You know it’s been a good day when your side receives post-match praise – however begrudging – from opposition supporters. Yesterday was one of those.
Derby fans – no doubt relieved that their off-colour team managed to squirm a point out of a game in which they had been thoroughly out-played – were lavish in their praise of City’s performance; the consensus being that both teams will be ‘there or thereabouts’.
Who knows if City fans would have been on the receiving end of the love if Cameron Jerome’s late effort had fizzed under instead of over Lee Grant’s crossbar but the iPro faithful could have had few complaints if it had.
It was undoubtedly a performance right up there with the best the Canaries have produced this season, but also quintessentially ‘City’ in the way that long spells of dominance were rewarded with just a single point. Again they were left to rue a couple of defensive lapses, both of which served to take the lustre of what should have been a triumphant afternoon.
But on this occasion it feels – in finest of footballing traditions- that it was an afternoon where the positives far out-weighed the negatives, and it’s those we should be focusing on.
Again, for the third week running, Team Adams were victors in the tactical battle and in the game of chess that is Championship football they had Steve McLaren and co in checkmate for large chunks of the afternoon.
The decision to leave the starting XI unchanged from that which started against Huddersfield was justified and, against a side with a reputation for keeping the ball, City’s two banks of four (and with either Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper dropping off to support the midfield when the Rams had possession) denied the hosts any time or comfort on the ball.
And it *almost* worked just how Messrs Adams, Holt and Phelan planned it in the Colney bootroom.
That City’s wing-less wonders were so successful in both denying Derby any sort of momentum and in zipping the ball around nicely when in possession was confirmation that the plan was executed almost to perfection.
While not a huge fan of a midfield that relies on Bradley Johnson to provide a semblance of width on the left there is no denying the key role he plays in making it difficult for the opposition, and Adams will for sure see his role in the recent upturn as significant.
To paraphrase Robin Sainty’s fine piece in yesterday’s EDP, the sight of Bradders using his energy and effort in the opposition half sits far more comfortably than the failed experiment to convert him to a deep-sitting midfield play-maker. He runs, he chases, he harries and generally makes life uncomfortable for opponents; that’s what he does best and his new licence to ‘join in’ also offers him a sight or two of goal.
Ditto the use of the excellent Jonny Howson as the right-sided midfielder who tucks in to make it tight and who also provides terrific support to Steven Whittaker, especially early on. It’s one that has bears the hallmarks of a Colney brainstorm from which the ‘new boy’ reiterated the occasional need for pragmatism ahead of idealism.
And seven points from the last nine suggests it’s working.
The temptation to throw last week’s match winner, Nathan Redmond, into the fray from minute one was resisted in deference to sticking with the newly formulated plan; Wes Hoolahan too having to wait until the final quarter to get those feet dancing.
Interestingly, for the second consecutive game the two aforementioned subs and Lewis Grabban all impacted on the game upon their arrival and, despite some probable disquiet at currently having a bit part, all three are finding some of their best form at an opportune time.
And this is one of the reasons why, while we still remain outside the play-off places and eight points adrift of top-of-the-table Bournemouth, this mini-turnaround in fortunes is slowly starting to get the juices flowing again.
There are not too many teams in the division who possess a bench as potent as City’s. How many have a Hoolahan or a Redmond to turn to if some creativity is needed? Or if you need to conjure up a goal from nothing?
But right now it isn’t about individuals. It’s about the team. From the management to the players to the supporters – who for the record were magnificent yesterday – we do, for the time being at least, all appear to be pulling in the same direction.
All of a sudden the players are performing to a level we expect; the team, while perhaps not greater, is at least equivalent to the sum of its parts. Once again we look a unit as opposed to eleven disparate individuals, with each player knowing precisely what is expected of him.
As a result, with 22 games played, we find ourselves in decent fettle. Nothing to go overboard about, still plenty of hard graft ahead, but at least with a modicum of momentum and on an upward curve.
And, given where we found ourselves post-Reading, I’ll take that. I’m sure we all will.
Onwards and upwards.
Happy Christmas folks!