Alex Neil gets down to business at Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil's stinging words were the abiding theme of Norwich City's Brentford defeat. The Scot's actions spoke louder in a Championship deadlock at Birmingham.
There is much to admire in the new manager's demeanour and conduct since replacing Neil Adams. Whether there is enough time left in the season for the City squad he inherited to adopt his methods and philosophy remains to be seen. But a 90-minute shift at St Andrew's rich in the type of qualities which have been lacking too often in the defining moments underlined he has plenty to work with. Especially after the same resolute manner they had previously triumphed at Bournemouth.
Neil's response to a major setback against the Bees was to make five changes; by any measure that is major surgery which illustrated the depth of his dissatisfaction.
Alex Tettey was always going to replace Steven Whittaker in a central screening role once the Norwegian had been passed fit. Neil is an impressive character but he is no alchemist. The Whittaker experiment failed spectacularly at Carrow Road and the Norwich manager conceded as much in the aftermath.
It was unrealistic to expect him to be parachuted into Carrow Road from Scottish football and not suffer bouts of early turbulence.
Time is Neil's most precious commodity and it is rapidly slipping away. Time to assess what he has at his disposal and how best to extract it. He admitted as much ahead of this trip to the West Midlands when he spoke of the need for games to work out his prime combinations while continuing to strive for a consistent seam of positive results to maintain Norwich's interest in the defining phase of the Championship promotion race.
That is a devilishly difficult balance to strike. There may be more stalemates of the variety served up against one of the form sides in the division before Neil firmly puts his stamp on proceedings at Norwich. But there were more encouraging signs at St Andrew's.
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Seb Bassong's inclusion was inevitable once peace talks with the new manager had triggered a thaw in relations between the former captain and his employers. That, allied to Norwich's chronic inability to protect John Ruddy, has been a constant issue which even Neil's arrival had failed to address.
Bassong, like his manager, must get a run of games if supporters are to see anything approaching the dominant centre-back who flourished during his first full season at Carrow Road, but Blues' frontman Clayton Donaldson was never able to exert the same influence he had produced in the corresponding league fixture.
Demarai Gray was another peripheral factor on the proceedings. This was an attritional exercise from two rivals who elected to over-populate midfield. That recipe choked the space for creative sparks in both teams to rise above the commendable spirit and physical endeavour which largely held sway.
If Norwich under Neil remain a work in progress, the system and the personnel deployed at St Andrew's raised questions about City's attacking thrust. Lewis Grabban was preferred to either Cameron Jerome or Gary Hooper in that lone role, supported by raiding parties down the flanks and Wes Hoolahan probing in central areas.
Fitful forward motions merely served to underline Neil's conundrum as he strives to implement a formula that is residually effective in both penalty areas.
Grabban's most productive early season spell came in a similar role; one well remembers those stirring away wins at Ipswich and Blackpool when Norwich poured forward on the counter with vicious intent.
Here they found opponents conceding space and happy to retreat in front of Darren Randolph's goal. Norwich only sporadically threatened to stretch the Blues' backline.
Nathan Redmond's thumping long range strike forced Randolph into an acrobatic parry before the interval but Norwich were more potent from the hometown boy's set piece deliveries after the interval. Russell Martin rifled over on the volley then saw Paul Caddis clear his goalbound header off the Birmingham line
Perhaps a more self-confident, more assured Norwich would have found a way to convert their general dominance of territory and possession. The reality right now is a Canaries' outfit who crave such consistency in both performance and results. Norwich arrived at St Andrew's looking to respond to a fresh setback on home turf.
Neil trekked south with a growing managerial reputation from his successful stint at Hamilton. It will not have taken him long to realise City have been too open, too porous defensively this season. That inability to go anywhere, under any circumstances, and keep rivals at bay has hindered their progress. Neil must decide on a defensive unit he can trust and build from solid foundations.
The presence of Jerome and Hooper on the bench illustrated he has the attacking weaponry. That is never in doubt. What was is Norwich's resolve at the opposite end of the pitch and Birmingham may well be the first evidence Neil has started work on the antidote.