Norwich City look set for a long, hard season
Premature it may be so early in the season but the feeling Norwich City have reached a Premier League crossroads was palpable after this abject mauling.
To lose once in the fashion Norwich did at Fulham was a result that, by its very nature coming on the opening day, lent itself to a catalogue of mitigating circumstances.
For it to happen again so soon after the debacle at Craven Cottage cuts to the core of major issues hindering the Canaries' ability to punch above their collective weight again in the top flight. It is not enough to dismiss defeats against the likes of an excellent young Liverpool side on the basis that anything Chris Hughton's men garner from such tussles against the aristocrats should be a cause for unexpected celebration; nor to marvel at the predatory brilliance of Luis Suarez.
To acknowledge both is merely to accept the top flight is not an even landscape or a level playing field. If it were the race for the title and Champions League qualification would not be contested by the same protagonists every season with the odd gatecrasher.
Liverpool's Uruguayan forward is a divisive figure at the majority of away grounds he visits in this country, but his striking prowess has never been in question. Suarez deserves to be bracketed in the same elevated company as the likes of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Robin van Persie.
The Reds' number seven single-handedly destroyed Paul Lambert's side at Carrow Road last season. The parallels were painfully evident again this weekend – yet what really troubles is the ease with which Norwich acquiesced in their own downfall.
Absent centre-back Sebastien Bassong has become a lightning rod for a turbulent opening month or so to the new campaign. His arrival post-Fulham solidified a defence that had left John Ruddy badly exposed. The hamstring injury that forced him to miss Liverpool's visit and the carnage that ensued as a result inevitably raised fresh concerns about the depth of quality at Hughton's disposal.
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Injuries and suspensions will hit routinely during the course of the next eight months. If City's prospects hinge so completely on the continued presence of a slim core of key performers then one starts to fear the worst.
Hughton's experience as a coach and a manager is his greatest asset right now. A growing number of the natives are understandably restless.
A steady trickle of fans headed for the exits with half an hour still left after Suarez expertly used Russell Martin as a shield to whip the ball around Ruddy for his hat-trick. Norwich's fan base has been fed a diet of success over the past three seasons.
A period of upheaval was always likely given the managerial regime change during the summer and the inherent difficulties of reprising an against-the-odds struggle for Premier League survival. That it has come to pass so early in the new campaign and in such painful fashion makes it no less digestible.
Only the most ultra-optimistic Norwich supporter would have conceivably predicted the club could repeat their mid-table top flight finish. Those shifting currents are already started to settle in the Premier League table – throw Swansea into the equation and Norwich look set for a long battle with a clutch of half a dozen or so rivals to retain their status.
Most fans will accept defeats if those who carry the colours into battle perform to their maximum; both in effort and talent. Hughton unquestionably possesses an honest group of hard-working players. They will know better than anyone displays like Liverpool and Fulham fall so far short as to verge on the embarrassment.
Hughton at this moment is like the boy with his finger in the dike. He plugs one leaking hole in the dam after Fulham, but City's inability to score goals over a series of games served only to ratchet up the pressure to a point where another rupture appears further along the bank. Each passing Premier League game throws up more questions and fewer answers. The Norwich manager bolstered the squad he inherited with some potentially astute acquisitions, but the right mix remains elusive.
Norwich could and should have arguably beaten QPR, Tottenham and West Ham. At times their play has been assured – creative forward motions fused with defensive solidity ran like a rich seam through all three performances.
But at Fulham and now Liverpool they have exhibited vulnerability and porous traits that must alarm Hughton and his coaching staff.
City have created a stack of chances this season, but that serves only to mask a general malaise in front of goal that is afflicting not just the strikers but the whole side.
Andrew Surman's vicious swinging volley early in the second period with Liverpool two goals to the good struck Robert Snodgrass a yard out and spiralled over.
You could seek solace in the fates, but Suarez showed no such lack of precision when he pilfered the ball away from Michael Turner before a nutmeg and razor-sharp curl into Ruddy's bottom corner.
Turner will be castigated again after a shaky display followed his opening day troubles at Fulham. Yet that would serve only to absolve the rest of his team-mates. One hopes second half strikes for Steve Morison and Grant Holt will in time be salvagable positives from a game when City only sporadically threatened to upset Liverpool's rhythm.
Wes Hoolahan is another conundrum that Hughton needs to solve. The Canaries carry a greater potency with the creative Irishman in their ranks, but Hughton you sense shares the same concerns as his predecessor at the potential detrimental defensive impact from the Dubliner's inclusion.
Jonny Howson was a marauding attacking option from midfield when he first appeared in Canary yellow. At the moment his primary role in the side is to offer defensive insurance alongside Bradley Johnson.
David Fox, Alex Tettey and Jacob Butterfield all have the potential capacity to leave a lasting impression on matches at this level. Hughton undoubtedly possesses the raw materials to compete in the Premier League. His task now is to meld them into an effective unit.
Tottenham was the benchmark of his early reign. Norwich with Bassong and Barnett operating in tandem were secure at the back.
Johnson and Howson bossed midfield and it took Brad Friedel at his best to deny the Canaries. So far that is the exception to the general rule.