Robin Sainty: City have become control freaks - in a good way
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City’s game management has been frequently praised in recent commentaries, and its development is something which has contributed massively to the situation in which they currently find themselves.
During their title-winning 2018/19 season it generally consisted of little more than trying to take the ball into the corner in the dying minutes, but it has developed along with the squad and as a result City look much more like a Premier League team in waiting than a talented bunch of emerging players who have surprised everyone by their achievement.
Two seasons ago, exhilarating though it might have been, there was always a tendency for City to start games at a breakneck pace as if the game had to be won in the first half hour, whereas now the rhythm of their play is much more controlled, which is partly why they are scoring fewer goals, but, crucially, conceding considerably fewer as well.
Even when they were ahead in 2018/19, it was hard for fans to relax because whenever City lost the ball high up the pitch there was always a strong possibility of their opponents taking advantage of an undermanned midfield and exposed central defence to land a sucker punch.
That weakness was obviously exposed ruthlessly in the Premier League last season, so as a result the last two transfer windows have seen an influx of players who are technically gifted, but also highly athletic and very smart in football terms.
The first of these, Lukas Rupp, had a torrid start to his career in England, coming into a demoralised squad struggling to cope with top-flight football, but has come into his own this season and was a relatively unsung hero against Luton last Saturday when he played a key role in City’s midfield dominance.
The summer saw him joined by, amongst others, Oliver Skipp, Jacob Sorensen, Kieran Dowell, Xavi Quintilla and Ben Gibson, all of whom fit a similar profile, with Dimitris Giannoulis arriving in January.
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We have yet to see the best of Dowell or Quintilla who have been unfortunate with injuries and then when fit experienced the difficulty of breaking into a successful side, while Sorensen has made his mark only in an unaccustomed position, but all of them are highly mobile and comfortable in possession.
Of course, Gibson, Skipp and now Giannoulis have had big impacts. The former has, alongside Grant Hanley, formed the best City central defensive pairing in nearly two decades, but has also made a huge contribution to City’s passing game, which is noticeably less fluent when he isn’t available.
I think most of us are running out of superlatives for Skipp, but it would be easy to underestimate how much impact the introduction of Giannoulis has had on City’s play.
Although he struggled in his first couple of games, he has not only provided a perfect balance to the side but also brings a sharp football brain allied to an assured touch.
The build-up to the winning goal against Brentford was a perfect example of this. Giannoulis not only read and intercepted Sergi Canos’s attempted crossfield pass but, rather than bring the ball down, had the confidence to play a first-time pass to Kenny McLean which gave the Scot an extra split second on the ball to start the move which ended in Emi Buendia’s goal. Defence to attack in one touch.
That Brentford game also perfectly demonstrated the increased maturity of City’s game management. In the past they might have chased a second goal to kill the game and left themselves open, but instead they kept their shape, controlled possession, and by extension the tempo of the game, and barely gave Brentford a sniff of goal while creating chances themselves at regular intervals.
Last time around it was largely City’s flair that won them the Championship, but if they do so again their ability to control games will have been key.