Melissa Rudd: How Farke handles injury-hit City could define our season
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After Norwich City's incredible run of form in the 2018 half of this campaign, a blip was always going to be inevitable.
That it has come over the festive period, at a time when Daniel Farke's side has become more depleted by injuries and there have been three games in the space of six days is hardly surprising.
Two points from a possible nine may be City's poorest return from three fixtures since the very beginning of the season, but the fact that they are still sitting in second place with a two-point cushion tells you how most teams have struggled for consistency over those 270 minutes.
With the exception of Sheffield United who returned maximum points, no team in the current top 10 in the table managed more than one win and six of the top seven all lost at least once.
Had City not been so naive once the lights had been switched back on against Derby on Saturday we could well have been heralding a three-month unbeaten run in the league. Yet if conceding seven goals in back-to-back Carrow Road games gave fans cause for concern, finding enough in the tank to battle back and win a point despite a lethargic first half display at Griffin Park should restore faith.
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Add to the mix that Farke was forced to make two substitutions before the hour-mark due to injuries to Marco Stiepermann and Alex Tettey, that three of the back four were walking a tightrope for the entire second half after being booked, and that Teemu Pukki was denied a clear penalty and we should be thankful to have gotten anything out of the game.
With Grant Hanley fit again, many questioned Farke's decision to stick with Christoph Zimmermann at centre half at Brentford given his costly error that gifted Derby their winner on Saturday. But you can understand his reasoning given that Hanley has played half an hour of Championship football in the last four months, and Saturday's FA Cup tie against Portsmouth provides the perfect opportunity for the club captain to get a much-needed 90 minutes of competitive football under his belt.
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Farke does though have to address the issue of failing to defend set pieces, which was again City's undoing on New Year's Day. More than a third of goals conceded have come from set pieces this campaign, while at Carrow Road Norwich have gone five games without a clean sheet. In fact, despite being second there are 10 Championship teams who have kept more clean sheets at home.
While promotion rivals such as Leeds, West Brom and Derby have also leaked a few goals of late it does put more pressure on the attack to create and indeed take chances. With Moritz Leitner and Emi Buendia out for the best part of another month, if the goals do dry up Farke doesn't have an abundance of attacking options at his disposal to mix things up.
Jordan Rhodes' introduction for the injured Tettey on Tuesday saw Farke switch to a back three with Max Aarons and Onel Hernandez as wing backs. That prompted much more of a threat going forward and perhaps gives him food for thought for next Saturday's huge game versus West Brom.
How Farke handles his injury-hit squad over the next month or so is likely to be crucial to City's promotion hopes. While Saturday's cup clash against Portsmouth means he is surely certain to give first-team regulars a well earned rest, a look at the fixture list suggests we will have a much better idea of the strength of those credentials in five weeks' time.
Matches against Birmingham, Sheffield United, Leeds then a small matter of an East Anglian derby follow next weekend's trip to The Hawthorns. I have been critical of Norwich managers in the past who have put out weakened teams in cup games, particularly when in the Premier League. Along with most fans though, I feel Farke has no choice but to against Portsmouth.