It’s a cliché but it was a tale of two halves – the first was nothing close to a good read but the second was everything you want in a good novel. Fight. Something to change the status quo.
Now, I’m not saying that Saturday’s game against Sheffield Wednesday changes everything.
Yes, there’s positivity. We hadn’t won since Ipswich away and our supposed fortress at home hadn’t existed since Birmingham at home on September 9. It’s been a long time.
While Daniel Farke may have called Forest away City’s ‘best away performance of the season’, for most fans the 1-0 score line to the home side felt more telling.
But the first half on Saturday replicated everything that’s been wrong in recent months. Play dominated the centre of the pitch, with players seemingly opting for a backwards or lateral pass. Losing the ball became predictable. It became tiring and slow.
It was everything I had pointed out during the early stages at Forest. Forest knew Norwich would want to dominate in possession, yet they didn’t always let them – in fact, possession was split 53-47 in favour of Forest – but, most importantly, they knew how to attack.
They had pace, they looked threatening when they had the ball, the wings were a constant outlet and I remember saying that while they knew what a counter-attack was, I didn’t feel like City knew how to defend one, nor did they know how to create one.
Yet once again, in the shape of a mini fore-shadowing of what would happen against Wednesday, chances after the half-time whistle provided something a little more exciting, a little more hopeful and by the end of the game, I wasn’t horrified by the display. It felt more like a game that would fall into the ‘unlucky’ category, especially when the thought of James Maddison on the ball didn’t fill you with faith, nor did the chance of a wonder goal.
There’s four chances within that game that I want to point out, while discussing this speed/tempo/pace issue, before I move onto Saturday’s game.
12th minute – After a free-kick, it took 10 (relatively short) passes in the centre before the 10th pass reached Wes Hoolahan who’s through-ball provided City with one of the best chances of the game. Marley Watkins caught out Forest’s backline, with his shot only slightly wide of the left post. A side-note, however, is due to this passing style and almost waiting it out until it moves up the pitch, Nelson Oliveira was drawn level with the positioning of Maddison to be involved in play, meaning it was down to Watkins’ quick thinking and Hoolahan’s undeniable appetite of picking out balls, which caused the attempt.
46th minute – Once again, Wes was involved. Although the shot was always going high, the build-up of the goal through fast passing was something I wouldn’t mind seeing more often and with Maddison and Pritchard, I could get my wish. It probably wasn’t the prettiest chance – in fact, it came from errors, although it’s easy to see what they were trying to do. When an Ivo Pinto throw-in is hoofed away and Daryl Murphy heads it down, Hoolahan was on hand to regain possession and used his trickery and pace to beat tackles and work his way forward. Although I wouldn’t count on pace from the Irishman for every game, that little spurt of pace at least gave the fans a little inkling of hope.
87th minute – Christoph Zimmerman’s long ball saw the ball bypass the half-way line and while Cameron Jerome has his critics, part of me suggests that if it wasn’t he who had been the first to respond to a Forest header, the urgency may not have existed. Following Josh Murphy’s ball through to Oliveira, it was only due some last ditch tackling from Joe Worrall, which hindered the Portuguese’s efforts in front of goal.
91st minute – Finally, Oliveira’s final chance of the game and one which half of the City fans at the ground had believed was an equaliser was the absolute definition of urgency, pace but it’s half expected during the final minutes of the game.
Norwich are capable of moments of urgency, pace, tempo or at least something to actually get the game moving from the centre of the pitch, yet we only get glimpses, and it certainly didn’t happen in the first half against Wednesday.
Thankfully that changed.
City’s first goal was a welcome reminder to fans of Alex Pritchard’s ability. Whilst Maddison filled the gap left, Saturday proved to be that “and that’s what we’ve been missing” moment every time Pritchard had the ball. The funny thing is Pritchard, who’s battle of surviving nearly 80 minutes was hugely impressive, also had the least amount touches of the ball, bar Angus Gunn, Murphy and the three substitutes, yet when he had the ball he pushed play forward, ran at defenders and most importantly, it was he who made the Maddison’s goal. And although he’ll only be credited for that, a reminder of match also points to at least two of Oliveira’s best chances also coming through Pritchard.
Solely focusing on the second half, it felt like a game of how many players can make an impact.
Watkins notably made a difference to the performance fans had witnessed by Murphy and although he didn’t see loads of the ball, his 16 additional touches to that of Murphy, his willingness to chase balls, and get into the box at the earliest chance proved a sense of grafting and urgency we didn’t have – perhaps an indicator of how he plays his best football in that supporting striker role. And while he can rack up fouls carrying out his defensive duties, he refuses to be pushed off the ball himself – something which contributed to Oliveira’s chance towards the beginning of the second half.
There were also two other notable players in my eyes: Mario Vrancic and Harrison Reed.
I’ve rarely commented on Vrancic while writing about City and that’s partly down to him essentially becoming a scapegoat. Yet in recent games and since he’s been playing in a deeper midfield role, including against Forest and Cardiff, there’s been glimpses of his ability and improvements.
He’s easy to criticise, his style maybe sees him take more time than we would like on the ball before finding a pass but his free-kicks indicate he’s not too far away from getting the right side of the post, whilst his curving shot in the 50th minute rattled the side-netting, and although Maddison was flagged offside, his through ball was something that would have had me applauding.
He is also keen to provide a long ball – it’s the right attitude to move play up the field and make it exciting, yet a lot depends on who is willing to chase, whilst Saturday’s game saw more long balls/passes than the season’s average – a hint that the style may be more relaxed. With Vrancic, however, it’s starting to feel like a ‘not if but when’ moment as to when he pulls something off and I’m sensing it won’t be long.
Finally, Harrison Reed was relentless in the second half. It’s been obvious that since Alex Tettey’s injury, we’ve been missing something in our midfield and that probably will not change until his return, but with Tom Trybull’s absence also through injury, a huge weight was put on the loanee’s shoulders. He also isn’t the stereotypical defensive midfielder in physique, which may be the reason he catches fans by surprise, however, throughout those 45 minutes, he closed opponents down in ways we’ve seemingly been lacking in and looked to be all over the pitch on reflection.
His forward-thinking attitude makes the 22-year-old’s legs look fresh even during the latter stages of the game, with Zimmermann replacing Maddison, at some stages, he became one of the most forward players. It may be no surprise then when he was awarded a penalty for his efforts as he opened an avenue on the wing through his speed after Oliveira held up the ball from Zimmermann’s long ball.
Saturday’s second half performance against Sheffield Wednesday proved Norwich’s capabilities to provide a sense of urgency and a way of making this sense of appealing football also work. There’s still work to be done, we need consistency, we need whatever was said during half-time to be repeated before every kick-off and for players to show fans they are putting everything on the line.
Farke believes his style has the potential to work in this league, yet dominating possession may not be the solution and he may just need to be more relaxed with his style, but has the second half of Saturday proved change is on the horizon? Possibly.