Robin Sainty: City's ability to fill holes is a major bonus
At Carrow Road in early December, City made a meal of beating Bolton, surrendering a two-goal lead and only claiming the points through a Teemu Pukki strike late in injury time.
What a contrast with last Saturday when they simply tore the Trotters to shreds.
True, Bolton were poor and Phil Parkinson’s decision not to try to press City’s defenders in possession was bizarre given the fact that in their two previous games Ipswich and Preston had done so successfully enough to cause problems, but you can only beat what’s put in front of you and the Canaries did that with considerable brio.
Fortunately, the gloomy injury report issued by Daniel Farke on Friday proved to be overly pessimistic and both Emi Buendia and Marco Stieperman, having been reported as doubtful, went on to play a huge part in City’s commanding performance.
Kenny McLean also made an impressive return, although he could hardly have asked for more supine opponents to make his comeback league start against. However, his comfort in possession and mobility had impressed long before the exquisite chip that set up Buendia for City’s decisive third goal.
City are rapidly moving from a potential shortage of fit central midfielders to a glut, with Mo Leitner finally making his comeback and neither Mario Vrancic or Alex Tettey due to be sidelined for any length of time.
It will be fascinating to see how Daniel Farke responds to the situation, but it’s great news as City approach the business end of the season.
Leitner is such a key part of Farke’s footballing philosophy and the fact that in his 11 minutes on the pitch last week he completed more passes (39) than any Bolton player did in the entire match tells you all you need to know about his desire to get on the ball and conduct proceedings, yet the fact that he hasn’t been missed too much over the last two months is central to why City find themselves where they are.
Whenever a key player has been out someone has not just filled the gap but stepped up to the plate and made a major contribution. One example is Ben Godfrey, who not only sat in effectively for Jamal Lewis at left back but has also quietly become an outstanding centre back in the absence of Timm Klose.
Many people questioned Farke’s insistence that this was Godfrey’s best position given his starring role in Shrewsbury’s midfield last term, but who would query it now? Godfrey is every inch the modern centre back – quick, strong, good on the ball and always ready to step into midfield to start an attack, as his 50-yard first-half surge at Bolton amply illustrated.
Mario Vrancic spent much of the early part of the season on the bench, but had he not picked up the slack left by Leitner’s injuries City would not be where they currently are, while Todd Cantwell and Tom Trybull both shrugged off the disappointment of long periods of inactivity to play key roles when needed, with the latter currently in stellar form as City’s enforcer.
Huge credit for that has to go to Farke and his coaching staff as well as sporting director Stuart Webber for creating an environment in which everyone feels themselves to be valued so that when the call comes they are ready and able to play their part and know that if they do well the manager will continue to pick them.
With 13 games left and many of the teams below them having to play each other it is difficult to predict exactly how many more points City would need for automatic promotion, but the response to the defeat at Preston suggests that they still have plenty in the tank and with a favourable run-in and that great camaraderie in the dressing room only the truly pessimistic are still refusing to dream.