Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Friday night meeting with Norwich at St Mary's in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
It’s been a difficult season for Norwich City.
The fixture computer took no mercy on them back in the summer, handing them an opening run of Liverpool, then Manchester City, then Leicester City, then Arsenal. Opening the campaign with six straight losses put them in a funk any team would struggle to get out of, and they’ve spent more than 90 per cent of the season to date at the bottom of the league.
They have conceded the most goals (53) and scored the fewest (15) in the league, a typically fatal combination that saw head coach Daniel Farke replaced by Dean Smith in November. It was actually Southampton’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa a week before that relieved Smith of his Villa duties, creating the opportunity for the Canaries to make a switch.
Since stepping into the breach, there’s been incremental improvement under Smith, as well as a notable stylistic change. The Canaries are not only more cautious and structured now, but also more streetwise when required. Ben Gibson recently spoke of the importance they now place on getting the foundation and basics right first, then growing from there.
At the beginning of the year they settled into a counter-attacking 4-4-2, combining the incisive movements of Teemu Pukki with the speed of Adam Idah. However, a season-ending injury to the latter has seen Norwich move to a 4-3-3 that we can probably expect for the foreseeable future.
Several players have upped their level considerably under Smith, who is renowned as a coach who can improve players. Chief among those improving is Milot Rashica, who recently scored his first Premier League goal to cap an excellent recent run of form.
He’s an extremely capable dribbler who has become key in transitioning Norwich from defence to attack. He can receive the ball deep on the left flank, turn and eat up the ground; now fully adapted to life in the Premier League, he’s become a valuable weapon with the ball at his feet. Southampton’s right side will have to be ready to disrupt him however possible.
Another important development has been Mathias Normann’s return to fitness. Arguably the Canaries’ best player in the first half of the season, his blend of defensive ability and passing range changes the landscape in central midfield. Norwich compete far better and far harder in the middle when he’s anchoring the setup.
Opportunities for Southampton’s press to create turnovers will be more limited than in previous meetings with Norwich, owing to Smith’s deviation from Farke’s more open, short build-up style. Instead, there may well be ample opportunities for the full-backs to push on and influence the game, as Norwich’s narrow structure concedes space wide and is susceptible to back-post runs.
That, in addition to how key Rasicha will be from the left flank, draws into particular focus the importance of Tino Livramento or Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton’s right-back on the night, who may hold the key to three points.