it’s been an underwhelming start for the Luxembourg international, but I’m hoping once he’s found his feet things will improve greatly. You’d imagine one of Keane and Lang will come straight back in in his place.

Another question is whether Thelo Aasgaard keeps his spot in the side. The Latics youth product has struggled to make an impact under Maloney, albeit in fleeting appearances, but I feel like this system could get the best out of him in time. With Fletcher off the back of a goal and top scorer Will Keane and fan-favourite Callum Lang fresh and raring to go, I’d expect that to be the trio that starts the game against the Canaries.

An Opposition View

As always I’ve called in the help of somebody far more knowledgeable about Norwich City than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!

1) A lot of football has been played since Latics and Norwich met in August, with new players, new managers and new objectives in place for both sides. Can you sum up City’s season so far for us?

Turbulent, to say the least. When we last played you at Carrow Road back in August, fans had high expectations that this squad – on paper, one of the strongest in the Championship – would without doubt have the tools to launch another assault on automatic promotion. However, the jury remained out on Dean Smith and his style – or lack of – football, with the last few months of Premier League misery leaving him with very little credit in the bank. Wigan somehow held us to a draw that day – we had a bit of a slow start but soon embarked on a run of nine games unbeaten, including seven wins, towards the end of August and start of September.

However, I feel a lack of a clear identity, established way of playing and Smith’s more introverted demeanour – he wasn’t quite Daniel Farke – meant many fans still struggled to warm to him and therefore, it often felt like the majority were waiting for a bad run to provide them an opportunity to pounce.

This eventually manifested itself in October and despite us picking up the odd win around the World Cup break, the atmosphere turned toxic over the festive period and the club inevitably had to pull the trigger. Set piece coach Allan Russell took charge for two games around the New Year, before former Huddersfield boss David Wagner was appointed in the week leading up to FA Cup third round weekend.

2) New boss David Wagner has had a mixed start to life at Carrow Road with three wins and three defeats from his first six games. Has there been much improvement on the previous manager?

I think there has – as mentioned, what fans were craving was a return to the high-tempo, aesthetically-pleasing and identifiable brand of football that Farke so memorably masterminded back in the title-winning seasons of 2018/19 and 2020/21. Wagner’s first two league games delivered that in abundance – we demolished Preston 4-0 away from home before putting four past Coventry (also away) in a chaotic 4-2 triumph.

That naturally prompted significant optimism heading into the conclusion of the season, but a 3-0 defeat against Burnley – who granted, are a cut above this season – and then a dismal 1-0 defeat at Bristol City functioned as major reality checks and left many of us questioning whether this squad is capable of even reaching the play-offs. But an impressive 3-1 win over Hull in midweek saw City look back to their best and with Wigan, Birmingham and Cardiff our next three fixtures, hope has been restored that we can scramble into the top six.

3) David Wagner had a distinctive style at Huddersfield, is that something he’s implemented at Norwich yet or is he still in the process of getting his ideas across?

As mentioned above, there has definitely been more intensity, tempo and cohesion since Wagner came in last month. The squad he inherited did not possess the fitness levels required to implement the sort of high-pressing, front-foot football he delivered at Huddersfield – so this still remains a work in progress. City have definitely moved the ball around with more zip and purpose since his arrival, but there remains more to be done before Wagner will be fully satisfied with what he’s seeing from his new side.

4) Norwich have a quality squad of players with talent all over the pitch. Who are the key men for City ahead of this game?

Teemu Pukki would usually be top of this list but with the prolific Finn ruled out through injury, City will have to turn to alternative sources for goals and creativity. One player who has shown serious signs of talent is Samba star Gabriel Sara, who we spent several million on in the summer and looks to be coming into his own under Wagner. The Brazilian midfielder showed glimpses of promise under Smith but deployed in a more creative role over the last few games, has flourished against Preston, Coventry and Hull. Sara, 23, was brilliant against Hull and netted a fine second goal to put City in front.

Elsewhere, Josh Sargent has been in strong goalscoring form this season, while Onel Hernandez is always a constant threat on the left. And finally, Kenny McLean has been another player to star under Wagner, relishing the responsibility of assuming a deeper, almost quarter-back resembling role in front of central defenders Grant Hanley and Andrew Omobamidele.

Tactical Talk

For those of you who read these previews regularly you’ll probably be relieved to hear that I won’t be discussing the Tom Pearce LCB idea anymore. However, in case you missed it I posted some clips on Twitter highlighting why it’s a tactical move that works so well, and why it’s much better to have a left footed player there than a right one.

Now that we’ve seen it in action and can appreciate that that part of the pitch seems to be sorted for now, I’d like to turn my attention to the front three. Whilst it was nice to score our first goal from open play on Wednesday night we still struggled to create that many clear cut chances from sustained periods of build up play.

There were nice passages of play and a couple of ‘nearly moments’ in and around the box, but I still feel like there’s work to be done and I know Maloney feels the same. I think a big issue we have is the lack of a pacey centre-forward who can run in behind and stretch defences with his mere presence.

The fact that we don’t have anyone that fast at the top end of the pitch means teams can crunch us and play a much higher defensive line. More often than not sides are reluctant to do that against teams with pace up top as the space in behind can be exploited (think Jamie Vardy in his prime at Leicester). We don’t have anyone that can offer that.

What that means is the space that would be there with an opposition defensive line 5 yards deeper is now no longer there, and that really hampers our two ’10s’. The whole point of those two players is to find pockets of space between midfield and attack and create chances from these areas, but they simply aren’t appearing often enough.

This isn’t really something we can change short term so we have to work around it. One solution could be to pick fast players around our number 9 and have them do the running into space, but then we lose that creativity in the midfield. However, having someone like Will Keane as the target man / drop in player could provide us with that creativity.

Another option could be to not actually play a designated striker at all and have a fluid, interchangeable front three made up of say Lang, Keane and Thelo. The problem with that is none are particularly quick or particularly strong or that used to playing in a fluid system so it feels like a pretty big risk.

The way I see things getting better, considering the personnel in that area of the pitch, is by drilling specific patterns of play. Our coach Max Rogers has tweeted a couple of attacking drills and in those you can see the kind of passages of play we need to start putting together.

I do predict us to be better against sides slightly more expansive, which Norwich definitely are. They’ll look to press us high tomorrow so if we can break through their press we could find space in those little pockets and launch dangerous attacks from them. I think it’s actually a game that could suit the way we play a lot.

Final Thoughts

This is, on paper, definitely the toughest test Latics have faced under Shaun Maloney. Norwich were a Premier League side not long ago and still have a core of players that featured for them in the top flight. Obviously they’ve struggled more so than usual in the Championship this season but a wounded animal is a dangerous thing and they definitely have the desperation to improve.

It’s important that we focus on what we do well and look to impose our game plan on them. Like I say, if we’re able to beat their press and get the ball into dangerous pockets of space there’s an opportunity for us to cause a slight upset here and maybe even lift ourselves out of the drop zone.

It won’t be easy, and I can’t see it being too similar to the reverse fixture either to be honest, so I’m looking forward to seeing how things pan out. The DW crowd have a big role to play too so be there, be loud and be proud. Up the Tics.

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