Changes need to be made, but the manager has to stay
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil arrived at Norwich City as a breath of fresh air.
After the negativity of the Chris Hughton era and the selectorial vacillation of Neil Adams, City had a manager who was fearless, knew exactly what he wanted his team to achieve and could convey his plans to his players clearly and concisely.
The result was some of the most exciting football we had seen at Carrow Road since the departure of Paul Lambert and an away record that was the envy of most managers in the Football League.
As the tailspin that grips City increased its (possibly terminal) velocity at Villa Park on Saturday we saw a side bereft of fight and self belief and a manager who appears to have lost sight of what got him to the Premier League in the first place.
A formation that was so narrow it would have been invisible from certain angles allowed both Villa full-backs to set up camp in City's half and ensured that the home side would always have an outlet ball available. It didn't help that City's midfield was anchored by a ball winner, Youssouf Mulumbu, who barely won a ball all afternoon, nor did the fact that their deep lying set-up meant that Dieumerci Mbokani and Steven Naismith were constantly forced to delay attacks until support arrived.
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I have no problem with setting a platform away from home and not being too expansive early on, but the amount of respect afforded to the league's worst side was embarrassing and inevitably fed their fragile confidence.
Much has been made of Neil's frequent changes, but there is an element of chicken and egg in that players have generally failed to make an unanswerable case for remaining in the side. However, a back four that was changed for the 11th time in 25 games on Saturday is hardly conducive to a run of clean sheets, and may go some way to explaining the form of City's goalkeepers, with Declan Rudd now looking as indecisive as John Ruddy before he was dropped.
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Ultimately, the manager who sees his squad in training all week is better placed to judge who is worth a place than any number of armchair pundits, but the continual use of players in positions that don't make the best use of their abilities is frustrating.
There seems to be an element of compensating for players' weaknesses rather then trusting to their strengths.
For example, Wes Hoolahan's inclusion is usually balanced by using two holding midfielders as he can be wasteful in possession, and Jonny Howson is played wide because Nathan Redmond isn't as good at tracking back. However, all three are potential match winners when given their head. Perhaps too much attention is now paid to negating the opposition's strengths rather than accentuating City's own?
So is it time for Neil to go? Absolutely not. Another good young manager, Sean Dyche, couldn't keep Burnley up, but they stuck with him and are now in a good position to bounce back. Neil will be a better manager as a result of his current experiences. Why let another club reap the benefit of that?
However, this is a time when the senior players have to stand up and be counted and carry the younger ones with them, but more importantly the team and manager need to get back to a style of football that they all fully believe in, because at the moment that doesn't seem to be the case.
The side needs more width and a balance between attacking threat and defensive stability so perhaps 4-1-4-1 is the answer?
A more positive style would engage the crowd and while I'm certainly not suggesting a totally gung ho approach I do think City have to be more assertive.