The return of Premier League football sees champions Manchester City visit Carrow Road for match-week five under the lights on Saturday evening.
Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk caught up with The Athletic’s Manchester City correspondent, Sam Lee, to discuss their season so far, the significance of Aymeric Laporte’s injury, and to preview this weekend’s fixture.
canaries.co.uk: How would you sum up Man City’s start to the season so far?
SL: It’s been going well. Their best overall performance was probably in the 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve won the other matches through the organisation of the team and the game plan they’ve got. There are different ways they can change things within a game if it’s not going well.
Obviously, they’ve got the quality of the players as well, so they’ve had a really good start. It’s not so much of a surprise, because of the way they’re coached, but they’ve picked up exactly where they left off last season and probably the season before that. They’ve been consistent going into this fourth full season under Pep Guardiola.
canaries.co.uk: One of the main talking points at the moment is the injury to Laporte. Coupled with Vincent Kompany’s departure over the summer, how big of a miss will that defensive pair be?
SL: They’ll miss Kompany, even if they had signed someone like Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique. Those players are great defenders with a great presence in the dressing room, but they’re not Kompany. They haven’t got that Man City connection which only Kompany had. He was such a leader and so eloquent. He was such a big presence around the team, so that was never really going to be replaced no matter what.
Now, the situation is even tougher with Laporte’s injury. They were already short in that area with only three senior centre-backs plus Fernandinho, who they’ll use there. Laporte was the best and most consistent of those options.
They’ve got John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi who can come in and add different qualities for each game, but they play on the right side of defence, win headers and make passes. You could switch them around, but Laporte is unique. He’s the only one who’s left-footed, he’s the only one who’s that good on the ball. He’s so relied upon to bring the ball out from the back, whether he’s dribbling with it or passing it.
They will miss him because he’s unique and they’ve not got much depth, but Benjamin Mendy got injured around this time of the season two years ago and since then City have gone on without a recognised left-back.
Last season, Kevin De Bruyne had a long-term injury but the season before that he won Player of the Year. They still won the league without him, so no matter how good, unique and consistent Laporte is, I still think they’ll find a way – which will involve a lot of different tweaks and rely on Fernandinho being fit and learning the role – not to be affected in too many games.
It’s obviously good news that he’s not going to miss the whole season, but I do think in the short-term they’ll be able to cover for him just because they’ve got so many different options, whether that’s individual talent or Guardiola’s ideas.
canaries.co.uk: The Champions League group stage kicks off for Man City against Shakhtar Donetsk on the Wednesday following their trip to Carrow Road. Do you think we’ll see a similar side in both games, or will Pep rotate for one or the other?
SL: It’s always really difficult with Man City. You never quite know from one week to the next who is going to play because they’ve got so many options. It seems like Kyle Walker has got right-back locked down, so I think he’s likely to start at Norwich because he’s a known quantity.
The centre-back options are interesting obviously, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Otamendi and Fernandinho against Norwich, with Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back. Mendy may play 20 minutes at Norwich if he’s fit enough, but I think it would make more sense to do that at home.
Rodrigo and De Bruyne should start, and I think David Silva will play because he’ll have had more rest over the break having retired from playing for Spain, although he could be rested for Ilkay Gundogan.
Sergio Aguero is the main man up front with Raheem Sterling, while Riyad Mahrez is closing the gap on Bernardo Silva. I suppose you can predict eight or nine of the players, but there’s always a bit of a question mark over one or two just because there’s so much depth and so many players are chomping at the bit to get in.
canaries.co.uk: After Man City beat Brighton & Hove Albion 4-0 two weeks ago, Guardiola said that more teams should play attacking football against them like Brighton did. What tactics do you expect teams to deploy against Man City?
SL: In the Champions League, I think the best way to play against Man City is to go at them. I don’t mean get stuck into them, but if you’ve got good players and you’ve got a game plan that you work on week in, week out, and you’re used to taking the game to teams and attacking, or stopping the defensive midfielder from getting on the ball easily, that’s when I think you can have a bit of joy.
What I’ll say about Norwich is that they’re used to playing that way and having the ball themselves. It’s a night game at Carrow Road and it’s on TV, so I think it suits Norwich better to play like that against Man City than it does to sit back and park the bus and go for the counterattack.
When Norwich come to the Etihad Stadium later in the season, I’d still say they should go for it, try their best and give a good account of themselves. It’s difficult either way, and the chances are teams are going to lose whatever they try.
Unless they have a perfect game and Man City have an off day, and in most cases, they need to be excellent technically, they’re probably going to lose anyway, so I would genuinely suggest teams just stick to their own game.
There’s always something different about away games and Man City won’t have found their Laporte replacement yet, so they won’t be comfortable regarding that. I think there’s a bit of an opportunity there for Norwich to make life difficult for Man City.
canaries.co.uk: You touched on it briefly there, but what are your thoughts on Norwich?
SL: One thing I’ve noticed, and I’ve seen more of Norwich this season than last, is that they play a good style of attacking football. That’s what got them up and I like how they’ve stuck with that.
When they played Chelsea, they made life difficult for them, but what I noticed in the game against West Ham United was that Norwich found it difficult to stick with a higher class of opposition once they moved through the gears.
That will be crucial for Man City, because they can get away from any team so they may get away from Norwich, who could still be adapting to life in the Premier League.
I really admire teams that come up, are true to what they believe in, and have got something about them. From a fan’s point of view, it’s exciting to have teams in the league who will do something different. It’s better to live and die on your own terms.
We’ve seen teams come up who have been just another English side without star players or a particularly good plan or have a coach without many ideas. For them, it’s just a case of working hard and seeing what happens, but what I like about Norwich is they’ve got something different about them and I hope it works out for them.
canaries.co.uk: Finally, can we get a score prediction from you for this weekend?
SL: I do think it will be tough and I do see Norwich scoring. That’s not a given against Man City, and while it sounds quite patronising, that’s the level they’re at. I think Man City will win, so I’ll go for 2-1. I think it will be quite a close game.
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamLee.