Norwich City's Improved Defence Is a Premier League Lesson in Progress
Here's a stat to bring hope to every struggling team on the planet. Norwich City have conceded just three times in their run of seven Premier League games unbeaten, compared to 17 goals leaked in the seven matches before them—of which they lost four.
It's a turnaround that's seen the Canaries climb from second-last to 13th in the table and puts them in lofty company with champions Manchester City, as the only teams without a defeat in the league since October 20.
It's not that Norwich have had an easy run of games, either. Chris Hughton's side have beaten Arsenal and Manchester United at home, and held Everton to a draw at Goodison Park in their last seven matches.
The seven before included a 5-0 opening-day loss to Fulham, a Luis Suarez-curated 5-2 lesson from Liverpool and a 4-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It really has been a season of two halves so far for Hughton's team.
So how do we explain it? Is it purely a case of Norwich adjusting to life under their new manager? Or are there others factors at play that help to shed light on how the East Anglians have made themselves one of the form teams in England—and one of the most difficult teams to break down of late.
We should start with John Ruddy, City's highly-regarded goalkeeper. Ruddy averages 13 saves a game for his 13 starts this season, which ranks him in the top third of regular Premier League keepers (TheScore.com).
25 - John Ruddy has made more diving saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League this season. Agile.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 26, 2012
Only Joe Hart (City), Jussi Jaaskelainen (West Ham) and Asmir Begovic (Stoke) have kept more clean sheets than Ruddy. Tellingly, of his five shut-outs, four have come in Norwich's last seven games.
Ruddy was probably Norwich's best player in their 1-0 defeat of Manchester United—earning plaudits from Sir Alex Ferguson afterwards. He was also to the fore in their 1-1 draw at Everton, a match that saw him pick up a thigh injury that will rule him for "approximately three months."
Ruddy's deputy, Mark Bunn, played in their 1-1 draw with Southampton on Wednesday night. It will be interesting to see how they cope without Ruddy, not least in consecutive Christmas fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea.
But good goalkeeping alone doesn't account for Norwich's much-improved defensive performances of late.
The bare numbers don't seem to tell us much either. Compare Norwich's first seven games to their last and we see a slight increase in average possession percentage (45 percent to 46), and a bump in average defensive actions per game from 45 to 52. Their average pass length has extended from 21 to 23 meters (numbers as per Squawka).
Some of the other stats seem to fly in the face of their improvement. Norwich's pass accuracy is down from 72 percent to 69, for example. And they've picked up 10 yellow cards in their seven games, compared to two in their first seven, which seems to a suggest a greater level of desperation.
Desperation could be read as aggression of course. There are no numbers to measure that, but there is definitely a sense Norwich have hardened as the season has gone on and become more of a physical proposition.
There's an urgency to their defensive operation now—an onus on getting bodies behind the ball as quickly as possible and closing down space as quickly as possible.
"They deserved the win just because they worked so hard for it," admitted Ferguson after Manchester United's loss at Carrow Road.
"They played well, were completely committed and they deserved the win," Arsene Wenger told reporters after Arsenal were beaten by the same 1-0 scoreline by the Canaries.
“You have to give Norwich credit. Look at their defensive record of late and you can see they are making it hard for teams to score goals," said David Moyes after his Everton team were held to a frustrating draw.
Comparing Norwich's defending in the matches against Liverpool and United at Carrow United, you would think you were watching a completely different team.
Norwich were stretched and broken down easily by Brendan Rodgers' team, who found space easy to come by in midfield and frequently outnumbered their opponents in breaks forward. United had no such luxury, coming up against a far more disciplined defensive outfit.
Hughton has tweaked his team's focus. The attacking abandon Norwich showed early in the season was not in the interest of their Premier League survival and Hughton has wisely made defensive adjustments to to spark their recent revival.
He's drilled them, instilled a fierce team work ethic and managed to cut out some of the errors which proved so closely at the start of their campaign. Said Hughton, as per Sky Sports.
All you can do is set a team up how you want to, try to motivate them, get them right tactically, but as soon as that whistle goes, it is about 11 players.
At the moment, you have got 11 players who are confident in their own ability and absolutely working their socks off
I am really proud of this group. There is a good feeling here at the moment and they really deserve it.
Nobody could argument with that last sentiment. Norwich's recent run is the result of some serious hard graft and application to the task at hand. Hughton's team are a lesson in progress and their manager deserves much of the credit.
He's not gone to three at the back, reverted to humping the ball long or played just about everybody in central midfield—as some have done—but simply coached the resources available and his team are reaping the benefits.
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