City midfield star Andrew Crofts could not hide his disappointment at this weekend’s 2-1 home defeat by in-form Arsenal.
The 27-year-old Welsh international was one of two changes that manager Paul Lambert made to his starting XI ahead of kick-off as he looked to pack his midfield full of the kind of running that can knock the Londoners out of their playing stride.
In too came David Fox with Grant Holt and Elliott Bennett returning to the bench as City opened the lunchtime live clash in a 4-3-2-1 formation that had Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington dropping into the hole off Steve Morison.
What you gain with that hand, however, you lose in terms of the natural width that a Bennett and a Pilkington offer in a straight 4-4-2 formation.
Trouble is, of course, you could play 8-1-1 and the chances are that Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott would still find a way to unlock the door given the level to which both are currently playing. Van Persie’s two, killer strikes either side of the interval took him to ten goals in his last five Premiership outings – 31 for the 2011 calendar year to date.
It is why the Gunners look bound to compete for a top four finish this season and why the Canaries still have a way to travel before they can master such top flight talents. More realistic is returning to winning ways at home to QPR next Saturday before their travel to Manchester City in the hope of somehow driving a spoke into the wheels of the runaway leaders.
“We’re really disappointed because we go into every game wanting to win – or come away with something,” said Crofts, after Morison’s 16th minute opener failed to stem the march of ‘Van The Man’ and Company.
“So today just wasn’t our day,” Crofts added, the saving grace being the fact that the Canaries were never ripped wholly apart; were still in the contest come the 90th minute; hadn’t shipped the five goals at home in the manner of a Chelsea.
“We haven’t been over-turned or anything and we’ll go again next Saturday,” he said, even if City were grateful to three, first-half clearances from Russell Martin and a huge, second-half save from John Ruddy for keeping the Gunners within sight.
The plan was to ‘get into them’, said Crofts, now a regular in the Wales set-up in that anchor midfield role. This weekend and he had the legs of Bradley Johnson alongside him and the craft of Fox in the mix to boot.
City didn’t get wholly out-classed in that midfield battle; out wide, however, and Walcott was all pace and tricks.
“As I said, we weren’t over-turned and we were right in it till the end and I think that’s a compliment in a way – we’ve been in every game so far.
“But we’re not here just to make up the numbers; we want to pick up more points than not.”
And Norwich had their moments. Bennett’s arrival at the break conjured up a near-post chance for Pilkington, whilst Grant Holt’s appearance would, inevitably, find City picking up set-piece chances in and around the Gunners’ box. Alas on this occasion neither Pilkington nor Johnson could quite find the something special required.
“We’ve had a few chances ourselves,” said Crofts. “And Moro [Morison] obviously took his goal really well through his hard work and persistence. And we kept going; kept driving forward. But today it wasn’t to be.”
Crofts also found himself on opposite sides of the pitch to his Welsh international skipper Aaron Ramsey. He, like van Persie and Walcott, is no mug.
“He’s a great player and he’s only young as well so he’s got a lot of good years in front of him,” said Crofts, years that – on current form – might even see Gary Speed’s young Welsh side qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals.
“Normally I’m playing with him, but it was good to be playing against him – it was a good experience. But one that you’re not happy with because obviously you haven’t come away with anything.”
Did it pile the pressure on the Rangers game, sandwiched as it is between Arsenal (h) and Manchester City (a)?
“Every game that we play comes with massive pressure – that’s why you’re in this league,” he said. “You want that pressure. You want to play against great teams every week – and next Saturday is massive.”
The fact that Rangers came away from Stoke with a 3-2 win will not have gone unnoticed either. A clutch of draws between the likes of Wigan and Blackburn, Sunderland and Fulham helped – for now.
Individually and Crofts was swift to rally round team-mate Martin who found himself running straight into a cul-de-sac after the break; dispossessed and out of position, van Persie did the rest.
“He’ll pick himself up and go again – that’s the lad he is. Take that out and he’s had a great game – and that one in the first-half; if he isn’t there, it’s a goal.”
One mistake, however, and you get punished. That’s the brutal reality of this league.