That player is Ben Gibson.
I was delighted when, in September 2020, it was revealed City were going to sign him on loan after he’d endured a tumultuous time at Burnley where, after impressing for Boro, he was the Clarets’ record signing.
I also couldn’t have agreed more with the then-head coach, Daniel Farke’s statement:
“He’s an experienced player who is at a perfect age. He’s homegrown with lots of experience on this stage. He was also the captain of Middlesbrough and has shown that he is a great leader and character.” After a poor defensive Premier League campaign, an experienced 27-year-old with a point to prove, experience of promotion and leadership credentials seemed like the perfect signing for Norwich to hit the Championship running.”
And so it proved. For the 27 games in which Gibson played 90 minutes for City that first season, he was involved in just three defeats and formed an impressive partnership with Grant Hanley.
His natural left foot and passing ability helped evolve Norwich’s playing style under Farke. With a more natural balance by having a right and left-footed centre-back partnership, Gibson was the one tasked with taking the ball forward and playing through the lines. He was able to release the mercurial talent of Emi Buendia in advanced areas of the pitch to help Norwich bypass low-block defences and avoid the need for the attacking players to come deep for the ball.
His assist away at Bristol City, where he advanced and played a lofted through ball before Buendia’s sublime touch and finish, had not been seen before in the Farke system, with Ben Godfrey or Christoph Zimmermann both naturally favouring their right foot and so narrowing the potential passing routes.
Another good example was Gibson’s role in helping Norwich expand the pitch near their own corner flag in the 4-1 trouncing of Stoke, which was a prime Farkeball passage of play.
in a nutshell, the former Middlesbrough captain helped open up the pitch from the back, giving City the opportunity to be more expansive and balanced in their approach play.
Defensively, he was praised too for the timing of his challenges, his no-nonsense attitude when required and his clear understanding of what it took to deliver in the Championship.
An ankle injury curtailed that first campaign for him but both supporters and those inside Carrow Road had no doubts or complaints when City paid the £8 million to make the move permanent after promotion back to the Premier League.
But in the top division, Gibson and Norwich struggled to adapt to the pace and power of better, high-pressing opposition. After a few high-profile errors, including a big one away at Manchester United when he gifted a goal to Cristiano Ronaldo, Dean Smith opted to play a right-back, Sam Byram, at centre-back as City were again relegated with another whimper.
The clearest decline of both Norwich and Gibson is a remarkable inconsistency back in the Championship.
In his first game of the season, at home to Wigan, Gibson was again at fault for the goal which gave the newly-promoted side the lead at Carrow Road. The response from Smith was clear, with our £8 million purchase being benched for the next 11 games, with Andrew Omobamidele and Hanley favoured.
Since being back in the team due to Omobamidele’s injury, Gibson personified the lack of confidence and a clear playing style in possession under Smith.
In the 2020-21 campaign, Gibson would stride out with the ball at his feet or ping it into players in advanced positions, but now he looks a player unsure of where to play a pass, often going sideways to Hanley or back to Angus Gunn. where it invariably gets punted aimlessly forward.
From looking so confident and assured to struggling in the Premier League, to now looking like a shell of his former self, Gibson epitomises the downturn in Norwich’s form and identity.
For me, this is one of the clearest examples within the club of why a change was needed – in order to refresh the mindset of a group of players who should be performing better than a team who is closer, points-wise, to the bottom three than the top two.
Ben himself will know his performances haven’t been good enough but part of this is down to him being unclear of the picture in front of him and the stark lack of fluidity in the team.
In the defeat at Luton, we saw a flash of his former self with that wonderful assist for Teemu Pukki but we also saw an all too familiar passage of play when he picked the ball up slightly into the Luton half, and hit it straight out of play via an aimless through ball.
With a change of personnel in the dugout, I hope Gibson, and the club in general, can reverse the current trajectories and they can both remind us of how good they can be at Championship level.