For years Norwich City had an Achilles Heel at the heart of their squad.
The reigns of both Chris Hughton and Alex Neil, promising though they both were at times, were fatally undermined by a soft underbelly that all too often presented itself to a grateful opposition to be lacerated.
Other than a superb first season for Sebastien Bassong, and a smattering of classy pre-injury performances in Timm Klose’s first half-season in the Premier League, the centre of Norwich’s defence had been a carousel of mediocrity for years.
Various incumbents have tried to fill the roles at the heart of the back four and been found wanting both individually and collectively. Ultimately the failure to create the necessary solidity and continuity at the position led to the downfall of both managers.
The arrival of Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke saw the departure of Bassong, Michael Turner and Ryan Bennett, all long-term members of the centre-back department, whose high wages and underperformance over a prolonged period did not fit the new “value for money” philosophy.
In their place came Marcel Franke, for a not inconsiderable outlay from Bundesliga 2, and Christoph Zimmermann, Farke’s Dortmund B skipper, on a free, expected to be a starter and a developmental squad-filler respectively. They joined club captain Russell Martin fresh from signing a new contract, young untested midfielder/defender Ben Godfrey and Klose, whose future at Carrow Road hung in the balance following a poor first season in the Championship.
A shaky first month saw central defensive duties split between an unexpectedly impressive, yet still naive, Zimmermann, stuttering stalwart Martin, and Marcel Franke, who was slowly trying to get to grips with British football. Klose remained on the treatment table following a tackle in Cambridge that had the crowd screaming “punt” at the offender whose lunge nearly separated Klose from his calf muscle. (think that’s what they were shouting).
The zenith of these early struggles was what I think of now as Daniel Farke’s Colchester moment. A catalytic low point that resulted in important and long-lasting change. Millwall away. On that day Martin and Franke turned in a first-half performance that was nothing short of horrendous. On the spectrum of partnerships, forget Forbes and Stringer or Bruce and Watson and think Laurel and Hardy. Millwall thumped us for four. It was embarrassing.
The reaction from Messrs Webber and Farke was decisive. Before the transfer window closed Grant Hanley was added to the ranks at no little cost. Franke was dispatched back to his homeland on loan, (probably never to play for City again) and Martin only made a few more token outings before being loaned out to Rangers.
This was a gutsy call from the management. Making a quick decision that Franke was not settling in as everyone had hoped and was not seemingly comfortable with the style of football, they cut their losses early. Having judged Russ to be a leader in the dressing room (as he undoubtedly was) and extended his contract they could have doubled-down and continued to play him in the hope that he would come good.
Instead, they acknowledged what many fans had been saying for a long time: Russell Martin was a lovely guy and a great captain, but he made too many mistakes. Removing Russ from the squad felt cathartic in many ways. The team was a meritocracy once more. Favourites were only indulged when they earned it. It didn’t matter who you were, or how much we’d paid for you. The fans and Farke were on the same page.
Following the end of the transfer window and international break, a new central defensive partnership was in place. With Grant Hanley not ready to make his debut, Zimmermann and Klose were paired together, and so successful was it that City went on an extended run of clean sheets and generally outstanding defensive performances.
Hanley had to wait nearly three months to get any extended game time but had little cause to argue due to the superb form of Timm and Zimm. Something about the two together just worked, and Klose looked reborn as the father figure easing the increasingly mature Zimmermann through his first season. Over the course of the season, the three split playing time at the back, even appearing as a back three at times.
This season, with a battle-hardened Godfrey returned from a “making-his-bones” season in League One, we are now blessed with four centre-backs.
At the time of writing, it’s impossible to say which of the four is the most trusted or popular amongst the fans, or who will be the likely starters going forwards.
Hanley, our captain, is, for my money, our most consistent, all-around centre-back. A lump of Scottish granite in the Duncan Forbes mould, he’s ferocious in the air and damnably difficult for forwards to get past on the ground. He has a width to his hips that would be impressive on an Aberdeen Angus and one sidestep sees opposition strikers have to reach for the sat nav in order to recalculate their run.
On the minus side, Hanley is not the quickest, not the most accomplished passer, and this season he has made a few errors, not least a tackle after 15 minutes against Portsmouth that was so poorly-timed it was reminiscent of a Michael McIntyre routine.
In Klose, you have a cool customer who is having a wonderful season and looking back to the Bavarian Behemoth that we first signed from Wolfsburg. By far and away the most comfortable of our defenders on the ball, his ability to link up play and even push on into midfield or make forward runs has been a key feature of our increased attacking fluency this season. None of the other centre-backs possess this quality.
The downside with Big Timm however, is the question mark that hangs over his future. Whilst I genuinely believe him when he says he is playing in the here-and-now and not thinking about the end of the season when his hefty contract expires, with our other three centre-backs all younger and set up on long-term deals, he has to question where he will be in six months, and that has to play on his mind to a certain extent. We wait to see if a deal can or will be done.
Godfrey is the future. Rated by Farke as potentially world-class, he is smooth and composed on the ball. In the air, he remains competent and competitive, if not yet dominant, but this will come with experience. Where he really stands out amongst his colleagues, is in terms of pace. I’ve yet to see him lose a foot race at the back and, allied to his natural strength, he’s a great foil for any of the other three who are not as blessed in terms of speed.
Zimmermann is a lionheart and benefitted enormously from his first full season at Championship level. A fans’ favourite, he gets the club in a way that few others over the years have done. As honest as the day is long, he throws body and soul on the line and is genuinely hurt by every error or defeat. Magnificent in the air, strong in the tackle, and a vocal leader, his only real weakness is his penchant for the occasional unfathomable cock-up.
To be fair, he rarely makes the same mistake twice, but if anyone’s going to play a blinder for 80 minutes and then lunge at an interception and miss, or shank a clearance straight to the opposition striker, it’s Zimbo. Equally though, if anyone is going to tackle a man with his head on the ground, or plough through an army of bodies to put himself in the way of a striker’s volley at goal, it’s Zimbo.
While we are currently conceding goals, especially from corners and set-pieces, the errors are collective and also often a result of our attacking style as a team. With the full-backs practically playing as wingers, it’s a testament to the ability of our various centre-back pairings that we have been able to contain teams with only two at the back for large percentages of the game.
I don’t know however what the future holds for us at centre-back. Farke can surely only keep juggling four players happily into two positions for so long. But what I do know is that when you look at where we were at with centre-backs over the past few seasons, and where we are now, we have an absolute embarrassment of riches.