Gary Lineker’s smirk when he described yesterday’s events at the Madjeski as ‘gritty’ probably summed it up.
Certainly not one for the purist, but try telling that to City boss Chris Hughton. Three clean sheets from the last four games represents a seismic shift in defensive capabilities when comparing his team to the class of 2011/12 – only Stoke have more so far this season.
In fairness to the MotD crew, they did scratch around for a few positives, and Alan Shearer did point out that Norwich were currently on a ‘good little run’. Unbeaten in four; two home wins and two away draws – if we’d been offered a mini-run like that after the Liverpool defeat we’d most certainly have taken it.
The few defensive problems that did occur yesterday were mainly of City’s own making. Hughton made reference in his post-match interviews to the needless free-kicks given away in dangerous areas. He refrained from making direct reference to Sebastien Bassong’s first half aberration, when dwelling on the ball rather too long, but would no doubt have issued a half-time ‘reminder’.
Other than those self-inflicted dangers, the back-four looked solid and well organised – a million miles away from that opening day of the season by the Thames. A lot has changed since that day – not only are some of the personnel different, but the team has a different shape.
Hughton’s desire to now play with two holding midfield players – in the shape of Alexander Tettey and Bradley Johnson – has proved a success and is the base upon which the recent upturn has been built.
Whilst Reading are in the bottom three for a reason, there’s no doubt they do contain an attacking threat. In his pre-match comments, Radio Norfolk’s Chris Goreham reminded his listeners that the Royals had scored eight times in their previous two homes games, against Arsenal and Fulham no less. On that basis a goalless draw seemed unlikely – and which is why, when it arrived it was a point well-earned.
It goes without saying that the defensive solidity we’ve enjoyed of late comes at a small price. Gone for now are the days of gung-ho football, with both full-backs charging on and us throwing numbers forward at every given opportunity. Instead the approach is a more measured one – yes, the full-backs do still get forward, but only when the time is right. We’re still playing the game on the front foot – Hughton demands it – but in a more calculated way.
The price being paid is that chances created for Grant Holt and co are currently less plentiful. It’s no coincidence that the last two homes games have been 1-0 wins – but while the points are being accumulated I don’t think there’ll be too many complaints. Hughton’s risk and reward strategy is currently producing a profit.
Such an approach allows little room for profligacy in front of goal and while neither Holt nor Robert Snodgrass could be blamed for missing those late-on opportunities – neither were ‘sitters’ – those narrow margins are the ones which will eventually define our season.
As it turned out, the results at the bottom of the Premiership could hardly have gone better – Stoke being the only victors from the bottom half of the table. The five point cushion we currently enjoy from the bottom three may appear slender but, given the momentum that accompanies it, is still significant.
Next up at Carrow Road are Manchester United, in one of those adorable tea-time kick-offs, followed a week later by a tricky looking trip to Everton. In reality, both can be regarded as ‘bonus games’ – those from which anything other than a defeat is indeed a bonus – and which will temporarily reduce the pressure on Chris Hughton’s men.
The real crunch comes in the games that follow; Southampton (a); Sunderland (h); Swansea (a); Wigan (h) and West Brom (a). A decent return from these eminently winnable games would see us enter the critical Christmas period in good shape, or – as Mr Waghorn would say – in rude health.
Sandwiched in between Swansea and Wigan is a certain League Cup quarter-final, but one suspects that will take of itself, and will be one on which form will have little or no bearing. If yesterday’s events at Villa Park are anything to go by, cavalier football is still the order of the day.
So a hard earned point – one that in many ways typifies the spirit of Hughton’s current crop. As the old boss used to say, ‘… if you can’t win it, make sure you don’t lose it’.
And he knew what he was talking about…