Thursday, November 17, 2011
Lambert has Canaries flying high
When graduates of the lower leagues meet members of the elite, it is supposed to be a mismatch. But, as they prepare to face Arsenal on Saturday, Norwich City's experience is altogether different. They have attained gallant respectability instead of some of the anticipated thrashings.
Yet whatever the outcome of the duels between Leon Barnett and Robin van Persie, Marc Tierney and Theo Walcott and Steve Morison and Thomas Vermaelen, most intriguing of all is the managerial match-up between Arsene Wenger and Paul Lambert. Partly this is because the latter's mentor is Martin O'Neill, who had a capacity to irritate the Arsenal manager when still employed, but more because the Scot is making a habit of troubling the Frenchman's peers.
He has taken a point off Kenny Dalglish and, without getting a tangible reward, acquitted himself well against both Andre Villas-Boas and Sir Alex Ferguson; given the resources at his disposal, Lambert could be deemed to have bested all three. Coupled with Norwich's startling rise from obscurity - 27 months ago, they turned to their tormentor after they were thrashed 7-1 by Lambert's Colchester on the opening day of the League One season - it suggests he is management's rising star.
His reputation has been burnished by surreal levels of success in Norfolk. From the nadir that their heaviest home defeat represented, Norwich have acquired an almost unstoppable momentum. Back-to-back promotions have been achieved, aided by a trait of the teams of the doyen of Scottish managers, Ferguson. Late goals are a feature of their progress - 17 arrived after the 85th minute last season alone - and Norwich's indefatigable attitude seems to sum up the side. They have been imbued with spirit by their manager.
Boldness can account for their comebacks - a goal down at Anfield, Lambert brought on a second striker and switched system - but so does a tactical flexibility. Norwich alternated formations at the start of the season before settling on their current 4-2-3-1; last year, Championship opponents found it hard to combat a midfield diamond with a converted winger, Wes Hoolahan, at the tip.
His charges' lowly backgrounds reflect well on Lambert. He is not alone in identifying and trusting footballers from lesser divisions, but none of his Premier League counterparts had pursued the philosophy to such an extent. The rarity value is all the greater when it is considered that the vast majority of the Norwich squad have produced more for Lambert than any other manager and most are at an all-time high in their careers. One elementary way of assessing a coach is if he has made more from the raw materials than his predecessors or rivals, in Lambert's case it looks more like alchemy than basic metalwork.
All of which prompts the question of how far the 42-year-old can go. His CV has an unusual allure. The 1997 Champions League winner (with Borussia Dortmund) boasts the playing pedigree that many emerging managers lack, hinting he will be equipped for the game's upper reaches. Yet his willingness to serve his apprenticeship at Livingston, Wycombe and Colchester, clubs where glamour was conspicuous by its absence, distinguishes him from many a big-name footballer. Meanwhile, one who studied for his Pro-Licence in Germany is an exception among the insularity of the British game.
And Lambert has an undeniable geographical and genetic advantage. Scottish managers retain a mystique and have remained in fashion throughout the decades. The theory that there is something in the water in the river Clyde has plenty of subscribers in directors' boxes.
And yet there are boxes still to be ticked; in part, that is inevitable at a comparatively early stage of a manager's career. Despite his background in the Bundesliga with Dortmund, Lambert's time in the dugout has been notable for his focus on domestic players. Norwich often field a matchday 18 comprising solely of Brits and Irish players. But, though the Canaries continue to fly high, there is a logical limit to how far the current collective can travel. If he is to climb the managerial ladder, a more cosmopolitan approach will be required.
So, although the two are not twinned, will be the capacity to deal with egos. His recruitment policy means he has had few to deal with to date, and Norwich's spirit is very much proof that they are a team in every respect. Yet the upper echelons of management involves strength and subtlety, dictators who can be delicate when the need arises. They must be able to motivate multi-millionaires.
Indeed, the idea of him inspiring is where Lambert's prowess appears unlikely. His teams are clearly stirred by their manager's words and deeds, yet the Scot's public face is a somewhat dour persona; comparisons with the exuberant O'Neill can seem misplaced when onlookers meet the rather less charismatic Lambert.
Change will be necessary to manage a bigger club. Thus far, Lambert has adapted seamlessly from League One to Championship to Premier League. His formula has worked brilliantly. But if he is to emulate Wenger and his ilk, rather than merely oppose them, Lambert will have to abandon his unique approach and deal with the difficulties his opponents encounter regularly.