Six clean sheets in seven. Ten games unbeaten. Here's Adam Brandon to tell you about a classic of the ACN genre...
This is as solid as we have looked under Farke for a sustained period, there has been a marked improvement in our defending on both set pieces (first and second balls) and in transitions – two/three major weak points of the side for years. The energy we have in defensive midfield from Oliver Skipp and Lukas Rupp has been a factor, with the former especially increasingly good at taking up just the right positions at the right time.
We also have two very good Championship seasoned centre-backs who seem to enjoy the battles at this level, meaning just one goal tends to be enough for us to pick up points this season rather than the 2+ generally previously required.
We could just leave the whinging to Neil Warnock, he seems rather good at it. The Boro manager was upset with Sorensen not receiving a second yellow card on 85 minutes, but conveniently forgot a clear foul on McLean in the box a few minutes prior that should have seen Norwich get another penalty.
I’m still not convinced by the Jordan Hugill signing and this was another 45 minutes where the ball and the big lad looked like mortal enemies even before he picked up his shoulder injury. It is fair to say Stiepermann and Placheta had issues with their first touch too first half – maybe we can blame the Riverside pitch.
The only other thing that annoyed me in the first half was Jhed Spence’s unfortunate habit of stepping on (invisible on iFollow) mines that kept exploding under his feet in our box in the first half. Fortunately the ref didn’t fall for it.
Moment(s) of the match
It was a tight game, but it had two unquestionably big moments and it would be amiss not to mention them both.
Before I get onto the second half drama, I have to point out the highlight of the first half: a beautiful dribble from our little Argentine genius that set up our best chance of the half, Stiepermann’s shot blocked by a Boro defender.
The disallowed Middlesbrough penalty is obviously a massive (and rather unusual) moment. This is a ref that certainly doesn’t need a trip to the opticians on Monday as it took me various viewing on slo-mo to see it. Any doubts from Boro fans about whether Tavernier did kick it twice or not are surely best dismissed with the fact they barely protested the decision.
Norwich then sparked into life and we started to show our extra bit of class and it wasn’t long for the moment of the match. It started with our Dutch goalkeeper pulling off a Cruyff turn of sorts in his own box and ended with Max Aarons showing great drive and skill to win a penalty after a lovely little one-two with Emi Buendia. Pukki cooly converted.
Friday’s press conference brought news of 10-week layoffs for Adam Idah and Bali Mumba, a big blow given both had come on and won games for Norwich this season as impact subs.
Farke’s options were therefore limited for the centre forward role and at left-back. Hugill got the nod ahead of Pukki, with the Finn returning from a heavy schedule on international duty. Otherwise the side had a familiar look with Danish midfielder Jacob Lungi Sorenson filling in at left-back again.
Tactically speaking, starting a big man over Pukki actually looked a good idea from Farke as we looked to bypass the Boro high press and play it up to Hugill and for him to bring in the supporting cast around him, but in practice this plan proved to have a rather notable flaw (see above).
Farke probably would have put Pukki on for Hugill on at HT even if the Middlesbrough-born striker wasn’t injured. McLean for Stiepermann was a sub I thought he would make and it came at the right time again.
Farke pushed for five subs to be introduced with the heavy schedule, but he only used the last three in injury time. This felt a sensible decision as the players out there looked fairly comfortable at defending the 1-0 lead and it felt more risky to disrupt our rhythm than to add fresh legs, so no grumbles from me.
Random Star Performer
This was arguably Grant Hanley’s best performance in a Norwich shirt, the Scot was imperious in the air all afternoon and also got some vital blocks in giving him a clear MOTM for anybody watching (i.e. not Spurs fans). He also saved Gibson and Krul from an embarrassing mix-up first half.
There was also some promising actions in possession from the Norwich captain, although it was his centre back partner Ben Gibson who shone more in this aspect, often driving us up the field.
Norwich have come through another big test of their promotion credentials with all three points and now sit top of the league averaging two points a game. Happy days.
Although we needed some luck along the way, it is worth remembering this is a Norwich side without a number of genuine first team options and with no recognised left-back.
Given how much of a battering the confidence must have took with the historically bad losing run at the end of last season, Farke and the players all deserve huge credit for being able to climb to the top of the league after just 12 games this season.
Can it last? The quality of the division feels weaker than two years ago where Norwich were six points worse off at this stage.
And although we have not played with the fluidity we did two years ago, there is no doubting we are much more solid.
Analytically speaking, few sides can match us on various attacking, passing and possession metrics, put this together with our current defensive record then all signs point to our promotion challenge being sustainable.
Stoke City are next up, a side that conceded three to Huddersfield this weekend but still won and sit just three points behind us. Michael O’Neill sides are usually not so easy to score past so I’m expecting another tight affair where hopefully our extra bit of class at this level will prove the difference once again.
Author, writer and Middlesbrough fan Daniel Gray joins Nick Hayhoe for a chat about floodlights, the Riverside ceilings, Wembley 2015 and, oh yeah, the football match between Middlesbrough and Norwich City that's apparently taking place this weekend.
Nick Hayhoe continues his A History of Norwich City in 100 Goals series. This time it's Tuesday 1 May, 1962 and Norwich City are playing in a cup final...