The majority of the 27,000 packed into Carrow Road had muted the noise. With the stunning display flags in the Barclay and optimism, one would be forgiven for thinking last season hadn’t ended because essentially, it hadn’t.
With no new faces in the starting XI but maybe a couple missing from the reunion, nothing seemed any different. But in the end, it felt like the continuation of our last home game against Blackburn Rovers.
But against Liverpool, there was one major difference. Whilst the following readied themselves with waggling fingers, all they were met with was Daniel Farke’s applause and gratitude, expressing disappointment at not getting a result at Anfield, meanwhile acknowledging the efforts of his troops in the second half.
And whilst most were happy with damage limitation and proud of their team’s second-half display, Farke’s special wave was put on hold – he wanted more and in his eyes didn’t deserve to celebrate. By exhausting it, the meaning weakens – the meaning of “we’re doing something special together”.
So he went home, bullet-pointed and when it was time, set this team on an extra week of pre-season.
Like Leeds at home (who at the time looked like the ones to beat), Liverpool provided Farke with a base to work from because nothing compares to the real thing. Except this time it was against the European Champions, who fought the Premier League champions to the end.
His action plan is based on Liverpool and it’s not just a plan to defend. And if Leeds (h) was any indication of Farke’s homework skills, we’d be in for a treat.
And so, what followed eight days later was the result.
Yes, it was ‘just’ Newcastle. We might never see the full result of Farke’s homework just yet. But for a team entering their third consecutive year in the Premier League (their ninth season in the top tier since their promotion in 2009-10) and a team who spent £44 million on a striker alone, we’re talking about a pretty established Premier League side, who have finished 10th and 13th in the past two seasons.
Last season we became accustomed, perhaps spoilt when injuries didn’t shatter hopes and dreams but instead saw players step up. So, Saturday’s standout performers really shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Having looked like the centrepiece to control City’s midfield last season, Leitner was dealt an unfortunate card, with two injuries ruling him out for the bulk of City’s influx of fixtures around the festive period.
By the time of his return, Tom Trybull had cemented his place and Mario Vrancic threw four goals and three assists in eight games into the mix, with Kenny McLean adding a brace against Bristol City when called upon.
Since his return against Bolton in February, Leitner played just 153 minutes (one full 90), but from his first touch against Liverpool and Newcastle, he took control, proving he hadn’t peaked early and was very much made for the top level. He was the distributor, the conductor and continued the flow of City’s play. Even cornered into his own half, he shielded the ball until he could pick the correct pass for the team.
Leitner also brings another aspect – he goes around his business quietly but efficiently. He doesn’t possess the same wow-factor as Emi Buendia and Teemu Pukki, which can be replayed on repeat by pundits.
He doesn’t score often (even when he might be in the position to shoot), he is unlikely to rally up the assists, but he keeps things ticking, setting the tempo and helping to find teammates in space to encourage City’s attack. Everything needs to go through him.
In defence, we all knew of Godfrey’s capabilities but maybe naively dismissed his role without Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmermann alongside him. At 21 years old and having played across all four divisions of English football, his performance against Newcastle spoke volumes for his maturity.
With neither absentee fit to return, an improved performance from Grant Hanley against his former employees was crucial, but the standout came from the York City youth player.
He was onto everything, looking as experienced as some of the Premier League residents – with Joelinton keen to add pace on the break, Godfrey matched and beat his opponent on every occasion.
Even with Hanley going after the £44 million striker, Godfrey added extra bulk and pace to leave Newcastle with no option, making eight clearances throughout the game.
Importantly, with Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis no strangers to the attacking third, Trybull continues to be a defensive midfielder turned centre-back during attacks, ensuring City are not short on numbers. Making seven tackles, two interceptions and four aerial duels, we’re looking at a side who are not wholly reliable on the work of their centre-backs – alongside Leitner, the 4-2-3-1 formation is looking to be coming into its own again.
Now for the unexpected guest. Already proving his one season in the Championship was far from a fluke by making a Premier League hat-trick look like nothing, there will be few occasions when a striker in this division will run the length of the pitch to carry out his defensive duties.
After a small lapse in judgement that saw Newcastle pounce on the loose ball, Joelinton was unleashed by a long ball. A tangle of feet for Hanley saw the £44 million player continue towards Krul and despite a quick recovery from the Scotsman and Godfrey ready to cover, any chances of a shot was botched when Pukki’s toe-poke saw the ball flick off Hanley, landing perfectly for the Finn to take back possession.
Much has been said about Cantwell since coming back from summer and with Onel Hernandez’s injury and Emi Buendia continuing to link-up on the right wing with Aarons, for someone attending their first game of the season, curiosity crept in as to whether the noises surrounding the Norfolk boy was correct, and whether the left-wing occupied the same quality.
Cantwell looked to be in his element, linking up with Pukki but perhaps the true beauty of his performance was the free-roaming he was given.
As with Leitner, he dominated the midfield but in the attacking sense, making himself noticeable. Shifting across midfield, he was constantly joining in on the action, while moving forward to support Pukki in a joint striker role several times. He got into positions, providing opportunities, making five key passes in the process.
He didn’t happen to be in those positions to assist, he made sure of it. He had a determination to surge forward, refusing to be knocked off the ball – just watch Pukki’s second.
And while you’re at it, watch his third – Cantwell’s movement sums up his determination. He was miles ahead of everyone when he set off on a run after Marco Stiepermann received the ball – the German hadn’t even decided where he would be sending it. Yet Cantwell was off with lightning pace and when he was drifted inside, and he didn’t hang onto the ball and take his chance, he hopped over it for Pukki to secure all three points.
And finally, Stierpermann. Is it time for Patrick Roberts?
It is fair to say the German still does not look like your typical number 10 but Farke thinks it works. Because it does work. After all, he grabbed nine goals and eight assists last season in the Championship, while providing that delicious through-ball for City’s third.
Take out Stiepermann (6ft 3in), Saturday’s starting squad had three players over six foot (Krul, Hanley, Godfrey) – whilst Pukki and Trybull stand at 5ft 11in. With a midfield of Buendia (5ft 7in), Leitner (5ft 8in), Cantwell (5ft 9in) (n.b. Roberts is 5ft 6in), height and added physicality is very much welcomed. We also cannot expect Pukki to win aerial duels if he is to be available for when the ball drops.
Of course, the likes of Buendia against a 6ft 4in defender can also have its advantages but sometimes giving Stiepermann the job of managing defenders allows Buendia to worm his way through the brick wall.
With Zimmermann and Klose also unavailable, he becomes increasingly more important for his defensive duties, making three clearances and winning two aerial duels against Newcastle.
And while we probably didn’t see enough of him against Liverpool, Stiepermann will be more important than ever when it comes to the Premier League where we’ll be needing to win the ball higher up the field in order to play our way. And will be unafraid to try a shot, however debatable they turn out to be once they’ve left his foot.
Newcastle and Liverpool are obviously very different teams but hints at what Farke put into place after the latter has already started to appear and will continue – Chelsea tomorrow and Manchester City in the coming weeks will present the German with the opportunity to play their way again, refuse to bow down, learn vital lessons and try for points.
Individual performances were heightened, there was a sense of flow and understanding throughout the side and proof that Farke will play Norwich’s way with Pukki living up to his translated name – despite what the critics may have predicted.
Norwich may have been handed the hardest of starts but it’s certainly looking like a blessing in disguise for Farke to get ahead of the game, with Newcastle hinting at the standard he expects of his troops.
Whether it was our ‘Leeds’ is unknown but everything on Saturday said it could be.