Norwich City go back to basics
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
At the risk of damning Norwich City with faint praise, the Canaries resembled a Championship side in deepest Lancashire.
There was a distinct rationing in the quality and control they have tried to impose on opponents to this advanced stage of a season which in recent months had lurched on a downward spiral.
It was agricultural, functional, one-dimensional at times and it brought them success; not only in points and a clean sheet but respite from a descent that appeared to meet the ground with a jarring impact on the final whistle one week earlier against Reading.
Norwich's season will not turn solely on a shift doused in hard graft and commitment but there was enough evidence there is at least something to rebuild.
Neil Adams had previously alluded to the need for a style change or, more accurately, a revision with each fresh setback. Much will inevitably be made of Mike Phelan's presence but Reading and its noxious fallout seem a more potent trigger.
City carved Wigan open from John Ruddy's punt, Cameron Jerome's headed flick and Gary Hooper's muscular intent to hold off his man and lay the ball into the path of Jonny Howson, who applied the one genuine moment of quality in a drab contest that matched the wintry chill.
Norwich then retreated for long spells and challenged Malky Mackay's strugglers to try and break them down. They couldn't. It was football at its most base level and it proved highly effective.
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For every positive strand it hardly needed over-stating Wigan were pitifully weak, but Norwich have faced inferior opposition many times this season and come up short. It was like watching the Canaries in their most frustrating periods as Wigan strained to up the tempo – masters of territory and possession against an opponent happy to cede ground, yet confident in their collective ability to resist.
Midway through the opening period, with City's experienced midfield quartet subduing Wigan's creative talent, there was one incident that illustrated this sea change.
Carlos Cuellar was, for the most part, a reliable foil to Russell Martin but the Spaniard's attempt to control a high ball on his chest 10 yards outside his own penalty area gifted Wigan a turnover opportunity they eventually squandered. It did not spare Cuellar admonishment from a number of his own team-mates. That was not the sign of dissension, it was a signal the defender had strayed from the script.
City embraced the art of Championship combat to a greater degree than at any other point this season. There were still bouts of passing football but they were abbreviated and interspersed with a willingness to turn Wigan's centre-backs and play the percentages.
Dare one suggest it was reminiscent of Ipswich's approach in City's derby day win at Portman Road, a success portrayed at the time as indicative of the relative gulf between the two clubs in terms of style and productivity but given Town's upward mobility since and Norwich's toil it appears now to confirm an approach that retains some merit.
City's enviable depth of playing resources will bring plenty of wins through their artistry and talent but for now they need different qualities to propel them firmly back into the promotion picture.
Adams had to display some of his own in the north-west. Only towards the bitter end did he retreat from the position he had occupied since the opening whistle at the front of his technical area; a defiant posture from a man who knew full well the consequences of another defeat.
The Norwich manager's team selection was incredibly brave; one need only re-visit the reaction when his team was announced prior to kick-off.
Nathan Redmond has been the creative spark amidst the gloom but the England Under-21 starlet was forced to defer to a unit designed to frustrate, to compete and to grind down the Latics.
The clamour for Declan Rudd's inclusion at the expense of John Ruddy had grown from an audible whisper with each defensive concession, but Adams kept faith with his main man as Michael Turner made way for Cuellar and Martin to forge another central defensive pairing.
Ruddy survived one alarm when Kyle Lafferty cleared his spill but the triple save on a rare occasion when the men in front left him exposed was the Ruddy of old. It can hardly be over-stated the importance of a clean sheet on the collective psyche.
Adams requires much more of the same to convince those who had decided he is not the right man to lead the revival, but that sense emanting from inside the camp the penny may have finally dropped was supported by City's labours at Wigan.
Norwich's long haul to a rugby outpost against brittle opponents in front of an embarrassingly small crowd will not live long in the memory. Yet they may have cause to look back fondly on this trip if they can harness the residual benefits of a minimalist approach.