City fielded an unchanged side for the return to action after the break. Carrow Road was rocking and City started like a team who had spent two weeks hurting after the defeat at Rotherham.
It started inside a minute, a superb Gabriel Sara ball to Jonathan Rowe on the left, he touched it to Dimi Giannoulis but the attempted return pass didn’t work out.
Then another ball forward. Rowe lost the aerial dual but City picked up the second ball, Ashley Barnes let it run for Sara to unleash a thunderbolt of a shot that fizzed just wide.
Moments later, a ball down the left. Rowe dragged Leris wide allowing Giannoulis to take the inside line. His cutback came to Christian Fassnacht on the opposite corner of the box with his back to goal. He took a touch, turned, and shot but straight at Travers in the Stoke goal.
City were looking razor sharp. The hassled, harried, and hurried the Stoke players all over the pitch forcing a succession of errors, even when they weren’t under direct pressure. Following one such ball, Alex Neil kicked the ball in frustration straight into the City dugout.
City came closest on 13 minutes in what is becoming a signature sweeping move. Sara sprayed a fabulous long pass to Giannoulis. He sidefooted the ball across the six-yard box. If Barnes had had another layer of polish on his boots he would have made contact and surely scored with Travers well beaten.
Rowe was causing all sorts of problems on the City left. He received the ball amongst a quartet of Stoke players, and without hesitation ran through two of them before being fouled. Then a great Fassnacht tackle led to Rowe nicking the second ball, only for Leris to pull him back and earn a yellow card.
After the frenetic opening 20 minutes, Stoke seemed to have weathered the storm and finally began to have a greater share of possession. City kept them at arm’s length until an attack broke down and Stoke broke quickly. As the ball came into the area, Ben Gibson and Wesley tangled, leading to claims for a penalty. It was six of one and half a dozen of the other and referee Langford correctly ignored the claims.
At one point in the first half, Andy Hughes was booked for unknown crimes. He looked singularly unconcerned in the dugout.
On 27 minutes, Adam Idah did really well to hold the ball up under pressure, laying it off to Rowe, who played Giannoulis in, only for his cross to be cleared.
On the half-hour, Shane Duffy put in two tremendous tackles in quick succession to break up Stoke attacks on the edge of the box.
City continued to press. Idah should have done better on 40 minutes, Duffy teed him up and, when he needed to put his laces through the ball, Idah side-footed weakly straight at Travers.
It began to look as if, for all of their pressure and slick moves, City would end the half unrewarded. Giannoulis picked up a yellow – presumably for kicking the ball away as there was nothing in the challenge that he made. Frustration was beginning to appear.
Then Jack Stacey started a move on the right. Fassnacht took over and Stacey cut inside towards the box. The Swiss winger put in a great cross that Rowe got his head to, but his effort was blocked. However, Stacey had gambled and met the ballooning ball first and hit it into the ground and past the diving Travers.
Stoke nearly hit straight back with Campbell hitting a shot just wide.
There were no changes at half-time. It was immediately evident that Stoke were playing with more purpose, Campbell strong on the right to get the ball in, only for Kenny McLean to clear.
As City tried to move out on the left, Idah and Rowe had to be strong to keep the ball tight to the touchline. Then Duffy gave the ball away easily – his only slip in the whole game, Again, McLean tidied up. But it was catching, as Sara then gave away a simple ball just outside the box. Angus Gunn was able to clear the subsequent high-ball into the area.
Stoke began to threaten, Gooch put in a dangerous cross but Giannoulis did well to put Campbell off and he headed wide.
City struck back, a really neat interchange between Idah and Giannoulis and the Irishman rushed his shot, blazing over the bar.
Wagner had seen enough. On 60 minutes, Idah was replaced by loanee Hwang Ui-jo whilst Przemysław Płacheta came on for Giannoulis at left-back.
The Pole quickly showed his worth, scorching past Leris to deliver a cross that Barnes couldn’t get enough on. Then Gibson took a quick free kick, putting Fassnacht through on goal, but he hit the side netting from a really tight angle.
Placheta then got an early cross in, only for Rose to slice his clearance horribly giving City a corner. The set piece was cleared but once again came to Placheta who once again left the full-back trailing to deliver another dangerous ball.
For the final 20 minutes though, City began to drop deeper and deeper, frequently with all ten outfield players behind the ball. While it wasn’t quite ‘backs to the wall’, it did make it very difficult for City to to break the shackles and put Stoke under any pressure.
Rowe was replaced by Onel Hernandez, in response, Alex Neil replaced the tiring Leris with Tchamedeu. Stoke piled the pressure on – Duffy was outstanding in defence. Gibson made fewer last-ditch tackles but was equally effective in a backline that prevented Gunn from making a single serious save all game.
With 15 minutes to go, Hwang won the ball in the air, laying it to Hernandez on the left. His cross was blocked, then bounced off him for a goal kick.
The Nottingham Forest loanee looked adept in the air and added an energy and purpose to the press at the front. Other than that, because City were defending so deep, he had little opportunity to impress.
City threatened late in the game, but in the end, were able to see the game out without too many dramas.
So we had almost the opposite of the Rotherham game – a good first half, less good in the second. Clearly, Neil had reacted to the first half and adapted his shape. City didn’t seem to have the nous to respond and allowed themselves to get too deep in response.
It wasn’t a bad performance. There was great defensive resilience shown. Mclean and Duffy shone in the second half. Sara was superb in the first.
Up front though, City were less effective. Somehow, Barnes and Josh Sargent were able to strike up a partnership that was greater than the sum of its parts. Idah and Barnes just don’t have that chemistry and the threat that City pose is much reduced as a result.
Idah will, no doubt, wear the scapegoat T-shirt in the eyes of many, but what David Wagner must do is tweak the game plan to better suit the Irishman’s game. Josh Sargent he ain’t.
But it’s another three points, arguably when not at their best. Can’t complain at that.