Zak Whitbread is Norwich City’s key man at the back
Zak Whitbread is rapidly emerging as a key component of Paul Lambert's Premier League masterplan.
Norwich City's upward curve has been constructed on a bewildering degree of flexibility within Lambert's squad. The days of successful sides built around a core of 13 or 14 senior players went south long ago. The pace, intensity and athleticism demanded to compete at the top of the profession necessitates a depth of talent to cope with such weekly rigours.
The City chief spoke publicly during the early part of this campaign about the 'relentless' nature of the beast. The games may be fewer in number than the Football League, but the sheer incessant ferocity test mind and body. Norwich's ability to dip players in and out with impressive regularity whilst maintaining their elevated status is testament to the management and playing staff.
But when Whitbread is fit, he plays. That is not to second guess the manager. That is to learn the lessons of recent history. The cultured centre back's season last year effectively started against Sheffield United in late December 2010. In 22 Championship appearances thereafter, Norwich lost only twice; away to both Burnley and Swansea. Whitbread's partnership in central defence alongside Elliott Ward was the bedrock which helped propel Lambert's squad all the way to a second consecutive promotion.
A hamstring injury at Chelsea earlier this season robbed Whitbread of another three months of his career. More rehabilitation. More watching from the sidelines.
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Yet his return for the home Premier League win against Newcastle triggered a league run which fired the Canaries well clear of the current relegation scrap. Defeat to Champions-League contenders Tottenham and Martin O'Neill's rejuvenated Sunderland are the only blemishes on a nine-game spell around the turn of the year. Pure coincidence on both occasions? No, not for me, which is in no way meant to downplay the herculean efforts of Whitbread's other team mates.
You could go right through the squad and pick out men in yellow and green who have played pivotal roles– both last campaign and right through from the opening day at Wigan this time around.
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Ryan Bennett's imminent arrival from Peterborough and the pending injury return of Dani Ayala over the next few weeks guarantee competition for places at centre back, in sharp contrast to the pre-Christmas situation when Russell Martin was expertly press-ganged infield. Lambert will select on form and fitness – which equates to Whitbread plus one other on the empirical evidence available.
The 27-year-old should now be approaching his prime after learning his trade among some of the best at Liverpool. The pedigree is not in doubt; despite failing to quite edge past the likes of Jamie Carragher at the zenith of his own Anfield powers.
Whitbread possesses the physique of a boxer and a craftsman's quality with that left foot; allied to a sense of anticipation and football intelligence not even the best coach can teach. The former Millwall man brings a balance to the centre back pairing and a calmness in possession.
All the traits of a modern- day defender, in essence, when the opposition routinely retreat into their own half to concede space and time higher up the pitch. A Norwich backline with the American international provides John Ruddy with an extra layer of security stationed right in front of him.
Whitbread did not deserve to be on the losing side against Manchester United on his latest return from another hamstring setback. There was a fascinating comparison to be drawn with Rio Ferdinand – truly a world class defender at his best. Ferdinand is still a quality operator as he showed at Carrow Road; albeit age forces him to increasingly rely on experience to compensate for declining physical attributes.
Whitbread was Rio's equal at Carrow Road. The goal line clearance to deny Danny Welbeck after the young England forward had poked past the advancing Ruddy stood out. There was arguably a less eye-catching, but no less significant piece of defending, to thwart the marauding Ryan Giggs earlier in the second period. The Welshman in full flow was halted by a perfectly-timed interception just inside the Norwich penalty area. A fraction late and in all probability the champions would have earned a chance to double their advantage from the spot.
It was Bobby Moore foiling Pele in Mexico 1970; a wonderful sliver of play within a full-blooded contest when the beautiful game veered from entertainment towards balletic art.
Lambert's immediate priority remains sealing the club's Premier League status over the coming months. Ensuring Whitbread is at Carrow Road for the best years of his career beyond the defender's current contract would be no less a noteworthy achievement.