City report card: From the Lord Mayor to Mr Irreplaceable
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
From the Lord Mayor to an ‘irreplaceable’ cog in Daniel Farke’s Norwich City midfield. That is some journey for Kenny McLean. Paddy Davitt reflects on another leading role in the latest of our City report card series.
There will be plenty of Canaries’ fans who found such lavish praise from the head coach towards the end of the doomed ‘Project Restart’ phase of football’s return from lockdown a touch on the syrupy side.
Perhaps it is worth revisiting Farke’s actual words, in the interests of context.
“Kenny for me (in his debut season) was unbelievably important, and he has developed further,” said Farke. “He is a versatile, all-round player with the game to play a number of positions.
“Let’s be honest, we have some players with great possession skills, or finding a key pass, or maybe delivering a set-piece. But he is probably our most complete midfielder.
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“He is competitive, his workload and his endurance are good and he is definitely our best defensive header.
“He is aggressive in the duels and our most dynamic midfielder.
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“He is also composed on the ball, and a left-footer. He offers many skills, and that physicality at this level is irreplaceable for us. If you can dominate the ball in a game then maybe the defensive skills are not as important. But at this highest level we need players who are capable to invest a lot without the ball.”
Farke backed his words with deeds. McLean played more Premier League minutes than any of City’s other midfielders.
In a congested pack, he was the trump card. To take Farke’s definition, a player who had the requisite athleticism and physical ability to at least mix it in the Premier League. Allied to the technical skills so coveted by this Canaries’ head coach.
Certainly McLean had his stand-out moments.
That soaring header to spark the impossible and a landmark Carrow Road home win over Manchester City was a thing of beauty. Yet that was his only Premier League goal. A scant return for a player with his presence in the opposition box and set-piece quality.
His tactical acumen perhaps reached its peak in the rarest of away league wins at Everton before Christmas.
Pushed into a more advanced role he offered the level of support Teemu Pukki too often went without, and a vital aerial threat that enabled Tim Krul and his defenders to go longer, earlier at Goodison Park, with a genuine prospect McLean could either hold the ball or win a header.
Thereafter we saw a few more cameos in that advanced central role before a realisation City were too easy to penetrate led him to be withdrawn and harnessed alongside Alex Tettey, in a quest to offer ballast and robust protection.
Like any analysis of Norwich City’s failed bid at Premier League survival, the end result does not draw favourable comparisons.
McLean and Tettey certainly added physicality but there was a sense they lacked any creative edge in that deeper-lying pivot.
McLean also had the misfortune to often find himself in a prominent role when the searing focus on City’s inability to marry zonal with man-to-man marking was residually highlighted.
Goals leaked at the near post against Burnley and Southampton, away, or Everton at home all had McLean in the vicinity and, like the rest of his team-mates, too often slow to react to the looming danger from a soaring opponent.
But there is no doubting Farke’s faith in the bullish Scot.
His antics on the City Hall balcony, when promotion and the title were sealed last time around in the Championship, underline this is one of the bigger characters in a dressing room which too often is accused of lacking real leaders.
To observe McLean in a sterile ‘Project Restart’ setting, where the voices of the players echoed around largely empty stadiums, was to hear McLean cajoling and criticising friend and foe alike.
There is a spikiness to how he carries himself on the pitch that might owe much to his combative roots in Glasgow, and a formative career in a Scottish league that values such traits.
Certainly McLean will remain a key figure for Farke ahead of the Championship return, barring a surprise transfer twist.
Who foresaw Bradley Johnson leaving for Derby at the start of that particular summer?
But with Jacob Sorensen arriving already, and City actively looking for more defensive midfield additions, McLean will need to reassert his place in the pecking order.