Mario Vrancic has returned to the starting line-up against Sheffield United, so could he be the key missing link to help the Canaries pick up key points for the rest of the season?
Vrancic joined City from SV Darmstadt in June 2017, after impressing in the Bundesliga. The Bosnian international struggled in his first season in the team, with the physicality of the league visibly getting the better of the former Borussia Dortmund youngster.
He did show, however, that when given time on the ball that he had the ability to find a pass and showed City fans early on his clear set piece ability, with a wonderful free kick and a penalty in a 3-1 win over Brentford in the third round of the Carabao Cup.
After his first season, with Daniel Farke’s team struggling in general and finishing a disappointing 14th, Vrancic had played 35 games with just the one goal, in a 3-2 home win against Reading, and two assists. With James Maddison starring in the number 10 role that season, Vrancic struggled to get the time and space he wanted on the ball to affect games.
At the start of last season, Vrancic’s Norwich career threatened to become an underwhelming stint. He didn’t feature in the first six Championship fixtures, with Alex Tettey, Tom Trybull, Moritz Leitner and Louis Thompson all tried in the two midfield positions behind the front four, as the Canaries made a poor start to the season.
For the next eight games Vrancic came on from the bench, scoring the winning goals against Reading, with a cultured left footed finish into the far corner and a penalty (the only one Norwich scored all season) in a gritty 1-0 win over, at the time, high-flying Wigan.
Super Mario then started and played his first 90-minutes of the season in the number 10 role, getting an assist in the 4-0 demolition away at Sheffield Wednesday. It wasn’t until the home game against Rotherham United at home that the 30-year-old had a consistent run of game time, thanks mainly in part to the absence of Leitner, who up to that point had been pulling the strings in the midfield as momentum began to build.
Vrancic started 11 of the next 12 games in the midfield two as City lost just one game in that time, that hectic home game against Derby County.
In that 11-game period, Vrancic showed how he had acclimatised to England’s second-tier by winning duals in the air and on the ground, as well as scoring five times and assisting three. With these goals he showed his long-range shooting ability against Bolton, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham, giving City an alternative option to trying to play intricate passes 25+ yards away from the opposition goal.
The former Paderborn midfielder really came to the fore in what was dubbed the battle of the top two, scoring the first – a wonderful free-kick flighted over the wall and past former Real Madrid goalkeeper Kiko Casilla – and the match clincher through the Spaniard’s legs.
It was a win that many City players have since come out and said was the result where they believed promotion was a possibility.
Vrancic then shone and displayed his growth from his first season’s performances in the Old Farm Derby against Ipswich Town, with an assist inside 82 seconds for Onel Hernandez’s goal, getting to the ball before Cole Skuse and Luke Chambers before getting clattered by Trevoh Chalobah. The Bosnian did later get injured in that match, injuring his ankle when clearing the ball from an Ipswich corner.
The midfielder’s injury was a big miss in the following game, which ended in City’s last defeat of the season, away to Alex Neil’s Preston North End. Vrancic then didn’t start a game for City as Kenny McLean and Tom Trybull built a partnership at the heart of the midfield.
Again, despite not featuring for long periods, Vrancic played a vital role in results with a wonderful free-kick with the last kick of the game at home to Sheffield Wednesday and then a wonderful lofted ball to Teemu Pukki in the following game away at Stoke.
He followed this up with an assist for Marco Stieperman and then a wonderful goal at home to Blackburn in the game that clinched promotion to the Premier League.
In the last game of the season, Mario scored Norwich’s final goal of the season and another game-winner away at Aston Villa, which gave City the Championship title and to end his stats with an impressive ten goals and nine assists in 36 games (14 starts).
The 30-year-old midfielder, who signed a new contract in the summer, barely featured in pre-season and made just two brief appearances during the early stages of the Premier League season, before a calf injury thwarted his progress after the shock League Cup loss at Crawley in late August.
For his first start of the season, at home to Sheffield United, Vrancic showed the City faithful how much of a big player he could be, spraying the ball around effortlessly and having a well-timed effort saved by Dean Henderson.
The midfielder showed last season he doesn’t need much time to affect a game, with his deadly set-piece deliveries or efforts coming up trumps on many an occasion. As said previously in the piece, he also adds something different to the team with a fearlessness to shoot from range, with a high percentage of these strikes forcing the keeper into a save.
While he didn’t start at Leicester for tactical reasons, I hope to see plenty more of Super Mario in the games over Christmas and I believe he offers a different dynamic to our current crop of midfielders which will, in turn, help City to pick up some much-needed points in this hectic schedule.