One of the big criticisms of David Wagner has been his inability to set this team up to beat, or even compete with, those above us and who are in the hunt for promotion.
Not so yesterday.
West Brom fall into the ‘good side’ category and yet were beaten in what must surely be City’s best performance of the season. One could even argue it was the best performance of Wagner’s Carrow Road tenure.
It wasn’t perfect and, in fairness, we never demand complete perfection, – we’re Norwich City – but so many of the ills of so many Wagner performances were addressed yesterday afternoon that what transpired was, dare I say it, thoroughly enjoyable.
That’s not to say, as has been suggested, that all of the criticisms of Wagner in the last year are null and void – the concerns were real and based on the football we have been watching – but it does mean that Wagner got it right yesterday.
And it was also an indication that when Wagner gets it right and the players deliver, then this group has it in them to produce performances that combine solid and tenacious defending with some progressive and incisive attacking play.
That’s what we got yesterday, and it was far removed from most of the stodge we have witnessed this season. It was even far removed from the performance level at Hull eight days ago, which yielded three valuable points but not much else in terms of quality.
The club’s mitigation for the fairly bleak autumn had been based around the injuries to key players, particularly Josh Sargent, and while many of us questioned it and perceived it as part and parcel of football, the return of the American, even in a half-fit state, has coincided with this current good tun.
How many of us predicted we would still be unbeaten in 2024 after a run of games that included Southampton (h), Hull (a) and West Brom (h)?
What it does mean though is that what could have been a daunting week – Leeds (a) followed by Liverpool (a) – can be tackled with some confidence and belief in the bank, and we all know from recent experience how this group suffers when confidence levels are low.
They should now head to Leeds believing they can get something from the game (we’ll worry about Liverpool nearer the time).
But what went right yesterday that hasn’t gone right before? What’s changed?
Well, it certainly helps that Wagner has almost all of his key players fit and was yesterday able to field what is probably his strongest starting XI, with the exception of Grant Hanley. It also helped massively that yesterday the head coach struck the right balance between soaking up pressure and being proactive going forward.
City were still unable to dominate possession, and I’m not sure Wagner even believes this team’s forte is looking after the ball for long spells, but what they were able to do yesterday was to productively use the 40 percent of possession they did have.
For far too long the passing has been laboured and it’s taken an age to pass the ball accurately through the thirds, but yesterday everything happened a couple of beats quicker and they are such a better side for it.
Again, it’s a confidence thing. When it’s high the passing flows because that extra touch is not required, and things happen instinctively rather than formulaically. That’s when you get moments like those five minutes midway through the first half when we were given a glimpse of what is possible.
And the goals. Both were of an ilk that would have had us all drooling all over again if they had been under the guise of Farkeball.
The first one was all about the timing. The timing of Kenny McLean’s wonderful through ball into the stride of Josh Sargent, and then the timing of the American’s run to stay onside. The finish too was of a striker who had no doubt in his mind that he was going to score.
And the second was the type of flowing team move for which we have craved all season, and which feels more likely to happen when Gabriel Sara is higher up the pitch and is permitted to influence things in the final third.
For Jonny Rowe, it was little more than a tap-in – the easy part – but to be on the end of those you have to have arrived in the right place at the right time. And he did.
We saw signs yesterday of the Rowe of the early weeks of the season but even when his overall form has dipped, as it has done a bit recently, he has still retained that priceless ability to chip in with goals from midfield. And it’s that, even more than his ability to run with the ball, that makes him such hot property.
So, a good day. A very good one, and one that presents those in power with a quandary.
What yesterday told us, even us doubters, is that there is a core of a decent team there – one that contains Gunn, Sara, Rowe, and Sargent – and that for all its failings across the season, there is enough there, if coached and set up correctly, to get in and among the playoff contenders.
But we approach a three-way fork in the road and the board has choices to make:
1) Choose to sell one or more of the assets and those playoff chances probably go up in smoke.
2) Make a couple of astute additions, and those playoff chances are enhanced.
3) Sit on your hands and it’s probably 50/50 at best in terms of making it into the top six.
Over to you Delia, Michael, Mark, and Ben.