Norwich City boss Chris Hughton chopping and changing at this late stage is worrying
06:30 19 March 2014
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If you were at St Mary’s on Saturday you will find this difficult to believe but Norwich City supporters were not the people left in the most pain at the end of the 4-2 defeat to Southampton.
Sunderland really is a six-pointer
I’ve always tried hard to steer away from using clichés when writing or talking about Norwich City but there is no escape from some of them.
Norwich midfielder Jonny Howson gave a defiant post-match interview at Southampton during which he sounded pretty weary about the club’s current predicament being talked about.
“I suppose people like you will say the Sunderland game is a six-pointer,” he told me. Well Jonny, I’m not here to disappoint.
Ok, so whichever team wins will only get the usual three points that Premier League rules dictate must be awarded to the victors but one look at the current table should underline the huge squeeze of fact which makes this well-worn cliché so bitterly true.
If Norwich beat Sunderland we will go to 32 Premier League points, a full seven clear of our friends in the north east. Lose and they will reduce what is currently a four point deficit to just one. The difference between a win and a loss on Saturday for Norwich is stark. They could be seven ahead of Sunderland or just one, a difference of six which is why I’m confident that Carol Vorderman herself would allow any use of the phrase ‘relegation six-pointer’ to stand.
So Jonny Howson and his mates need to keep taking each game as it comes, only worry about themselves and continue giving 110pc every week. Although I’m not sure Ms Vorderman would be so happy with that last one.
It’s a game that Saints defender Dejan Lovren will be speaking very highly of for a long time and not necessarily by choice.
Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino still conducts all of his interviews through an interpreter and the man doing the translating after Saturday’s match was stifling a snigger as he delivered the medical bulletin about Lovren who went off injured during the frantic finale caused by the Canaries’ surprising late rally.
“Dejan had one of his testicles stepped on” was enough to draw cries of anguish from the reporters within ear shot. Pochettino then added that it had hurt “mucho” which the interpreter helpfully converted to “lots” although even my slippery grasp of Spanish had worked that one out.
I made it through the afternoon without any actual low blows but I still think I know how Lovren felt as he gingerly hobbled back to his car on Saturday evening.
It was another away performance which felt like a kick in the you-know-whats to anybody who travelled with hope in their yellow and green heart.
The way Norwich were routinely opened up by a lively Southampton side was of particular concern. The Canaries were spineless in all senses of the word.
Ryan Bennett and Joseph Yobo became the sixth different central defensive partnership to start together in the Premier League for Norwich this season. Bennett, Yobo, Sebastien Bassong, Michael Turner and Russell Martin have been tried out in a variety of combinations and it is not out of the question that a fit-again Turner will form partnership number seven with Yobo between now and the end of the season. This says a lot about City’s current predicament.
Chris Hughton made five changes to his starting line-up on Saturday, all of them by choice.
We’re now in mid-March, the time of year where you’re supposed to be getting the job done and yet Norwich appear to be floundering, still desperately searching for a winning formula.
It was difficult to blame Hughton for mixing things up so dramatically ahead of the Southampton game. Two wins in the previous 14 Premier League outings hardly suggests a squad full of players who had made themselves undroppable and it wouldn’t take Shane Warne to spin the situation into a positive one by pointing to good competition for places but the fact such wholesale change felt so necessary in game number 30 out of 38 is real cause for alarm.
Successful teams are built on having a spine of regular go-to men in each position and a series of tried and tested partnerships which work throughout. I’m thinking of Stringer and Forbes or Mackay and Fleming at the back, Drury and Huckerby on the left flank or, up front, a duo such as Roberts and Bellamy or Fleck and Rosario. You’ll have your favourite Canary partnership depending on your era. For all the undoubted talent and potential within the current squad it’s hard to put your finger on an area of the pitch where any combination has properly gelled.
I’ll get an e-mail at some point this week from my opposite number at BBC Radio Newcastle who covers Sunderland asking for my thoughts on how Norwich might line-up on Saturday. On my team sheet I can only commit three players to ink (Ruddy, Olsson and Snodgrass). The rest of the starting line-up will be written with a freshly sharpened pencil and one of those with a rubber on the other end.
It’s not too late for Norwich of course and if it’s guesswork for us then it will be for Gus Poyet and Sunderland too but there is no margin for error now. Chris Hughton has to pick up all those screwed up bits of paper from his office floor and work out which 11 players are most likely to get us out of trouble and then tell them to go and make themselves belated Carrow Road heroes over the next month. If he can’t, an all too real dose of what we’ll call in a family newspaper ‘The Dejan Lovrens’ may not be far away for all of us.