Both sides employed the now familiar 4-4-1-1 formation but Norwich played it more adeptly to gain a vital win
This was a meeting between two exponents of this season's standard Premier League formation. Whereas English football was traditionally obsessed with 4-4-2, and then 4-3-3/4-5-1 became fashionable midway through the last decade, now the most popular strategy is to defend with two banks of four, featuring disciplined wide players flanking two holding midfielders. Meanwhile, a central creator stays high up the pitch in support of an out-and-out striker.
For elite teams who dominate possession it is designated a 4-2-3-1, while more modest sides such as Norwich and Sunderland are regarded as playing 4-4-1-1 – but the general idea remains the same.
With two similar systems the key to the tactical battle was not the formations but the strategy without the ball. Norwich have been impressively structured recently, with Chris Hughton relentlessly drilling his players on the training ground – the wide midfielders protect the full-backs excellently, while Alexander Tettey and Bradley Johnson sit solidly in front of the centre-backs. Norwich don't always win the ball quickly but they're able to withstand pressure admirably.
On the other hand, Sunderland's most obvious strategy was a high defensive line, which has become the obvious approach against Norwich – Southampton did exactly the same thing on Wednesday night in a 1-1 draw at St Mary's. It's easy to see the rationale; Grant Holt is an aerial threat but unlikely to cause problems through pace in behind the defence, so it makes sense to push up and force him away from goal.
But Norwich exploited Sunderland's high line excellently for Anthony Pilkington's strike, which mixed good possession play with a sudden, quick forward pass from Johnson in midfield. The key was the combination of the two approaches; after more than a minute with the ball the unexpected directness came as a surprise to the Sunderland backline. More specifically, Norwich had worked the ball backwards from the opposition third to their own defence, which meant Sunderland's back four were gradually edging up the pitch, trying to squeeze the play – they were abruptly forced to turn round by Johnson's pass. When combined with Matthew Kilgallon loitering behind the rest of the defence, it resulted in Norwich's crucial second goal.
Sunderland's high line was at least combined with good midfield pressing, and after half-time they had consistent spells of pressure by winning the ball quickly and pinning Norwich backinto their own third, although Hughton's side are well-versed in this type of defending.
The away side's pressure resulted in various goalscoring opportunities – but chiefly from set-pieces, because Sunderland still lack creativity in the final third. Stéphane Sessègnon had a fine chance midway through the second half but rarely looks to unlock the opposition defence from between the lines, so a lot of faith is placed in inconsistent wingers James McClean and Adam Johnson to provide good crosses. Better finishing would have snatched a point but Norwich were more cohesive with and without the ball, and are currently a finer example of how to play this system.
Paul Lambert switched to a 3-5-2 system for Aston Villa's trip to QPR on Saturday afternoon. Although Lambert frequently changed formations last season when in charge of Norwich last season, since taking over at Villa Park he's remained committed to a four-man defence, so it was a surprise to see him select a backline of Ciaran Clark, Chris Herd and Nathan Baker, with Matthew Lowton and Eric Lichaj pushing forward from wing-back.
The experiment wasn't entirely successful. Villa started brightly, and they defended the penalty box effectively, but it allowed the QPR full-backs an incredible amount of time on the ball; Armand Traore was disappointingly conservative on the left but José Bosingwa motored forward without any pressure.
QPR's equaliser came after a cross from the right, as Bosingwa laid the ball back for Samba Diakite to cross, and it felt like Harry Redknapp's side should have made better use of their advantage down the flanks. The half-time departure of Esteban Granero was frustrating in this respect – he was the perfect man to spread play from side to side.
Wayne Rooney again showed his versatility in Manchester United's 4-3 win at Reading on Saturday afternoon, spending the majority of the game on the right wing.
It was a good example of his willingness to sacrifice his attacking game for the sake of the team – although he scored twice, these goals came from his only two attempts at target, and he spent much of the game in deeper positions.
In fact, since the arrival of Robin van Persie, Rooney has reverted to being more of a creative player than a goalscorer. He's only scored in two matches this season – Saturday was his second double, after doing the same at home to Stoke in October – but with seven assists from 11 games, no other Premier League player has directly created so many goals for team-mates.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net