“It certainly wasn’t one of our best performances of the season, but we created the best chances in the game and kept it tight at the back.”
Not for the first time, Alex Neil sums up in one sentence what I’ll struggle to do in 800 words but not before he had given us another shining example of how quickly he is adapting to the mantle of Premier League manager.
Much has been spoken and written of the steep learning curve needed and the brutal environment in which the learning takes place but following on from his so nearly successful three-at-the-back experiment at Man City, Neil again made some big, bold calls that, this time, paid handsome dividends.
The decision to cede possession and territory against a Swansea side that thrives on it was one that undoubtedly goes against his better nature. And it was brave because the wriggle- room in such an approach is virtually nil – as he pointed out afterwards.
All-out attack and lose and at least you ‘went for it’. Set up to defend and lose, then you ‘get what you deserve’. Ask Chris Hughton.
But we are all learning too. Learning that Neil has some and when the big decisions are needed he won’t shirk them. And learning that his faith in his players is undiminished despite October being miserable.
Yet it was with a certain irony that City did to Swansea precisely what Leicester and West Brom did to them in their ‘mensis horribilis’. In those two home games the Canaries possession stats were 66 and 61 per cent respectively – yesterday Swansea enjoyed 67. On all three occasions those high percentages counted for nothing.
And the Swans took their Canary impression one step further. From all their possession they did not muster a single shot on target, giving John Ruddy the sort of afternoon he needed after those fraught last few minutes at the Etihad.
[As an aside, is it just me who gets embarrassed by the ironic Y’Army cheers when Ruddy holds on to one? Perhaps I’m just getting old and soft but fail to see how said ‘cheers’ do anything but further undermine his already fragile confidence].
But anyway, despite a fairly turgid first 70 minutes, there was still enough in the last 20+ minutes to stir the old place into life, in no small part due to the introduction of Dieumerci Mbokani.
Cameron Jerome’s goal and performance in Manchester was clearly deserving of a start and, as ever, his afternoon of tireless and selfless running was in the ‘put in a good shift’ envelope, but to be the lone striker in a team that is not throwing numbers forward is a thankless task. His early sight of goal – when he headed over from Robbie Brady’s free-kick – was to be the only one.
Mbokani’s version of the lone striker role is different and his natural inclination to hold the ball up and bring in the advanced midfield runners – as opposed to a desire to run the channels – tends to leave him less isolated. It also helps to enter the fray when the game is finally getting a little stretched.
But, regardless, the impact of the Congolese international was instant.
Tempo and energy were added to the forward thrusts of those in yellow and the goal, when it arrived, was from the unlikely source of a well-worked set piece – quite possibly the first of the season. It also followed efforts from Gary O’Neil and Brady that had threatened to give City the lead.
Deserved or otherwise – Garry Monk typically thought otherwise – the relief around Carrow Road when Jonny Howson’s header found the corner of Fabianski’s net was palpable and from thereon-in the biggest danger to the lead was from the whistle of Mark Clattenberg rather than the boot of Bafétimbi Gomis.
If offered evens on the man in black giving a Swansea penalty I would have taken it.
But it didn’t happen and in fairness Andre Wisdom, Ryan Bennett, Seb Bassong and Martin Olsson gave a more than passable impersonation of a solid back-four from minutes 1 to 94, ably supported by a keeper whose biggest challenge of the afternoon was one of concentration.
In front of them the shield offered by skipper Tettey and the excellent O’Neil did much to ensure much of the Swansea passing was invariably sideways and, something we have become familiar with ourselves, a little laboured.
Jonjo Shelvey was impressive in possession but did nothing to hurt us. Jefferson Montero was anonymous (with credit to Wisdom). Gomis never once saw the white of Ruddy’s eyes. A clean sheet. Job done.
Whether yesterday’s triumph of Hughtonism is a sign of things to come will remain, for now, a matter for conjecture in the bowels of Colney.
Equally, whether Team Neil has the necessary pace and dynamism at its disposal to play the counter-attacking game regularly is another question – and yesterday’s late withdrawal of Nathan Redmond will have been a blow – but one suspects they will continue with their horses for courses approach to City’s fight against relegation.
Either way, yesterday’s set-up is certainly one that can be added to the repertoire and wheeled out again when the time is right. And with some of the big boys – and Chelsea – hovering into view after the international break that could be more than useful.
But for now let’s enjoy the win. In this league they are devilishly hard to come by and when they arrive should be lauded accordingly. By everyone. Players and supporters alike.
“Never mind the danger…”