Robin Sainty: The growing pains have been accepted by Norwich City fans
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 December 2018
Early in last Saturday's first half, a sequence of lateral passes between Tim Krul, Christoph Zimmermann and Timm Klose generated a spontaneous round of applause, whereas just six months ago the response would have been moans and boos, punctuated by shouts of "get it forward".
While there is no doubt that City’s ability to build from the back has evolved since the arrival of Daniel Farke, I think it’s fair to say that the crowd’s understanding of what the coach and players are trying to achieve has also moved on considerably.
That’s not to suggest that fans had no right to moan about some of the turgid football of last season, but I think that virtually everyone now acknowledges that frustrating period was more than worth it for what we’re seeing now.
The Hull game threw up the concern that City without Mo Leitner were a significantly lesser team, but I think Saturday nailed that myth. Certainly they are different, but the second-half performances of Mario Vrancic and particularly Todd Cantwell, who seems to be metamorphising before our eyes into a very special player, a process that will certainly be helped by the confidence generated by his first senior goal.
While Cantwell is emerging, Max Aarons continues his ascent to the highest levels of the game as he seems to push the bar higher with every game.
I’m not sure whether my favourite moment on Saturday was his striker-like run off the blind side of a defender to deftly put City ahead or when he outjumped the towering Michael Smith, who had troubled Zimmermann and Klose aerially all game, to win a defensive header. He really is some player.
City haven’t had a full-back pairing like Aarons and Jamal Lewis since the days of Mark Bowen and Ian Culverhouse and their contribution is massive both defensively and in attack and the fact that both were hovering on the edge of Rotherham’s penalty area in the build-up to Aarons’ goal indicates just how fluid City’s system now is.
While it’s the youngsters who are getting most of the plaudits, City’s unsung hero was undoubtedly Marco Stiepermann, who once again put in a great shift and was ultimately rewarded when he sprinted 20 yards to harass Ryan Williams into a poor pass before robbing Semi Ajayi to set up Teemu Pukki for the third.
Stiepermann isn’t the most elegant footballer but he does the things that allow the creative players to have the freedom to dictate, and his progression is perhaps the most striking, from a mediocre utility player last season to an essential component this. On Saturday, despite being repeatedly fouled, his ability to bring down high balls and get City’s midfield into the game was exceptional.
With Leitner, Grant Hanley, Louis Thompson, Onel Hernandez and Kenny McLean still to return, City’s squad is looking very strong and while a couple of back-up positions could perhaps be strengthened there are no obvious weaknesses.
That includes goalkeeper, where Krul has come under fire from some quarters. Had he still been making the sort of errors that cost goals against West Brom and Leeds early in the season I’d be concerned, but the fingers pointed at him for Swansea and Rotherham’s goals might equally be trained on defenders who failed to react quickly enough to the initial save. Last season the justified criticism was that the team lacked leaders on the pitch, so I struggle to understand why people would want to see one of the most vocal replaced.
Krul isn’t perfect – show me the goalkeeper who is – but he is a commanding presence and is clearly trusted by his defenders, while his comfort with the ball at his feet fits Farke’s system perfectly. It would be nice if this afternoon proves less tense than last week but given the nature of the Championship I won’t hold my breath!