Whisper it quietly. Very quietly. Yesterday afternoon at Carrow Road, a half-decent game of football broke out!
Last weekend at Hull, City pulled off a smash-and-grab raid – sat deep, nicked two goals, and won. That game was characterized by how bad City were when they actually had possession – pass after pass went astray. Yet we won. My reaction at the time was, ‘How good could we be if we could actually pass the ball?’
Yesterday we got the first hint of that.
David Wagner made a small switch. Ben Gibson came back into the defence and Kenny McLean was restored to the midfield at the expense of Marcelino Nunez
West Brom began with a reasonably high press, dropping deeper though whenever City began to move forward in numbers. City were content to walk the ball out from the back and the early signs didn’t look promising as McLean ceded possession cheaply twice in quick succession.
West Brom were well prepared for City’s stifling tactics and were making a good effort at getting players between the lines of City players. Thomas-Asante found space but Gibson made a great last-ditch tackle, with the referee waving away the visitor’s penalty appeals.
It took until the 11th minute for the Canaries to move forward with any conviction, a neat move that ended up with a Gabriel Sara shot that was easy for Palmer in the West Brom goal.
Two minutes later though Palmer could do little. McLean burst forward before laying a through ball to Josh Sargent. The American still had a lot to do and although Palmer got a big hand to his shot, it was struck with enough power to find the back of the net.
Those expecting a reaction from the visitors would have been disappointed. The game entered a quiet period where City were content just to play the ball around while West Brom proved unable to make meaningful progress when they had the ball.
After 20 minutes though the game came back to life. First Jon Rowe nicked the ball and set up a quick break, then City moved forward to the penalty area. They never quite got the ball under control and Borja Sainz ended up blasting well wide.
On the half-hour, City produced a slick move from front to back. Slick that is until it came to the final cross from Jack Stacey which was somewhat lacking, and headed clear only for Rowe to get a shot in that Palmer comfortably grasped.
Then City produced a move to gladden the hearts of the home fans. It started with an interplay in the corner between Dimi Giannoulis, Sara and Sainz. The ball progressed down the left before Giannoulis cut inside and played the ball to Rowe. The youngster moved the ball onto his left foot and hit a great shot that Palmer did well to turn round the post.
City remained on the front foot. As halftime approached, Ashley Barnes was fouled about 35 yards out. Sara took the free kick, which dipped onto the roof of the net.
West Brom broke back and thought they had equalized on the stroke of halftime, but Thomas-Asante had handled the ball as he turned and shot past Angus Gunn, and the effort was disallowed.
The Baggies began the second half with more aggressive intent than the first. They pressed higher and pushed their back line higher too. As a result for the opening 10 minutes, City were pegged back in their own half. Jed Wallace was dangerous on the right but some poor finishing meant that the City goal was untroubled.
On the hour, Sargent and Sainz went off to be replaced by Nunez and Christian Fassnacht. Sara was pushed into a more advanced role whilst the Chilean joined McLean as the double pivot in midfield. This made it even more difficult for City to move forward as they no longer had two big targets to aim for as an out ball.
However, they maintained their narrow defensive shape well. This gave West Brom lots of opportunities to swing crosses into the box from range but also played to the strengths of Shane Duffy and Gibson who were more than up to the challenge.
When West Brom did get efforts on target, Gunn was always there and although he had to do a few dives to get his kit muddy, none of the efforts really troubled him.
On 70 minutes though, another classy break from City doubled the lead. Stacey broke forward and played the ball inside to Barnes. He touched it to Nunez who then laid it through to Sara. The Brazilian played it wide and although the Giannoulis cross was slightly behind Rowe, the youngster had a simple chance to tuck the ball into the back of the net.
The second goal killed the game as a contest. City were comfortable in defence, West Brom wasteful in attack. Adam Idah came on for Barnes before Rowe could have added a third – a great step over before beating his man and unleashing a fierce shot that Palmer did very well to beat put.
Then Idah showed that he has added a better physical presence and much-improved hold-up play to his game in recent weeks. Somehow he beat the defender on the left but was just unable to prevent the ball crossing the byline before he could get the centre in.
Towards the end, San McCallum came on for Giannoulis and Onel Hernandez for Rowe. The fullback played a ball up the line to Hernandez that had way too little power on it but somehow the Cuban muscled in and got a cross that Sara put wide.
Even five minutes of added time didn’t allow West Brom to threaten and Gunn was able to claim a richly deserved clean sheet as the final whistle went.
This was the most complete performance by a Wagner side for a long time. The defensive shape was good. When City attacked on the break, if the move broke down they prevented West Brom carving through the middle of the park as has so often been the case.
They were able to move the ball quickly and effectively from front to back, and also made good decisions when to attack in numbers and when to be more conservative.
Could it be that now the injuries have eased, we are finally seeing this team’s potential realised?
It will take more than this one game to convince me of that I’m afraid, but there has undoubtedly been an incremental improvement in performances each game since the Southampton fixture.
Credit where it is due. Well done David Wagner and coaching staff and well done to the players.