Norwich's hopes of salvaging anything from this season effectively ended at Hillsborough. First up with a mini-inquest into what went wrong is Jon Punt...
That’s it, season over. There’s absolutely no chance of this beleaguered Norwich side embarking on a remarkable run of form. 9 points is too much of a gap to make up and even if we did have the audacity to prove everyone wrong you get the sense this team don’t have the stomach for the pressure of the play-offs. In fact, Alex Neil’s comments about the game at Hillsborough being too big for some of his players shows psychologically how far his side’s stock has fallen. The bullish arrogance once a hallmark of his reign remains in place for the manager, but this no longer transmits to those on the pitch.
Its easy to say they’ve let us down, players and manager alike. They have, top 6 was the minimum expectation this season yet we’ve failed spectacularly. Norwich lurched from the final throw of the dice to last chance saloon on a weekly basis but when the chips were down, when players needed to stand up and be counted they failed to get off their backsides. Cheers lads.
What’s striking however is where it went wrong. Scoring was never an issue, even when there was only Cameron Jerome to rely on. Midfielders have chipped in, goal of the season competitions have been won and lost in the space of 90 minutes, but the attacking talent we have on display has never been in question.
The other end of the pitch is of course where the attention should be squarely focussed. 53 goals shipped at the time of writing, the 3rd worst defensive record in the division. On our travels that becomes the 2nd worst record.
There is a stark contrast between the class of 2014/15 and 2016/17. When Neil took over the bunch of misfits Adams had assembled he quietly moulded them into a tight defensive unit. The fact Norwich conceded the least goals in the division that season after the Scot took over is often overlooked. Solidity was a bedrock of our most recent promotion, and continues to be the blueprint for teams wanting to reach the top tier.
For all of Anthony Knockaert’s ability going forward, Brighton have found a way to grind out results the ugly way and more importantly keep clean sheets. Rafael Benitez has been canny enough to recognise an instant return to the Premier League will only be forthcoming if his players carry out their defensive duties properly. Newcastle have often chosen to place an emphasis on being organised and earning the right to play before being too cavalier, especially on their travels.
This is where Norwich have differed. Too many post match press conferences have been full of hyperbole about the qualities Neil’s squad possesses at the top end of the pitch, without giving any credence to their defensive woes. Individual errors are categorised as merely that, almost like they’re out of the manager’s control. Maybe some retrospection will lead him to a different conclusion.
As much as the clamour for new centre backs is understandable (and I’d concur we’re overdue reinforcements in that area) Norwich have the personnel to at the very least be organised and difficult to beat. Be it a Martin, Klose, Bassong or Bennett, give them a structure to play within along with a little bit of protection and they’re up to doing a better job than has been displayed so far this term. Yes the legs are ageing, but the pace of Pinto, Dijks and Olsson before him should be enough to cover round should a ball over the top threaten.
Norwich’s willingness to be overly expansive, to play a narrow formation with full backs at the top end of the pitch, has cost them dear during this campaign. How many times have we seen one full back in a crossing position with his colleague on the other flank wandering into the box trying to get on the end of it? Even the most rudimentary of coaching will instruct full backs to sit and hold their position should their colleague be indulging in a foray forward.
And then there’s the over reliance on defensive midfielders to get us out of trouble. The last time I checked, Alex Tettey and Youssouf Mulumbu weren’t exactly the most mobile of players. Combative they may be, but their propensity to pick up injuries, suspensions or just get on a plane to sit on a bench in the AFCON meant we were threadbare in this department. Louis Thompson looked like he may be a ray of shining light before his Achilles decided to snap, but City’s failure to adequately cover this area of the pitch during the summer and January windows may have been our biggest failing of all. If you’re going to play with reckless abandonment, at least have a dynamic and high energy enforcer who can sweep up the mess afterwards.
When all is said and done, 2016/17 will be looked back on with disappointment and fingers will be pointed in many different directions. Change has to occur, be it managerially or by means of clearing out the dead, rotting, rancid wood in the dressing room.
However, the one glaring deficiency many may have missed is Norwich’s tactical and defensive philosophy. Too much importance has been placed on individuals not doing their jobs, when potentially the overall strategy was fundamentally flawed. Discipline and organisation were thrown out the window because we were arrogant enough to believe we were just better than those around us. Now that theory has been disproved, the hope is Norwich can revert to being well drilled and defensively diligent rather than expecting to roll over all and sundry.