If cartoons have taught us anything it’s that the canary always beats the black cat in the end. Monday night at Carrow Road proved this once again, but just like any good cartoon there were plenty of thrills, spills and laughs along the way.
First away win, followed by first home win. Sounds nice and it’s definitely well earned but the most encouraging thing was how much Norwich had improved since their last home game against West Brom. Right from the first minute there was a level of organisation that was missing from the Brom performance which gave the side a more much solid base to build from. The extra man in midfield made Norwich a much tougher prospect to play through and this frustrated Sunderland who despite having a lot of possession couldn’t really create anything meaningful.
So as a team Norwich were solid and this allowed individuals to then show their ability lining up again in a 4-5-1 system that worked well at Bolton.
I’ve always liked Wes Hoolahan, even before I’d seen him play, I mean, it’s a fantastic name isn’t it, the kind of name that should find a place within sport. Hoo-la-han sounds wonderful rolling off the tongue of even the most vocally insipid commentator. The mighty Hoolahan was in full flow last night, finding space in between the lines, helping to retain possession and changing the angle of attack frequently. What most impressed me was his work-rate. He was like a mosquito that had been swimming in red bull, never letting the Sunderland back line settle, never allowing them to get their head up and find a pass and generally just being a massive pain in the arse, which was a huge help to the midfield and back line in relieving pressure.
Much like Hoolahan, I’ve always been a fan of Morison, ever since I saw him playing for Millwall. I’ve spent time playing football as both a forward and a central defender and I can safely say that I envy Morison as a forward and am scared senseless by him as a defender. Put bluntly, he’s hard. He clearly has very little regard for his personal safety or well-being. This is hugely intimidating as a defender, because you know there is a strong possibility that if you do go in for a challenge you’ll end up with a broken face. There is no better example of this than his goal. A header that was so powerful and ferocious that it gave the keeper no chance. Compare this with the effort of Wickham at the other end, a younger and perhaps prettier player technically who closed his eyes and let the ball hit his shoulder, if you were asking who I’d rather have on the end of a cross for my team I think the answer is as emphatic as Morison’s header.
Johnson combines elements of Hoolahan and Morison. He’s calm in possession and has the ability to pick a pass which is a must have for a central midfield player at this level. I think the biggest compliment you can pay Johnson is that you really wouldn’t want to play against him. He’s abrasive like Morison and he never let Sunderland settle like Hoolahan. His failure to clear the ball after Barnett had misjudged a header was certainly a piece of slapstick as he performed the classic move of accidentally kicking the ball with his standing foot thus moving it and missing it with his intended foot which for many would have been a display of cartoon style amusement left me feeling like I’d just given birth to a kitten. Thankfully this was a minor and not costly error and he soon returned to being a figure of defensive assurance at the heart of the Norwich side.
Fox was Johnson’s partner in crime, often doing a lot of dirty work that isn’t always the first thing you’ll notice. I lost count of the number of times he offered a shield to the back four with good positional sense, spotting potential gaps and filling them. In possession he’s far more assured than Crofts, who offers more of a physical presence but against Brom was guilty of surrendering possession far too often which is a crime you simply cannot continue to commit in the Premier League. What pleased me most was how good Fox made the simple pass look, yes there was the odd trade mark pinged cross field ball, but mostly it was neat and tidy ten yard passes which kept us moving and Sunderland working.
Anthony Pilkington & Elliott Bennett
I’m treating them as a pair, because what I can say about them really applies to both. Last season playing the diamond there wasn’t a place in the team for wide players. I always thought this was simply due to the tactical preference of Lambert, but I think this season so far has proved that he places no restrictions upon himself tactically and his preference is decided purely on who he thinks will do the best job for the team, which is clearly how it should be. Lambert went into the transfer market and signed two exciting young wingers, they have both been hugely impressive so far. They both have the quality to create goals in this league and I think both already look like bargains for the money we paid. I also think they are interchangeable, which gives good tactical flexibility, I’d also include Hoolahan in this, which means you have three players who can operate behind a front man and move freely behind him which will always cause problems for the opposing team.
Russell Martin & Leon Barnett
If Bennett and Pilkington are similar then Martin and Barnett are the odd couple. But already it looks like they’ve formed a partnership and at the heart of the defence that is vital. There is no place for sentiment in the Premier League, or really at any level of football, but I don’t think I’m alone in my dismay at the prospect of Martin missing out for a large part of this season given just how fantastic he was for Norwich last season. However I think he’s found a new role for himself in the side at centre back. He was no nonsense, never trying to over play when under pressure, happy to boot the ball up field or find the safety of row Z in the stand which is exactly what we needed. He’s a calming influence and an organiser, he attacks the ball in the air but when he does get a chance, is hugely capable of bringing the ball out from the back, which he showed wonderfully in helping to create Norwich’s second goal and capped a really encouraging performance. Martin is the classy half of the partnership, Barnett is the muscle, he’s the enforcer. Nobody can doubt his physical attributes and I’m sure a large part of Ivan Klasnic’s incident with Marc Tierney can be blamed on the fact that he’d been flattened by Barnett earlier in the game. I’m not condoning the challenge, but you cannot deny it’s impact. Barnett is an enigma, emulating Titus Bramble to a large extent he is a player capable of both the sublime and the ridiculous. His goal was taken with all the authority of a seasoned premier league professional, contrasted with his mistimed headers, tackles and passes, the worst being a back pass from around the half way line that was so badly over hit it gave Ruddy no chance and gave away a corner. Hopefully he’ll settle down and we’ll see far more of the good and less of the bad, but every time he received possession in the back four my heart started to flutter at the prospect of a nightmare calamity occurring. Of course for the most part, the back four wasn’t overly tested during the game, unlike against West Brom, Sunderland offered little in the way of pace running in behind the back line which is what caused so many problems previously, tougher tests are ahead no sooner than away at Old Trafford next.
Marc Tierney & Kyle Naughton
Modern day fullbacks have to offer so much in terms of work rate and effort. It’s not an enviable job having to be both a winger and a defender as they are expected to contribute meaningfully in both their defensive third and attacking third of the field, luckily for Norwich they’ve found two players who seem to thrive in doing this. Tierney falls into the Morison, Johnson category of players I don’t think I’d like play to play against. He’s sharp with his head as well as his feet and shows experience well beyond his years. Naughton has class, he looks happy in possession and can mirror Bennett in his efforts running with the ball in the final third, he is also well capable of hitting a stinging shot which is something I hope to see at some point this season. In comparison, John O’Shea looked slow and tired and until the goal Kieran Richardson offered little in the way of attacking threat. The goal was probably the only time in the game where the work load of the Norwich side caught up with them as Naughton lumbered out towards Richardson rather than shutting the space quickly and that is something Lambert won’t want to see again. It’s a valuable lesson that at you cannot allow any player time to get a shot off, Gary Cahill showed against QPR on the opening day that even a centre back is able to bend in a shot from 25-yards and Norwich were punished against Chelsea for alloweing Bosingwa time to strike and were almost punished again against West Brom when Graham Dorrans struck the woodwork. This point is obviously not lost on Paul Lambert, who could be heard shouting “get out to him” in his recognisable non-too-dulcet Scottish tones every time a player was in an area of the pitch where a shot looked possible. Still it was another largely impressive performance from both full-backs with Tierney storming forward with real vigour and delivering quality into the box for the second goal.
Didn’t have a great deal to do, but what he did do he did with a reassuring command. He talks non-stop to his defence and he seems to love organising which is of great help to a defensive unit and I’m starting to feel like he belongs at this level, hopefully he has similar belief and will continue to grow into a keeper of genuine class. He certainly has the raw ability so I see no reason why he can’t push on and look to feature in future England squads. The more jaded may perhaps question his role in the Sunderland goal (Gary Neville – who I feel needs to go to pundit school) but I’m happy to accept that it was simply a great strike from Richardson and even if Ruddy had dived it would have been nothing more than a fleeting gesture rather than a genuine attempt at a save.
Where to go from here?
After such a performance it feels wrong to try and single out an individual for man of the match, when it was very much a team performance. Perhaps that’s why the Monday Night Football audience felt compelled to give it to Sunderland’s Titus Bramble, in a decision that will have advocates of democracy everywhere putting their heads very firmly into their hands. Sunderland were poor, but the most important thing for me was that Norwich got the job done, at the end of the season it won’t be important how Norwich arrived at the forty point safety mark, simply that they got there and this is the kind of game that needed to be won and was. I think Lambert has found a system to get the best out of the players and I’m finally starting to feel a bit happier about life in the Premier League. I should imagine this will last for about a week, until we get absolutely smashed to pieces at Old Trafford, when once again I’ll sink back into the sea of despair. Until then I fully intend to make the most of Norwich’s first home Premier League victory, hopefully the first of many.