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Thursday, November 22, 2012
Maybe it was the trauma of those heavy early season Premier League defeats but the pessimist in me is waiting for any sign of that defensive brittleness to return to the Norwich City ranks.
One could hardly be accused of disloyalty to predict Arsenal and Manchester United would have too much going forward for Chris Hughton’s men. Liverpool and Chelsea were painfully raw memories; the personnel at Hughton’s disposal largely the same.
Yet it isn’t just the clean sheets against two Champions League contenders, or the point at Reading and the home win over Stoke achieved with similar resolution, it is the manner Norwich have performed that is the finest trait.
John Ruddy had to remain vigilant against the Reds. One excellent first half stop from Ashley Young was matched by two more pieces of athleticism in stoppage time, but the inevitably of a Manchester United comeback never materialised at Carrow Road last weekend. Wayne Rooney was absent in Norfolk, but the visiting line-up contained plenty of firepower, plenty of midfield guile and plenty of devilment down the flanks to cause Norwich more problems than United did.
You have to praise the Canaries to the hilt. If this truly was the acid test of their recent revival, it would be hard to deliver a more emphatic response; both in conception and execution it was a testament to Hughton’s planning, preparation and ability to get the most from his men.
Defensive solidity was enhanced by protection not only from Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey, but two wide players in Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington. It is no slight on either to suggest the respective talents of both lie in technique and craft with the ball rather than an inate ability to back-track and become auxiliary defensive shields.
Pilkington shared top billing with Ruddy for the majesty of his match-winning goal, but the unspectacular work stationed ahead of Javier Garrido was equally pivotal to the overall outcome. Steven Whittaker acknowledged as much in his post-match interviews with glowing praise for compatriot Snodgrass on the opposite wing.
Hughton and his coaching team had harnessed the undoubted attacking potential of that duo for the greater good. And that typifies the real essence of Norwich City right now.
The Canaries inevitably will suffer Premier League defeats over the rest of this campaign, but there is little evidence to suggest they may succumb so meekly now as they did at Craven Cottage or Stamford Bridge.
Hughton has been fortunate injury and suspension have yet to significantly disrupt a system and a set of players who must count the hours to each fresh Premier League test, such is the collective confidence this current run will have engendered within a tight-knit squad. Steve Morison, Jonny Howson and the rest of those currently on the fringes will have a part to play over a congested period up until the New Year.
Hughton also has another potential issue to address. The foundations are firmly in place at the back, but the City boss has highlighted the need for a sharper attacking dimension.
Stoke at home was the perfect illustration. A second or third goal on the afternoon would have done much to quell the Potters’ aerial bombardment and release some of that inevitable tension around Carrow Road as balls rained into Ruddy’s penalty area during the final stages.
But Hughton would much rather take that dilemma than the one he faced at the start of the season. How to plug a porous backline that looked incapable of offering his England international sustained protection.
Now City’s coaching brains can plot from a relative position of strength. Norwich have shown over the last month and more they were nowhere near as bad as those hesitant early displays. Thankfully, any lingering scars have long since healed.