Paul Lambert’s Masterful Juggling Act

Reading the thoroughly excellent Holtamania’s match report of the Wolves game I was yet again reminded of one of the problems that Norwich and really any team who isn’t looking towards the Champions League places faces during a Premier League campaign. The question of how to build a team to compete on a limited budget? Luckily Paul Lambert has so far found the answers.

The Norwich side is always about tactical trade-offs both in terms of the set up of the side and selection. This is why Lambert deserves so much credit for how well we’ve done so far this season. His masterful juggling act is often the reason we’ve won games, as he shifts personal and tactics to suit the opposition, something that he rarely did in Championship and never seemed to do in League One. Given the higher standard of Premier League football, you face a much sterner test and Lambert has proved that he is up to matching the best on a tactical level.

A case for the defence

I know Holtamania is a Leon Barnett fan, and I’m inclined to agree, I’m not really sure what Zak Whitbread offers ahead of him. When he was out of the team I’d have said that Whitbread was less likely to make key errors that lead to goals than Barnett (eg. vs. Aston Villa), but having come into the side this simply isn’t true as he’s made numerous errors of concentration and judgement that have in some cases led directly to goals. He hasn’t offered anything more in terms of his distribution which has been disappointing and he doesn’t have Barnett’s strength or pace.

Towards the end of the game when Wolves were putting cross after cross into our box and going direct I’d certainly have preferred to have Barnett’s commanding aerial presence than Whitbread’s, who failed to deal with the threat in the air in the crucial closing stages, but perhaps Barnett has lost a bit of confidence and Lambert wanted to see if Whitbread could come in and do a better job, well I think it’s safe to say that the answer to that question is no.

Reinvented - Russell Martin has gone from being the Norfolk Cafu to the Norfolk Baresi

Russell Martin he’s done brilliantly as a centre back and it was an inspired choice by Lambert to try him as a central defender; but if you look at the second goal we conceded, this time from a corner, he gets totally bossed by Zubar. Where perhaps a stronger, more natural central defender would have attacked the ball sooner and got it clear, Martin is looking at his man and lets him get a run on him, getting caught under the flight of the ball. Without really getting any kind of jump or challenge in, he allows Zubar to power the header home for the Wolves equaliser.

However, as an all round package Martin offers a lot, he’s quick over the first few yards, he is certainly more agile than a stronger, heavy built centre-half would be, which offers a lot in terms of dealing with fast-footed tricky forwards. What has most impressed me about Martin so far this season is his reading of the game. His ability to make goal line clearances has become renowned after pulling off goal line save after save against Arsenal. When the Norwich defence switched off against Wolves from a quick Hunt free kick, it was Martin who saw the danger and produced a brilliant block tackle to prevent a likely goal. Having played most of his career as a right-back Martin is much more comfortable on the ball than our other central defenders, his distribution is good and he helps to retain possession, which in turn helps us defend better as a team.

Possible January signings: For the money Lambert has available I think it will be very difficult to find defenders who offer Barnett’s strength with Martin’s reading of the game and ability on the ball, but I’m confident that Lambert will get the balance right and Martin has certainly been a massive help in this, as our only “ball-playing” central defender. Another ball playing central defender would be a good option, especially as Ayala and Ward still have fitness problems. Matthew Bates from Middlesbrough would be a great addition but as he’s the captain of the side and Boro are doing well in the hunt for promotion so the chances of signing him are unlikely. Nathaniel Clyne from Palace has impressed me and would be a good option at right back, but I fear he’s already attracted the attention of the “big boys” and would be out of our price range. Simply put: finding good players that will improve the team and you can afford is hard.

Diamonds are forever

The return to the midfield diamond under which we’ve seen so much success in the previous two seasons under Lambert shouldn’t come as a surprise. Now that the players are more acclimatised to what is required at Premier League level it’s perhaps only natural for them to go back to playing in a system most of them are used to, without the protection of an extra midfield player.

Andrew Surman has proved in the last two games that he is well capable of playing at this level and although you might think it’s easy to find fault with certain aspects of his game, his stats in terms of tackles made would surprise many who think he’s lightweight and his quality on the ball has been undeniably excellent.

I love this man, this Wes Hoo-la-han

If I’m going to mention quality on the ball then I have to spare a moment to talk about Wes Hoolahan, who is brilliant. I’m fairly sure that you could play him at left-back and he’d still be brilliant. He’s looked class in a league full of top draw players, he’s shown that he’s not a one trick pony or a luxury player. What he is, is absolutely bloody essential to the team.

With the signings of Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington and Elliot Bennett, Lambert has increased his options in terms of the style in which he can set up his midfield, with out and out wide players now available it gives us the option to play a flatter midfield, giving the fullbacks more cover and making us more of a solid unit defensively, it was this system that helped us to our first win at Bolton and will doubtlessly be used again this season, especially in away games we’re not expected to win. Lambert identified a style that he thought would get us points away from home and went out and brought in the right players to execute it, top marks.

Possible January signings: Now that we’ve got the options what I think we need is depth. Like with the defence, it’s unlikely Lambert will have the money to go out and buy a “complete” midfield player, so a like for like replacement for David Fox would be top of my shopping list. Should anything happen to Fox we really don’t have anyone in the squad who can step into his shoes in terms of his “deep-lying player maker” role, his passing has been vital to our success so often this season and we need cover for him. I’m a big fan of Southampton’s Jack Cork and Morgan Schneiderlin, they are both young and can pass the ball well, but with the Saints flying high it would have to be a really tempting offer.

Unleash the Holt

My love for Grant Holt is strong like bear. He’s a goalscorer and has scored goals, I’m not surprised this but many others have been. What I have found surprising is just how well Steve Morison has done. I’ve always rated Morison and when he went off injured in the early stages against Norwich while playing at Carrow Road for Millwall last season I was happy that the threat he posed was gone but disappointed I would not get to see him play the rest of the game. I have great admiration for forwards who put scoring goals above there own personal safety, I also love watching players who aren’t afraid to get in peoples faces and these were parts of Morison’s game I knew all about. What I didn’t know was just how hard he was prepared to work for the team, he’s great at putting defenders under pressure and although he’s not the quickest he ALWAYS gambles and puts in the hard yards which so often reaps rewards. Robin Van Persie he ain’t’ but for the money we paid I think it would have been impossible to get anyone who could have done a better job for Norwich thus far.

Lambert has made sure we’ve played to the strengths of Holt and Morison and it’s worked. We’ve scored goals and lots of them have been headers (with 11 we’ve scored more headed goals than any other team in the league), we’ve looked threatening from set-pieces and lots of players have chipped in with goals.

James Vaughan is yet to really enjoy himself in a Norwich shirt

The one big disappointment so far has been James Vaughan, this is no fault of his, injuries can happen to any player and sadly he’s been unfortunate throughout his young career, but I’m convinced that once fit he’ll come good. I actually think that he has the best all round game of any of our forwards, he’s got pace, he’s got strength, can run the channels and hold the ball up with his back to goal and he can finish, once fit I think he’ll a valuable option.

Possible January signings: This is the one area of the team I’m relatively happy with, I’d only expect Lambert to sign another forward if he represented really good value and was perhaps someone with an eye on for the future. With the breakdown in his contract negotiations Nicky Maynard looks likely to move on but will probably fall outside of our price range. If by some miracle nobody else takes a punt on Jordan Rhodes, I’d love to see him in a Norwich shirt, albeit at hefty expense.

Final thoughts

Christmas is a vital time in the Premier League calendar, if we can come out the other side in good shape then 2012 should hold little to fear. In terms of a half term report Norwich have definitely exceeded my expectations. When I looked at the Norwich squad before the start of the season I was nervous, but they’ve more than delivered so far. Now when I look at each of the squad with the transfer window fast approaching, I ask myself, can we replace him with the money we’ve got with someone better? Going through the team the answer time and again is no. This is a huge credit to Paul Lambert, but he has set his standard, so the same will be expected of the players that come in during the January window in terms of commitment and hard work. He has alluded that he may look abroad, but I’m sure whoever does arrive will have the same desire to prove themselves as the lads that have done so well for us already this season. In Lambert we trust.

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