Norwich City coping well with Premier League growing pains
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The sight of Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady laughing at the final whistle while a stony-faced Dick Advocaat stared mournfully into space said everything about the balance of power at the Stadium of Light.
Advocaat must have seen it all in a stellar managerial career spanning four decades; but the manner of Norwich City's control against his shambolic Sunderland should be a cause of deep concern on Wearside.
The Dutchman struggled to retain a diplomatic tone when he spoke to the media afterwards. Advocaat threateningly warned of 11 individuals, but only one team on show. It was hard to dispute his assessment.
One feels compelled here to insert the inevitable caveat regarding the Black Cats' implosion in front of their disbelieving public, but City were very good. This was irrefutable proof Alex Neil has moulded a fighting force who can enjoy many more profitable days in the top flight over these coming months.
Great efforts have already been made, from the manager downwards, to temper the wild swings of emotion that will buffet both Neil and his squad. Norwich did plenty right against Crystal Palace on the opening weekend, yet the abiding memory was a sour one; of missed opportunities and defensive naivety.
City inflicted an identical defeat on Sunderland after applying the right tweaks to a performance against the Eagles that underlined they are good enough at Premier League level.
Norwich sparkled individually and collectively. Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond justified their elevation to the starting line up. Hoolahan illustrated again he is getting better with age and the reassurance of a manager who feels he can be pivotal to top flight success.
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The 33-year-old is the creative spark around which a coterie of fellow midfielders and attacking full-backs now pivot. When it knits seamlessly under Neil's tutelage Norwich can produce football of the highest grade.
City's second goal at the Stadium of Light evoked memories of that wonderfully free passage of play that ended in Redmond's finish at Wembley back in May, which effectively sealed Norwich's place in the big time.
Redmond and Brady raided down the left before a quick switch enticed Steven Whittaker forward on the opposite flank. The intent was bold, the execution from Hoolahan impudent and the finish unerringly accurate from the Scottish international.
Whittaker was heavily involved in that signature goal at Wembley in what many believe was his best outing in City colours. There are those who routinely prefer to dwell on his perceived deficiencies and neglect his value - the same could be said of Norwich.
The narrative that consigns them to sacrificial lambs this season is lazy and predictable; reinforced for many by the way they crumbled against a slick counter-attacking force in Crystal Palace. It dismisses not only the quality within the Norwich dressing room but the sense of togetherness that Adovcaat alluded to as his side appeared mesmerised by the confident interchanges orchestrated by Hoolahan and Graham Dorrrans.
City looked a cohesive unit against a dispirited rabble. For the gulf to be so marked this early in the proceedings was the most surprising facet of another controlled away offering under Neil.
His players know their roles and the collective thrust the Scot demands. Palace was a timely reminder of what is required, certainly in terms of concentration, but the underlying trend appears positive even in the harsher terrain of the Premier League.
Neil's philosophy is a simple one. City will not be intimidated or fearful of the huge financial disparities they routinely encounter.
Norwich endured the toil and the grime of the Championship for days like these; for the chance to share the same pitch as Yaya Toure or Wayne Rooney, for Neil to pit his wits against Jose Mourinho or Louis Van Gaal or even Advocaat.
Maintaining that focus, that desire, that freshness is key now. Norwich's vibrant approach after the magnificent manner in which they exited the Football League was always likely to offer an injection of early momentum. The elite still lie in wait, the prolonged fallow periods when results dry to a trickle and City are heavily punished for any misdemeanours are inevitable in such exalted company, but these opening two games suggest they will be competitive.
From such an encouraging base, City's progress onwards and upwards hinges on Neil's ability to extract the optimum on a regular basis from his confident troops.