We caught up with the lads from the rather splendid Norwich City blog Holtamania ahead of Sunday's game. There's some excellent stuff on the recent rise of the Canaries, plus a few choice comments about our own gaffer, who once resided at Carrow Road.
The Canaries seem to be in decent form as of late, unbeaten in your last six games, can you pinpoint the main reasons behind the recent success?
Holtamania: The defence, basically. Last season we were excellent going forward but leaky at the back, not helped by numerous injuries and not much consistency. This year he's brought in an entirely new backline and kept it more-or-less the same, barring the odd niggle. Garrido-Turner-Bassong-Whittaker has been as solid as we've had in a long, long time. Credit has to also go to the midfield pairing of Johnson and Tettey in front, who give them excellent protection. It's how we've gone from letting in 5 to Fulham and Liverpool to keeping the joint top number of clean sheets in the division.
Following a few big losses Hughton really seems to have tightened up your defence which must be a big plus?
H: Yep, and the key member is Bassong. He had a tough time at Spurs but it was always said that he is excellent when he's playing regularly, which he is now. He improves whoever he is with, he's a talker and a leader and makes sure everyone else knows what their job is, and whether its Leon Barnett, Michael Turner or Ryan Bennett, they've all come in and played brilliantly alongside him.
How do you rate Hughton? As someone entrenched in the "North-East football scene", even as a Sunderland fan, it was hard not to warm to the bloke when he was in charge at Newcastle.
H: Nicest man in football. He's totally different to Lambert who seemed like the prick it was ok to admire. Hughton is a top guy, smart, eloquent and he's getting a lot out of his group of players. This is the first time he's been at a club where he can truly dictate the direction - at Newcastle and Birmingham there was so much behind the scenes nonsense that it was hard to get on with the job. Now he has stability and I think he'll bring it to us too. It's not the exciting gung ho football we saw last year, but we just beat Arsenal and Man Utd while keeping clean sheets - he's doing something right.
Has Grant Holt been forgiven for his summer contract indiscretions?
H: More or less. Goals always help, and he netted a few earlier in the year, but his role has changed somewhat. He's a bit more isolated as a lone forward supported by Hoolahan, in a more defensive system. Last year he was the focal point of a very attacking unit so the 17 goals he got were not a surprise. Now we score less, and he has to tolerate fewer chances and games not being set up for him. He seems to be doing well so far, he's working hard, harassing defenders and being a nuisance. He'll never stop being a nuisance, to be honest.
On to Sunderland, a frustratingly disappointing season to date, have you been unfortunate to have caught much of us this year?
H: I have, and it's not particularly edifying viewing. You've got a few good players up there, Fletcher in particular, but something isn't clicking.
How do you rate O'Neill as a gaffer?
H: Hmmm. I said in an equivalent piece with you guys last season that I'm not much a fan of his football, and the same remains. The man has got results pretty much everywhere he's been, and is still a fan favourite down here for both his playing and (short-lived) managerial stints, but I wonder if he's being left behind while football moves on. He's pretty rigid, the football he plays now is the same he played at Villa and at Celtic before, and while he has good players, I wonder if he's good enough to counter the more complex tactics of better opponents and more well-rounded players. He just seems a bit 2D in a world that's 3D.I think if you compare him to our old boss, Lambert, then you've got someone who has O'Neills famed man management and motivational skills but with the added tactical nous to turn games around.
Moving on to the game, how can we expect Norwich to be set up to take all three points?
H: We've got our system and we seem to be sticking to it - Hoolahan playing off Holt up front. Tettey will support with some bursting runs from midfield, and we'll hope to use the wide players cutting inside a lot. Both Pilkington and Snodgrass play on the opposite side to their natural foot so there'll be less going down the line and more cutting in. Their delivery so far this season has been dire, so that needs to improve.
Conversely are their any weak spots that Sunderland could look to exploit?
H: Well if Cattermole is injured, that's a bonus. He's not exactly a gifted footballer but he protects the defence well and you lose more without him. I expect Hoolahan will have a more enjoyable afternoon than if he was being kicked about the pitch, so I'd look at him to try and control the game.
Who in the Norwich side should SAFC be particularly wary of?
H: Hoolahan and Tettey. Wes is in the form of his life at the moment and is the man who pulls all our strings. Tettey is a complete diamond we brought over from Rennes in the summer and he is the midfielder we've missed for years. A strong presence to protect the back four, but someone who can turn defence to attack pretty quickly, and contribute with strong bursting runs through the middle. He's been outstanding so far.
Vice versa is there anyone in the Sunderland side that gives you cause for concern?
H: Fletcher always worries me because he's a natural goalscorer, he doesn't need many chances, but we're doing pretty well defensively at the moment so I hope Bassong can mark him out of the game. Otherwise it's the wingers, McClean especially using his pace up against Whittaker. Both our goals conceded against Everton and Southampton came from that area of the pitch.
Could we trouble you for a prediction?
H: A very boring 1-0, and everyone will resent it being on TV. To us, of course.