Following their unexpected midweek defeat to Crystal Palace, Norwich elected to drop their trademark diamond formation for a flat 4-4-2, with winger Antony McNamee surprisingly starting ahead of the Canaries' conductor last season, Wes Hoolahan. First choice centre-back Elliott Ward also made his return from a one-match suspension. Boro were the ones aiming to provide the sparkle in the centre of midfield with a defensively minded 4-3-1-2, precocious 17 year old Luke Williams drifting between Norwich's defensive and midfield lines. Boro captain Gary O'Neill started in an unusual position as carrilero on the left side of the diamond.
Approximate positions and movements of both sets of players in the first half. Note how O'Neil's forays forward and inside (the yellow line marking where he should be) effectively handed Norwich the right flank, leading to their winning goal.
All right first half (O'Neil gets homesick)
The main pattern of the game was established very early on in the first half. Thanks to their numerical advantage there, Boro found it easier to maintain possession in the centre, while Norwich found themselves having to work predominantly on the break. Norwich seemed fairly content in dealing with the threat Boro offered, tending to either win the ball or give away minor fouls high in their half before innocuous passes could emerge as more sinister attacks. With Leroy Lita and Kris Boyd well supervised by Elliott Ward and Leon Barnett, who both had fantastic games, one got the sense that Boro dictated the play while only occasionally exerting a threat on goal.
The movement of Luke Williams and Gary O'Neil presented the biggest concern for Norwich, but also their biggest outlet. Kevin Thomson remained deep (later, Richard Smallwood), and Nicky Bailey shuttled well, allowing Middlesbrough to retain the ball inside their half. Williams was often the player with the most room, waiting for service in the centre or drifting towards the right flank, providing width to Boro's midfield until their right-back Tony McMahon could overlap. The attacking intentions of McMahon and Bailey made Lappin, Fox and Steven Smith stay fairly deep. It was through Williams' influence that Boro gained some early corners, an O'Neil free-kick which Norwich keeper John Ruddy caught comfortably, and a long shot just wide of the post from Bailey. It was a mature performance from the youngster.
O'Neil, perhaps anxious as a right-footer on the left hand side, tended to move inwards into the space that Williams vacated. This made Boro lopsided, leaving Norwich with constant space on their right flank, and plenty of time to use it before O'Neil could get back and defend. Russell Martin got several key balls through to Simeon Jackson, and Andrew Crofts was a dynamic force in midfield, making charging runs from deep and unluckily striking the post after being left unmarked from a McNamee cross. Because of the sheer amount of time they were given down the right, Norwich were able to construct the better chances, and it was a move down this side which ultimately won them the game.
Anthony McNamee was Norwich's most direct player, with his constant runs at Matthew Bates on the counter-attack providing the most exciting moments of the match. Despite being left-footed, and consequently shown down the line by Bates numerous times, McNamee showed discipline in maintaining Norwich's width where O'Neil couldn't for Boro. His patience was ultimately rewarded. On the one occasion that McNamee really manufactured a chance to cut onto his stronger foot, he delivered an inswinging far post cross which the bustling Grant Holt slid to Jackson for a tap-in. Norwich deservedly led at half time.
More cautious second half
With Middlesbrough so vulnerable to Norwich counter-attacks in the first half, it was only natural that their caretaker boss Steve Agnew was going to make changes. Gary O'Neil was moved to his natural right side, while Nicky Bailey was now on the left man-marking McNamee when Boro didn't have the ball. Bailey's greater positional discipline worked in nullifying McNamee's threat, and he consequently faded out of the game. The match became more slower and more tense as a consequence.
Norwich's counters switched to the left, but Lappin, Smith and Fox were less effective at creating chances, and Norwich slowly dropped deeper in fear of conceding an equaliser. Middlesbrough continued to probe while still lacking cutting edge, despite replacing one SPL goal machine (Kris Boyd) with another (Scott McDonald). Ward and Bennett remained steadfast, and Grant Holt dropped deeper, committing in midfield in a bid not to be isolated - he seems a more than competent target man at this level.
Joe Bennett's introduction at left-back aimed to take advantage of the flagging McNamee and Norwich's increasing narrowness as Middlesbrough's full backs pressed forward. The defensive minded Korey Smith was brought on in McNamee's place, but it didn't prevent Boro from getting their best chance of the game in injury time, as Bailey found McDonald unmarked in Norwich's penalty area only for his shot to trickle wide. Half of Boro's team collapsed to the grass - they knew their chance for a point had gone.
Paul Lambert's brave decision to ditch the diamond and Hoolahan paid off as Norwich redeemed themselves for their midweek defeat with a disciplined defensive performance, particularly from their two centre backs. Reuniting Ward and Barnett after their regular partnership at Coventry last season demonstrates intelligent management on his part, as does his willingness to change system when required - the diamond is perhaps a better tactic to use when trying to control the game away from home rather than when trying to unlock stubborn visiting defences. Unless his team achieve an unexpected promotion, this highly promising manager probably won't remain in Norwich for too long.
Middlesbrough looked toothless up front, and their attempt to match Norwich's diamond did not play to the strengths of their captain O'Neil - less defensive responsibility should be placed on him. This lack of self-confidence ultimately cost them the game. They certainly have too much ability to be relegated from the Championship, but they need a new manager quickly if they are still going to enjoy anything near the promising season that many expected.