Robin Sainty: Fragility has replaced the early swagger at Norwich City

PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 July 2020

The good old days? City celebrate Teemu Pukki's winner against then champions, Manchester City 
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The good old days? City celebrate Teemu Pukki's winner against then champions, Manchester City Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Paul Chesterton

Recently I decided to sit down and watch some of City’s early-season games, primarily to cheer myself up but also to try to see what has changed.

Ben Godfrey after the win over Manchester City Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdBen Godfrey after the win over Manchester City Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The highlight, obviously, was the victory over Manchester City when City drew praise from all quarters for the way they played through the visitors’ press, but the thing that really struck me was how much more quickly City were moving the ball in those early games compared to the ponderous build-up that we’re seeing now, and also how much more movement there was off the ball, with players knowing where they could play the ball before it arrived at their feet.

Those two things are, of course, connected and are directly related to confidence. At the start of the season, City’s players, as winners of the previous season’s Championship, were full of self-belief and everyone wanted the ball, but now, having been bottom since Boxing Day, that confidence has long since been eroded and replaced by the fear of making a mistake.

While the team have continued to receive plaudits for the fact that they are still trying to play attractive football, there is now a fragility where once there was a swagger, and although City can still look good on the ball there is always a gnawing fear in the stomach of fans whenever they lose it.

A perfect example of this is the goal which won the game for Brighton last week. After some inconsequential passing at the back, Timm Klose stepped into the visitors’ half and played a sloppy ball, to no one in particular, which was intercepted and within 10 seconds and three touches the ball was in the back of City’s net. The break was quick and decisive, and City had no answer.

Compare that to the closing seconds of the first half. City had laboriously worked the ball to Max Aarons on the edge of the Brighton box but, with three City players running into the penalty area, he checked back, having seen no obvious short pass and was actually dribbling back towards the halfway line as the whistle went for the interval.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that City should just start “chucking it in the mixer” or move away from possession football, but just as in Daniel Farke’s first season, possession seems to have become an end in itself as the ball is moved from side to side, and all too often backwards while opponents get men back into position.

Last season, both full-backs developed their reputations by their willingness to attack the byline and get the ball across the face of goal, but that has become a rarity this season and City’s goal threat has diminished as a result.

In fairness, City looked better going forward at Watford, although the fact that Farke had to return to last year’s Championship line-up to achieve that tells you all you need to know about the impact of this season’s additions, but defensively they were once again frail in the extreme.

I also think it’s significant that their better performances have been against the top sides where they have been given more time on the ball, whereas they have had little success against the more physical teams who have been able to bully them. On Tuesday, the ease with which Jamal Lewis for the first Watford goal and Kenny McLean for the second were brushed aside so easily by bigger and stronger opponents told its own story.

Clearly there is a need for more physicality in the squad and it’s interesting that City are being strongly linked with Jacob Lungi Sorensen, who would certainly fit that bill.

For the time being, though, the pain continues. It’s difficult to see where the next point is coming from, and the toughest test of Farke’s City career lies ahead in motivating a clearly demoralised group.

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