Michael Bailey: The way to express Norwich City’s significant progress
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The expression on Chris Hughton’s face is still etched in my memory. Not the one he exhibited at Anthony Pilkington’s fabulous winner over Manchester United on Saturday, nor at the final whistle – although both will hang around for years to come too.
• The phrase “riding the pine” was a new one on me when I saw it in the Mississauga News’ eloquent headline of their Simeon Jackson update – detailing how he’s been “nailed to the bench” in recent weeks; Mississauga Canada being where the City striker hails from. “The season has gone OK so far,” he told them. “Personally, it has been stop and start with playing time as of recent weeks, but that’s something that you have to deal with at this level. When you’re not playing, it is tough but it also makes playing and scoring that much better when you get back in.” And then the throw away line at the end: “Jackson’s contract expires at the end of this season.” Along with a couple of players, maybe one to watch that.
• Needless to say it’s going to be a long week – four days away are in prospect as City head to Liverpool for Saturday’s clash with Everton, before the long trip south to Southampton four days later.
In a way, it’s easier for us – so huge respect to City fans making the journeys. And of course, here’s hoping they’re worthwhile.
It was September 29, and the City boss had just emerged from his press conferences to explain the Carrow Road humbling to Liverpool. There was anger and a ferocious frustration in his face that spoke more than the words he gave that day. An expression less ‘how is this happening?’ and more ‘we’re better than this’.
The more we can harp back to the Liverpool defeat, the better City’s season will have been. A low point that much further in the distance. And that memory on the City Stand touchline comes more and more into focus each time Norwich prove that yes, they are indeed better than that.
Arsenal shook things up enough to remove a few monkeys from backs, but the glorious victory over United was more profound.
The ground covered by Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington on the flanks to ensure neither City full-back was exposed for more than a handful of seconds all evening was something to behold.
And if those two were indisposed, one of Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson would step in.
The Canaries’ organisation and efficiency was something I’ve rarely witnessed in a City side.
To offer another random moment that sticks in my memory, no sooner was Pilkington chasing United’s back four after losing possession, Wes Hoolahan was already filling in on the left in front of Javier Garrido. It wasn’t just noticing the danger, but covering it before anyone else did.
City’s work without the ball on Saturday – and arguably for almost all of the four top-flight games since their Liverpool and Chelsea drubbings – was the epitome of a well rehearsed outfit; something some national pundits would do well to focus on, rather than the lazy assumptions that Norwich had fewer internationals away (it was three starters each) and United were not as good as they could be – no top-four side is going to be on their game in the process of losing a top-flight match.
In a nutshell City’s back four are now keeping their shape, the full-backs are not being pulled out too wide and the central pairing of Michael Turner and Sebastien Bassong have found a rhythm between choosing to cut out a pass or hold their position.
You won’t see both full-backs bombing on simultaneously – but you will see one go when they can. Garrido does it to great effect, as United found out.
“You’ve got to bed yourself in,” said skipper Grant Holt after City’s win over Arsenal last month. “The new manager has got a different plan and it will get better and better, and people will realise what he expects and wants.
“At certain times you’ve got to drop. You can’t go pressing like lunatics and run all over the pitch.”
So where does City’s season go from here? Survival will always be the sole aim and we are months from that being sorted.
But even beginning to wonder how good City can be this season is evidence of their remarkable progress – certainly enough to put a few more positive expressions on Chris Hughton’s face.