Dominant City skipper emphasised his importance again at Derby
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Grant Hanley delivered the definition of a captain’s performance as Norwich City hung on for a tense 1-0 win at Derby, with the centre-back playing a pivotal role in edging the leaders closer to promotion.
The lowly Rams showed impressive spirit and work rate to leave the Championship’s dominant side rattled – but time and time again it seemed to be the skipper in the way as they attacked.
Doing his best to guide 18-year-old Andrew Omobamidele through Championship battle for a third consecutive game, the commanding centre-back continued his impressive run of having played every minute of City’s last 37 league matches – having also played all of Scotland’s three games during the international break.
As well as helping his team to extend their unbeaten run to 13 matches and maintain that crucial 17-point gap to third-placed Brentford, Hanley helped the Canaries keep their 18th clean sheet of the campaign, eight of which have been during the current hot streak which has teed up an almost certain promotion success.
The 29-year-old has been on the pitch for 17 of those clean sheets, only missing the 1-0 win at Huddersfield on the opening day as he continued recovering from the hamstring injury which kept him out of the final months of last season following the restart.
Attacking stars Emi Buendia, Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell may take many of the headlines but it's Hanley that stats website WhoScored.com rates as City's second-best performing player during 2020-21, with Buendia’s average match rating of 7.80 out of 10 followed by the Scot on 7.24.
Across the division, it’s only Buendia, Cardiff striker Kieffer Moore (7.57) and Brentford star Ivan Toney (7.46) with higher ratings, with Barnsley defender Mads Anderson (7.23) ranked fifth.
Against Derby, the former Blackburn and Newcastle centre-half didn’t need to make as many aerial clearances as normal, as the Rams tried to play the ball on the deck and attacked with intensity.
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Yet Hanley made nine clearances. Only during the home and away games against the direct style of bottom side Wycombe has he had to make more so far this season.
The Canaries’ central defenders were extremely busy throughout, with Omobamidele and Hanley having comfortably the most touches (118 each) of any players on the pitch.
Irish youngster Omobamidele attempted the most passes (106), seven more than Hanley, but his pass accuracy was 92 per cent and his skipper’s was 95pc.
Hanley’s search for a second club goal of the season continued when he didn’t make clean contact with a header from an early Buendia corner, nodding wide.
The rest of his afternoon was mostly spent fire-fighting though. Whether it was heading clear a Kamil Jozwiak cross from the left as Derby countered swiftly or heading behind as Tom Lawrence swung in a cross from the left.
He didn’t deal with everything a determined and desperate Derby side threw at City but he seemed to have the rhythm of the game, sensing the danger, with Kenny McLean and Oliver Skipp also needed to break up play regularly in midfield.
That was perhaps best demonstrated in the 31st minute after a wayward Buendia pass allowed experienced striker Colin Kazim-Richards to squeeze a cross past Max Aarons and Omobamidele from the left and find Patrick Roberts on the edge of the box, who took a good first touch but saw Hanley throw himself in front of the low shot to block the ball to safety.
Soon after, a good pass from Craig Forsyth played Jozwiak in behind Aarons but again there was Hanley, reacting to get in front of Kazim-Richards and turn the ball behind for a corner.
City lost control of the game early in the second half though and Hanley just managed to outmuscle Kazim-Richards enough so that Krul could save at his near post in the 53rd minute.
A succession of important clearances followed, including a good tackle to deny Roberts a shot, and he made the correct call to pull out of a challenge in the area as his former Norwich team-mate Roberts squeezed past Dimitris Giannoulis in the 74th minute, trusting that Krul would deal with the situation rather than risk conceding a penalty.
The Greek left-back was thanking his skipper with nerves jangling in the 90th minute, seeing Hanley win the ball after Kazim-Richards had flicked the ball over his head and again as the Scot eased Louie Watson off the ball after the substitute had been played in behind Giannoulis.
The victory would end in relief however, with Hanley stationed on his line as the only one left to guard the net in the second minute of injury-time, after Kazim-Richards had robbed Krul – but Graham Shinnie blazed over with Alex Tettey desperately closing him down with the City defence scrambling and alarm bells ringing.
VERDICT: After spells when he was able to show his true ability during his first three Canaries seasons, when injuries haven’t disrupted him, Hanley has been able to show his class consistently throughout this campaign.
Strong, determined, calm, with underestimated pace and passing ability, the Scotland defender looks ready and raring to go for another opportunity to prove himself in the Premier League. An integral part of this season’s success.
RATING: 8 out of 10