In sport, statistics will never tell you the whole story. In a simple and somewhat idealistic world, a mere glance at a football score, an assessment of a batsman’s average or an analysis of a rugby player’s try-tally would provide us with a comprehensive indication of what really happened.
However, as many of those City fans who were present at Bramall Lane on Saturday afternoon will testify, such a desirable scenario will never really ensue.
I’m more than happy to accept the facts. Daniel Farke’s Norwich City lost 2-1 in South Yorkshire, were the inferior side in possession and had fewer shots both overall and on target. We have just a solitary point from a possible nine, in a season where all fans were united in the belief that we needed to see tangible improvements in results. We have conceded an alarming eight goals in three games.
Corners and set pieces have proved our downfall, both at the back and of last season and into the beginning of this fresh campaign. Indeed, such a trend has revealed a grimly concerning degree of continuity. However, as I sit here this Monday evening, reflecting on the weekend’s display and looking forward to Wednesday night’s game against Preston, I genuinely am filled with a strange sense of optimism.
And this optimism isn’t blind, irrational or a merely youth-induced sense of footballing hysteria. Instead, this optimism is based on watching all 270 minutes of City’s Championship football his season, an eventful trio of games that have been saturated with moments of true attacking flair, cohesion and refreshing signs of potential penetration.
Losing James Maddison and Josh Murphy alarmed us all. However, the personnel we have recruited to replace them – Teemu Pukki, Kenny McClean, Jordan Rhodes and to a lesser extent Moritz Leitner – combined with the advent of Onel Hernandez’s brilliance on the flanks really has led to the construction of a side that looks remarkably more potent going forward.
Gone are the days of ponderous lateral passing and a sense of collective confusion about how to get in behind teams. Gone are the days where City showed a relentless lack of urgency on the ball and appeared incapable of making runs into the channels. Instead, Farke has coached his team to now move the ball with a renewed sense of fluency and tempo, finding pockets of space in areas we previously never ventured to in order to create so many more clear-cut chances.
The truth is, had certain individuals in yellow and green been more clinical so far then City would be sat at the top of the table with nine points. Onel Hernandez at 1-1 at Birmingham. Jordan Rhodes’ spurned one-on-one and subsequent penalty at home to West Brom last weekend. Mo Leitner’s one on one, Grant Hanley’s header and Pukki’s follow up at Sheffield United. The opportunities are there. The composure – so far, anyway – isn’t.
Chances aside, however, the displays more generally have been so much more positive. Pukki has been terrific, playing in a deeper role than many anticipated and continually darting around to find space and release teammates higher up the pitch. Hernandez has been a revelation, terrorising all three defences he has come up against with his pace and persistent desire to be direct. Jordan Rhodes’ runs have been excellent, intelligently getting into areas that saw him score 83 goals in 159 second-tier games between 2012 and 2015.
I’m not saying that Norwich City have suddenly become Manchester City. I’m not hyperbolically claiming that Farke is some form of managerial genius. All I’m trying to argue is that an objective, sensible and rational assessment of our three performances so far reveal a significantly improved team going forward that appears capable of scoring more goals than last season.
Is that so unreasonable?
Farke and his coaching team were clearly aware that this was the area that required the most urgent surgery. They deserve credit for doing so. All the reaction on social media has centred around the eight goals conceded in these opening three games, but many seem to neglect the fact that we have managed to score a laudable six – against three good opponents – ourselves. That barely happened at all last season.
The defending may need a bit of work. However, it is worth remembering that the majority of our goals conceded so far have been the product of individual errors – that can be easily eradicated over time – than a collective inability to defend as a group. Our defence improved markedly as last season went on, particularly around the festive period. Under Farke’s leadership, I have every faith that this can happen again.
So please, City fans: don’t write this team off just yet. We are a mere three games into a Championship season, a campaign that will inevitably be characterised by its usual turbulence and unabating sense of drama. I accept that results so far have been disappointing, however, all I’m trying to state is that a rational assessment of our performances reveals a side that has improved significantly as an attacking threat.
So, statistics can lie. And, from a fan who travels home and away and seeks to be as objective as possible when analysing City, I do somehow sense that our position in the league table as we speak may well be one of those occasions.
If this team continue to gel, continue to play with the verve, purpose and dynamism that we have seen in possession so far, and recapture some of the defensive solidity we witnessed for such considerable parts of last season, then things are surely set to improve soon.