Melissa Rudd: Norwich City’s display against Sheffield United was a million miles away from Millwall no-show
- Credit: Michael Sedgwick/Focus Images Ltd
The possibility of grinding out a 1-0 win away from home three weeks ago couldn't have felt much more unlikely.
After Millwall tore City apart, the scale of the task in improving not just the defence, but the mindset of a side which looked incapable of holding out against any sort of threat, looked a daunting one.
In dismantling the back four and throwing in Alex Tettey and Tom Trybull to protect a new-look defence, Daniel Farke got his response spot on. Two home clean sheets proved there was a formula in the squad that worked (in keeping goals out, at least).
Against out of form sides Birmingham and Burton, the back four had a chance to bed in. But the prospect of repeating that feat outside of the comfort of Carrow Road was a different one altogether. A trip to Sheffield United, going for their fourth win at Bramall Lane this season and a fifth straight Championship victory, was a far sterner test.
United were third in the table, had ridden the crest of a wave since winning the League One title and were aiming for a 10th consecutive home victory. Norwich's away from couldn't have been much more contrasting. Two wins in 20 away league fixtures prior to Saturday, and no clean sheet since February 4. This time the 'along came Norwich' refrain had the exact opposite meaning to what it usually signifies.
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The City team that turned up to Villa and Millwall would have wilted under the pressure faced in South Yorkshire. Instead Farke's charges put in a gutsy, determined display that seemed a million miles away a matter of weeks ago.
If there were doubts about the passion and desire in this squad, Saturday's performance went a long way to putting them to bed. In fact, the Millwall debacle could have been just the reality check needed inside the corridors of Colney. It certainly looks as though there were some hard yards put in for those that stayed in Norfolk over the international break.
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So what exactly has the manager done to bring around such a turn in defensive form? There's no question that replacing Russell Martin with Timm Klose at centre-half has made a huge difference. Christoph Zimmerman has looked far more dependable next to him, while Marco Stiepermann at left back has adjusted brilliantly to his new role. The German has come into his own and had more touches than any other City player on Saturday, winning four aerial duels in the process. Both with the ball at his feet and defensively he has looked increasingly impressive.
Farke seems to have recognised the limitations of his players and adjusted the system accordingly. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Norwich look far more solid. Trybull won more tackles than any other player on the pitch at the weekend and seemed to cover more ground too. His partner Tettey has his limitations, but his strengths in breaking up play and helping to win the ball back mean he can be an effective addition to the midfield unit.
If building from the back is the order of the day, it's little wonder goals have been harder to come by. Although the Birmingham scoreline could have been more handsome, the midweek stalemate against Burton seemed like an unfortunate missed opportunity to seal the first back-to-back wins of the season. Having said that, a morale boosting win on the road at this early stage could be far more valuable in the long run.
While there were moans at the opposition's time-wasting Tuesday night, it was even more satisfying that City managed to cause similar frustration to the home side on Saturday. Applying that kind of tactical nous in seeing the game out while under huge pressure is a pre-requisite for any successful team in this league, and there are at last encouraging signs that Norwich could mould into exactly that.