Norwich City emerge stronger for Premier League growth spurt
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
To put Norwich City's festive growth spurt into context look well beyond the headline figures to City's corresponding early season Premier League trip to the south-coast.
Even setting aside Steven Whittaker's dismissal for two yellow cards at St Mary's, Norwich looked considerably short of a slick Southampton in a 3-0 league defeat that barely reflected the Saints' dominance.
The Canaries on the day were naïve and lacking in quality. Southampton had the two best players on the pitch in Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic to expose vulnerability in a Norwich backline that, after Whittaker's departure, was largely left to fend for itself as the men in front were over-run.
It was a dispiriting, deflating afternoon, tinged with a stinging realisation this was what the Premier League was really all about after encouraging previous displays against Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Stoke City.
Southampton appeared a cohesive, effective fighting force more than capable of emulating last season's top seven finish under the astute Ronald Koeman. But the times they are a changing.
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City emerged from a prolonged autumnal search for points with a greater resolve and maturity in how to attack the task of top flight survival.
You can measure Norwich's accelerated development in nine points from the last 12, or a landmark win at Manchester United, or the two clean sheets underpinning the first back-to-back wins in the Premier League this season. Yet that will tell you only part of the story. Norwich's festive labours have been stamped through with a streetwise edge and bullish confidence that is pointing the way to long term sustainability.
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Tottenham was the only blemish in this current run, once Harry Kane and his pals had tired of City's bright start at White Hart Lane, but Spurs were excellent on Boxing Day. Most of Norwich's Premier League rivals would have struggled to contain a midfield that has few equals at present.
City's win at Old Trafford proved a memorable historical interlude but it is in the manner they frustrated and then found a way to overcome both Aston Villa and Southampton that underlines how far Norwich have progressed.
Neil's squad has played much better than their last two outings on home soil. There was none of the verve or attacking zeal that accompanied the beating of Bournemouth or the impressive trips to Wearside, Upton Park and Anfield. But City have harnessed more resistant qualities of late; namely a pragmatism and level of productivity they would have craved in those early months when a weight of possession and midfield control too often failed to translate itself on the scoresheet.
Alex Tettey's sublime match-winner was City's only recorded shot on target against the Saints.
Norwich's re-invention is a testament to Neil's methods. The Scot has got it wrong on occasion, by his own admission, but as Robbie Brady remarked recently when pressed for a view on his own form this season, City on and off the pitch have got more right than wrong on this testing Premier League journey.
Southampton's relative decline should serve as a warning to the Canaries as they bask in the reflective glory of their most fertile phase of the campaign. Koeman cast a worried figure at the final whistle as he wrestled with the factors behind a fourth consecutive away defeat; chief among them Sadio Mane's challenge to his authority after turning up late for a pre-match team meeting amid intense transfer speculation.
Neil has had to contend with his own disciplinary issues this season, but there is a dogged resolution emerging from the management and the playing staff when facing adversity that you sense will insulate City in the difficult moments ahead.
Norwich's festive surge has repaired some of the damage from missed opportunities and individual errors, yet treading water will see the net close again.
City arrived at Old Trafford perched uncomfortably in the bottom three after a fallow period compounded by a brief upturn for the likes of Bournemouth and Newcastle United.
It was telling that amidst the euphoria and the genuine optimism that accompanied Tettey's late salvo from Vadis Odjidja's assist, Neil was already mapping out the next phase in the battleplan.
Forget those endlesss transfer machinations that accompany January, Norwich's ability to ride this wave on the pitch, when the league action resumes after an FA Cup interlude, will dictate whether City can aim even higher over the final run-in or continue to cast anxious glances below.