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Monday, September 17, 2012
Chris Hughton’s Norwich City era is a work in progress. Those growing pains were self-evident again in the face of West Ham’s stubbornness at Carrow Road.
Frustration felt on the terraces was matched by the manager stationed impassively at the front of the home technical area.
Hughton knows within a squad built around a core of players good enough to flourish in the Premier League last season and bolstered by a summer overhaul he engineered that there are conundrums to solve; structural weaknesses to address.
The City chief needed only a handful of early pre-season friendlies to detect signs of a worrying lack of goals in the ranks – if not in chances created.
The qualification is an important one. In that regard, City’s squad has been productive enough in the first month of real Premier League combat; even allowing for the injury absence of David Fox and Wes Hoolahan’s continued omission.
Robert Snodgrass has made a seamless transition from the Football League. Andrew Surman was the perfect foil on the opposite flank against the Hammers after replacing Anthony Pilkington. Hughton has a midfield arsenal rich in flair and artistry.
Sebastien Bassong’s burgeoning partnership alongside Leon Barnett and the classy introduction of Javier Garrido has gone a long way in the intervening period to repair the opening day damage inflicted at Fulham.
John Ruddy has still been pressed into action when required, but Hughton’s rearguard looks infinitely more secure since Craven Cottage.
Yet each winless league game that passes, each 90 minutes where Norwich carve out the superior weight of clear-cut chances without tangible reward raises fresh questions about the vitality of Hughton’s striking stocks. James Vaughan was allowed out on loan. Harry Kane was enticed to travel in the opposite direction and City’s hierarchy made concerted attempts to do business in the final throes of the August transfer window.
Norwich’s supporters now know the men entrusted with carrying the goalscoring burden through to at least the New Year. England Under-19 international Kane spurned a late chance to underline his impressive pedigree when he blinked first against Hammers’ keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Minutes earlier, the Tottenham loanee had cheekily tricked his way past Kevin Nolan and guided a right-footer the wrong side of Jaaskelainen’s far post.
Some observers charting his rapid rise have likened Kane to former Spurs’ stalwart Teddy Sheringham. You could see traces of it in his intelligent movement across the width of the penalty box, in the sure first touch; the maturity after two failed sights of goal to ghost into the Hammers’ area and pick out Snodgrass, who enticed another excellent block from the Finn.
Kane’s cameo suggested he will prove his worth over the course of the entire Premier League campaign. Hughton’s task is to find the optimum role to utilise the talented teen. The same applies to Steve Morison, Grant Holt, Chris Martin and Simeon Jackson.
The Canadian has looked City’s best attacking weapon in the opening weeks. Jackson offers an extra dimension to stretch defences with his pace and directness. One fearsome second half strike tested Jaaskalainen’s agility to the full.
The audible reaction that greeted his early withdrawal spoke volumes for his impact in the preceding hour. One could point to his gruelling World Cup tour of duty across the Atlantic, but City looked a poorer attacking threat after his exit.
James Collins and Winston Reid appeared to relish the aerial challenge of Holt and Morison before the skipper made way for Kane.
Much has been made of Holt’s early form. Set against the striker who terrorised some of the biggest and best names in the game last season, he looks a pale imitation. But that is to overlook his slow burner of a start to the previous campaign. Holt, like Norwich, took time to get into their stride against the elite.
There is an inherent danger in looking backwards that you adopt a distorted version of the truth. City’s fourth Premier League game 12 months ago ended with a disappointing 1-0 home reverse to West Brom; a result that prolonged the search for an elusive top flight win. The parallels between then and now are obvious. Back then Paul Lambert’s most pressing issue appeared defensive fragility. Fulham aside, Hughton has constructed a solid base to build from, but he will realise better than most the key to further progress lies higher up the pitch.
At face value, City now embark on a daunting run of upcoming Premier League fixtures against many of the clubs touted for top end success. Yet to dismiss Fulham or QPR or even West Ham for that matter is arrogant.
The linkages at Premier League level can be easily broken on any given week on any given ground. The Cottagers’ hammered Hughton’s men last month. Then lost heavily themselves at West Ham. QPR were similarly embarrassed by Swansea on the first day, yet held Chelsea over this weekend. Southampton led both Manchester clubs until the closing stages, but emerged pointless before Arsenal delivered a chastening reality check on Saturday their refreshing attacking philosophy masks a glaring inability to defend.
Hughton is not alone in having issues to address; every Premier League contemporary at this embryonic stage of the season is in the same situation. The champions have conceded only one goal less than the Canaries. Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool have one point fewer to their name than Norwich. A third of the entire division has yet to register the same breakthrough win the Canaries’ crave.
Norwich’s fans, management and players would expect to beat West Ham on home soil, but Sam Allardyce’s outfit should not be dismissed –despite their recent elevation through the Championship play-offs.
The visitors were able to replace a one-time England striker with a £5m French summer acquisition. Matt Jarvis cost double that after moving from the West Midlands and had to be content with a place on the substitutes’ bench. The likes of Jaaskelainen, skipper Nolan and Matt Taylor are all seasoned Premier League performers with the nous and the experience you need to survive; melded together by a man who turned Bolton into serial over-achievers foundered on a brand of direct football. This Hammers vintage have the physicality if not the finesse to mix it with most of their rivals.
Ruddy was at his imperious shot-stopping best in the opening period. Closing his angles to thwart Ricardo Vaz Te before an even better save when he thrust out a right hand to claw away Nolan’s sidefooter after Joey O’Brien had escaped the attentions of Snodgrass and Russell Martin.
Surman proved a bright counterpoint to the rapidly acclimatising Garrido down the left flank in the opening skirmishes. The midfielder cleverly tricked his way inside James Collins in the first of an unfolding two-part drama, but dragged a shot wide of Jaaskelainen’s far post.
Collins’ rash attempted lunge in the closing stages of the half left Surman in a heap well inside the Hammers’ penalty area. Referee Foy was adamant the initial offence had erupted outside the box.
Jaaskelainen’s sturdy wall did the rest from the resulting free kick. The former Norwich City trialist proved himself an obdurate last line of defence all afternoon.
Twice in the space of one first half minute he denied Holt and Martin before a wonderfully agile tip over foiled Jackson early in the second period.
Kane’s indecision in the closing seconds when faced with just the Finn to beat was fatal after Snodgrass had sprung a rapier counter, and Jaaskelainen again proved their equal when the duo combined in a stoppage time role reversal.
For Jaaskelainen, you could read Brad Friedel at Tottenham prior to the international break. But to portray City’s failure to earn three points as floundering on another inspired display from the opposition’s number one would serve only to disguise visible deficiencies in their attacking armoury.