Few City fans would begrudge the look of quiet satisfaction on the face of City boss Paul Lambert after yesterday’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.
In dropping both his midfield playmaker Wes Hoolahan and his young tyro Korey Smith for this weekend’s home clash against a managerless Boro, he made a big, managerial call.
For minus Wesley, Norwich were obliged to revert back to a more traditional shape; a solid 4-4-2 with Anthony McNamee asked to provide the width and the pace that – on occasion – that famed diamond lacks.
A minute before the break and the manager’s bold call was rewarded.
McNamee whipped a deep cross in from the right; skipper Grant Holt pulled the ball back across the six-yard box where a Boro defence – left to appeal in vain for offside – could only watch as Simeon Jackson buried his fourth goal of the season into an empty net.
A goal to the good, it was time to invite the visitors to break down those two, solid banks of four.
They managed to gain just one glimpse of John Ruddy’s goal. But once substitute Scott McDonald had scuffed that fleeting chance wide, so Norwich were home and dry.
Once again, they had avoided back-to-back defeats following the Tuesday night reverse to Palace; once again they were on the up; once again Lambert had proved his managerial worth.
Not that he was getting too carried away.
“That speaks volumes of the players,” said Lambert, quizzed about that remarkable no-two-defeats-in-a-row record. “They’re the ones that have got to do it and what they have done for me, I can’t thank them highly enough for what they’ve done.”
Norwich were pretty much in control of this weekend’s game from start to finish. With Elliott Ward returning after his suspension and Andrew Crofts having David Fox at his side, the Canaries were all-too much of a tough nut for Boro to crack.
Tuesday’s defeat was all about poor defending, he insisted. This weekend and normal service was resumed.
“You can’t defend corners the way that we did and expect to win games,” he said. “We’re not good enough.”
Norwich, he stressed, had no divine right to win games. They can’t simply turn up and expect to bag all three points week in, week out.
“I think there were a lot of good, individual performances out there,” said the City chief, with the game attracting Norwich’s biggest home gate of the season.
“We freshened it up because the same group of lads have been going week in, week out.
“And that’s the only reason I’ve done it – to give lads who we thought could win a game a chance; to give Wes [Hoolahan] a break and to give Korey [Smith] a break because they’ve played every single game for me. For the best part of 14-15 months.
“And we need everybody. We need a squad.”
Inevitably, of course, the change in faces required a change in system.
“I think the modern game dictates that you’ve got to be able to adapt to different systems – the lads have to be able to play 4-4-2; they have to play a diamond.
“And any system that I’ve asked them to do, they’ve performed. And McNamee playing gives you that width. He puts in terrific balls for us and his ball in for the goal was exceptional.”
It was, of course, a team effort. That just as much as City had found a supply line to unlock the Boro defence, so they had kept their own house in order.
Ward was a rock; Leon Barnett clearly enjoys playing alongside him. The two click. The Fox-Crofts combo might not give you too much going forward, but they mop up everything in front of the central two.
“Elliott was a massive loss to us the other night and him and Leon have been brilliant for us,” said Lambert.
“And I thought that was Russell Martin’s best game this season; his performances this season have been really high, so as I say I’ve been delighted with the performances of the back four.”
The Canaries – or rather, Steve Smith – continued to make progress despite the loss of Adam Drury at left-back.
“To lose Drury is a big void to fill,” admitted the manager. “But Stevie’s come in and done fine.”
He wasn’t about to bite on the question of whether or not the goal was offside. If nothing else, Boro were guilty of stopping and staring at the linesman; there wasn’t much reaction when play continued and Jackson was handed the simplest of tap-ins.
“I’d have to see it,” said Lambert, ever the diplomat.
“It was a terrific ball in and Grant does great to pull it back and then you’ve still got to be there in the right place at the right time – and it’s another goal for him.”
Boro, he insisted, were no mugs; they will improve. They remain one of the Championship’s bigger hitters.
“I think their position is false – I really do,” he said. “You look at the resources they’ve got and whoever gets that club will have a good club behind them and I’m sure that they’ll drag them up.”