While Tuesday’s night fare was typical of City, yesterday afternoon’s win over Wolves was one that bucked the trend.
Two good goals, solid defending, controlled possession, high energy and no dramas.
Having earlier in the day witnessed England’s cricketers doing precisely what we expected of them it was a treat to watch City turn in a performance as professional, clinical and a little unexpected as anything they have produced all season.
All too often, with the top six in their sights and expectation levels of the Yellow Army going through the roof, they have choked. But yesterday was different.
Gone was the swagger minus the effort. Also gone appeared to be the much discussed ‘sense of entitlement’. Instead we saw a steely resolve and a confidence in their ability to see the job through.
Alex Neil spoke post-match of how ‘pleasing’ it was to overcome a decent Wolves side and again made reference to the aforementioned lack of effort and desire. That horrible Carrow Road afternoon when Brentford were visitors clearly left an impression on the new City boss – and not a good one.
But if that ill-fated defeat by the Bees marked a low point, since then the curve has been steady and upward. The manager is clearly getting his message across and in the space of just seven games – which have yielded five wins – a new iteration of Norwich City has emerged.
There is still an awfully long way to go of course, and Tuesday night’s mini-implosion reminded us all that old habits die hard, but the base from which they now perform look to be a solid one. In Neil’s words, his sides are ‘structured’, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a structure the players are comfortable with. The square pegs tend to be in square holes.
The 4-1-4-1 that was Neil’s and McAvoy’s formation of choice at Hamilton has gradually been implemented and yesterday saw it at its most effective – the personnel selected fitting the shape perfectly.
Alex Tettey – who, while ignored by the sponsors, was voted Canary Call’s man-of-the-match – was simply sublime as the ‘1’ sitting just in front of the back-four. In addition to offering some excellent protection to Messrs Bassong and Martin, he was the lynchpin that held the whole caboodle together – his comfort on the ball making him ideal for the role.
The only slight blot on the Tettey landscape was his admission earlier in the week that his recurring knee problem will prevent his from playing three games in a week.
Much of the pre-match discussion had been around whether Neil would opt for Tettey or Wes, but given the events of yesterday, dodgy knee permitting, it’s a no-brainer.
The alternatives to Tettey, as the protector of the back-four, are either Bradley Johnson or Jonny Howson but both excelled in their respective roles higher up the pitch. Howson, along with Gary Hooper, did a fine job in finding space in the hole betwixt the Wolves back-line and midfield and Johnson, in a wide left position with which he’s becoming more and more familiar, was able to use his limit-less energy to very good effect.
To have restricted either in the ‘Tettey’ role would have served only to lessen the side’s energy and purpose going forward.
As it transpired Neil made the right call and some. Wessi’s individual trickery is clearly a huge weapon to have in the armoury but, injuries permitting, one suspects it will be used cleverly and perhaps even sparingly over the next fifteen games. I’m not keen on the phrase ‘impact player’ (aren’t they all?) but it’s one that Wes could become familiar with over the next few months.
The only role in the 4-1-4-1 that he could naturally fulfil is that of Hooper’s but the ex-Celtic’s man eye for goal is going to be invaluable in the run-in. Yet Wes still has a role to play I’m sure and that will probably be when the structure needs tweaking and a bit of ‘maverick’ is called for.
Another feature of yesterday’s win was the continued emergence of those who have been in the shadows. Steven Whittaker’s midfield horror-show against Brentford is now long-forgotten and his handing of the dangerous Bakary Sako smacked of one whose confidence has returned in spades. Again the manager is to be applauded for keeping the faith with the Scot when 26,000 were wavering.
Ditto his management of Seb Bassong. Next Saturday will see the Cameroonian return to the scene of his exile but this time it will be with his head held high rather than with the tail between the legs. We’re now seeing the Bassong of old – the one we liked – and long may it continue.
Lewis Grabban too appears a different character to the surly, uninterested figure who scored but had not the inclination to celebrate that goal against Huddersfield back in December.
His reintegration back into the fold may or may not be down to Cameron Jerome’s tight hamstring but his work-rate and touch is back to August/September levels. It bodes well and, again, is in no small part due to the faith shown in him by the manager.
So, one of the good days. Still work to be done, and two very tricky away tests to follow, but we have momentum and the gaze is now fixed on those above us.
And if I were them I’d be getting just a little bit twitchy.