Robin Sainty: Norwich City’s united front is producing the right results
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Cast your mind back to last season. City are visiting a team heavily tipped for promotion, are suffering from injuries to key players and come under concerted pressure. What happens next?
I suspect that the answer would be something very different to what we saw at Middlesbrough where City replaced the yellow and green colander that was on display at Villa and Millwall with the sort of impenetrable wall that would have Donald Trump burning with envy.
One by one the doubters are being won over as the clean sheets mount up, with City now having gone nearly eight hours in the Championship, one of the toughest leagues in the world, without conceding a goal.
However, whilst it’s the win at the Riverside rather than the goalless draw last Saturday that catches the eye, it’s worth pointing out that Bristol City, who have been scoring for fun this season, didn’t manage a shot on target until the 65th minute at Carrow Road.
While City were equally unable to break the deadlock, although they spurned three great first-half chances, it is squarely the defence and the peerless Angus Gunn upon whom this renaissance is predicated.
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Defending isn’t glamorous and it involves putting bodies in the line of fire, as happened frequently at the Riverside, but a team with a solid defence is always going to be in the game as it provides the base onto which the frills can be added.
Daniel Farke came to Norwich with a reputation as a coach who could build a solid defence although that was brought into question by his side’s early travails away from home, but now we are starting to see just why Dortmund were so reluctant to lose him.
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Defending, though, isn’t solely a question of the back four and goalkeeper. There has been plenty of talk about the importance of the two holding midfielders, but what we are seeing now is greater defensive responsibility being shown by everyone in the side, even those to whom it isn’t a natural instinct, like James Maddison and Josh Murphy.
The only way to get that sort of commitment is to develop a real sense of unity within the squad, a “we’re all in this together” mentality, and that to me is the biggest difference between this season and last.
The on-pitch huddle after the final whistle at Middlesbrough involving players and coaches spoke eloquently of how strong the bond is within this group and was a far cry from last season when the squad looked anything but united when the pressure was on, and an “every man for himself” approach seemed to kick in.
And, of course, the beauty of that sort of collective mindset is that it makes it so much easier for players to step in as result of injuries and contribute, not least because they are so determined not to let their team-mates down.
There was plenty of concern about the absence of Marco Stiepermann at the Riverside and yet James Husband, who hasn’t had the easiest start to his City career, came in and did a great job, proving once again that writing off a player too soon is foolish, because if City are to succeed this season they need a squad, not just a team.
Players take differing amounts of time to find their feet, particularly in a new country, but a strong dressing room spirit makes it so much easier for them to do so, and we are now seeing more from the likes of Mario Vrancic and Marley Watkins, although neither, in my view, has yet shown us their very best form.
This is still a work in progress, and Farke undoubtedly needs to find more attacking potency to go with the defensive resilience, but there is a growing sense that we could just be on the cusp of something special at Carrow Road.