City must prove this is just a blip, not the norm
15:19 31 October 2014
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The one thing that could be said without fear of contradiction about the team selection for Hillsborough is that it was anything but predictable.
By the time I got to Hillsborough on Saturday the starting line-up had been announced and speculation was rife in the West Stand as to how a side with four central midfield players would actually line up. Judging by what transpired the players seemed as confused as we were.
The first 45 minutes were painful to watch. On the widest pitch in the Championship, Neil Adams’ decision not to play a winger meant that there was no wide outlet unless the full-backs were able to push on. However, if they did so they ran the risk of leaving plenty of inviting space behind them should moves break down, as they frequently did.
On numerous occasions City reached the halfway line only for the man on the ball to find himself with nowhere to go but backwards. While the formation certainly made City less vulnerable to counter-attacks centrally, the resultant isolation of the full-backs meant that Wednesday were able to make dangerous incursions from the flanks, particularly City’s right where Steven Whittaker was in Bambi on Ice mode.
While City’s second-half performance was better and saw Kieren Westwood make some good saves, there was never an extended spell of concerted pressure, but rather short bursts of quality, usually triggered by some individual flair.
Much has been made of Westwood’s performance, but it’s a goalkeeper’s job to save efforts that aren’t well directed enough to beat him. As with complaining about opponents parking the bus there’s a degree of sophistry involved in praising the goalkeeper’s brilliance to justify a team’s failure to score.
The reality is that two City players had free headers in the Wednesday six-yard box in the last 15 minutes of the game, but failed to make proper contact. Add to that Lewis Grabban’s embarrassing miss when he found himself with only Westwood to beat in the first half and the bad luck argument is rendered invalid.
However, there were a few bright spots, the most impressive of which was the performance of Gary O’Neil, liberated at last from whichever locker in Colney he’s been imprisoned in. His sense of purpose in everything he did and ability to pass accurately with either foot will hopefully see him get a start tonight.
The Championship is turning into a real war of attrition. Despite dropping 14 of the last 21 available points City are only three points off the top of the table as the top clubs continue to slip up. To many fans that’s an end in itself, but how long can the Canaries depend on the shortcomings of others to maintain contact with the promotion places?
The manager is ringing the changes, with Saturday’s formation the most radical yet, but performances are becoming less assured. All the swagger and confidence that saw City surge to the top of the table has disappeared and the tendency to play square pegs in round holes is becoming a worry. For example, why bring in three centre-backs in the transfer window and then play the best right back in central defence?
As Adams has rightly said, the scene is set for someone to put a run together and break clear of the pack, but can City be that team? A convincing win tonight would lift everyone’s mood, but anything less would be a major blow with trips to Middlesborough and Forest next. Whether this long run without a win is merely a blip or rather a sign of a deeper malaise it really must end tonight.