VERDICT: City have their feet against the fire but have the quality to respond
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City haven't been forced to contend with self-doubt this season, and their mantra to 'ignore the noise' will be as important as ever in a week where the volume will go up a notch.
Rewind two weeks ago and very few supporters, Norwich City or otherwise, would have predicted the Canaries' would eat into their safety net of points and their healthy advantage at the top of the table would be in doubt.
That is what the Championship is capable of. Dismiss it at your peril. Whenever a side feels like they have a solution to waltz their way through it, it has the habit of catching them on the chin with a heavy blow to knock them down on the canvas.
Daniel Farke's side have dominated the opening six rounds. They commanded the bout from the centre of the ring and looked set for a comfortable victory on points. Now they are lying flat on the canvas watching their opponent gain confidence and momentum.
For the first time, self-doubt has entered their subconscious.
While some from the sidelines express concern, this isn't about quality or ability. City's dominance in the first half of the campaign hasn't just eroded from in front of our eyes like a Houdini disappearing act. They have stuttered.
The attention on City's offensive output is understandable. In the last four matches, they haven't shown the poise, the composure or the slick interplay that has underpinned their success under Farke's stewardship. The microscope is zoomed-in even further after Emi Buendia's dismissal.
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The metrics show that Norwich's offensive output has decreased dramatically in the last four matches. Despite Farke's 12-minute monologue, that can not be denied. Equally, it doesn't set the pattern for the rest of the season. This is a blip, but not one that needs to persist.
Farke's confidence isn't blind. It's based on the empirical evidence of positive data behind their performances. If City can rectify their toothlessness, then they will get themselves back on track fairly swiftly.
City haven't panicked. They haven't radically abandoned their patient possession football. They have continued with their style in the knowledge that it will get them back on course.
This is a difficult moment.
Farke knows this. His players know it. Supporters know it. What happens from here will dictate how their season pans out.
They have their feet firmly held against the fire but they possess the quality to respond to their doubters.
For the first time this season, some are doubting their mentality. The noise on social media has been deafening, but City haven't transformed from a side certain to be holding the title aloft in a couple of months to one that has lost all hope.
Anybody who thought City would swagger their way through the adversities of the Championship was duly mistaken. For all talk of a ship setting sail to blitz the league, this is another reminder of the choppy waters the Canaries have to navigate.
There are mitigating factors; losing Buendia to suspension has evidently had a major impact on their approach. But it doesn't make them a one-man team. They haven't accrued the number of points they have because of the Argentine.
Nor is it as simple as Buendia returning and the issues being solved with a click of the fingers. The ball has to move quicker. There must be a decisiveness in front of goal. Players must take that responsibility on their shoulders to make something happen.
So far, City's season has been about an ensemble of talent playing their individual roles to perfection. Buendia may be the star, but the supporting cast have backed him up tremendously.
Those trusted with an opportunity to continue the positive form haven't grasped their chance in the way Farke will have wanted recently. The group who have returned from fitness woes or coronavirus are yet to showcase their full ability.
Positives are there to be found. City aren't porous to the same extent as they have been during the last three years. They do possess a squad with talent aplenty. They have the players capable of turning their form around.
Ultimately, for all the concern, they are still the table toppers. Regardless of any games in hand for their opponents, they are still in an incredibly positive position compared to their relegated rivals Watford and Bournemouth.
If there was going to be a dip, it would arrive in a very troublesome block of fixtures starting away at Cardiff City.
Credit must also be handed to their opponents. Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Millwall and Swansea all executed their gameplans to perfection. City didn't ask enough questions, but they were frustrated in the manner those sides intended to achieve when they set out.
Now, City must come out swinging at Carrow Road next week. They must win the next round and reassert their dominance in the process. There is no easy knockout in the Championship, but City must flex their muscles and silence their critics.
This period is being described as a blip; it is only one if they can emerge through it. The fear is it becomes prolonged, and they continue to stagger through games.
If they can keep their heads when all others around them seem to be losing theirs, they will achieve success this season.