Michael Bailey: The Championship turn, Norwich City’s key strength and what happens next
In his weekly column, Norwich City correspondent Michael Bailey looks ahead of one of the big landmarks in the 2018-19 Championship season.
The turn. It’s when golfers feel the need to either kick on or back up their opening effort.
My dad was a keen amateur time-trialist. For him, it meant the mirror image of the head or tail wind he had just dealt with.
That is the thing about landmarks: they come with psychological baggage that needs dealing with, one way or another.
Ignorance is an option too, it’s just arguably the toughest to take.
This Championship weekend is exactly that. The last round of teams yet to meet. The last point before what is effectively the fairest league table until the whole thing is done and dusted in May.
For Norwich City, the wind has no doubt felt fair and in their favour. From such depths as recently as September, when City headed to Reading sat 16th in the table – to enjoying time at the summit and now in an automatic promotion breakaway with current leaders Leeds. The question we’re all now waiting for to be answered is whether there’s another tail wind waiting, as the Canaries head back through the Championship pack?
City are in a curious position where no doubt most of the division is looking at them, waiting for their steam to run out.
You could see the attitude of numerous fans from other clubs switch from basic ignorance to the expectation it will all unravel.
And what will feel like a stiffening in the breeze will originate from the clubs that share a modicum of fans’ feeling.
Second time around, they will either want to prove they should not have been second best in their initial fixture with Norwich – as experienced by 13 sides so far this term – or make a better fist of things than their initial attempt at curtailing the Canaries’ strengths.
It’s a natural fact that the second time you do something, you are likely to be significantly better at it.
That underlines the task facing Norwich from here. While so many omens, so many calculations and averages, historic rules and patterns, back City’s ambition to achieve something truly miraculous this season, that is completely different to making it all happen. From here things only get tougher, and City have no option but to tackle that head on in a similar manner to the very start of the season.
Of course the theory and feelings over stopping Norwich, the external fans’ view and drastically more informed rival scouts’ outlook, are one thing. Turning that into disruptive work on the pitch is quite another.
At Bristol City, Norwich dug in. They avoided defeat in a difficult fixture, showed tremendous resilience when not feeling their best or playing to their maximum. All positives to take.
But it was something else that stuck with me.
The Robins spent 76 minutes playing out their perfect game plan, causing Norwich issues in places of weakness and hampering their strengths. It was working a treat.
Within two minutes of shaking up their shape and tweaking their approach, City were level and circling for a winner. More often than not this term, Daniel Farke’s side have gone on to do it.
That right there was the significant bit. The flexibility that will keep their opponents guessing. The facet that suggests Norwich have it in them to offer a revised threat come their second loop of the fixture list; when your first shot may not be as useful as you hoped.
What City do and are now about isn’t a surprise. Their style, shape and threats will be well known, well scouted and thoroughly analysed from top to tail.
But as with any good side, any talismanic player, knowing what they are good at is the start. Knowing the plan for stopping it is all part of extensive preparation. Actually stopping it? That’s the hard bit – and stopping Norwich City this season has become one of the toughest task the Championship has to offer.
Flicking through the various statistics so far this season, it’s remarkable how few feature City in their top five.
Despite its flaws, last season Farke’s side were pass masters, as accurate as it got and dominators of the ball across the second tier.
And of course, there was James Maddison: a top-three regular in anything that involved the ball.
This season Moritz Leitner is second in the passes per game and most fouled lists, while Emi Buendía is a top-five tackle machine. That’s pretty much it.
Which again encourages that if form is quality, experience is subjective and character well established, this Norwich City vintage really does have it in them to join those of 2004-5 and 2010-11.
But as we know, we have still got further to go than we have already travelled – and we’re all hoping for another fair wind.
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