Robin Sainty: City mindset changing - on and off the pitch

Brandon Williams of Norwich in action during the Premier League match against Wolves

Brandon Williams - exemplifies a more rugged approach which has been added to City's game since Dean Smith's arrival - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Having become used to waking up on gamedays with a feeling of existential dread, it’s nice to experience a return to the more familiar butterflies in the stomach. 

Before the Brentford game, I had resigned myself to the fact that City were going to go down, probably with an embarrassingly low points total, and I don’t think that any of us on the morning of that game could conceive of a four-game unbeaten run producing eight points out of a possible 12, which could easily have been more had chances been taken. 

The Dean Smith effect has been instant and dramatic, but whilst the way in which the Canaries outplayed high-flying Wolves was impressive, the uninspired performance against 10-man Newcastle was a salutary reminder that there is still much to do if City are to pull away from the bottom of the table. 

Norwich City manager Dean Smith and assistant Craig Shakespeare at Newcastle

Dean Smith and assistant Craig Shakespeare, left, during the game at Newcastle - Credit: PA

It is already clear that Smith is a much more proactive coach than Daniel Farke and is comfortable with making early substitutions or tweaking formations if things are not going well, but what will have impressed City fans the most is his statement that while City will always respect any opponent, they will never fear them. 

That suggests that they will be expected to battle harder, and we are already seeing more aggression from his players, with Brandon Williams very much in the vanguard. 

Against Wolves, the prospect of the lightning-fast right winger Adama Traore coming on against a tiring Williams was a concern, but after two crunching tackles the Spaniard suddenly seemed to want to play anywhere that wasn’t in the vicinity of City’s left back and had little impact as a result. 

However, the improvement in City’s defending under Smith isn’t a tale of one man, and the whole unit has raised its game. That’s partly due to the fact that City’s midfielders have been significantly better in their defensive work, but also because the back four are no longer diving in to tackles in and around the box. 

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In both of this week’s games there have been situations where opponents have broken quickly and found space in wide areas, but in each case the nearest City defender has simply looked to hold the ball carrier up until cover arrived in numbers. 

The fact that so much progress was made over Smith’s first two games in charge made the performance at Newcastle all the more disappointing, and it was good to hear the manager accepting that he hadn’t got it absolutely right. 

There is no doubt that City were laborious in their build-ups and sloppy in their passing, with the midfield duo of Kenny McLean and Billy Gilmour, who had been excellent against Wolves, failing to get anywhere close to that level of performance at St James’ Park, while Josh Sargent and Christos Tzolis tended to block the space their full-backs could have attacked without offering passing options to the players in possession. 

However, for the second time in three games City were able to come back from a goal behind to get a result and that shows a level of resilience that simply wasn’t there a month ago. 

When you take into account the absence of two key players, both of whom would have given City a different dynamic, and the fact that Newcastle were defending in numbers and being roared on by 50,000 fans, Tuesday night was by no means a disaster. 

Clearly, Smith is making significant changes, both to tactics and to the players’ mindsets, and that will take a little bit of time, so it would be unrealistic to expect improvement to occur in a straight line. 

There’ll be setbacks and Tuesday could have been a big one, but the ability to grind out a point when playing so poorly is exactly the sort of thing that could make the difference between survival and relegation when May arrives.  

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