Norwich City flatter to deceive in the Premier League
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's Premier League trip to Watford should have been a watershed moment. It felt more like a crossroads.
After navigating a hazardous path around Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal in recent weeks - perhaps minus the haul of points more reflective of commendable application - a Vicarage Road test looked far more appetising.
But the great leap forward failed to materialise. More questions than answers remain. When Norwich misfire and malfunction, like in this latest offering, or in the second half at Newcastle, or at Southampton, when they were considerably hampered by Steven Whittaker's early red card, it is painful to digest.
Alex Neil intimated afterwards his team selections in the blustery conditions deserved scrutiny. Nathan Redmond was withdrawn at the interval for the added ballast and focal point of Dieumerci Mbokani. But that is not to absolve those he entrusted to carry out his plans, who fell a long way short of what is required in the top flight.
Perhaps only the recalled Declan Rudd should be exempt from criticism after some inevitable signs of early apprehension on his first Premier League start since September 2011 gave way to a growing confidence.
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Watford may be led by a suave Spaniard but their approach was attritional and uncomplicated. The hosts opted to largely bypass a midfield controlled by Ben Watson and Etienne Capoue in an attempt to unleash the pace and ferocity of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo to expose frailty in Norwich's central defence.
The Nigerian striker may lack the pedigree of his Premier League peers, but Norwich's centre-backs deferred with alarming regularity once captain Alex Tettey was the latest source of a self-inflicted blow in gifting Watford a first-half penalty.
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Any flickering grounds for optimism are being submerged on a weekly basis by a catalogue of individual errors that continue to stunt any concerted attempt at growth.
Watford's first incision came from a Norwich throw-in deep inside their own territory. Tettey's heavy touch from Seb Bassong's short pass was all the encouragement the impressive Deeney needed to spark a turnover that led to Tettey's desperate lunge at the side of Ighalo to rectify his initial mistake.
That brief but devastating passage was symptomatic of the depressing proceedings. Watford appeared sharper, energetic and more aggressive in their pressing; Norwich were none of the above.
The Hornets, on and off the field, exude a freshness and a zest that echoes City's first season back in the top flight after a long absence in 2011, when the same challenge was attacked with a fearless relish and a groundswell of optimism.
Watford may yet discover the Premier League is an unforgiving environment, given what looks a gruelling festive fixture list.
On this evidence, much of that early upward mobility hinges on their front two's predatory instincts but, crucially, the Hornets already have plenty of league points on the board.
Norwich have lurched from expansion to contraction this season in their philosophical outlook. That elusive balance between collective resolve without the ball and a genuine threat going forward seemed to have finally been harnessed in the second half against a toiling Arsenal; yet there was precious little evidence at Vicarage Road it was resistant to either the elements or the new threat in their midst.
Watford have an identity and a direct style, woven around Deeney and Ighalo, that at present is robustly effective. Norwich possessed neither at Vicarage Road.
You can package defeat here as simply another off-day, but the debit column is mounting and that recent Swansea home victory increasingly an oasis in a prolonged struggle since the heady days of the opening few months.
Neil faces more questions about attracting fresh blood in the January transfer market, but those already in the building have to produce over a congested December period or the damage may be done.
The epic mood swings from the competitiveness of Arsenal and Manchester City to the slim measures served up at Vicarage Road must be addressed.
The individual errors - which effectively claimed John Ruddy in deepest Hertfordshire - have to be eradicated simply to give Norwich a fighting chance of bridging the gap to clubs with richer resources and deeper financial reserves.
This was not a fair fight before a ball was kicked in August, but the Canaries' bid for sustained progress is being hampered from within not without.