The tide has now well and truly turned against Norwich City boss Alex Neil
PUBLISHED: 14:44 20 December 2016 | UPDATED: 14:44 20 December 2016
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Twelve months ago Alex Neil was celebrating his most famous victory as Norwich manager.
A 2-1 win at Old Trafford sent shockwaves through the footballing world as newly-promoted City defeated Manchester United to move a point below Chelsea in the Premier League table. A year on, and chants of “We want Neil out” echoed around Carrow Road after a seventh defeat in nine Championship games.
The rumblings of discontent witnessed in previous home games were nothing compared to Friday night’s audible anger coming from all four corners of the ground in what was the most poorly attended home fixture of the season so far.
Those chants and loud boos from the home support were the clearest indication yet of the fans’ feelings towards the board’s decision to stand by their man after a 22nd league defeat of 2016.
Unfortunately for Neil, his shortcomings were highlighted by an opposite number who was able to perfectly execute a game plan that saw Huddersfield totally outplay Norwich. David Wagner’s side were confident, organised, hungry and effective. Traits that have been lacking in City’s play for more than half of the season so far.
Seven players who featured in Friday’s defeat either started or came on at Old Trafford in December 2015. At that time Neil was regarded as one of the hottest young managerial prospects in Britain.
Now, those same players are not just desperately short of confidence but lacking in energy, spark and it seems motivation too, while Neil himself has seemingly lost the ability to get anywhere near the best out of a squad which has woefully underperformed.
Neil outlined his reasons for making two like-for-like substitutions, but in taking off Youssouf Mulumbu for Alex Tettey and later the in-form Nelson Oliveira, who despite missing two good opportunities was City’s biggest threat by far, for Cameron Jerome, he provoked a vocal response from the crowd from which the atmosphere never recovered.
Neil’s tactical inflexibility means there’s a predictability to Norwich’s play that Huddersfield dealt with all too comfortably after Jonny Howson had made it 1-1. While Huddersfield’s playmaker Aaron Mooy dominated the midfield in a man of the match performance, City’s equivalent remained an unused substitute.
Without Wes Hoolahan in that 4-2-3-1 formation City lack creativity and rely on the wide players to provide opportunities. The move to set up Howson’s header was a perfect example of how well this can work. But too often Robbie Brady’s inconsistent crossing and Jacob Murphy’s indecisiveness made Norwich easy to defend against.
After almost being gifted a result at home to Aston Villa, who performed so poorly that Steve Bruce labelled their display ‘pathetic’, Norwich once again proved they just aren’t capable of coping with a team who pressed them high up the pitch and retained possession better than any other side at Carrow Road this season.
Neil’s painful admission that it will be ‘play-offs at best’ for City this season is hardly surprising given his side’s pitiful record against the Championship’s better teams. Their return of just two points from a possible 27 against teams in the top half of the table is an astonishing statistic, and one that suggests they will finish closer to relegation than a play-off spot.
With that statistic in mind, the prospect of a trip to third-placed Reading on Boxing Day is a daunting one. At the moment this is a City team incapable of producing consecutive good performances. The win over Brentford seemed like a big step forward, but the loss at Barnsley then two back. The same goes for these results against Villa and Huddersfield.
Norwich are in real danger of starting 2017 in the bottom half of the Championship table.
The real worry is just how long that slide could continue before a change is made.