Easy to see where Norwich City’s problems lie following Southampton stalemate
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich's labours against Southampton graphically illustrated the struggle within their struggle for Premier League survival.
City's enduring inability to fuse attacking creation with defensive solidity has emerged as one of the key sub-plots in a season which is incrementally edging towards safety.
Chris Hughton deployed two out-and-out frontmen against Everton and now the Saints, and Norwich have looked no more potent than in their best spells of the campaign, when Grant Holt has been the pivot around which Wes Hoolahan tended to operate.
Southampton swamped the Canaries in midfield areas – much as the Toffees successfully achieved in the previous home game. But for Holt's late penalty miss the outcome may have been uncannily similar, yet that would still have provided scant justification for reinforcing City's frontline.
Only the Saints' own profligacy, allied to Mark Bunn's defiance, kept the hosts in a position to strike a decisive late blow.
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City can unleash as many strikers operating as far up the pitch as they want, but if the service remains sporadic Norwich's forwards will continue to struggle to score the goals that will alleviate any lingering tension over the final run-in.
Kei Kamara earned a first start after two vibrant home cameos from the bench, but the Sporting Kansas City loanee fared no better than Luciano Becchio did against Fulham.
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Saints' centre-back pairing, Jose Fonte and Jos Hooiveld, clamped themselves onto Holt and the Sierra Leone international safe in the knowledge the Canaries only carried a rare threat in behind.
Anthony Pilkington's exit with a fresh hamstring concern so early in the piece robbed Norwich of natural width down the left. Hoolahan, as his manager stated during the build up, is no direct replacement. The Irishman's switch infield as the game elapsed underlined the point.
Hoolahan was arguably the one player in the home ranks who could have picked the inside pass and applied the requisite weight for Snodgrass to veer around Artur Boruc, until Maya Yoshida profited from a heavy final touch as the Scot tumbled.
Hughton's activity in the January window and the revisions to a tried and trusted formula over recent weeks suggest he knows where the problem lies. Finding the solutions appears frustratingly elusive and may have to wait until this summer and a fresh chance to bolster a squad which retains a wonderfully resolute defensive outlook.
Southampton do not possess the star names of the Manchester United roster who brushed City so dismissively aside at Old Trafford the previous weekend but their lowly league status belies a refreshing commitment to attacking football. In players like the gifted Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez they have pace and athleticism in wide areas to support Rickie Lambert, who has made the same smooth transition to the big time as Holt managed last season. That cohesion and fluidity was in stark contrast to the fitful urgings of the hosts for long spells at Carrow Road.
Hughton is absolutely within his rights to state survival is not simply the overriding objective – it is the only objective given the financial disparity that will grow further when the new tranche of Premier League broadcast deals take effect in the close season. The relative arguments about entertainment and value for money pale against the all-encompassing need to be part of such an exclusive club for a third consecutive campaign.
Since the end of that club-record Premier League unbeaten run before Christmas, Norwich's work appears constrained within a transitional phase of development under Hughton. The pieces are not fitting quite as seamlessly as they once were – the inevitable exertions of a long, hard season and the ebb and flow of both injuries and form have blown City slightly off course from the consistency they exhibited when overcoming the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Swansea. Top flight rivals have worked out Norwich's solid game plan and found remedies to nullify the influence of Hoolahan.
Tottenham at home just days after the trauma of an FA Cup exit to Luton was the last occasion when City came anywhere near the vibrancy of their highest watermark. Hughton's men were collectively magnificent that night until Gareth Bale's brilliance and Bunn's agility ensured Spurs left with a hard-earned point.
Hughton talks about fine margins and Boruc's athleticism is all that prevented City looking down on a much lengthier list of rivals from the vantage point of 10th instead of 14th place after Newcastle's Sunday win.
Southampton debated the validity of the penalty award with an haranguing of Mark Clattenburg that had echoes of the berating Andy D'Urso was subjected to by Roy Keane and his cohorts a decade ago. Mauricio Pochettino's on field confrontation at the final whistle was needless encroachment that may still incur the wrath of the authorities.
Luke Shaw's inexperience was exploited by Holt, but the prodigiously-talented youngster escaped a similar punishment in the first period with a clear tug back on the home captain as he closed in on Robert Snodgrass' driven low cross.
Bunn was the busier of the two custodians. John Ruddy's deputy has emerged from the large shadow cast by the England man with each passing month. He was outstanding in that recent Tottenham draw, the difference against QPR with a penalty stop of his own and here again he proved a reliable last line of defence.
Lallana was denied on numerous occasions, although the Saints' skipper will know he should have despatched a sharp chance from 12 yards early in the second period when Javier Garrido could only divert a driven cross into his path. Gaston Ramirez's impudent chip was met with a fine parry and Rodriguez was routinely repelled.
Bunn's sure-footed balance on the floor was no less admirable with City's defence determined to test his kicking abilities in treacherous conditions.
But for Norwich's keeper to emerge as their premier performer tells its own story. It is the opposite end where the conundrum has to be solved.