Six things you might have missed after City’s hard fought win at Boro
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
As Norwich City reach the Championship summit after 12 games, David Freezer assesses a hard fought victory at Middlesbrough which extended the Canaries’ impressive unbeaten run to eight matches.
1 - Best start in defence since 2002
Keeping a clean sheet for a third successive game has given the Canaries their best defensive start to a season for 18 years.
To concede just eight in their opening 12 matches is the strongest opening since the 2002-03 season, when just seven were conceded during the opening dozen as Nigel Worthington’s team tried to bounce back from their play-off final heartbreak in the second tier.
That campaign City were third and had a point more than the current crop’s 24 but would finish in eighth place.
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Canaries fans know full well that it’s still too early to get too excited though of course, as Alex Neil’s team of 2016-17 were top and had 26 points at this stage, only for a five-game losing streak to derail that regime.
This clean sheet may have come thanks to a bizarrely disallowed penalty - with replays inconclusive as to whether a slipping Marcus Tavernier did touch the ball twice - but a thrifty start is so welcome after relegation.
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2 - Captain’s fine form continues
On this occasion it wasn’t the class of Tim Krul taking much of the praise but Grant Hanley, after another captain’s performance.
The way the Scot chucked himself in front of Britt Assombalonga’s fine late chance summed up his attitude at the Riverside, as he bossed a back line which found itself pulled out of shape a few more times than Daniel Farke will have been comfortable with.
It earned Krul and Hanley a place in the Championship Team of the Week again, as Hanley shook off the hamstring scare which forced him out of Scotland duty so frustratingly.
From the league games that Hanley hasn’t started since the beginning of last season City have conceded 52 goals in 28 games for an average of 1.85 per game. With him that drops to 1.31, with 29 in 22.
Those figures don’t tell the full story but the 28-year-old is continuing to prove why Farke appointed him captain at the start of 2018-19.
3 - Points are earned the hard way
To emphasise how hard the Canaries had to work for these three points though, Saturday was the fewest attempts at goal in a game so far this season.
A total of 12 shots and two on target is their lowest yet, with Boro defender Dael Fry in magnificent form for the hosts with some great blocks which also put him in the divisional Team of the Week.
Neil Warnock was the reigning Manager of the Month, Boro were unbeaten in 10 and had conceded just one in seven games. Yet once again, in spite of all the injury and fitness issues, Norwich found a way to win.
In a clash of styles, it was clear that City were better on the ball but Warnock’s team worked hard to disrupt, counter and use set-pieces.
Jacob Sorensen came in for particular attention and was a touch fortunate to avoid a second yellow card and a couple of penalty appeals, as Boro targeted the emergency left-back, but again stuck to his task doggedly and used his passing ability wisely.
4 - Helpful reminder for Pukki
Daniel Farke joked that Teemu Pukki looked as white as a ghost when he got back from international duty, yet it was the striker who proved the difference - with his sixth goal in nine games for club and country.
It was Jordan Hugill who got the nod to start but a very forgettable half against his former club saw him being replaced by Pukki due to a shoulder injury.
Even before the injury however the striker’s touch had deserted him, as he struggled to make the ball stick in the final third.
So it was Pukki who had the chance from the spot, with a timely reminder from Tavernier’s slip of what happened the last time he took a penalty for City, when he lost his footing and clipped the bar during the 1-0 home loss to Derby.
It takes the Finland star to 46 in 96 matches for City, averaging just under a goal every two games, but his link play and intelligent runs also brought improved displays from his team-mates.
5 - Placheta is steadily improving
Among the City players that appears to be improving as each game goes by is Przemek Placheta.
The 22-year-old will have breathed a particularly big sigh of relief after seeing Tavernier’s penalty ruled out, as it was his poor control of an excellent Lukas Rupp block that led to Ben Gibson conceding the spot-kick.
Buoyed by two starts for Poland and playing alongside Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski, Placheta saw one cross fly past Hugill and a shot well blocked by Fry during the first half.
While in the second he sent Marco Stiepermann into the box and only Fry denied Pukki an easy finish, and he was sent clear down the left by Rupp only to see his cross creep agonisingly past a sliding Emi Buendia.
The summer signing is yet to show his best form for the Canaries but he appears to be earning confidence and cohesion in Farke’s team, as he finds his rhythm amid the rough and tumble of the Championship.
6 - Injuries posing the big threat
So much attention now however will be on Farke’s injury bulletin today, ahead of tomorrow night’s tough game at Stoke.
Should Hugill (shoulder) and Rupp (hamstring) join Xavi Quintilla and Todd Cantwell (both hip) in being out of contention alongside the five long-term absentees, then more academy players will be needed on the bench.
Oddly, two keepers were selected on Saturday as youngster Daniel Barden took a seat alongside Michael McGovern and it was Reece McAlear, an 18-year-old Scottish midfielder who has been impressing at U23 level, who was also included.
It seems highly unlikely that Moritz Leitner and Josip Drmic could be reintegrated but it’s frustrating to see two well paid players capable of top level ability just sitting in the shadows.
Putting out a strong XI to start doesn’t yet look under threat but with the first of 12 games in six weeks just played, resources are starting to look rather stretched.
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