Norwich City finding their feet
Returning to the Premier League on the back of two consecutive promotions, Norwich City began the season riding a wave of that particularly serene brand of confidence which comes easily to teams well accustomed to the winning habit.
While results may have been relatively mixed (two wins, two draws and two defeats from their first six games), the Carrow Road outfit have displayed the attractive, assured passing game for which they are renowned.
Since taking over from Brian Gunn in August 2009, manager Paul Lambert has schooled his players in a patient style of play, their comfort on the ball having been one of the hallmarks of Norwich’s football over the last two years. However, now at the highest level and unable to dominate possession quite as they did in the second and third tiers, Lambert’s side have had to learn quickly and make subtle adaptations to their approach since the beginning of the current campaign.
Indeed, Monday night’s 2-1 victory over Sunderland provided an almost perfect case-study as to how Norwich have, to good effect, adapted their game in order to provide a stern test for higher-calibre opponents. Moving up a division is never easy, but Lambert has clearly prepared his side well for the significant challenges that the Premier League presents its teams with.
Where the Norfolk side were able to assert their authority on games last season, rarely on the back-foot for long periods, they have had to get used to being out of possession on a more regular basis. The way in which Lambert has got his team to hold their shape without the ball and defend higher up the field has largely been effective.
Sunderland – faced with a bank of four and a bank of five – struggled to create many clear chances and scored their only goal from a speculative shot from the edge of the area.
That said, while the shape and structure of the team without the ball is generally impressive, there are still several question marks over the Canaries’ defending in the final third. It may seem strange to be writing this immediately after the team has won back-to-back games, but rash decisions at the back have been an unfortunate stain on an otherwise encouraging start to the season.
Having already conceded five penalties, Lambert’s back four has looked nervous at times, the likes of Ritchie De Laet and Leon Barnett making errors of judgement that have cost their team dearly. Several of the spot-kicks have been the result of the defence getting caught out on the counter by raw pace, and Norwich are a team occasionally susceptible to the most direct of attacking threats.
However, while currently a concern, these are problems which shouldn’t be too difficult for the team to iron out as they become increasingly comfortable with the nuances of Premier League football.
When attacking, Norwich are essentially still the enthusiastic and confident team that they have been ever since Lambert’s appointment. While the Scot’s side are understandably slightly more cautious than they were in the Championship – seemingly content to sit behind the ball for prolonged periods if necessary - they are still an exciting aesthetic prospect in possession.
Keeping the ball well and passing in neat, intricate patterns high up the pitch, much of Norwich’s attacking play is instigated by Wes Hoolahan, his inventive nature being supplemented by two dependable wide players in the shape of Elliott Bennett (who provided the assist for the opening goal on Monday night) and Anthony Pilkington.
Furthermore, while the full-backs seemed to be initially reluctant to get forward against Sunderland, when they did they provided Norwich with an extra attacking dimension, Kyle Naughton and Marc Tierney both attacking to increasingly good effect as the game wore on.
It may not be a squad with many big names, but Lambert appears to be maximising the potential of the resources he has at his disposal and playing attractive football to boot. It is easy to patronise ‘provincial’ clubs like Norwich, to see them as fleeting visitors to the Premier League, but Carrow Road has been home to one of the country’s most consistent sides over the last two years and its tenants more than deserve the full respect of their opponents.
The Canaries are far from being a faultless team at the top level, there is still plenty of room for improvement, but they look very much at home in the Premier League. Led by one of Britain’s finest young managers and backed by a large and exuberant fan base, Norwich City have plenty of causes for optimism as the season begins to take shape.