Wingers’ hard work is a factor in Norwich City’s fine start

After two seasons where the diamond midfield formation was a key element in securing back-to-back promotions, few would have expected Norwich City to take on the elite of the Premier League with two conventional wingers.

But manager Paul Lambert’s ploy of using new recruits Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington, plucked from two of last season’s top League One sides, in a revamped 4-4-1-1 formation has paid rich dividends in helping the Canaries to three victories in the last four matches.

Bennett’s artistry and Pilkington’s goals were a feature of wins over Bolton, Sunderland and Swansea, and the two summer signings were by no means overawed by the experience of taking on Manchester United in front of a crowd of more than 75,000 at Old Trafford, even if the final ball or the finishing lacked the killer touch that might have set up a shock victory.

The presence of two attacking wide men is something of a throwback to more carefree days, when pairs of wingers were an accepted – more expected – part of the game. In City’s case it meant, at various times, Crossan and Brennan, Mannion and Punton, or in later years Barham and Bennett.

Dale Gordon, whose record of 262 games and 43 goals for City between 1984 and 1991 made him one of the most successful of that breed, shared duties on the flanks with a string of wingers and wide midfielders at different times – among them Louie Donowa, Mark Barham, Ruel Fox, Trevor Putney and David Phillips.

But he knows there is much more to the role than simply attacking flair and an eye for goal, and believes the current wide boys are in the side because of what they can do in both halves of the field.

“There is no reason why you can’t keep playing that system, but you have to have two wide men who are willing to do their defensive duties,” said Gordon.

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“When your team loses the ball, they must be prepared to drop in and defend and win it back.

“That’s where Paul Lambert has been quite cute in the transfer market, looking at who is available in the lower leagues and picking players who work hard. Bennett, from his time at Brighton, and Pilkington, from Huddersfield, have that work ethic – but it’s not just the wide men but the whole unit that is working hard.”

Gordon, 44, sees a similarity between the Bennett-Pilkington combination and the partnership he enjoyed with David Phillips in his last two full seasons with City before joining Glasgow Rangers.

“I didn’t really play consistently through a season with Louie and Trevor Putney wasn’t the kind of player who would go past people on the outside,” he said. “I reckon it’s more like when I was playing with Dave Phillips, who was a bit more direct and willing to attack.”

Gordon is not surprised to see Bennett and Pilkington bridging a gap of two divisions with some confidence in the opening weeks of the campaign.

“Paul Lambert talked about that hunger – bringing in players who are hungry, and they are,” he said.

“In terms of pace the Premier League is not too much of a shock, but technically it’s different.

“I don’t know whether he will stick with that formation at Liverpool but he’s certainly not afraid to go for it as he showed at Old Trafford.

“The Manchester United game was a bit of a moral victory. Although they lost, they came away from Old Trafford and went into the Swansea game oozing confidence.

“Regardless of the result tomorrow, as long as they put in a performance, whether they win, lose or nick a point, they’ll go into the Blackburn game and that confidence will not be dented.”

Back in 1988, Gordon featured in one of City’s four league victories at Anfield – a 1-0 success that put Dave Stringer’s team top of Division One for Christmas.

“I remember the game when Andy Townsend scored. It was a long ball forward that he got on the end of and we took a bit of a battering in the last half-hour but nicked a result,” he said.

Kenny Dalglish was the Reds’ manager then, as now.

“Kenny Dalglish has got a really good side together now,” said Gordon.

“I think he has looked at Liverpool’s traditions and asked what sort of players he played with and what would he like to have, because they have not had quite the right balance in recent seasons.

“But he has got that now – it’s a bit like Paul Lambert at Norwich, there is a nice balance in the side.”