Robin Sainty: City almost beyond description. Pulis on the other hand...
It’s slightly worrying that with seven games still to go I’ve already run out of superlatives for Daniel Farke and his young side.
It always seemed that the trip to Middlesbrough, with the exception of Villa on the final day, would be the toughest of City’s remaining games so to go there and win so convincingly was a massive statement, particularly on a day when Leeds struggled against Millwall and Sheffield United’s bubble burst at home to Bristol City.
Despite the arch footballing dinosaur Tony Pulis and his merry band of giants playing slightly more football than usual in the early stages, it wasn’t long before Boro reverted to type with the home crowd’s excitement largely limited to corners and long throws from the human trebuchet Ryan Shotton.
A few months ago broadcaster Ian Abrahams was pontificating about how promotion for Leeds and Norwich would be a bad thing as it would bring even more foreign managers to the Premier League.
Frankly, if that means fewer managers like Pulis with their route one tactics and vapid cliché-riddled post-game interviews (“If we’d scored first it would have been a different game”) then surely that’s a good thing?
Every question that has been posed of Farke and his men has been answered. They can’t be roughed up, they can’t be out-passed and vitally, every time one of them has succumbed to injury someone else has stepped up to the plate.
Remember when we all thought that City would struggle without Grant Hanley? Or Timm Klose? Or maybe Alex Tettey, Mo Leitner or Mario Vrancic?
Every one of them is a big player but all of them are still on the sidelines having recovered, because their replacements have made it impossible for them to get back into the team.
When Klose returned to fitness there were many who assumed that Ben Godfrey would be left out to make way for him, but Farke showed faith in his young gun and has been rewarded by a series of dominant performances.
Godfrey throwing himself head first onto Ashley Fletcher’s flying boot to deflect a goalbound effort early in Saturday’s game didn’t perhaps get the full credit it deserved as the hapless David Coote, who spent the game channelling Mr Magoo, failed to spot it and gave a goal kick, but it was a key moment nevertheless and summed up City’s total commitment.
That commitment, shown again in Christoph Zimmermann’s remarkable goal-line clearance, is important but it would be nothing without another key factor in City’s rise; their ability to play passing football on a postage stamp. Time and time again in the second half in particular Boro thought they had the Canaries closed down only for the visitors to serenely play their way out of trouble and into space. Even in the scramble after Zimmermann’s block, Emi Buendia’s first thought was to bring the ball down and pass his way out of City’s penalty area. It is the absolute antithesis of everything that Pulis stands for and makes this team such a delight to watch.
However, it’s not just calmness under pressure and comfort on the ball alone, because Farke’s men work their socks off too. Teemu Pukki looked exhausted after 80 minutes yet deep into injury time he was sprinting 20 yards to block a clearance.
This isn’t a team of fancy dans; they play with the grace of Nureyev but the work ethic of a gang of navvies.
Throughout the season, or certainly since the defeat at home to Leeds that now seems a distant memory, City have been utterly relentless in their focus and I don’t see that changing today, or indeed at any point between now and May. Promotion and the title are theirs to lose now and with the pressure growing on Leeds and Sheffield United I expect more slip-ups from their challengers.