Norwich host a Reading side this weekend who’ve turned from play-off finalists to relegation strugglers. Jon Punt spoke to Simeon Pickup, editor of Reading fansite The Tilehurst End to discuss the dodging of an Oliveira shaped bullet, Stam stubbornness and other stuff
Jon: Early season optimism seemed to be rife among Reading fans. There was talk of another push for the top 6, and the rumour mills were awash with chat that Nelson Oliveira was Berkshire-bound for a fee somewhere nearing 8 figures. Would you still like him? Please, go on, we'll take 12 tracksuits and a pre-season friendly right now. Please?
Seriously though, this campaign obviously hasn't worked out the way many saw it. What's been the root causes of your failure to compete?
Simeon: There have been plenty of reasons for our frankly embarrassing season. Many will point the finger of blame at the manager, whose baffling tactics, stubbornness and arrogance towards the fans hasn't exactly helped. For example - he insisted on playing without a striker in the starting XI for a spell early on in the campaign, and has recently dropped our best 'keeper without any obvious reason.
However, chronic injury problems in the squad - we've often lacked an established creative midfielder or left back - has been crippling too, while low morale after the play-off final defeat and poor recruitment are all also big factors. Ali Al-Habsi, Danny Williams (both left) and Yann Kermorgant (often injured) were key last season, but haven't been replaced. We really needed a reliable goalscorer anyway - Nelson Oliveira would have fitted the bill perfectly - but couldn't get one. A few more experienced, technical players would have been lovely too.
Not sure our Lord Nelson would have been the man for you. His temperament is consistently called into question and he appeared to fall out with our new head coach in only his first appearance for him. At times he looks like he's downed tools midway through matches - you probably got lucky there. Still, would you like him now, please? Pretty please?
Interesting you mention the manager's stubbornness, it's a reason many fans pointed to for Norwich's failures last season.
What kind of set up are we expecting from a Jaap Stam side nowadays? Last term it appeared to be a possession based, pragmatic way of going about your business, with a little bit of quality at the top end of the park to edge matches. Are we to expect more of the same, only this time your attack is fairly blunt?
Haha, a few months ago we'd have loved him, but now we've got Chris Martin in on loan from Derby, I'll have to politely decline.
It's still very much the possession-based system that we saw last season - but team selections now seem to be influenced by circumstance (i.e. a glut of injuries) rather than pragmatism (i.e. wanting to change the line-up to counter the opposition).
I imagine that Stam will keep the 4-3-3 we've seen most games for this Saturday's match - injuries prevent us from putting out a 3-5-2 which we occasionally deployed pragmatically last season to nullify other teams (which worked to perfection in the play-off semi-finals against Fulham).
Expect to see Reading trying to keep the ball at Carrow Road as they often do, but with more long balls than last season - Stam is tactically stubborn, but even he's realised the need for the defenders to give the ball a good ol' hoof when they're under pressure.
This is all sounding a bit familiar. Essentially the approach you’re describing is what Norwich have plumped for, although it does feel we’re trying to add a bit more panache to the side of late, with the arrivals of Moritz Leitner and Onel Hernandez bringing some guile and pace respectively.
We do love to keep hold of the ball though. Right across the back 3 (or 4), before trying to penetrate pockets of space through our bright young thing, James Maddison. When we realise we can’t we’ll just recycle the ball and try again.
So what now for this season? Having just checked on your recent form I’ve found you’re winless in 8, with only 1 victory from the last 18 league matches. That feels like relegation form, yet miraculously you still sit 6 points above the drop zone. Is League One football a very real prospect next season or will Birmingham, Burton and Sunderland’s collective ineptitude be your saving grace?
Yeah, that approach is very similar to ours - although we don't manage the penetration bit - we just keep the ball across the back four/five, lose the ball and then concede.
It is miraculous that we're not lower in the table - basically, we've been relying on there being at least three teams that are worse than us, and luckily that's been true so far.
Although we've not been winning games, a few draws have kept our heads just above water. Despite the awful form, I'm confident that 8-10 more points from this season is achievable, and that should be enough to keep us in the division as I can't see a huge renaissance coming from Burton, Birmingham City or Sunderland.
I guess that’s a damning indictment on how bad the bottom three have been, very often you’d be looking at a target of 50 points the very least in order to avoid the drop.
What does the future hold for the Royals? Many of our support have clamoured for foreign investment but it doesn’t look like your Chinese ownership is a glowing advertisement for the benefits of it? Is there any way Stam could feasibly be in charge come August?
It's hard to judge our new owners - although they've been here since last May, we've barely heard a word out of them, so can't really make any informed judgements on their intentions or plans for the club. Their actions are encouraging - investing a lot of money in the squad (last summer's outlay of £10m+ is the most we've ever had in a single window at Reading) and hiring experienced heads behind-the-scenes like Ron Gourlay (Chief Executive) and Ged Roddy (head of the academy).
However, their complete silence on the manager situation has wound up the fans who are most vocally 'Stam Out', who have pondered whether or not the owners are that interested in the club.
Assuming that they are keeping a close eye on the team and its manager, they've certainly given Stam a big endorsement to keep him in his job after one win in 18 games. It suggests that they're happier to take a long-term, patient approach to building up the team, and Stam could still be at the centre of that beyond the summer. That said, I'm more inclined to think that they're not keen on sacking him mid-season, and are instead waiting to ditch him after the last match of the campaign.
So, on to Saturday. I have to mention it, last time out it was a comprehensive victory at Carrow Road for Norwich, putting 7 (SEVEN) past you. Luckily for you the tormentor in chief that day Alex Prichard has since left, and his buddy Wes Hoolahan isn’t likely to start. However, how can the aforementioned Maddison get at Reading?
He should have fun against our defence to be honest - no-one in the back four/five has been playing well recently. Mixing things up around our penalty area with some sharp one-twos, and getting onto the end of any loose balls should mean he'll hurt us.
Plus, make sure he's playing just before half-time - we've conceded around the break in all but one of our last seven matches, so you're almost guaranteed to find the net at that stage.
Sounds promising, although I’m not entirely convinced you’ll see too many sharp one twos, maybe lots of slower ones though.
We’re carrying a few injuries in our backline and defensive midfield areas, so you might get some joy, who is most likely to hurt Norwich? Not physically you understand, just goals and that.
Modou Barrow's pace is our biggest attacking weapon - he lives to run at defenders, and loves putting on the afterburners regardless of how well the rest of the team is doing. He typically starts on the left of a front three, but occasionally comes over to the right. Otherwise, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson is our leading scorer with 10 this season and is an all-round target man. He's a good finisher, but also holds the ball up well and runs the channels to give us an outlet.
The real question is how much service those two players get - when they do get the service (like against Leeds last week), they're a force to be reckoned with.
Might not be the borefest I was thinking then. Score prediction from you? I’m going for a fortuitous 1-0 Norwich victory.
A 1-1 draw that's equally frustrating for both sides.
While you're here. Two things; first, did you know we have a new podcast? It's available via iTunes and Soundcloud. Alternatively you can just listen to it in your browser via our podcast page. Norwich legend Darren Huckerby was our recent guest as we debated the latest talking points regarding NCFC.
Second, to keep AlongComeNorwich advert free and to help us fund additional initiatives aimed at improving the Carrow Road atmosphere, we occasionally produce exclusive t-shirts/merchandise.
This time we've produced two t-shirts, celebrating the further German invasion at Carra Rud. Limited stock still left for those of a small or medium persuasion. As always, we take no profit from these and put all the revenue back into the site and things we can all enjoy.