If you look back over the chronicles of Norwich City heroes and fan's favourites, there are obvious legends that stand out; Steve Bruce, Kevin Keelan, Darren Huckerby and the undisputed "Disco" Dale Gordon are some of my picks. There are, however, a couple of names printed on The Barry Butler Memorial Trophy for player of the season that are less predictable.
During the 1990s, five of Norwich's player of the year recipients were defenders, including the unlikely 1996 winner, Spencer Prior. Of the 43 winners since Terry Allcock first won the trophy in 1967, 16 have been defenders, more than any other position.
It's a bit premature to be considering this season's player of the year award after just 22 games, but we're starting to see significant progress by the defensive unit that could result in another defender being the standout performer. It would be unexpected of a team that had to wait 22 games to keep its first clean sheet and for two and a half seasons and relied on its remarkable goal scoring ability. This weekend's home draw against Chelsea marks a step up in defensive quality.
Both Daniel Ayala and Zak Whitbread are cashing in on a rare period without injuries and appear to be forming a solid core at the heart of the Norwich defence. Very, very slowly they've begun ironing out the sloppy errors that were costing us crucial goals earlier in the season and both seem to be particularly strong in the tackle. Lambert seems is favouring the two over Leon Barnett, which is surprising to me.
The eventual return of Marc Tierney could see Kyle Naughton revert to right back and the ever-present Russell Martin slot in at centre back. Elliott Ward is thought to be making excellent progress and I expect Lambert to give Ward a spell once he reaches full fitness. When asked, most people associated with the club have mentioned that the January window ought to be used to add a centre back to the squad. These factors are likely to result in a lack of consistency in the back four. This could be a cause for concern since the recent consistency in the back line has yielded excellent defensive performances and Whitbread and Ayala have been at the heart of that since before Christmas.
Lambert will have to make careful decision about how he adjusts the backline.
Much of the credit for the defensive improvements has to be awarded to John Ruddy. The home draw with Chelsea might be the first of the season, but Ruddy has been outstanding throughout. Perhaps never better than he was in Saturday’s early kick off.
Ruddy’s low diving save in the first half to deny Fernando Torres’ exceptional curling shot was sensational. Throughout the season, Ruddy has been getting better and better, consistently making saves that earn points and will be another name in with a shout for the player of the year award when May comes around.
Getting a point at home to Chelsea is almost as impressive as picking up a point away at Liverpool. In a similar fashion to the game at Anfield back in October, we showed incredible resilience, we showed the ability to create against a top team and crucially, we got a little bit of luck. In both games, we had to rely on resolute defending and phenomenal saves from Ruddy. Both of these statements will be true if we are to maintain our mid-table security.
The old adage, “offense win games, defence wins championships” has started to carry weight around Carrow Road. Okay, we’re not fighting for the title just yet, but the defensive improvements will make all the difference to our season’s progress. If we’re to finish the season in a comfortable mid-table position rather than a nerve-wracking dog fight, performances and clean sheets like Saturday’s will need to become the norm and more frequent than once in every 22 outings.
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