Steven Whittaker and Russell Martin may have got the plaudits for their goals, but Dan Brigham says Norwich's midfield is their best for 20 years – even if Ian Wright doesn’t know who they are
Saturday night was a momentous occasion for BBC television. Not only were Norwich City first on Match of the Day – winning in some style, as well – but Ian Wright returned to the studio for the first time in eight years. You may have noticed him. He was dressed like your geography teacher.
His impact was immediate, in much the same that walking into a nightclub with sunglasses on and stacking it down the stairs is an immediate impact. Here he was explaining how Sunderland allowed Norwich too much space: “Look how much space he’s got, look how much space he’s got, you know, still no closing down, too much space, no intensity, he’s going to come across here, look how much space he’s got here, he’s going to pass it back to him, nobody’s closing him, look howmuch space he’s got, take your time, take your time, into Redmond”.
In case you couldn't read between the lines, Wrighty wasn't talking about one single Norwich player. Instead, he was analysing footage of a couple of slick moves that involved Norwich rallying the ball between Jonny Howson - Bradley Johnson - Howson - Graham Dorrans - Howson - Alex Tettey - Nathan Redmond.
In those eight years away, Wright clearly hasn't learnt the names of many Norwich players, other than Redmond's. It was like watching Neighbours for the first time in a decade and not recognising anyone until, thank the Lord, Harold Bishop pops up on screen.
Leaving aside that Howson, Johnson, Dorrans and Tettey have 334 Premier League appearances between them, leaving aside that Wright is paid to know the names of Premier League players, and leaving aside that it would be freaking awesome if he was your geography teacher, perhaps there's another reason the likes of Howson, Johnson and Tettey were unfamiliar to him.
The last time Norwich were in the Premier League, all of the tools were there for the midfield to shine. But Chris Hughton kept some of the sharper tools buried in the box and instead of building a really cool house with a jacuzzi, indoor cinema, games room and a retractable roof, he used them to build a modest little bungalow and forgot to put the roof on.
This time, much of the same personnel remains – Dorrans is in for Leroy Fer and Redmond is on the right instead of Robert Snodgrass – but the attitude is different. Just as they were in the Championship under Alex Neil, the midfielders have been encouraged to pick the dangerous pass rather than take the safe option, to swap positions, to overlap, to embrace the ball, to run at pace. After the opening two matches, only Arsenal have had more possession -–60.1% – than Norwich – 58.8%.
It is genuinely thrilling to see such skilful, precise ball-players allowed to play to their potential; a nod back to the glory days of Goss, Crook, Phillips and Fox, with the full backs pushing on like Bowen and Culverhouse did over two decades ago. It is brave football, and it was mightily encouraging to see Norwich play with such freedom against Sunderland despite the opening day defeat. Other teams may have been cowed but – and it's early days yet – that just doesn't seem to be in the team's nature anymore.
It's not foolhardy football, though. Oh no. When the midfield go adventuring, they make sure they've packed the compass, waterproofs and a flare gun. They're not just set up to create, they're also set up to destroy. Whereas Norwich would let the opposition play in front of them under Hughton, now they work tirelessly to close, to rob, to snuff. Getting the ball back is, funnily enough, instrumental to keeping the ball, and the midfield is drilled to pounce on mistakes, with Tettey sat at the base, shooting down marauding aliens like the lazer cannon in Space Invaders.
Of course, it's easy to keep the ball when the opposition don't send out a team but a figment of a football side. Sunderland roamed around the pitch gormlessly, like zombies at the gates of Hell or tired shoppers on Oxford Street. There was no thrust to their play, no spark, no invention. They were the opposite of Norwich, the opposite of what a Premier League side should be.
Crucially, and unlike the season we were relegated, Norwich have a manager who allows the team to take full advantage of sides that fail to close down space. It showed a wily nature to their play that comes with so much Premier League experience, and is encouraging for the tougher games to come (which, let's be honest, is likely to be every single game to come).
How the midfield performs will be crucial to Norwich's survival hopes this season. It is where the most experience is, where the best players are, where chances will be created and opposition attacks slammed shut.
It is the best midfield we've had for 20 years and, given time, and with a little bit of luck, even Ian Wright might one day learn their names.