Norwich City have got big problems and Alex Neil has to find right answers
PUBLISHED: 14:11 09 November 2016 | UPDATED: 14:16 09 November 2016
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When Leeds’ spectacularly named midfielder Ronaldo Vieira found himself in acres of space bearing down on the Norwich goal having just put his side 3-2 up in stoppage time, there was one player busting a gut to track back and put a tackle in.
It wasn’t one of the back four who Alex Neil had put his trust in despite shipping five goals seven days’ previous, it wasn’t another senior player who we’d been promised would, this time out, win battles all over the pitch. From nowhere, 21 year-old Louis Thompson, on his first league start for City, made a tremendous block to deny what looked to have been a fourth goal for the visitors to pile more salt into the Norwich wounds.
For on a day where it was so pivotal that the senior professionals in this Norwich team stepped up and performed for their under-fire manager, the Carrow Road faithful were subject to another display lacking in fight and bereft of belief.
After all the talk of ringing the changes after the drubbing at the Amex, when news filtered through that Neil’s starting XI included just one unenforced change it set the tone for the afternoon. The Scot had relied on the same players, goalkeeper included, who had let him down so badly last weekend to serve up a performance a world apart against Garry Monk’s side. What he got however was far too similar.
Part of Neil’s problem is the fact that he’s assembled a squad so woefully imbalanced. Injuries to Steven Whittaker and the much missed Ivo Pinto mean that Seb Bassong and Michael Turner are the only other fit defenders, while in midfield we have so many bodies that two have been sent out on loan.
Up front, despite barely threatening in his last four games since scoring against Rotherham, Cameron Jerome seems to be an automatic starter with Nelson Oliveira and Steven Naismith struggling to impress in the little game time they have been afforded.
The statistics don’t make for pretty reading. Eight goals conceded in two games, without a clean sheet in 13 and conceding an average of two goals per match this season. On Saturday Norwich were undone by a header from an unmarked player, a move that left them opened up like a knife through butter and a long-range effort that flew past 10 yellow and green shirts before squirming through Michael McGovern’s palms.
City looked far more at ease in the last 20 minutes of the first half once Robbie Brady’s header put them ahead, but whereas Monk’s half-time team talk inspired his players to win almost every ball, Neil’s seemed to have the opposite effect as too many City players looked scared to be in possession.
The sight of Kyle Lafferty warming up was a telling sign that Neil wanted to appease an edgy Carrow Road crowd. The striker’s popularity has almost increased with every game he’s been overlooked. How fitting then that having not featured in a league game for almost two months his goal almost secured a point which would have diluted the heavy criticism heading his manager’s way.
So what’s next for Neil? Delia Smith made it clear in a national newspaper interview her desire to keep the faith with him. Outside of Norfolk, the reaction to replacing a manager who just a matter of weeks ago was sitting top of the Championship table would see the club accused of the kind of short-termism that Delia vehemently opposes.
Football though is a short-term game. The club’s recent financial results prove that promotion has to be gained this season or next if the riches the Premier League brought us are to make a difference and prevent us becoming one of a long list of clubs that end up meandering in English football’s second tier season after season.
For those of us witnessing City’s gradual decline, it’s clear that something has to change. The longer Neil struggles to bring that about on the pitch with a group of players with the potential to do so much better, the more calls there will be for that change to involve him.