Chris Hughton accepts Norwich City must be ruthless
There was a certain degree of symmetry to Norwich City's pre-season finale.
Defeat in the Carrow Road sunshine to German opposition finished what began against the Berliners of Hertha in the small picturesque Austrian town of Gleisdorf.
The difference now from then is Chris Hughton knows the strengths and weaknesses of the men he will entrust to carry City's Premier League colours over the next nine months. Results are an irrelevance. City's abject display on the opening day of League One back in 2009 the week after beating Premier League Wigan should underscore that point.
The underlying messages the astute Hughton took on board from the past few weeks are far more significant. City have looked solid defensively for the most part, then at times like Saturday they have been cut open far too easily by top European quality. James Vaughan in particular was a potent goalscoring option in the opening games. Anthony Pilkington has lost none of his mastery from set pieces, but three blanks to end the pre-season sparring generates an inevitable air of unease. Hughton is well aware City need to be more ruthless when it matters most. The Norwich chief is right to highlight the goalscoring success of Grant Holt and Steve Morison at Premier League level last season.
Top flight defences may well be more attuned to the unique threats posed by the Canaries second time around; yet with Hughton and his backroom team now at the helm, you detect an inevitable re-invention emerging to build on solid foundations. Robert Snodgrass deployed off Grant Holt again was a clear signal. This is Hughton's team now. Not that of his predecessor.
Paul Lambert's final parting gift was a pre-season programme to test the players he left behind. Ajax's mastery in possession gave Hughton a perfect opportunity to assess their defensive resolve and shape. Traits City will need when they find their backs to the wall again at the likes of Anfield or the Emirates. Celtic at Parkhead offered an early competitive edge with the Bhoys gearing up for Champions League qualifiers. Borussia arrived in Norfolk with similar objectives on the near horizon. A two-legged tie against Dynamo Kiev to reach the group stages proper.
Monchengladbach lost two of the jewels that helped Lucien Favre's squad finish fourth in the Bundesliga last season over the summer when Dante left for Bayern Munich and German international Marco Reus joined champions Dortmund for 17.5m Euros. In has come Dutch striker Luuk De Jong for 15m Euros. Spanish international central defender Alvaro Dominguez recruited for 8m Euros and Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka for 8.5ms. All three were on duty at Carrow Road. The financial disparity with the Canaries' own transfer outlays this and previous close seasons illustrated the degree of difficulty City faced for their pre-season send-off.
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'It was a tough test for us, but we knew it would be. They finished fourth in their division last year and you could see why. They showed some real quality at times,' admitted Hughton. 'But we knew that – and I would much rather have played against that type of opposition than a more comfortable game. They made it hard for us, particularly in that first half period. It took us a little while to get to grips with how they play because they play an expansive game. I enjoyed a fair amount of that game but no-one likes losing.'
The frustration for Hughton came from self-inflicted blows. Michael Turner's miscue in attempting to clear his lines was punished by Igor De Camargo who rifled underneath John Ruddy. Teenage striker Branimir Hrgota powered through the heart of City's backline in the final minute to draw Ruddy and coolly swerve around the England keeper before rolling into an empty net.
'The area that disappointed me was that I thought we conceded two relatively soft goals,' said Hughton. 'The second one we could possibly put it down towards the end of the game and we were pushing a little bit – and we'd made a couple of substitutions and you lose your shape. We've brought in players like Michael and he has already shown he has that experience which will help us because we will be up against good sides and we will be under pressure in games.
'We needed to threaten their box a little bit more. We obviously had the good chance with Robert, which would have brought us level. Grant had a chance in the first half. They are the defining moments. If I analyse the real clear-cut opportunities they had, although they threatened a fair amount, it was just the two goals and one other good opportunity. They are the fine dividing lines and we need to make sure we are more clinical in front of goal.'
For all Borussia's undoubted attacking threat, spearheaded by the mobile De Jong and the clever De Camargo in central midfield, City could and should have gone in level. Holt's snap header flew straight at Marc-Andre Ter Stegen eight yards out after Bradley Johnson had whipped Pilkington's cross in behind the Borussia backline. City looked at their best when they injected an urgency into their attacking play. The fitness-orientated nature of recent exercises ensured such thrusts were sporadic. Snodgrass stayed on his feet after the interval when clipped by Ter Stegen inside the Borussia penalty area. One suspects the outcome may well have been different when the real business begins at Craven Cottage.
• Norwich City: Ruddy, R Martin, Turner, R Bennett (Barnett, 85), Tierney, E Bennett (Surman, 67), Howson (Jackson, 85), Johnson, Pilkington (Morison, 67), Snodgrass, Holt. Subs not used: Rudd, Vaughan, C Martin, Smith, Lappin, Francomb.
• Borussia: Ter Stegen, Daems (Wendt, 72), Hermann (Cigeri, 63), De Jong (Hrgota, 79), De Camargo (Hanke, 36), Dominguez, Nordtveit (Ring, 63), Arango (Rupp, 72), Jantschke, Xkaka, Stranzl (Brouwers, 79). Sub not used: Heimeroth. Goals: De Camargo (17), Hrgota (90)
• Referee: Howard Webb (Yorkshire)
• Attendance: 13,324