March 12 2014 Latest news:
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Norwich City’s Premier League trip to Swansea this weekend is fascinating on many levels.
The one that interests me above all others is who edges the midfield battle. Or should that be ballet? The Swans have earned plenty of plaudits for Brendan Rogers’ commitment to total passing football. The bin bags at the Emirates may be testament to Arsenal’s trophy drought, but the Gunners have long been the standard bearers under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage for their style and panache; the mesmerising triangles and patterns at pace designed to cut defences open.
Yet even the Frenchman had to concede his men were taught a refresher lesson on their recent trip to the Liberty Stadium following Swansea’s stirring 3-2 Premier League win. The Swans’ diminutive central duo, Joe Allen and Leon Britton, have been held up as shining British examples of the modern-age midfielder; comfortable in possession with peripheral vision and a range of passing to die for. Statistics tend to leave me lukewarm, but, according to the Opta number-crunchers, Britton now rivals Barcelona’s maestro Xavi for the title of the most accurate passer in all of Europe.
I think I know who I would rather have in my dream team – which in itself is no slight on Britton who has come up from the lower leagues like many of the men he is likely to face in the opposing line-up this weekend. Britton, so say those who have a fact or number for everything bar Paul Lambert’s inside leg measurement, is the only player in the Premier League to complete a match this season with a 100pc passing success rate – in Swansea’s 3-0 win over Bolton back in October. Only eight other players have managed that feat in the past six seasons, all of them defenders. I’m fairly dubious about that last gem myself, but what seems fairly indisputable is a philosophy and a culture instilled by Rogers has helped establish his side just behind Manchester City and Chelsea in the passing pecking order.
Swansea, as a result, have been pigeon-holed as a joy to watch. Pleasing on the eye. Feted for football the right way. Norwich, it would appear in the national consciousness, have suffered from a slight perception problem. One cast by the 6ft shadows of Grant Holt and Steve Morison. Much was made of City’s aerial prowess after the home league win against Newcastle – some of that response critical of Norwich’s perceived direct approach.
The Canaries have done little to dissuade the delusional since. Andrew Surman’s excellent flashing header at his former club Wolves. Simeon Jackson’s late thunderbolt to rescue a point against Fulham. Steve Morison’s match winner at QPR. Two more in the FA Cup third round romp over Burnley. Yes, I’m getting bored myself, but you get the gist. Digest the propaganda and Norwich play one-dimensional football. Not a bit of it.
Put Swansea’s midfield men on a pedestal by all means; just pay due deference to Norwich’s technical talents in the same area of the pitch. I’ll resist any urge to try and second guess Lambert’s line-up for the Liberty Stadium.
Look at the men he sent out against Bolton last weekend. David Fox at the base of the diamond; a steal from Colchester who is tailor-made for the Premier League with its emphasis on technique and touch. Fox follows the same modern template as Swansea’s main men, which is why he can cope with the requisite speed of thought required. He can craft passes long or short, deliver a cross or a free-kick with unerring accuracy. When Fox is on the pitch, Norwich retain possession. Keep the ball and it follows you can feed the likes of Surman and Anthony Pilkington. Neither would rival the likes of Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon in the Usain Bolt speed stakes. Both possess ample cunning and guile allied to a wonderful balance and movement to create enough space to beat a man with a feint or an early centre. They also bring goals. Witness the two strikes that sunk Bolton at the weekend.
And then there is Wes Hoolahan. The Irishman who does his talking on the pitch – but what a voice. Take a straw poll amongst the Norwich squad and it’s a fair bet Hoolahan would come out on top as the most naturally-gifted footballer at the club. An intelligent playmaker capable of knitting midfield and attack. All four have enough grey matter to prosper. All four also have deficiencies. Just like Swansea’s midfield exponents. On certain days and at certain times Lambert needs to prioritise the ball-winning skills and muscular energy of a Bradley Johnson or an Andrew Crofts. But if Swansea do play the beautiful game this weekend, Norwich will not be found wanting.