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Monday, January 14, 2013
Scratch beneath the surface of Norwich’s anaemic draw with Newcastle and you find many of the traits that have characterised their Premier League season.
City were defensively resolute but sporadic in their attacking thrusts; reliant on a set-piece threat that failed to materialise on such a grand scale for once as to underline just how deadly the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington have been in recent times.
The problem for Norwich on this particular afternoon of enduring frustration at Carrow Road is they found a direct opponent who elected to adopt the same circumspect approach. Prompted no doubt by the sort of prolonged downturn which made City’s own festive Premier League woes appear a minor irritation.
Optimism was in short supply as two struggling sides effectively cancelled each out in a footballing truce. The artists ceded ground to the artisans on a day when there was something for everybody in the final analysis, but packaged in such a way that left an overwhelming sense of two league points spurned.
Deal in hard facts and Norwich maintained the positivity of that FA Cup stroll at Peterborough by ending a run of four Premier League defeats – a point gained, it is worth highlighting, with a first clean sheet since that magnificent win over Manchester United in mid-November. Norwich were too easy to penetrate over the Christmas period; irrespective of the calibre of opponent ranged against them during that gruelling spell.
Mark Bunn was a virtual spectator against the Magpies where one smart reaction parry from Gabriel Obertan proved his toughest assignment. Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner dominated the isolated Papiss Cisse. Newcastle’s policy of containment was evident in the way Jonas Gutierrez was deployed as auxiliary defensive cover to quell the threat of Snodgrass. Alan Pardew talked in glowing terms during his post-match interview about the defensive work his squad had done during the build-up. After a dire run in league and cup football Pardew’s reflex was to go back to basics, with Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson the pillars of a stodgy, solid approach. In that respect you could detect similarities with Chris Hughton’s response to early season adversity. Norwich had been too open, too porous and something needed to change.
Whether by design, in a bid to try and evolve that template to embrace a more creative attacking conduit, or simply through circumstance, the Canaries looked to have veered away from some of the tenets of that previous unbeaten model. Newcastle was a line in the sand again. City’s route to safety will hinge on their defensive capabilities over these remaining months. Attacking potency will decide how far clear of the scrap at the bottom they ultimately finish.
Each passing winless week in the Premier League lessens the sense of comfort, contracts the margins for error but Norwich continue to reap the rewards of that club record surge.
Peer through the fog of frustration which enveloped this game and Norwich’s failure to break down a Newcastle outfit desperately short of confidence, and it becomes clear any of five or six other rival clubs would swap places in a heartbeat.
Norwich and Hughton know what is required. They can achieve that goal through stealth; through the same steady accumulation of performances and points that propelled them clear of the ensuing dogfight prior to the festive period. That is not to dismiss areas of concern. The inability to despatch a brittle Newcastle on home soil underlined City’s over-reliance on their mastery of the dead ball situation. When it works, like at Swansea in the opening period of a breathtaking encounter at the Liberty Stadium, or salvaging a draw at Everton and a point at Southampton, Norwich are tough to master. When it fails, as it did to a degree rarely seen this season against the Magpies, Norwich carried only a minimal threat on Tim Krul’s goal. Anthony Pilkington’s check back inside Mathieu Debuchy had echoes of his guided finish against Sunderland, but Krul raced out to smother the right-foot strike. Norwich had no problem working the ball wide, but too often it was Coloccini or Williamson with the decisive intervention. Which illustrated another conundrum Hughton has to solve; the dependence on Grant Holt.
It is hardly coincidental the captain’s absence for the majority of Norwich’s Christmas stint culminated in a testing run of adverse results. No player can be bigger than the team, but Holt’s pervasive influence on this Canaries’ collective is huge.
The simplicity of Hughton’s revisions since those heavy early season setbacks should not disguise their effectiveness. Norwich are both hard to beat and capable of consistent points gathering; but it is Holt who is the one indispensable element that makes the whole equation work.
To focus on his relatively slim goal return this season underplays the transformative impact on those around him in the side. Holt’s physical ability and guile help get Norwich up the pitch, creating space for Hoolahan to work his magic and relieving pressure on a backline expected to deal with opponents who more often than not will enjoy greater bouts of possession.
Simeon Jackson was a willing deputy against Newcastle, but the Canadian does not have the physical presence to play that lone role. Too often Jackson was forced to operate with his back to goal and Coloccini for company instead of taking the central defender into the channels and using his blistering pace. Injuries have limited the effectiveness of Steve Morison and Harry Kane. Holt’s festive absence and the detrimental side effects only heighten the need for the club to be proactive in the transfer window. Not to arrest a decline but to insulate Norwich from the inevitable injuries and suspensions that will continue to bite.
Such is the transient nature of Premier League combat that a goalless home draw against Newcastle produced a palpable feeling of frustration and heightened levels of anxiety. Whether it was in Hughton’s honest appraisal of his side’s shortcomings after this contest, or the shaking heads and exasperated gestures of his players as each fresh final pass or free kick floundered. Or even in that innate pessimism which inevitably stirs deep within every football supporter as a fourth winless league game lurched into a fifth since beating Wigan on December 15.
But as Hughton rightly surmised afterwards, the positives continue to outweigh the negatives.