David Freezer: A clear fork in the road separated City and the Blades
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Performing well against the Premier League’s top teams has provided so much frustration for Norwich City this season, so can Daniel Farke’s rejuvenated side prove they have learned from their struggles?
A third of City's 21 points have come from teams in the top three, taking four against Leicester and three from Manchester City. They were also narrowly beaten at home by leaders Liverpool and fourth placed Chelsea, in Carrow Road performances which fans were able to take great pride in.
Yet the Canaries managed to lose home and away to 19th placed Aston Villa by an aggregate score of 6-1 and have also lost 2-0 to survival rivals Watford, Brighton and West Ham.
In total it's 12 points from a possible 36 from the teams currently in the bottom half, particularly pertinent with games against Southampton, Watford, Brighton, West Ham and Everton to come in the final 10 games.
Firstly however it's a trip to Sheffield United and, no matter how galling, it has to be acknowledged that the club which finished as runners-up to City in the Championship last season have been one of the Premier League's top performers since both were promoted.
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To be eighth, already on 40 points and safe with 11 games to go, just five points adrift of the Champions League qualification, truly is outstanding - and the kind of campaign Canaries fans had been hoping for after the success of 2018-19.
And it's clear to see what the difference has been between the teams: in defence.
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Norwich may be bottom but they have only scored four fewer goals than Chris Wilder's impressively disciplined team, yet have conceded twice as many goals, with 51 against compared to the Blades' 25.
Only champions-elect Liverpool have conceded fewer, (20).
That should come as little surprise, as they had the joint best defensive record in the Championship last season with Middlesbrough, both conceding just 41 goals in 46 matches.
City may have won the title but conceded 15 more goals, with seven teams having a better defensive record. Chuck in a ridiculous defensive injury crisis which robbed Farke of his three senior centre-backs in August and it's not hard to see where the fork in the road arrived.
By way of contrast, the Blades have started with a remarkably settled back three in all 27 of their games this season, with Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell starting every game and John Egan missing just one match - before you even mention the superb Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson in goal and on the verge of the England squad.
The same defensive trio were the bedrock of last season, missing just eight games between them across the course of the Championship campaign.
United moved into the top half of the table in mid-October, when Norwich fell into the bottom three, and that's where both have stayed ever since.
It may be boring to hear it over and over again, but for City to have lost Timm Klose, Christoph Zimmermann and Grant Hanley to injury in August really did destroy momentum and undermine progressive plans.
With a fully fit defensive unit, would at least some of the eight games in which City have allowed a lead to slip have been different? Just six more points at this stage would have given this final 10 games a very different complexion.
Yet the Blades are different in style to most of the top half teams. They are not especially slick and stylish, but exceptionally functional and disciplined, with an ability to vary their passing style when needed.
Given the Canaries also had a sapping Wednesday night at Spurs, Farke's team will truly have to dig deep against a team who arguably play in a style more associated with teams in the lower reaches of the top flight, when scrapping for survival. But to their credit, they just do it so well.
Whatever happens today, if City don't find a way to succeed against their survival rivals now that their defensive injuries are finally clearing up, there is no chance of a great escape.