I trust we all woke up this morning feeling fine…
Emi will generate the headlines. Of course he will. And why shouldn’t he. It was a brilliant goal.
But at the heart of City’s fine win over the best the Championship has to throw at us was a quartet whose influence on all that happens around them grows with every passing game.
When discussing the personnel in the team there to protect Tim Krul, it’s now wrong to cite just Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson, as the magnificent pairing in from of them have turned what was traditionally a two-man job into one done by four.
Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean have turned the ugly side of the game – the blocking, the pressing, the getting-a-toe-in, the ‘ratting’ – into an art form all of its own and, in doing so, have turned this Norwich City into something almost unrecognisable.
We don’t tend to do impregnable here; at least we haven’t for a long time.
Even in the good years – and there have been several – the Achilles heel has invariably tended to be a susceptibility to defensive brittleness. Sometimes it was individual cock-ups, other times structural and/or tactical issues have been the cause, but more often than not it’s been a combination of the two.
Two years ago, our blaze of glory was accompanied by all of the above and we relied upon, and were very good at, outscoring opponents.
You score three against us? No worries, we’ll set Pukki and Rhodes on you and score four. It was crash, bang, wallop football at its best but it didn’t offer the same solid base from which the late Sheffield United benefitted in their first season back in the PL.
Now it’s Norwich City of the solid base.
Sky, understandably to be fair, talked up the threat of Ivan Toney last night but the ex-Peterborough man was to endure what must surely have been his most frustrating 94 minutes of the season, as the gang of four combined to deny him space, time and barely even a glimpse of Krul.
The closest Toney got to Tim all night was the post-match fist bump.
In fact, after half-time, that was the closest any Brentfordian got to Norfolk’s most loved Dutchman, aside from a few uncharacteristic and fruitless Hail Marys in the dying minutes.
But let’s go back to the beginning and those early skirmishes when Teemu Pukku lost out in his opening round with David Raya and then Sergi Canos – once of this parish – choked when given the chance to make City pay for those six-and-a-half months of hurt.
That was on 11 minutes. It was to be the visitors’ only clear sight of goal. In the Sky studio, the voice of Brentford, Sam Saunders, was girding his loins for a night of Bryan Mbuemo magic after the Frenchman had shown Dmitris Giannoulis a clean pair in the lead-up to the Canos chance.
Mbuemo was never seen again. Along with Toney, he is still reported as missing.
When Emi’s goal arrived, it did so off the back of a spell of Brentford possession but never did that possession turn into pressure, so composed and organised were the gang-of-four ably supported by Max Aarons and Giannoulis.
The irony of Canos being the one to initially give the ball away and then being one of Buendia’s victims of the dropped shoulder was not lost on Don Goodman, but there was still plenty to do having worked himself the opening. The finish on his wrong foot was as unerring as it was predictable.
Special players do special things at crucial moments.
If Pukki had been able to beat Raya in round two on the stroke of half-time, after the most exquisite of through-balls from you-know-who, then it would have been game over there and then.
But, instead, from thereon in, it was a case of that phrase I’ve grown to loathe: game management. (I guess there’s no there is no other way of describing it.)
Yet, as loathsome as it is, City are now very good at it. Keeping the Bees ‘at arms’ length’ was how Goodman described City’s second-half efforts and he was right. Still looking for a second goal but without over-committing; no gaps down the sides of our centre-backs; no gaps in front of said centre-backs; both full-backs always supporting and supported; no panic; no drama.
As 1-0 wins go, it was as convincing as they come, and against the side deemed the best of the rest.
Thomas Frank made the mistake a couple of weeks ago of describing the Championship as having no outstanding teams. He backtracked from that slightly last night, alluding to City being now able to prepare for the Premier League, but, mind games or not, said so knowing full well that on the night his players were bossed on the pitch and he was bossed in the technical area.
To be ten points clear of second and, crucially, third with 12 to play is the stuff of dreams. And talking of which… I’d imagine The Mayor had one last night involving a case of orange MD 20/20s.
Go on Kenny, Get your order in. The finishing line is in sight, lad.