‘It’s more difficult to stay on top, than to get there in the first place’ were the wise words of former USA Women’s player Mia Hamm, and her insight is proving more than pertinent upon inspection of Norwich City this season.
Hamm scored a staggering 158 goals for her country between 1987 and 2004, lighting up the Olympic Games of Atlanta, Sydney and Athens to prolifically and indelibly write her name into women’s football folklore.
And what City would do for her clinical exploits right now. Hamm’s insight into the ascent to greatness but the difficulties in sustaining that couldn’t resonate more with Daniel Farke and his players right now, a team with long-established defensive frailties but now one with a conspicuous lack of ideas or innovation going forward.
And that is why I’m starting to worry. Last season during that memorable promotion campaign, our inability to keep teams out – we conceded 57 goals, the eighth-most in the division – was more than made up for by our brilliance in possession, carving defences open with that distinctive passing rhythm that we all knew so fondly as ‘FarkeBall’.
And, while our defensive shortcomings this season have represented a regrettable continuation from last term, it’s going forward where there has – surprisingly, in my opinion – been change.
In short, I worry we’ve been found out. Of course, the chemistry and fluidity with which Marco Stiepermann, Onel Hernandez, Emi Buendia and Teemu Pukki interacted last season was more than enough to topple most Championship sides, but in this ruthlessly unforgiving Premier League it appears we are – put bluntly – simply too predictable and easy to play against.
Pass, pass, pass, lose the ball and a defensively incompetent backline exposed appears to be the order of the day at the moment, a trend seen now at Turf Moor, Selhust Park, at home to Aston Villa and most recently at the Amex on the south coast.
It’s becoming tiresome. Something needs to change.
And what the solution is I – and probably the vast majority of City’s loyal fanbase – do not know. I, like many, genuinely believed Farke’s idiosyncratic philosophy would continue to take many top-flight sides by surprise this season, simply being too quick, too slick for many defences to handle.
How wrong I was.
Most of all, we’re far too narrow. I wasn’t at Brighton, but by all accounts, there appears to be a collective reluctance among the full-backs to get forward, while that front four are just too reliant on Hernandez in providing any width. Given the hectic previous week he’d had and his admirable rush down to the seaside, that was always likely to be an ineffective policy.
Most worryingly, however, Pukki is being starved of possession and chances. It remains my long-held belief that he really is one of the most clinical forwards in the land and that if he gets chances he will invariably take them. However, at the moment, there really is an acute paucity of service.
This isn’t, of course, to brush over the defensive problems – obviously exacerbated by the presence of only one fit centre-back – but merely a realisation that the magical football that got us out of jail on many occasions last year has vanished.
It’s sad to see.
But, you know what, I still have faith. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since his appointment – referenced succinctly in Stewart Lewis’ cogent column – it’s that Farke and his team do have the ability to adapt, finding nuanced and unexpected solutions to problems that appear to us all as too well-ingrained to eradicate.
The start of last season was hardly a resounding success. Instead, the softly-spoken German took stock, acknowledged what was wrong, accepted he needed to be flexible and then made the according changes that prompted that remarkable rise.
With Stuart Webber by his side, I have every faith he can do it again.
And, while to many that faith may look blind and naive, I don’t think it is. Farke is a footballing guru, clearly a deep thinker about a game he mastered so memorably in the second tier. He is only a mere 11 games into his Premier League odyssey, and – just like the Championship – it was always going to take him time to find his feet.
So, with Friday night looming in what has already been sold in some circles as a season-defining clash, I believe we can refind our mojo and sparkle under the Carrow Road lights. While there have been early-season issues going forward, it is far too early to write this set of players off.
To apply the words of Hamm, Farke was the one who got us here. In my mind, he still has what it takes to keep us on top.