Ben Gibson is the pillar of stability Norwich City have been crying out for – and may well prove to be the final piece in Daniel Farke’s Championship jigsaw.
It’s been a busy summer of ins and outs at City but of all our recent arrivals, none make me more excited than loan signing Gibson.
For years, we’ve yearned for defensive solidity and a proven Championship performer at the back. For years, we’ve watched the likes of Timm Klose, Ben Godfrey and Christoph Zimmermann show signs of consistency but so often switch off when it matters. For years, we’ve been unable to keep teams out.
It’s well-documented that even throughout that thrilling promotion season of 2018-19, we conceded the fourth most goals of any club in the top ten. Our ability to outscore teams became a necessity for sustaining an assault on the title and, if it wasn’t for Teemu Pukki’s brilliance, the reality is we would have never scaled those Premier League heights.
But this season looks different. Yes, it’s only one player and yes, Gibson hasn’t played much football over the past two years – but that’s not the point.
Gibson is 27, the age many professionals consider their prime. He racked up 200 appearances for Middlesbrough, played a crucial role in helping them reach the 2015 play-off final – who did they lose to again? – and was then the rock at the back as they reached the big time the following year.
He enjoyed a personally successful 2016-17 in the Premier League, where putting the ball in the net, and not keeping it out, proved Boro’s undoing. Aitor Karanka’s side conceded just 53 goals in their 38 top-flight matches and while they finished 19th, ten teams had inferior defensive records.
So Gibson knows how to defend. Of that there’s no question, and you don’t simply lose that ability, that awareness, that knowledge of the game after two seasons away from the first-team fold. Granted, Gibson’s move to Burnley hasn’t worked out but his appetite to get back playing football is unequivocal.
Gibson struck all the right notes in his exclusive interview with the PinkUn this week. “Football is everything to me,” he told Connor Southwell.
He added that he ‘takes football home with him’, it’s ’24/7 on his mind’, he ’cares deeply’ and ‘wears his heart on his sleeve’.
Good. Because that’s exactly the sort of grit, tenacity and steely resilience City will require to get out of this division. That mentality, coupled with what Gibson has proven to offer on the pitch, is a recipe for Championship success.
The reality is Pukki won’t hit 29 goals again. Emi Buendia – if he stays – may not hit the heights he soared to in 2019, and Marco Stiepermann – such a vital cog in that well-oiled Farke machine – looks to have an uncertain future. In short, we’re unlikely to score as many goals this term.
So that only heightens the significance of Gibson’s arrival. For all Godfrey’s, Zimmermann’s, Klose’s and Grant Hanley’s talents we all know they can’t be wholeheartedly trusted at the back, all liable to a making a fatal mistake that could easily prove City’s undoing. Regrettably, we saw that time and again last season – particularly from set pieces.
And that was merely an extension of what played out the campaign before, when we conceded four goals against West Bromwich Albion and Derby County at home and three against Millwall, Nottingham Forest and Leeds, to name a few.
Gibson will change that. Farke may still be in the process of configuring his favoured centre-back pairing but it appears increasingly likely that Gibson will feature at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday.
If he plays, who with? Gibson and Godfrey would be my desired partnership as it stands, given Zimmermann’s shaky performances in Germany and the England Under-21 international’s promising week – he scored in their 2-1 win against Austria on Tuesday night – in a Three Lions shirt. Whether Farke agrees remains to be seen.
It’s now all roads lead to Huddersfield and the countdown to the season is reaching fever pitch. I, for one, have an unwavering belief City will be firmly in the automatic promotion mix this season, having recruited in the right areas – Oliver Skipp, Xavi Quintilla, Przemysław Płacheta and Jordan Hugill to name four – while retaining the bulk of our young talent.
But it’s Gibson who gives me the most confidence. Gibson who could be the man to transform our abstract promotion dreams into a tangible reality. Gibson the signing who, I have a feeling, can be the final piece of the jigsaw and haul City back into the Premier League.