Encouraging defensive progress but lapses still proving so costly for Norwich City
12:00 28 November 2015
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Last Saturday followed the pattern of most of my recent visits to Stamford Bridge; City battled hard and showed great spirit but ultimately came up short although the sound of the Chelsea ‘faithful’ singing “we’re going to win the league” in the closing stages without the slightest hint of irony provided some mild amusement.
In reality the home side made heavy weather of dispatching a Canaries team who had worked their socks off throughout, although realistically it always seemed likely that if Chelsea managed to find a goal as the second half wore on it would be enough.
Even Alex Neil’s bold triple substitution failed to breathe attacking life into a side that had created precious little going forward and whose two best opportunities had been in the first half.
And therein lies City’s problem in games against the top sides – and despite Chelsea’s league position, the quality of their players cannot be denied; while they keep their defensive discipline they can frustrate opposing teams, but to do so over an extended period results in the gap between the midfield and the lone striker getting bigger and bigger so that when a break occurs support simply cannot arrive quickly enough.
Apart from the sparkling ball skills of the likes of Willian, Pedro, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea are adept at stretching the pitch by regularly switching play from touchline to touchline and so making it extremely difficult for the opposing defensive unit to get settled as they are constantly being stretched.
As Neil noted after the match, by the time they had to chase the game the City players had been run almost into the ground and couldn’t respond. No-one would accuse Neil of being a defensively minded manager and yet Saturday’s performance was reminiscent of the Chris Hughton era with the Canaries on the ropes and taking a battering but with little to offer in the way of a counterpunch when their defences were finally breached.
Of course, City don’t have to play the big teams every week but Premier League relegation battles and open football don’t seem to go together, and just as Hughton and Paul Lambert in his Aston Villa days became increasingly negative as a result of the long-term pressures of fighting the drop it seems that Neil is increasingly having to go against his natural instincts in search of points.
City’s defensive organisation was excellent at Stamford Bridge and there is little doubt that the reintroduction of Andre Wisdom and Ryan Bennett has made the side look more robust at the back but it’s frustrating that the game turned on yet another momentary lapse of concentration.
While City’s competitiveness against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea has been admirable Neil will be concerned that while his players work tirelessly to get possession they all too often surrender it much too cheaply and that was the case again at Stamford Bridge. Of course there was a gulf in quality but poor decision making is not necessarily the result of what the opposition do.
With Bournemouth and Sunderland picking up points at the weekend City really have to start turning decent performances into results.
Arsenal will be smarting from their surprise defeat at the Hawthorns and looking to get back on track in the title race. On the face of it that looks ominous for City but if the visitors are feeling extra pressure the home side could turn that to their advantage.
However, in order to do so they will need to combine the defensive resilience that we have seen over the last few games with more of a cutting edge. If they can do that, and the crowd plays its part, it could be an interesting afternoon tomorrow.