Six things we learned from Norwich City’s latest, all too brief FA Cup foray
11:55 11 January 2016
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In a tale all too familiar to Canaries fans, their club’s FA Cup adventure ended for another season almost as quickly as it began. Michael Bailey sifts through the wreckage – here are his key observations…
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You can read Michael Bailey’s weekly Norwich City column by buying an E-edition of Friday’s Eastern Daily Press – here
What’s more, you also get Iwan Roberts’ weekly thoughts in the same edition of the paper – so two Canary columns for the price of one.
1 – City’s cup floweth over – but not with something you’d want to drink
Norwich City have spent four of the last six seasons in the Premier League. To clarify, that’s the top 20 in England. The other two seasons, they were in the Championship – and went on to win promotion back to the top flight.
Over the same period, the Canaries’ FA Cup record is a disaster zone.
There have been four third-round exits, including at home to Leyton Orient in 2011 and last season at Preston North End, ending Neil Adams’ reign.
To complete the list, we have the third-round replay exit to Fulham in 2014, that so nearly did likewise for Chris Hughton. There was the remarkable feat of reaching the fifth round in 2012 – only to lose at home to a Leicester side in the division below. And while City made it to the fourth round in 2013, the fact they became the first Premier League side to lose to non-league opposition – and at home too – hardly left that season’s Luton effort bracketed as a success. So yes, clearly Norwich haven’t enjoyed the FA Cup recently. But it should also make it clear that losing to a strong, quadruple-chasing Manchester City is far from the same level of embarrassment. That’s where the FA Cup has really lost its romance.
2 – Numbers at the back don’t always make you solid
As we all know by now, Alex Neil is very good at explaining why he does things. He makes it make sense and more often than not, he gets it right too.
So the threat Manchester City pose – however strong the XI they put out – needs to be dealt with in its own way and, as Norwich proved at the Etihad, their plan was one that could work.
Five at the back when their wing-backs were tucked in. Two in midfield screening as best they could. Plus a fluent front three to offer an attacking threat.
That way, Manchester City’s reliance on their attacking quartet would never see Norwich stretched to the point of breaking. It was exactly how it panned out in the Premier League to wards the end of last year. However, it’s never as easy as slinging an extra man in the middle to take up space – as was proven on Saturday.
Possibly the dynamic of playing at home rather than away also influenced the gaps behind Norwich’s wing-backs and City losing the ball at key moments.
But ultimately both first-half goals showed up City’s flaws in how they carried out a plan that should have worked better than it did.
3 – Midfield duo are struggling to put their rivals under pressure
You only have to look around the other third-round ties to see how much of an opportunity the games were giving fringe players to prove a point.
It was even the case for Saturday’s opponents, who gave Kelechi Iheanacho only his third Manchester City start – and he repaid them very well indeed. Fellow 19-year-old Bersant Celina also made his first senior City appearance.
Yet for Norwich, there was not so much of a youngster in sight.
In fact, the only thing that stirred the Carrow Road atmosphere was a rare appearance from Kyle Lafferty – one that could yet prove to be his last, if a club really fancies matching City’s demand for a permanent transfer.
In truth, Norwich have rightly loaned out their most promising talents – so it’s worth shifting the attention on to players who got their chance to force the issue on those currently keeping them out of the starting line-up in the Premier League.
And that’s where the central-midfield duo of Graham Dorrans and Youssouf Mulumbu come in. Both were expected to play big parts this season – and maybe on Saturday we saw why at present, it’s mostly looking like bit parts for the former West Bromwich Albion duo.
4 – The Canaries would do well to keep hold of their Wisdom
Ivo Pinto strode purposefully out to the centre-circle before kick-off on Saturday. He looks like a man keen to make an impact at Norwich and in the Premier League – and in a couple of weeks, he should hopefully be ready to stake his claim.
The residual effect has been the discussion of Alex Neil’s healthy right-back options – or maybe rather, too many right-back options.
The debate over Russell Martin’s position won’t stop and Steven Whittaker will have to continue to be patient. But one of the few positives from Saturday’s FA Cup exit was the return of Andre Wisdom, following a few weeks out injured.
The fact he played bodes well – he is not be as much use to Liverpool now he is FA Cup-tied.
But his performance was also a positive one – proving not only that he can offer plenty to Norwich for the rest of the season, but that those competition levels will keep everyone on their toes – in a position that really is important in Neil’s shape and approach.
In fact, given Liverpool’s health and form, it’s hard to imagine why they wouldn’t want him back.
5 – Kun is key to one City – and too good for the other
Some players just look too good. Unstoppable. It was always the case with Luis Suarez – who when confronted with a red rag, used to bite. And when it was a little yellow bird, he used to score. A lot.
And in all honesty, the only player to look on a similar level to the Uruguayan’s skill set coming up against Norwich has been Manchester City superstar Sergio Aguero.
That doesn’t just go for Saturday, by the way. He has always looked the part against Norwich, and especially in his appearances at Carrow Road.
Now as someone who has written it a lot since Friday, it’s an easy throwaway line to label Manchester City as quadruple-chasers.
Given their limited joy in Europe, their League Cup deficit to make up and the trek still in front of them in the FA Cup, it’s far too soon to be talking of such success with anything other than a cheeky grin.
And yet… in Aguero, Manuel Pellegrini has a striker good enough to seal the deal in each one of those competitions. The big task is keeping him fit. In fact, a knee twinge on March 12 would be welcome.
6 – It wasn’t quite the same – and it doesn’t mean as much
I refer you to lesson one, and how badly it’s all gone in the FA Cup recently. So here seems the right moment to look into why – something Alex Neil’s honest appraisal may well have brought home.
Given Premier League survival or promotion have been top of the agenda in the last six seasons, you can never expect the FA Cup to rival that.
Clearly there have been missed opportunities, and the Premier League’s demands always offer a convenient excuse.
But likewise, City fans will forgive Saturday in exchange for four points from their team’s next two Premier League games – especially at Bournemouth.
Neil said he felt how relaxed it was around Colney in the week leading up to their third-round tie – not that they weren’t taking it seriously, but that the pressure and tension brought by fighting for Premier League survival had been eased. Not for long, but for long enough.
It may well be that come their two crucial away trips this week, that release of pressure will help them perform better at the Britannia and Dean Court.
Or it could have the reverse effect.
As Alex Neil said, he wants his players to justify his FA Cup selections with forthcoming points. I think we would all second that.
• Follow Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey