Martin P and I have been trying for some time to get one of our regular commenters – Chris Payne – to pen us a guest blog. His comments, whether you agree with them or not, are always insightful and eloquent, and we think he’s a blog waiting to happen. We’re just yet to convince him to take the plunge.
But a couple of paragraphs of his comment on Martin’s recent ‘The kids are united…’ piece really struck a chord – particularly for those of us who last season were unable to decide if we were witnessing the start of something great or the beginning of the end.
The latter, of course, seems just a little bit ridiculous now but roll the clock back just nine months and, while it was clear there was a plan and some good intentions, none of us knew for sure which way the plan was going to lead us.
As Chris put it…
‘With Elton John banging away on his Joanna in the name of John Lewis Christmas campaign and the shops full of Santas, it seems surreal to be talking about top of the table City. Had we peaked in October and slipped quietly away by now the world would once again make some sense and order would be restored.
‘It defies all logic and conventional wisdom, let alone my own understanding of the game to see us up there where in my opinion we belong, breathing in the rarified air. A club simply cannot sell its guts out, bring in an untried coach from abroad, spend a tiny fraction of the incoming funds on replacements and expect to trouble the top half, let alone the top.
‘Trouble is, as unexpected a bonus as this is, I rather like being at the top of the league and the stress and fractious nerves jangling every time we look like relinquishing the spot are giving me familiar feelings of foreboding on match days. This can’t continue, can it? Whether it does or doesn’t, it sure beats the hell out of last season.’
All of which is tough to contest. Logic does indeed suggest that to have to cut your cloth so drastically and dramatically is no way to lay the foundations for a promotion charge – yet here we are!
It’s the same twisted logic that sees you strip your squad of your two brightest young things, who also happen to be the source of most of your goals, sell them for around a total of £25 million, spend a small sliver of it, and yet perform, as a unit, infinitely better than you did with both individuals in situ.
Never has the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ adage been more appropriate. With Josh and James Maddison here we were more ‘valuable’ but there’s no debate over whether the team was better then or now.
Stuart Webber has (again) recently acknowledged the sheer quality of James Maddison and dismissed suggestions that we are technically better off without such an outstanding talent, but it is interesting to consider how the football now differs from last season.
While the most obvious change since the summer is the tempo of the build-up, starting from Tim Krul and also when Timm shifts it to Zimm (and vice-versa) etc, there is also the smaller matter of no longer having an individual whose natural inclination is to take the ball off the back four and then bob, weave and mesmerise.
He could do it brilliantly and, such was his supreme self-bel1ief, he believed his way was the best way to unlock those stubborn Championship defences. A return of 15 goals says much of the time he was right.
There is a but though, because the pass to Maddison, to permit him to do his bobbing and weaving, was the team’s go-to – sometimes sub-consciously. Why wouldn’t it be, when you had such an obvious match-winner in your ranks? And, to be fair, in Wes – when he was selected – we had another whose natural inclination was not to take one or two touches and then shift it.
Wes, like Maddison, is, in modern parlance, a ‘baller’ whose natural tendency is to dribble; to take a touch, then a second, then a third, always with a view to putting an opponent on his backside. All of which is brilliant, and we’ve loved every single dropped shoulder, but these flicks and tricks don’t ordinarily fit into what Messrs Webber and Farke have deemed the new Norwich way.
Good players are good players, of course, and it’s ridiculous to consider ourselves better off without a Wes – especially one in his pomp – and a James Maddison, but there is an argument that says neither was a perfect fit for Farkeball; particularly the brand that has taken us to the top of the Championship.
Ironically, both of them were not only supremely talented individuals but also team players who were more than comfortable with fitting into a team pattern and putting a shift in – that was never in doubt. Yet the football this season has been so much more fluid.
There are many other factors, of course, not least the total buy-in from those being asked to implement Farkeball – all of which has been helped by Team Farke themselves tweaking their philosophy to adapt to the vagaries of Championship football. And then there’s the coaching and management of the team.
Webber has gone Dave Brailsford on us of late and has spoken of the marginal gains – and clearly, these are having a collective, positive impact – but it’s on the fields of Colney and in the technical area where the biggest gains have manifested themselves.
The quality coaching, not to mention the equally measured man-management, is turning ordinary players into good ones, good ones into even better ones and has galvanised them into a cohesive unit. And the old Radio Norfolk classic, ‘What the hell are they doing in training, Neil?’ is no more.
What we’re seeing now is precisely the impact of what is happening in said training, and now the hard work being undertaken there is obvious to us all.
The impact of those deeper pockets enjoyed by at least half of the division have, for now, been nullified and if, still a big if, we can see this through then it really will be a triumph of forward-thinking and innovation over fat wallets and big names.
And, either way, Chris is right. This sure does beat the hell out of last season. But one game at a time, eh?
Now, bring on the Bolton.