It’s been around nine months since my first MFW column.
Nine months since Sebastian Bassong so incompetently failed to clear the ball when in possession against Sunderland, allowing Jann Kirchhoff to dispossess him and instigate the attack that proved fatal to City’s survival chances.
Nine months since our second relegation in three seasons was effectively confirmed.
Nine months of what has often seemed like perpetual pain.
That column of April last year concerned an Oxford United defender called Chey Dunkley. An unknown quantity, I’d witnessed – on a trip to Oxford last year to visit an ex-girlfriend –
Dunkley playing for his side against Huddersfield, thwarting multiple attacks and being instrumental in a 3-1 win. Oxford would go on to achieve promotion.
On Saturday, Dunkley played ninety minutes in Oxford’s magical 3-0 victory over Newcastle. While not having seen the game, his performance was almost certainly one that delineated the qualities demonstrated last year, providing defensive solidity in a team that appeared united and fearless.
The pertinence of my nostalgia? I had a similar experience. Yes, visitors Birmingham conceded two – and should really have conceded considerably more – and yes, Norwich managed to keep a clean sheet, but the talent of Ryan Shotton in Gianfranco Zola’s back four warrants noting.
I’d never really rated Shotton before. During relatively unsuccessful spells at Stoke and Derby, he never appeared a natural defender and his most effective attribute seemed to be his ability to emulate the ball-propelling talents of Rory Delap. But, on Saturday for Birmingham, he was one of the most impressive players on the pitch.
Shotton embodies everything Norwich’s centre-backs lack. He has pace, on two occasions denying each Murphy twin a clear run on goal and stealing the ball like a perfect heist at the optimum moment.
He possesses great strength, winning several aerial duels against the often-dominant Cameron Jerome and finding team-mates with his clearances. And he is composed in possession, displaying visible ability on the ball and distributing it quickly and directly to his team.
The increasingly dependable duo of Timm Klose and Russell Martin may have kept another clean sheet at Carrow Road on Saturday, but doubts remain.
Lukas Jutkiewicz was benevolently ushered an unmarked run into City’s box in the first half and struck the bar with his free header – he really should have scored – while Craig Gardner was wasteful with an equally alarming opportunity.
Alex Neil was accurate in his post-match verdict: the score at half-time could have been 3-3.
Klose is an asset in the air for City, winning battles against frequently physical strikers, but he lacks pace and has the tendency to switch off at key moments. It was he who failed to pick up the run of Jutkiewcz at 1-0, while he was similarly culpable for Gardner’s manufacturing of space.
Likewise, Russell Martin’s defending also lacks conviction.
Ryan Shotton is not necessarily the answer. The fundamental point is that he is a good defender, providing something different to the undynamic and long-ball-reliant pairing of Klose and Martin. He has a superior first touch, and is capable of releasing the ball more quickly and creatively.
As this transfer window descends into a farce that may miraculously eclipse the one City’s season had at one point turned into (albeit the reported loan deal for Mitchell Dijks looks promising), Shotton’s performance was merely a manifestation of the fact that good defenders are out there.
Managers may have to search the depths of the Championship – or even League One – but we should not feel obliged to settle for the mediocrity of Klose, Martin, Ryan Bennett and Sebastian Bassong.
Assuming Robbie Brady does depart – his lap of the ground at full-time and emotive acknowledgment of fans’ support implied a farewell – the necessity of recruiting a left-back is paramount, but if City have any chance of a play-off push this season we must tighten up down the middle.
Klose and Martin are not bad defenders – far from it – but are simply not reliable nor solid enough to function as the backbone of a promotion chasing team. Although two recent clean sheets may suggest otherwise, they have come at home against ineffective opposition and the result at Rotherham once again made their shortcomings palpable.
They are both endearing characters owing to their evident passion and commitment – Klose’s elation-charged head-butt of the corner flag provided some rare amusement for the Barclay – but scepticism remains concerning their reliability.
Norwich did not deserve to keep a clean sheet at the weekend, and question marks will continue to linger until our team demonstrate the ability to construct a run that shows consistent defensive aptitude.
A better side would have punished City’s profligacy at the weekend. Going forward, Cameron Jerome – inevitably – wasted a plethora of chances, while Steven Naismith really should have had a hat-trick. A Dwight Gayle, Chris Wood or Glenn Murray would have made us pay.
Fortunately, Birmingham didn’t. City fans will surely embrace a rare game without conceding, but we must remind ourselves that Saturday’s score line was somewhat misleading. Our defence remains an issue.
The opportunity to strengthen at the back this January appears to have been and gone. Although Dijks and perhaps AN Other k – we all pray – will hopefully arrive before Wednesday, it appears the recruitment of an additional centre-half remains an idealistic notion.
A defender of the breed that Shotton represents would have functioned as a welcome addition to our ranks.
But it won’t happen. While City’s season – and Alex Neil’s tenure at Norwich – appears to be regaining some form of momentum, the jury remains out on our defending. Results have picked up but tougher tests beckon.
The record endures: we have gathered just four points in matches against top ten teams. I do hope Klose and Martin go on to prove me wrong, but until we sign a player with the finesse and superiority of Shotton, I remain unconvinced.