There was more than a touch of déjà vu as the River End grew increasingly impatient in last night’s second half.
As the ball was shifted slowly and laterally from centre-back to centre-back, those who berated and seethed over that very thing in year one of Farkeball could feel it all flooding back,
“Stop messing around with it!”
“No! … not back to Krul!”
And of course the old classic, “Get it forward!”
But, to be fair, I’m talking about a minority and most appreciated that this was different. This wasn’t a return of the possession for possession’s sake but instead a measured attempt to take the sting out of a game that had already been won – even if Greg Downes didn’t spot it.
We’ve bemoaned the openness at times and commented on how vulnerable we leave ourselves by pushing both fullbacks high up the pitch, so to see them calmly see out a game that needed to be won in such fashion was both pleasing and another sign that this side is still learning and learning quickly.
The credit, of course, goes to Team Farke who identified that Birmingham’s plan was to let us have the ball and counter with the intention of exposing those vacated areas out wide, and for a team that has been criticised for lacking at times in ‘game management’, this was it at its finest.
Tim Krul was nicely protected as a result and had just a few regulation saves to make – all from distance and none that we wouldn’t expect him to make. No need for heroics this time around, with his main contribution to the second half being to ensure the calm, measured approach across the back-four didn’t lapse into complacency.
All of this was possible because of that opening 30-minute blitz when City did to Birmingham exactly what they did to Derby County in that same period. Despite there being some different personnel, the method was the same, the tempo too, and Garry Monk’s well-drilled Blues simply struggled to cope.
Buoyed by the return of Marco Stiepermann, Teemu Pukki no longer looked a lone striker with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his predatory strike to turn in Jamal Lewis’s inch-perfect cross was him at his best. It wasn’t just about the goal though – his tireless running and closing down meant that, allied to the return of the German, City were able to again defend from the front. And they’re a better side for it.
Stiepermann, as ever, created few headlines but his worth to the team is obvious when you compare it with or without him in it. The physical presence is clear, as is the target it offers Krul on the odd occasion when he is forced to kick long, but the support he offers Pukki and the way he picks up balls in pockets of space and drives on offers a different dynamic to this side.
A few criticise him for giving the ball away and for appearing a little ungainly at times but we’re a better side with him in it.
Yet while much of Stiepermann’s good work goes under the radar, the flicks, tricks and kicks of one Emi Buendia most certainly do not. His evening’s work may have only lasted 38 minutes but in that time his value to the side was laid bare, especially with him – temporarily as it transpired – getting closer to full fitness. Hopefully, his dead leg will be one of those that wears off after two or three days.
That he was on the receiving end of some rough stuff was merely confirmation of how he is perceived by opponents, and is just something he will need to get used to. Referees can dish out yellows, as Tim Robinson did last night, but short of wrapping him up in cotton wool, this is the price to pay for having someone of Buendia’s ability in our side. But we need him next Saturday – no question.
On the opposite flank, Onel Hernandez was doing what Onel Hernandez does and with him and Buendia in tandem and firing, we carry an edge-of-the-seat dual threat that opponents are simply struggling to contain. So good was the football in that opening half hour, even the mighty Leeds would buckle under the relentlessness.
What we haven’t been able to achieve, partly because it’s a near impossibility, is sustain that level of intensity for the full 90, but if one day we do, someone is going to take a real shellacking.
Central to last night’s win, not only in that exhilarating first-half but also in the second when the tempo was deliberately controlled, were Tom Trybull and Mario Vrancic; a better Tettey/Leitner impersonation you’ll be unlikely to see.
From their use of the ball through to their ability to win it back and offer protection to Christoph Zimmermann and Ben Godfrey, both were bang on the money last night and it was fitting that both would be rewarded with a goal. We’ve missed Leitner, without doubt, and it’s impossible not to miss the energy, experience and nous of Tettey, but last night confirmed we do have alternatives in that area, even if it means the job being done slightly differently.
So, a good one, and I like to think we can consider the ship well and truly steadied. A run of three draws and a defeat had those outside the Canary Nation salivating at the prospect of us sliding down do our ‘rightful’ place in the natural order, but I’m not sure we’re ready to slink away quite yet.
This may not yet be the final straight, nor even the final bend, but as we emerge from the back straight we’re in good shape. And Chris Wilder… we’re coming for you.