Robin Sainty: Tweak of style so impressive as City take control
As Steve Gedge pointed out on Twitter after Wednesday win at Reading, City had at that point played eight games (five of them away) in a 27-day period and taken 19 points out of a possible 24, despite a massive injury list.
Taking a slightly different angle, they have also now played seven of the eight teams immediately below them in yesterday morning’s table, six of them away from home, and gathered 16 points from a possible 20, with the narrow early season loss at Bournemouth, played at the height of the uncertainty about who might be leaving, the only defeat. They are relentless.
Inevitably parallels are being drawn with the class of 2018-19, but this is a different Norwich City. Yes, the flowing football is still there with Emi Buendia’s vision and Teemu Pukki’s eye for goal central to the mix, but there is a level of control of games that wasn’t there two seasons ago.
City were always likely to score goals, but there was always that sneaking feeling that a defensive error was never far away making single goal leads an extremely nervous experience, but that’s no longer the case.
The back line, even without Tim Krul behind them, and more on that later, have looked very solid and the days of watching every defensive corner through our fingers have gone. Ironically given the sum received for Ben Godfrey and his undoubted potential City look more defensively sound without him and Jamal Lewis, with Jacob Sorensen making the EFL Team of the Week at his adopted position of left-back.
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The Dane has been quite remarkable and is an object lesson to young defenders in the importance of staying on your feet. Very rarely do you see him go to ground in the tackle because he watches the ball rather than the player’s feet until the last second before making a challenge and his composure when in possession keeps everyone around him calm.
The midfield unit is also both stronger and more diverse than two seasons ago. Todd Cantwell has developed, Oliver Skipp has made a massive impact and Lukas Rupp provides a higher energy version of Mo Leitner’s short passing game.
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Of course, we have hardly seen Sorensen in his favoured position yet, and that is an exciting prospect, but Wednesday did at last offer us a glimpse of what we can expect from Kieran Dowell, who looked high quality in his cameo at the Madejski Stadium and was inches away from a goal.
However, I must return to the goalkeeping situation to praise Michael McGovern. The Irishman took a lot of stick in his early games and looked shaky (in fairness just as Krul had when he returned to first team football after signing for Norwich) but has got better and better each game. He also deserves huge credit for working so hard to improve his passing ability which was virtually non-existent when he had to cover last season. His part in this recent run should not be underestimated.
Finally, it’s important to also emphasise how much Daniel Farke has developed over the last two years. Somehow, he has managed to instil a defensive pragmatism and ability to manage games without significantly affecting City’s ability to rip teams open with flowing attacking football involving both full-backs.
What’s more, his use of substitutions has improved significantly, and he is now regularly changing the courses of games with them, not least on Wednesday when he identified the fact that both Josh Martin and Marco Stiepermann were struggling to retain possession and made changes at half-time with the result that City dominated the game thereafter.
In 2018-19 City were a young squad hardly able to believe their own success. Now however, they are a battle-hardened unit that not only knows what needs to be done to get back up but is single mindedly focussed on doing it.