Norwich 1 - 0 Birmingham
I literally had no idea what to expect as I parked my car at 1.45pm on Saturday, not far from Carrow Road.
The last two performances had been defensively grim, with the Millwall one being an absolute shambles. At least we scored a couple of goals at Villa Park.
As I received the team news on my phone at 2pm, I was both surprised and cautiously pleased. Unless I was reading it wrong, it looked like Daniel Farke was going to be playing two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation of the type so beloved of Alex Neil.
If I had been in Daniel Farke`s position, I would`ve done exactly the same thing. Despite the return of Timm Klose, our defence would be short on confidence and in my view, needed extra protection. I was pleased he`d decide on two defensive midfielders but surprised because I`ve heard Stuart Webber say on numerous occasions that he wanted the club to have an identity and not to change as a knee jerk reaction to defeats. It looked like Farke had just done that, to me.
Anyway, the squad was interesting for the absence of Steven Naismith, Marley Watkins and Russell Martin. In the aftermath of the game, I still haven`t been able to find out if this was tactical or if they were injured. What it does do is emphasise the strength in depth of our squad, which now that we`re getting some injured players back, isn`t looking too bad - on paper at least. Was Russ Martin given a break to allow him and the fans some time for the wounds of Millwall to heal? I`d be surprised if Farke had felt the need to protect him so much, Russ is a big boy, after all.
James Husband was dropped in favour of Marco Stiepermann and I think we all breathed a sigh of relief. Husband has been in the firing line of late for looking light weight along with Martin and his German replacement looked like an upgrade. He spent much of last season at left back for his previous team, which showed, and he was defensively sound and worked well with Josh Murphy, playing the young winger in on the flank several times.
In the absence of Martin, Ivo Pinto was given the Captain`s armband and I saw him take that role and run with it. He was always cajoling and encouraging his team mates, particularly his fellow defenders.
In front of the back four we had the return of Alex Tettey and a full debut for Tom Trybull. Tettey`s strength and destructive power were preferred for the first time in the league to Harrison Reed, who watched from the bench. Alex was heavily involved against a Birmingham side with some big, physical players that proved a test. However, he was generally up to the task and despite picking up his obligatory booking, had a good game. Alongside him for the first time was new boy, Trybull.
Trybull likes a tackle and is good at winning the ball and then, perhaps unlike Tettey, he has the technical ability to pick a pass. He kept the ball ticking over and was always available to receive it. I thought he had a solid, promising debut, considering it was his first taste of Championship football and look forward to his performances improving even more. Along with the defence, they both put their bodies on the line several times to block efforts and keep the goal intact - exactly what you`d expect.
Josh Murphy worked probably as hard at his defensive game as I have ever seen him. He really put a shift in and worked very well with Stiepermann when we were on the back foot, especially in the first 30 minutes of the second half. By the end though, he was spent and struggling to get forward in support of Oliveira and Wildschut. I remember one low ball across the six yard box that Oliveira and Murphy were nowhere near - they should`ve both been breaking their necks to get in there for that. Is early season stamina still a problem for Josh? He had a couple of decent attempts at goal and on another day could easily have scored.
James Maddison was more effective as the game wore on but he looked a little light weight in the first half especially and I thought he struggled to affect the game. He perhaps needs to add a few pounds of muscle to really compete because sometimes technical ability, which he has in spades, isn`t enough.
Mario Vrancic was used in a right sided role, despite obviously not being a winger. That meant he tucked in a lot, as did Murphy to be fair, when Norwich didn`t have possession. His ability with the ball is not in question though and he played some great balls with that excellent left foot of his, including one superb through ball to Oliviera that Nelson couldn`t quite get across to Murphy. He only lasted an hour though, before Yanic Wildschut`s more traditional, direct wing play was introduced.
It was a blessedly quieter day out for Angus Gunn than it has been in previous games and he only had one shot on target to deal with, a free kick from Jota that was curled comfortably into his waiting arms. Defenders and keepers love a clean sheet and they help build confidence.
So, in short, we were much more compact and the defensive shield of Tettey and Trybull were the catalyst for that. Alex Tettey is unlikely to be able to play again so soon, which means that the visit of Burton Albion on Tuesday will probably see a change in personnel and maybe formation too. If he decides to keep the same formation, Harrison Reed would be an able replacement for Tettey.
One worry I did have with this performance was the lack of crosses into the Birmingham area.
There were a few low balls across the six yard box that I remember but no-one got on the end of them and according to Sky Sports, we only put 9 crosses in, none of which were completed - the stat for Birmingham shows that they attempted 22 crosses, 6 of which reached a player in blue.
The other interesting thing is that whenever we have picked up points this season, at Fulham and at home against QPR and Birmingham, we have had less of the ball. That underlines the fact that you can have all the possession in the world but unless you do something with it, you might as well not bother in trying to keep the ball so much. Not so much tika taka and a little more expansive.
Norwich had 42% of the ball here but managed 14 shots to Birmingham`s 9 with 4 of ours being on target and 2 or 3 being very close.
It never looked as though we were in serious trouble of conceding, other than the 2 or 3 free kicks that were given away on the edge of our box. Jota is capable and was easily the visitors` best player on the day but he was well marshalled. The Blues had most of their possession in front of the Norwich team and struggled to break us down, being at threat of counter attacks whenever the ball was lost - sound familiar?
I`m giving Farke the benefit of the doubt and thinking that taking "baby steps" is worthwhile to keep some clean sheets and win some games, which is why he chose to "shore it up" with two defensive midfielders.
It`ll be interesting to see what he decides to do on Tuesday night.