Alex Neil must decide what his Norwich City stands for in the Premier League
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Expect to hear plenty about how Leicester City is a role model for aspiring Premier League clubs like Norwich City prior to next week’s visit to the Foxes.
Whatever this season holds now for Claudio Ranieri’s club it truly has been a phenomenal effort from a team who 12 months ago were hurtling towards the Football League. The Leicester story is inspirational, a tale of what is possible and how that rich cartel can be disturbed and challenged. To label what is happening in the East Midlands as a fairytale would be to undersell the magnitude of the achievement.
Whether this is a glorious interlude or something permanent only time will tell but there is one, irrefutable strand of Foxes’ rise that should resonate for Alex Neil, his players and Norwich’s supporters.
Leicester have a clear identity on the pitch, a common sense of purpose where every player knows his place in the machine and what they need to do to function at their optimum.
Yes, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are enjoying a stellar growth spurt but Leicester’s success is about the sum of the parts, not two talented individuals flourishing under the wily Ranieri’s light touch management.
Neil and Norwich seek the same attainable goal.
West Ham marked a return to the old, the aggressive values that served the Scot and his squad superbly last season in that ascent from the Championship but then failed to produce the wins to match the performances when summer receded into autumn.
City, at various stages in this testing campaign, have tried dominating opponents through possession then frustrating them through containment. Striving and failing for that balance between attacking creativity and defensive resolve.
Leicester’s approach may not be for the purists but take a look at the Premier League table if you are in any doubt as to the effectiveness of such a clear strategy.
Ranieri’s side cede possession by choice, invite teams on to try and pierce a well-drilled backline who remain compact and in close proximity to Kasper Schmeichel at all times. There is none of the acreage Norwich routinely afford rivals, seen latterly in the manner West Ham raided at will in that storming second-half fightback at Carrow Road last weekend.
Leicester’s midfield is obdurate and tigerish. Danny Drinkwater and the fantastic N’Golo Kante appear to take it as a personal insult if they lost the physical battle in those key central areas. The duo do not patrol midfield, they maraud across it, winning turnovers is the currency of choice and the end game when they get the ball is simple, feed Vardy.
The England man toyed with Norwich in Norfolk earlier this season in the manner he dragged defenders into channels and harassed centre backs when they tried to play out from John Ruddy.
Vardy has also perfected the dark arts, as Seb Bassong can testify, in the way he cutely earned a penalty from Mark Clattenburg. Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal was the latest victim at the Emirates on Sunday when Vardy’s speed of movement was matched by his speed of thought to go over the Spaniard’s outstretched leg.
Leicester, despite the sour end to events in north London, is a team brimful of confidence and self-assurance. Norwich may be at the opposite end of the spectrum right now, as they toil and scrap for their Premier League lives, but Leicester’s great leap forward illustrates what is possible if they can survive this season and then forge a philosophy; a robust identity of their own.
That is not a clarion call for Norwich to mimic the Foxes. Premier League rivals will eventually find ways to nullify Leicester’s strengths and only re-invention may maintain their upward trajectory beyond this season. But Neil must decide what his Norwich stands for in the top flight; how they not only compete but flourish. Then he must find the players to fit the template - from within and without. Stay up and his task is not further experimentation but distilling what he has learnt to drive the Canaries’ forward.