Norwich City's 4-1 Championship win over Cardiff City was a game when David Wagner's side were superior not just on an individual level, but also from a tactical perspective.

Ben is a City season ticket holder and author of the NCFC Analysis social media account, who unpicks games with an analytical report highlighting tactical strengths and weaknesses.

This is what Ben made of a dominant Carrow Road display from the play-off chasing Canaries.

Norwich versus Cardiff: Settled-play dominance

Score: 4 – 1

Possession (%): 58 – 42

Passes: 591 – 437

Shots: 23 – 9

xG: 2.47 – 0.42

  • Cardiff’s passive strategy out-of-possession.
  • Settled-play overloads and sustaining pressure.
  • Positivity in high pressing phases.
  • Sargent’s brilliance.

Base formations

Making the trip to Carrow Road was a Cardiff side that had suffered five defeats in six, scoring just two goals in as many games: a run the visitors’ head coach, Erol Bulut, admitted was the worst of his career to date.

Both sides set up in changeable 4-2-3-1 base formations. Wagner made three changes to his XI, as McLean dropped into the back four, while Nunez joined Sara in a double pivot.

Norwich Evening News:

Immediately, it became clear that Bulut’s men were reluctant to press in Norwich’s deepest build-up phases. Instead of transitioning into a high pressing structure, the visitors dropped into a passive 4-4-2 shape as Colwill (27) joined Diedhiou (20) in a front two.

Periods of settled possession – or phases of play beyond a side’s deep build-up, when the opponent places no immediate pressure on the ball carrier – usually occur in the middle third of the pitch.

But given the passivity of Cardiff’s press, Norwich were free to transition into their usual settled-play shape deep in their own half. The structure sees one pivot, in this case Nunez (26), drop between the centre-backs, while the wingers invert and the full-backs overlap.

Norwich Evening News:

With Norwich advancing towards the halfway line, some obvious positional and numerical advantages became apparent against Cardiff’s 4-4-2 mid-block.

The visitors rarely applied pressure to City’s situational back three, instead deciding to remain structurally solid. But neither of Cardiff’s front two shadow marked nor man marked Sara (17), leaving him free to circulate possession with Hanley (5), Nunez (26), and McLean (23).

Norwich Evening News:

When one of Cardiff’s wingers was drawn to press a wide centre-back, he exposed his side to Norwich’s next structural advantage.

Within the first few minutes, Wilson-Esbrand (30) pressed Hanley (5) without blocking the passing lane to Stacey (3). Given Norwich’s last-line overload, Collins (17) was isolated in a 2v1 against Stacey (3) and Hernandez (25), with Ralls (8) late to backward press.

Norwich Evening News:

On Norwich’s left, we saw a slightly different dynamic when Grant (16) was drawn to press McLean (23), with Sainz (7) playing a key role in Norwich’s build-up.

The Spanish winger often dropped outside of Cardiff’s defensive block to receive the ball out wide, while McCallum (15) occasionally moved from the left half-space, dragging Siopis (23) wide, leaving Sainz (7) with space to cut inside.

Norwich Evening News:

But even without Cardiff’s wingers jumping to press, Norwich were able to exploit further structural advantages.

With Bulut’s side failing to reliably apply pressure to City’s back three, while also maintaining a relatively high last line, the Norwich trio were free to play over Cardiff’s defensive block to find Sargent (9) or Barnes (10) in behind.

Moreover, the visitors' horizontal compactness meant long diagonal passes to the full-backs were frequent, particularly after Norwich had shifted over to one side.

Norwich Evening News:

The deep-lying forward – either Sargent (9) or Barnes (10) – and the inverting wingers also created a positional advantage against Cardiff’s mid-block.

By occupying space between the defensive and midfield lines, these three players created natural passing angles behind the visitors’ midfield four. On one occasion, for example, Nunez (26) played through two lines of pressure to find Sargent (9), bypassing six Cardiff players at once.

Norwich Evening News:

Driving runs from McLean (23) have become commonplace in this Norwich side. Saturday was no different, with the Scot totalling 382 yards worth of progressive carries - 113 yards more than Nunez (26), and 290 yards further than any Cardiff player.

After advancing into the visitors' half, McLean (23) was able to access Norwich’s last-line 6v4 overload as City moved into the final third. Both Cardiff full-backs were frequently isolated in 2v1 situations against their counterparts and Norwich’s inverted wingers.

Norwich Evening News:

The hosts’ equaliser provided a useful example of Norwich’s last-line advantage, as Sara (17) found McCallum (15) in space on the left.

Even with Grant (16) dropping alongside Collins (17) – after switching sides with Wilson-Esbrand (30) – Norwich had a 6v5 overload in the final third, thus allowing McCallum (15) time and space to cross to Sargent (9).

Norwich Evening News:

Perhaps even more noteworthy was Norwich’s ability to sustain pressure for large spells of the game, particularly in the first half.

It’s a feature Wagner’s side often struggle with, in part because of their overly expansive settled-play shape and the separation between players in their rest-defence.

On Saturday, however, Norwich’s counter-press was generally effective, with players quickly closing space in defensive transitions. Although at least some of the responsibility for such situations lies with the Bluebirds, given their incredibly wasteful transitions.

Norwich Evening News:

For the most part, the visitors decided to go long from goal-kicks: an approach that rarely resulted in a spell of Cardiff possession. But when Bulut’s men built more patiently, they found Colwill (27) beyond the first two lines of pressure before targeting the far side of City’s press.

Norwich created their usual 4-1-3-2 high pressing structure as Wagner’s men pressed man-to-man with intensity on the ball-side. With Nunez (26) pressing Colwill (27), and the nearest full-back tracking the ball-side winger, City were often able to force turnovers in the visitors’ half.

Norwich Evening News:

Between their deep build-up phases and moments of settled possession, Cardiff created more of a problem for their hosts. Before the visitors played out to one side, Colwill (27) finally became free from Nunez (26), albeit temporarily, as he received between the lines.

Norwich Evening News:

In settled possession, Cardiff occasionally created a 3-2-4-1 shape, as Romeo (2) became a hybrid right centre-back, Collins (17) advanced on the left, and Wilson-Esbrand (30) inverted from the same side.

Once Norwich dropped into a 4-4-2 mid-block, picking the right moment to press was crucial. But in the build-up to Cardiff’s first-half goal, the hosts’ mid-press failed when Ralls (8) became free to receive from Goutas (4).

Norwich Evening News:

After the front two opened passing lanes to the visitors’ double pivot, Sainz (7) was caught between Ralls (8) and Grant (16). With McCallum (15) jumping to press the winger, Colwill (27) received a through ball in the space behind, before Collins (17) converted from the resultant cross.

Norwich Evening News:

In the second half, Norwich’s third goal epitomised Josh Sargent’s quality. As Nunez (26) advanced towards the halfway line, Sargent (9) dropped between the lines – dragging Liverpool loanee Phillips (12) with him – before playing a bounce pass back to Hernandez (25).

Norwich Evening News:

With Hernandez (25) also occupying space between the lines, Phillips (12) jumped onto the Norwich winger to prevent another wide 2v1. In doing so, however, Phillips (12) allowed Sargent (9) to advance into space unoccupied, while Stacey (3) received the ball out wide.

After initially being caught between Hernandez (25) and Stacey (3), Collins (17) was too late to prevent the cross from Stacey (3) to Sargent (9), as City’s number nine advanced into space between the centre-backs to score his second goal of the game.

Norwich Evening News:

This was another moment of individual quality from Sargent. The link-up play, the intelligent movement, the athleticism, the improvised finish – he has the attributes of a complete striker.

But most importantly for Norwich, this was a moment of brilliance not merely despite tactics, but as a result of them. The hosts had unequivocal superiority: not just on an individual level, for once, but also from a tactical perspective.

It is, however, important to recognise the shortcomings of the team they faced. Cardiff’s passive setup failed to expose Norwich’s remaining vulnerabilities. The biggest test will be of City’s ability to replicate Saturday’s success without that caveat.

You can read all Ben's previous analysis of Norwich City games via his social media accounts.

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