Norwich come up against another form side this weekend in the shape of Bristol City. Jon Punt spoke to a man who must be up for the award of “best named local sports journalist”, The Bristol Post’s Gregor MacGregor, who’s also a Robins fan.
Jon: To outsiders looking in last term, Lee Johnson was a man lucky to retain his job. Bristol City's mid-season form seemed to mirror that of Norwich's wretched run, which ultimately culminated in Alex Neil being handed his P45. Did the fans keep faith with Johnson and how's the mood around Ashton Gate now?
Gregor: The fans have been divided on Lee Johnson, but now they’re coming round given that Johnson’s early proclamations are slowing proving true. Following a wretched run across winter – and a record run of league defeats – the board stood by the head coach, and that has certainly been vindicated.
The results were turned round and there were actually some really good signs last season despite plenty of upheaval in the 2016 summer transfer market.
A good end-of-season run of results (including solid wins over Wolves, QPR, Barnsley and Brighton) meant the club actually improved on the season before (2015-16), and – following what looks to have been an excellent summer transfer window – that momentum has continued. At the time of writing it’s been just one defeat all season, from 10 games. And that was against Birmingham when the Robins deserved a lot more.
A lot of City fans can now see what Johnson is doing and it’s starting to look exciting. There’s a youthful zest to the current side, mixed with plenty of talent from the Academy. The fans are being won over.
Jon: Your start has certainly been impressive, especially so due to the fact finding the back of the net hasn’t been an issue at all. I genuinely thought in the absence of Tammy Abraham that scoring goals would be a problem too large to fix and potentially would result in another struggle at the wrong end of the table. How has Johnson managed to fill the void Abraham left?
Gregor: That has been arguably Johnson’s best move as manager: he’s converted former attacking midfielder – and Academy product - Bobby Reid into a striker.
Reid has been in great form this season and is now the current leading scorer in the league (6 league goals, 7 all comps). He works so hard off the ball that it actually makes a big difference on the defensive side too. Johnson calls his role that of a ‘9 and a half’.
Meanwhile, the Robins made a club record swoop for Senegal striker Famara Diedhiou from French Ligue 1 side Angers. He cost £5.3m, scored on his debut and has now netted three times in seven league starts. He plays alongside Reid and the duo have a good partnership going.
Although the new man’s form has been patchy he’s starting to show signs of getting to grips with the Championship, with two goals in his last two games. Diedhiou’s good in the air, can dribble but needs to keep possession better
Jon: Saturday should be an interesting test of Norwich’s new found defensive mettle then. 3 clean sheets in the last 3 games came out of nowhere given calamitous capitulations at Villa Park and The Den.
Interestingly, despite looking to play a possession based game with a focus primarily on ball retention, our 3 league victories this term have all been when we’ve had less of the ball than the opposition. Having only really watched Channel 5’s rather brief summary of your exploits so far I’m rather uneducated but definitely unashamedly and selfishly interested in the kind of footballing philosophy Johnson has impressed upon his squad?
Gregor: Lee Johnson sets his team up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Bobby Reid normally playing just behind Famara Diedhiou. The Robins play an open and attacking style, which has attracted a fair few admirers. They currently have the fifth most shots on goal per game in the league but also concede the fifth most shots in the league per game. Hence, plenty of goals in either end.
Bristol City are currently the top scorers in the league, and Bobby Reid the top scorer, but there are goals across the team: Aden Flint is a regular goal-scorer from the back, Nathan Baker too, while Jamie Paterson is very capable from midfield too.
Johnson’s philosophy is essentially ‘let’s have a go’, with relentless intensity and pressing from the front. So far this season, it’s working.
Jon: This should make for a titanic and turbulent tussle then. Bristol’s reckless abandonment pits their wits against Norwich’s embryonic yet recently resolute backline. I can envisage us being happy to soak up your attacks while relying on Josh Murphy and Yanic Wildschut’s pace to exploit gaps on the counter.
Possibly not one for a midfield purist. Talking of midfielders though, how have former Canaries Gary O’Neil and Korey Smith been faring for you of late? Both were well regarded at Norwich yet their departures were around timing rather than their respective talent. Korey’s exit was more about Norwich’s meteoric rise outstripping his own development, while O’Neil was the steady influence we perhaps required last term but we weren’t prepared to offer him a longer term deal.
Gregor: Gary O’Neil has been sadly injured for a large part of the last six months (foot, ankle). He may be fit enough to take a place on the bench at the weekend though as he is close to a return to action. The energy and industry he brings to the middle of the pitch would be very welcome.
Korey Smith, meanwhile, has been an integral player in Johnson’s set up. The return of Smith to the team (and to midfield) last season corresponded with an upturn in the Robins’ form while the former Canary is one of only two outfield players to have played every minute of the league season so far (Joe Bryan being the other). In particular, Smith has been superb in the last two games against Derby and Wolves, combining intelligent use of the ball and crunching tackles.
Jon: Smith was a real driving force behind Paul Lambert’s successful Norwich side who stormed to the League One title, his performances were often better than you’d expect of a man so young at the time. It was a real shame he couldn’t continue his progression with us but by then we had loftier ambitions and requirements. I’m really glad to hear he’s found a home where he’s valued and is making a difference. That said, I hope he has a shocker on Saturday. We’ve started to built some momentum in the last week or so and we’re hoping that continues. What have you made to Norwich’s start to the campaign?
Gregor: I’ve not been surprised by the slow start for the Canaries. With Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke coming in and making a lot of changes it’s going to take a fair while for them to wash through. I think it may take some time to establish consistency, just as it did for Huddersfield when Webber helped revamp the club the year before they were promoted, and as it has done with Bristol City over the last couple of years.
I haven’t seen too much of Norwich so far this season but am glad to note – for the Robins – that Oliveira won’t play. But there are plenty of other talents I do really rate at Carrow Road, too: Marley Watkins, Wes Hoolahan (if he plays) as well as young Murphy. I thought Wildschut looked good when you visited Ashton Gate in March last season under Alex Neil, too. I think it’ll be a close game.
Jon: Interesting you pinpoint Marley Watkins, I’m not sure we’ve seen the best of him yet and I’d be surprised if he makes the starting eleven on Saturday. Wildschut has really come to the fore though under Farke recently and could be a key man at the weekend given his ball carrying capabilities. Short of those you’ve already identified, is there anyone in particular we should fear from the Robins’ squad?
Gregor: Joe Bryan is rated as the best left-back in the league by Opta and the statisticians at Whoscored.com. Also, come the weekend there could be a cameo from Matty Taylor, who is nearing full fitness. The former Rovers man is another workaholic attacker and set up plenty of goals last season. He could be influential in the latter stages.
Finally, there’s Jonathan Leko who looks an outstanding English prospect. He’s on loan from West Brom and plenty of the Bristol City players have been raving about his individual skills in training. He won a vital penalty on Saturday against Derby and will likely catch the eye at Carrow Road with his pace, power and outrageous technique.
Jon: I meant to ask before about Taylor, how has his jump from Rovers to City gone down? Guessing it’s easier as the clubs aren’t in the same division?
Gregor: Mixed results so far. Always puts in a good shift and chipped in with plenty of assists last season, but didn’t get on the scoresheet as much as he’d have liked. More to come though.
Jon: Obscure question time, and one our readers certainly won’t give two flying ones about, but do all the cool kids actually call Bristol, ‘Brizzle’? Also, perhaps more importantly, score predictions for Saturday?
Gregor: Think it’s more ‘Briz’. And 1-1 – Both City’s in good form. An entertaining draw could be on the cards.
Jon: Damn – my illusions are shattered. Yeah I don't think you'll be far wrong with that prediction. Head says two sides with momentum and a draw is likely, heart is going for a sneaky 1-0 Norwich win.
Gregor is the sports writer covering Bristol City for The Bristol Post. You can follow him on Twitter, @GeeMacGee
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