By Dean Gregory
Norwich vs Aston Villa
Aston Villa travel to Norwich City, who sit one place above them in the league table in 17th, separated by just a single point. As a fellow promoted team with a fairly inconsistent start to the season, fans on both sides will see this game as a must-win, and potentially a vital six-pointer, as the cliche goes, this early in the season.
Villa’s position is a result of a mixture of bad luck and questionable game management by the whole team. They have failed to defend a lead now for the second game in a row. Positives can be taken however, as they have only spent six minutes of regulation time in a losing position in the last three games, showing they are competing even if the points are not reflecting that yet.
Norwich’s situation is a little more cut-and-dry – two wins and five losses put them on six points. One of those wins coming against Man City could well be the upset of the entire season. They certainly have the ability, but whether it will carry them to safety this season is still questionable.
Who will come out on top in this battle of promoted teams?
Norwich – L L W L L
Aston Villa – W L D L D
Dean Smith on Norwich
“Their manager hasn’t changed his philosophy and they haven’t changed their squad too much. They will play a similar way to what they comfortably won the league with last season.
“I believe they only lost six games last season which just goes to show how well they did. They have beaten Man City at Carrow Road already this season, too. So it’s a tough game but every single one in this league is.
“We have full respect for what they are and what they did last season and who they are now.
“But one thing, in the two results they had against us last season, they haven’t played against this Aston Villa yet. Tyrone hasn’t played against them. John hasn’t played against them. There are a number of players who haven’t played against Norwich City with us yet.
“It’ll be an interesting game and one we’re looking forward to.”
Daniel Farke on Villa
“It’s not like a final or something like this”
“In the end you need probably something pretty close to 40 points in order to be allowed to stay in this league and for that we take each and every point.”
“Listen, especially in such a situation when you have so many key players injured and you are struggling with personal terms, then my feeling is to be able to gain some points is even more important, so for that we are greedy.”
“Not so much because of the situation in the table, but we know for each and every game we have to be at our best in order to be competitive and to gain some points and this is what we will try to do at Carrow Road against Aston Villa.”
Norwich found a winning formula last season, and they have continued with it in the Premier League. They use a 4-2-3-1 formation with the imperious Teemu Pukki up front, Cantwell and Buendia on the wings and one of either Tettey or Leitner playing the defensive midfield role.
They press relentlessly off the ball to force mistakes and turnover possession, and are generally able to retain that possession well – they managed 55.4% against Crystal Palace and 58.6% against Burnley, with 84% and 83% pass success respectively. However, both of these games ended in 2-0 losses with the opposition recording more shots on target, suggesting that while Norwich know how to get the ball, they aren’t always sure what to do with it.
Norwich have scored nine goals this season through three players; Pukki has six, Cantwell has two and defensive midfielder McLean has helped himself to an unlikely one. It is clear that they rely heavily on a handful of attacking players to provide their goals rather than trusting the whole team to chip in and help. This poses a worrying conundrum for them – what happens if Cantwell or Pukki get injured? Who picks up the slack?
A win against Man City showed how resolute they are capable of being. While City had 68.6% of the ball and peppered Norwich’s goal with 25 shots, only eight of them ended up being on target, thanks to a solid defensive shape forcing most of their attempts to come from outside the box. 11 of these shots were blocked, proving Norwich can frustrate even the best of attacks when on form.
While a Sergio Aguero goal is as certain as death and taxes, Rodri’s goal late on was restricted to just 0.03 xG, showing that it was down to the sheer quality of the player and not Norwich’s approach.
As for Norwich, their first goal via McLean had an xG of just 0.07, but the other two were well fashioned attempts – Cantwell’s goal was the result of some delightful play with an xG of 0.7, while Pukki’s winning goal came in at 0.58. Both values suggest good quality chances being carved out by the team. With seven shots totalling 1.74 xG, they struggled to break City down but were clinical enough to make the most of the chances they had.
Of course, five losses from seven games shows that this performance against the champions is not something they manage each week. 0.71 xG against Palace and 0.8 xG against Burnley is evidence that when up against a team that is happy to be without the ball, Norwich quickly run out of ideas and are forced to feed off of half-chances.
The key to beating them, then, is a more pragmatic approach which frustrates them without inviting them on.
One to Watch
Teemu Pukki finished Norwich’s promotion campaign as the championship’s top scorer with 26, and he has carried his rich goal scoring form into the Premier League. His tally of six of Norwich’s nine goals puts him 4th in the current list of League top scorers, level with Man City’s Raheem Sterling. With a personal xG of 3.16, this shows that despite his side’s struggles, he continues to thrive within Daniel Farke’s playing philosophy.
Norwich 0-1 Aston Villa – 21-09-2013
New signing Libor Kozak scored the only goal in a tight encounter, just two minutes after replacing an injured Benteke. Despite an excellent record against them at home recently, this match was the last time Villa have beaten Norwich at Carrow Road.
How it could play out
Villa are currently on a three-match losing streak against Norwich – while the most recent of those saw Villa rest most of their first team for the playoffs, the other two have been at Carrow Road. The last match between the two sides ended a run of eight games where the home side won, so recent historical precedent shows that Norwich have something of an advantage here.
Another thing that goes against Villa here is that Smith’s preferred tactics of playing an expansive, dominant game plays right into Norwich’s hands. It is when allowed to press and harry the opposition’s back line that Norwich’s strengths start to show, as proven against Man City – particularly when a high press saw Buendia force a mistake from Otamendi that directly led to Pukki’s goal.
Villa’s own defensive naivety, which has seen them drop five points in the last two games, could once again be their undoing. Mings is praised, and rightly so, for his composure on the ball. However, he is also guilty of being too comfortable at times, trying to play out from the back in situations where doing so puts the team under unnecessary risk. Pukki will be frothing at the mouth for another opportunity to arise from this sort of play.
Of course, Norwich are not a paragon of defensive excellence themselves. 16 goals conceded so far is evidence of this. Their last three losses, all 2-0 results, have seen the opposition score xG ratings of around two (1.8, 2.39 and 2.21), which suggests that these wins have been fairly earned by their opposition and not necessarily a result of overperformance.
Villa will have to be particularly concerned about wingers Cantwell and Buendia. Buendia leads the team for assists with four, and for key passes with 2.4 per game. Cantwell is just as good at contributing to goals, chipping in with two of his own along with two assists. They both work well with Pukki, who contributes in his own way with a key pass per game along with two assists.
The wingers work well to supply their striker, and cutting them out of the game should go a long way to blunting Norwich’s teeth a little.
Norwich may be potential relegation rivals even this early in the season, but that does not mean they are to be underestimated. They pose a threat, and Villa may need to alter their approach to win. Smith’s tactical nuance will be put to the test here.
Norwich 2-2 Aston Villa –
Two competent attacking sides with relatively shaky defences to back them up. This match has end-to-end score draw written all over it. While a draw isn’t bad in isolation, Villa’s current position in the league table demands wins.