Robin Sainty: The balancing acts which have changed Norwich City’s fortunes
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Last week was pretty remarkable – achieving league wins against three very different types of opponent with Grant Hanley sidelined for every game, and Onel Hernandez for the last two, was beyond the wildest dreams of most City fans.
However, what was even more impressive was how dominant this young City side was in all three outings, with only a 15-minute spell at Reading seeing them under any sort of sustained pressure as the ball was pinged around with confidence and opponents were left chasing shadows. So what's changed?
The answer, I think, is balance. Earlier in the season it was clear that Daniel Farke wanted to play with a back four as well as getting two strikers on the pitch. However, this presented two problems.
The first of these was that the formation resulted in Teemu Pukki playing as a link between midfield and Jordan Rhodes, thus limiting the Finn's ability to get into the box because when he did it left the midfield open to counters which, in turn, meant that City's full-backs were sometimes reluctant to really push on.
However, once Pukki became the lone striker, Farke was able to bolster the midfield by introducing Marco Stiepermann, who has proved crucial in terms of his physical presence, work rate and ability to glide past opponents, and surprised many people in the process.
That change has enabled the City full-backs to be much more aggressive going forwards and explains the gamble that Farke took in asking Alex Tettey to start three games in eight days.
Tettey's ability to read the game and spot danger developing means he is able to drop in to help out the centre backs when the full-backs bomb on, so that without actually reverting to that system City have effectively developed a hybrid version of three at the back with Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons encouraged to break into space whenever it opens up in front of them.
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Defending has always been the main strength of Tettey's game, but what has come as a surprise is that even at this late stage of his career he is now looking much more comfortable on the ball and is contributing significantly when City are going forward too.
Midfield really is a major strength, despite the departure of James Maddison, and Moritz Leitner continues to blossom, although some fans still don't 'get' him. He's physically slight, doesn't score many goals and often appears unobtrusive. However, watch when a team-mate is in a tight spot and needs an 'out' ball and you'll see that it's invariably Leitner who makes himself available.
He's always on the move and always wants the ball, but unlike a Maddison or a Wes Hoolahan, who liked to twist and turn. he simply keeps play flowing and is the fulcrum of City's midfield; the oil that keeps everything running smoothly.
However, for anyone pining for the 'old' Norwich, Tuesday's cup tie, in which City cruised to a 4-1 lead only to concede a sloppy goal to spark a Wycombe revival before hanging on by their fingertips as the hosts threw the kitchen sink at them, would have been horribly familiar.
Nevertheless, while some of the second string missed a chance to impress Farke, the two priorities on the night were to get through to the next round and avoid further injury problems, both of which were achieved, although Rhodes' classy hat-trick will have brought a smile to the coach' face at the thought of having two in-form strikers available.
With Kenny McLean and Hernandez also close to returning from injury his selection problems won't get any easier, but that won't worry him one jot.
Has a corner been turned or is it a purple patch like the one last autumn? Only time will tell, but there has been a sense of self-belief to City's play in the last few games which augurs well.