Two wins, three defeats, a 0-0 draw. Can December really be described as the month Norwich got themselves back on track? Zoë Whitford bids a fond farewell to 2017, a year that promised much and failed often.
During the game against Leeds United at Elland Road in December, a curious and entertaining series of events took place. In the first half, every time there was a break in play, Daniel Farke called over Marco Stiepermann for a chat, presumably about the way he might like to consider playing. And every time this happened, Leeds’ right-back Luke Ayling would trot over too.
Ayling, who - pleasingly - has just the amount of uncompromised weaselry you might expect from a Leeds player, would just stand there next to Stiepermann, bold as brass. Presumably he had no idea what they were discussing unless he’s unexpectedly fluent in German, but he wanted to make his presence known.
Eventually, Farke acknowledged his presence, they had a little joke together and a cuddle, and the game carried on. It was reminiscent of Grant Holt in his prime, who once asked the Oldham goalie at Boundary Park if he could have a sip from his water bottle, proceeding to tip most of it out, winking at the City fans behind the goal as he did it. Pointless, but annoying.
This episode featured everything you might expect from a month in the Championship: charismatic players; a little bit of confidence or assertion taking you a long way; and most of all an understanding that the game at that level is all about fine margins: any slight advantage gained could be crucial. The ‘anyone can beat anyone’ mantra of the Championship exists because there’s often little difference between the teams.
And so, then, to the rest of December.
The lack of confidence that a six-game winless streak brings was all too evident in the 3-1 defeat at Cardiff. First half dominance wilted away as six became seven, chances to turn 1-0 into 2-0 were missed and the jittery defence was punished. Those fine margins can sometimes seem like gaping chasms.
As the Sky cameras rocked up to Carrow Road, it became clear that under no circumstances could seven become eight. Throughout the game Sky talked of Sheffield Wednesday’s play-off aspirations, and Norwich’s waning season. When 90 minutes were up, the teams were level on points. Those fine margins. And suddenly, on the pitch, was Alex Pritchard, preordained Saviour of the Season, there to ease the pressure on Maddison who should not always have to sparkle solo.
Panic over then? Pritchard back in the mix, Tettey and Trybull fit again. But what’s this, they’re both on the bench at Elland Road? This dilemma must have troubled (Trybulled) Farke in the build-up. Sure, he had to reward the team that had stopped seven becoming eight, but so much of the team’s September success had been down to the conscientious workhorses in front of the back four. His gamble didn’t pay off. A closely-fought contest was lost. Where was our Luke Ayling?
The less said about the defeat to Brentford, the better. The margins were less fine that night.
Christmas, and a Boxing Day visit to St Andrew’s, where it was no longer winless in seven but one win in 11. Birmingham struggling, a must-win game. Five changes, including the return of the precious pair of shields in midfield. And lo, that Saviour of whom they spoke was dressed in yellow: a goal and a sumptuous assist from Pritchard, rapidly rediscovering his form and discovering an understanding with Maddison. Two in twelve sounds ever so slightly better.
Not enough changes against Leeds, too many for the trip to Burton, where Pritchard, Maddison, Klose and Tettey were all rested. It wasn’t a disaster, a 0-0 draw, but unsurprisingly the spark was lacking. Unbeaten in two over Christmas though, could this be where the new run started?
Perhaps the results in December don’t reflect the slight upturn in form, but they give some insight into Norwich’s most important players. A win in a pressure game away from home and the comeback from 1-0 down against Sheffield Wednesday does suggest that the confidence is starting to return.
Most of all, December reminds us of those fine margins, those delicate selection gambles, those slightly better players, those sneaky buggers taking note of our tactics, and why a bad result doesn’t always mean a disaster.