For a range of different reasons, I’m quite looking forward to Good Friday this year. I’ve got the day off work from my local pub. The morning marks my first cricket net of the season. In the evening, a night out – albeit down the less desirable direction of the A47 in Great Yarmouth – is on the agenda. And, last but certainly not least, Norwich are playing.
It looks set to be a hectic day. A second trip to Carrow Road in just under a fortnight is an appealing prospect, not merely owing to the restricted number of home games I can access but also because of that markedly improved attacking performance we witnessed against Reading. What makes this game all the more enticing, however, is the probable quality we are likely to be treated to by our visitors.
The game against Fulham marks the near one-year anniversary since their last trip to Norfolk, an encounter that saw the once revered Chris Martin sent off but one that left us all departing the ground invariably impressed with Slavisa Jocanovic’s side’s conspicuous quality. Despite our numerical advantage, City were totally outclassed that day, an afternoon characterised by both our offensive incompetence as well as Fulham’s attractive ability to move the ball so quickly. The gulf in quality really was palpable.
Fast forward a year, and not much has changed. Although our defence has been undoubtedly improved owing to the combined influence of Daniel Farke’s methods and the recruitment of Christoph Zimmerman and Grant Hanley, City’s attacking potency remains somewhat limited. Yes, the Reading game marked an improvement with the advent of a profitable first-half, but such a display has been a rarity in what has otherwise been a season of laboured, lateral, possession-based football.
Farke knows this is what he must improve over the summer. Whether it be a pragmatic adaptation of his tactics or the scouting of more penetrative personnel, this City side will progress no further unless we begin to score more goals. The Maddison money – ostensibly a minimum of £25 million according to recent reports – must be invested shrewdly. Dennis Srbeny will have to start finishing chances such as the one he missed a week and a half ago. The team as a whole must begin to be less profligate in the final third.
City’s shortcomings are well-documented. We have all become both acutely and universally aware of our limitations going forward. However, a systematic comparison with Jocanovic’s Fulham can function as even more useful in revealing what we should really be aiming to achieve next season.
In purely aesthetic terms, Fulham are the best in the Championship. They pass the ball so crisply, so swiftly, so directly. In Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen, they have two players who relentlessly seek to create. In Alexander Mitrovic, they have a clinical, ruthless forward he seems to score far more than he misses. In Ryan Sessegnon, they have one of the most dangerous young players – along with Maddison, of course – in the country.
Fulham play possession football. However, what differentiates them from this current City side is the pace at which they pass the ball, the movement they display off it and the continual sense of width and directness inherent to their style. While Farke’s priority must obviously remain the leadership and disciplining of his team, he would do well to diligently examine his opponent’s execution of their philosophy at the same time.
For if City want to achieve any form of success in this league next season, we will need to emulate aspects of what Fulham do so well. Farke has laid the foundations in the form of a – usually – solid defence. However, he must seek to replicate the terrific work Jocanovic has undertaken in the capital, investing wisely in players conducive to the implementation of a quicker, slicker and more threatening system.
What next season will bring is anybody’s guess. The sobering truth remains that without the magic of Maddison this campaign, City would be staring a relegation battle square in the face. Come August, we are likely to be without him. In this rather rudimentary respect, the future could be quite bleak.
However, if we continue to build on this defensive solidity, if we retain the services of Moritz Leitner, if Mario Vrancic continues his development and if we recruit wisely and instil the football we play with more pace, things can get better. Granted, that’s a lot of ifs. However, the point is that with a strengthened squad and a Head Coach with a year of Championship experience, we are likely to improve.
The first step, though? Watch Fulham.