Norwich City’s path to enlightenment begins at Stoke City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Stoke's windswept Britannia Stadium was an unlikely setting for what felt like an epiphany moment in Norwich City's Premier League season.
It was the day when the fog lifted to reveal a midfield mix that harnessed every attribute you need from raw athleticism to attacking endeavour and goalscoring creation.
Woven around the imposing figures of Alex Tettey, Leroy Fer and Jonny Howson were the answers to many of the questions that have seemingly proved beyond the grasp of the Canaries' top brass at times during an opening month or so of the new campaign which felt like a gruelling slog to be endured.
City looked compact without the ball inside their own territory and wonderfully ambitious in a vibrant first-half to stir the souls of those who have witnessed some abject displays on the road over the last year.
Tettey's deployment in a screening role in front of Norwich's back four was a masterstroke from the manager. The Norwegian's defensive instincts injected a layer of protection that freed Howson to roam forward with a degree of licence most City supporters crave. Howson is a gifted, proactive midfielder capable of scoring goals. To restrict his room for manoeuvre is simply to neuter his undoubted talent to create mischief in opposition territory. Chris Hughton understands the conundrum. This was the day when it looked like he had solved the riddle. Fer's string of influential cameos merely underline the Dutch international is the complete midfielder - capable of matching Tettey's defensive resolution and Howson's attacking endeavour.
In Hughton's new-look system, Fer was the glue that bound; the stitching in the lining to help Norwich strangle Stoke's sporadic attempts to probe for any perceived vulnerability in the visiting ranks.
This was a big day for the manager and his under-pressure players. Adversity has been conquered before under Hughton's stewardship, but City's inconsistencies in the opening weeks of the new season appeared to ratchet up the level of scrutiny.
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Hughton's press conferences in recent times have increasingly carried an underlying sub-plot regarding his own future at Carrow Road; fuelled no doubt by a palpable schism that had started to deepen between swathes of a fanbase frustrated at the slow rate of evolution following a summer transfer outlay of seismic proportions.
On the eve of battle here, Hughton once again reiterated this is a results-business. Norwich's manager has been in the professional game far too long not to realise the price of failure. Victory over Stoke and the manner it was achieved must surely aid the healing process and help repair some of the fractures that had visibly started to appear after defeats at Hull and Tottenham and home to Aston Villa last time out.
The Premier League is too unforgiving an environment not to expect fresh dips and further questions in the months ahead – particularly with Chelsea and Arsenal to come either side of the international break - but those who have rightly criticised City's anaemia during their low spells must applaud the aggressive intent at the Britannia both in team selection and ethos. Hughton rarely betrays any outward emotion but there was a clenched fist salute on the final whistle before the composure returned. City's manager can take plenty of solace from the backing he received on and off the pitch. Norwich's players remain firmly united behind their manager on the evidence of how they overwhelmed a Stoke side now below the Canaries in the Premier League standings despite being feted for an impressive start to life after Tony Pulis.
The narrative that may prevail in certain quarters over coming days is of a home side that fell far below the standards that saw them hold Manchester City in the Potteries last time out.
Stoke unquestionably looked leggy and lethargic for large spells, but Norwich's outstanding central midfield set the tone. Howson plundered at the expense of Asmir Begovic after Ryan Bennett had earlier thundered a close range half-volley against the underside of his bar. Norwich's control in the opening period was invigorating. Fer triggered one flowing counter from the perimeter of his own penalty area that passed through Howson and Anthony Pilkington before Begovic was fortuitously awarded a free-kick after spilling at the feet of Ricky van Wolfswinkel. It was a speed of thought and movement singularly lacking on Humberside or in north London. Norwich must not regress now. A landmark win at the Britannia provides enough circumstantial evidence to suggest City's support can rightly demand more than the slim measures on offer to this point. The attacking dynamism of the first half and the obduracy of the second melded into the perfect away day.
Begovic's one-handed tip over to deny Robert Snodgrass in the closing stages would have merely embellished an afternoon of enlightenment for the Canaries woven around their impressive central midfield axis.