Norwich and Aston Villa showed this weekend that they’re capable of good football, but they’re still in relegation trouble…
This weekend’s performances from both Norwich City and Aston Villa summed up the season both teams are having. Many teams have given a worse account of themselves than Norwich did against Liverpool, losing to a 78th minute piece of brilliance from Sadio Mane, whilst Aston Villa looked set to take a vital point against Tottenham until a defensive mistake saw them concede a last minute goal.
Their free-flowing styles of play – built around quick, clever passing – make them seem too good to go down. Yet with Norwich rooted to the bottom of the league and Aston Villa firmly in the mix of the relegation zone, there is every likelihood that these two ‘good’ teams will drop straight back to the Championship.
Much of the enjoyment that comes from watching Villa attack comes from Jack Grealish’s ability to drift between the lines. He will pop up on the halfway line, then again on the wing, moving past defenders as if the socks sat on his calves improved his centre of gravity. The fact he is the most fouled player in the Premier League only goes to show how much opposition teams fear his influence. With five more goal involvements than any other Villa player, Grealish is what makes them look like such a scintillating prospect. As a team, they have already outscored five of the six last teams to be relegated, even with twelve games to go.
Norwich don’t quite have that same kind of stand-out player but their commitment to quick passing and building from the back is what gives the impression they should be doing better than they are. Against Liverpool, Tim Krul was able to rely on the ability of Todd Cantwell to bypass the Liverpool midfield with long passes, in the knowledge that Cantwell would be able to create something up against Trent Alexander-Arnold. Yet when there wasn’t an opportunity going forward, Norwich were comfortable enough to play the ball back and start building again. In terms of passes made, Norwich sit in the top-half of the table for this season, which shows how much they value making meaningful opportunities as opposed to giving the ball away.
Unfortunately for both these clubs, no one picks up points for style of play. Both Crystal Palace and Newcastle have an expected goals of less than one-per-90 minutes, but both sit just above the relegation vortex. Aston Villa are tenth in terms of their average shots on target per match, whilst Norwich are 13th – equivalent to Arsenal. Yet their teams also have a significant set of defensive failings.
This was brutally summed up for Aston Villa as, in the 93rd minute, Bjorn Engels ignored the advice of any youth football coach and tried to trap the ball with the sole of his foot. As it ran through to Son Heung-min who calmly placed the ball past Pepe Reina, it felt like Villa’s season in microcosm. They sit bottom of the league in terms of expected goals against, meaning they give opposition teams more opportunities than anyone else in the league. It was Tottenham’s inability to convert more than Villa’s defensive qualities which meant they were still drawing as the game went into stoppage time.
Similarly Norwich’s style of play means that they have been dispossessed 280 times this season – the fifth most in the league. Even in the Championship, they relied on scoring goals as opposed to keeping them out, conceding an average of 1.23 goals per game. With no defensive arrivals over the summer, and with their most experienced central defender Timm Klose out injured since August, it was always going to be tough for Norwich to develop that aspect of their game to keep up with the attacking quality of the Premier League.
As frustrating as it might feel for a viewer when more defensively minded sides are able to stay up to the detriment of creative teams, there is a logic to playing attack minded football that goes beyond the accumulation of points. For teams who know that their Premier League survival is going to be tricky, maintaining a high quality style puts their players on show to other teams who play the same way. Aston Villa will struggle to hold onto Jack Grealish this summer, with Tyrone Mings impressing throughout the season and John McGinn was also attracting interest prior to his injury. Todd Cantwell, Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons and Emil Buendia at Norwich have all been the subject of transfer rumours.
For both squads, maintaining a system in the style of better performing teams has allowed them to show off how their players could fit into those teams, thus boosting their potential transfer value. When you can’t rely on Premier League broadcasting revenue, and parachute payments only go so far, being able to generate transfer revenue is one of the best financial strategies available. Aston Villa and Norwich have been able to at the very least keep their players in the shop window.
Aston Villa may yet stay up, and with a League Cup final still to come (albeit against Manchester City), they should be able to still feel positive about their season. For Norwich, although their race looks run, it seems likely that Daniel Farke’s project at the club will stretch beyond their sojourn in the Premier League. Both teams’ attacking styles of play will only have won them more admirers, and whilst relegation might mean losing some of their key players, if they can reinvest to strengthen the team further, there is always the potential of a more successful return.
The successes of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United over consecutive seasons show there is plenty of room for promoted teams to storm up the table if everything clicks. For Norwich and Aston Villa, they need to make it work defensively first.
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