The week after City had lost to Burnley in the league earlier this season, the Clarets’ strike-pairing at the time, Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, were guests on Sky Sports Sunday morning show, Goals on Sunday.
It was the morning after we had lost 2-0 in regulation fashion away at Palace. Burnley had drawn 2-2 at Villa and Wood and Barnes were chirpy. At least I think they were… was hard to tell.
But it wasn’t their monosyllabic repartee that got under my skin, rather when they were asked to comment on City’s defeat at Palace and our start to the season in general. Barnes didn’t say much – he wasn’t a big talker – but it was Wood who could barely contain his contempt for our passing style and how we seemed to think we could succeed in the Premier League attempting to play that way.
In fairness, the presenters offered him the chance to say something positive about City but the best he could muster was “it’ll be interesting to see how they get on”.
What’s irked since is that for large chunks of the season, Master Wood has been proved right – at least in terms of results. If points were based on artistic impression and not goals, then we’d be top half for certain, even top six maybe, but until the Premier League make that obviously needed rule-change, we’re a bit stuffed. And Wood and his gaffer will justifiably argue their way is the best way.
But yesterday, in the FA Cup at least, beauty overcame the beast.
I hope Chris Wood thought it ‘interesting’, once he’d extricated himself from Grant Hanley’s pocket. And it was telling that in Sean Dyche’s post-match interviews, he made barely a mention of City, citing his own side’s defensive failings rather than any quality on City’s part.
Apparently, the “two best players on the pitch by far” were wearing claret [“Tarky and Westy”], whereas I could have sworn they were wearing yellow [“Super Mario and Big Grant”].
Both were outstanding in that morale-boosting and (whatever Dyche says) thoroughly deserved win; Vrancic, in particular, giving his head coach a timely reminder of what a special player he can be if fully fit and offered suitable protection.
Unfortunately for Mario, he was one of many who suffered in that dispiriting defeat at Old Trafford -damaging in so many ways – but yesterday was the Vrancic of last April, who can dictate the pace of a game, can create chances with his eye for a pass and who oozes class.
It was no coincidence that he was involved in both goals, although we could have all done without his assist for Burnley’s – a header so perfect Erik Pieters didn’t even have to break stride. But it was a minor aberration in an afternoon where he played himself into the starting XI for Newcastle.
Hanley, enfant terrible in the eyes of the Burnley fans for his Blackburn connections, was a colossus in a game that played directly to his strengths. While his ability to pass the ball has improved immeasurably under the tutelage of Team Farke, it’s when muscle, grit and the ability to win aerial duels are needed that he comes into his own.
Against Burnley, all of those qualities are required of a centre-back and he responded just as Daniel Farke knew he would. He and Christoph Zimmermann refused to be bullied and bowed – as all eleven were in those opening 15 minutes in September – and as a result, set the tone for the whole afternoon.
Those first 15 minutes were key again yesterday and Dyche will clearly have demanded the same, so for City to almost score from the first attack of the game – Josip Drmić slid his shot just wide – was an important shot across the Burnley bows.
That City then proceeded to create and miss an absolute hatful of chances was symptomatic of the last six months, but in between Ralf Fährmann did make one particularly good save from Jay Rodriguez and dear old “Tarks” [James Tarkowski to you and I] did hit the crossbar with a header.
But it was City who had dominated and when Hanley’s thumping header from Vrancic’s viciously arcing free-kick flew past Joe Hart, it for once had the feeling of a good day. When Drmic tapped in from close range, after Hart had saved from the excellent Lukas Rupp it had the makings of a great day.
Of course, there was the Keystone Cop defending for Pieters’ goal – this is City after all – but there’s this thing called game management and unless my eyes deceived me, they demonstrated it very well indeed. They kept the ball well, defended solidly without the need for last-ditch heroics and managed to run down the clock with the minimum of fuss. Job done.
So, we’re in the crazy position of being in the draw for the last 16, a feat so rare it’s only occurred three times this century. And it feels good.
Quite what impact this cup run – can two wins constitute a run? – will have on Premier League survival remains to be seen, but nothing bad can come out of winning a game of football in which we once again demonstrated we’re that close to being a really good team.
Danny Murphy, never the loudest of City cheerleaders, described us as “the best bottom-of-the-league side I’ve ever seen” on last night’s Match of the Day, echoing the similar sentiments of talkSPORT’s Paul Hawksbee after the midweek defeat at Tottenham.
This season still has legs.
To end, out of curiosity, I asked the question on Twitter last night, ‘would you prefer to get relegated playing Farkeball or survive playing Dycheball’. It didn’t receive a massive response 🙂 but, for what it’s worth, did reveal what I’d suspected…
Farkeball vs Dycheball
— MyFootballWriter (@NorwichCityMFW) January 25, 2020
Dyche and Wood will think we’re daft. What do you think?