Norwich City must act fast to halt Premier League decline
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's capacity to implode in the Premier League appears boundless. One dominant theme threatens to strangle all the positivity, all the encouraging work of Alex Neil and his players this season; their inability to eradicate basic errors.
City's display against a Manchester City squad shorn of world class talent like Sergio Aguero and David Silva but still able to keep Raheem Sterling in reserve until the second half was nothing short of magnificent.
The postscript should have been fulsome praise for Neil's tactical nous and the discipline and commitment of those he entrusted to carry it out. Instead he was forced to field more questions about the resolution of his players and the cataclysmic decision-making that contributed to their downfall.
This is now less about finding scapegoats than eradicating the debilitating, self-inflicted blows that in the midst of impressive, confident performances have contrived to suck City on a downward spiral of results.
October was a wretched instalment, with a catalogue of individual mistakes underpinning the defeats against Leicester City, Newcastle United, West Brom and now the Sky Blues.
Neil is too astute not to heed the warning signs. Again he projected controlled frustration in his post-match dealings. The harsh words and the anger you sense will be reserved for his players in the days ahead when they sift through another debrief where so much that went right was undermined by isolated incidents of chronic self-doubt and a lack of concentration.
Perhaps little old Norwich should expect nothing less against a squad dripping in wealth that plays in a stadium which is a monument to excess. Beyond the confines of the Canaries' camp this was portrayed as mission impossible; the financial disparity too great to overcome.
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Filtered through such deference, Norwich exceeded expectations. But the bar in the Premier League is dizzingly high for a reason and judgement must come in the harshest of light. 'Plucky' Canaries is not a badge that will shield Neil's squad in the months ahead. They are in a dogfight where games against the elite may not decide their fate but when the opportunity presents itself, as it did so gloriously at the Etihad, it is criminal to fritter away a point or three.
The first rumbles of discontent were evident in the home areas just after half-time, sparked by the enduring obduracy of Norwich's defensive shape and sporadic threat on the counter. Sterling's introduction was something of a pyrrhic victory for Neil's suffocating methods, but that body of work for an hour and more, all that physical toll, counted for little when Nicolas Otamendi lost Ryan Bennett to power a stunning 12-yard header beyond John Ruddy from Kevin de Bruyne's corner.
Joe Hart's embarrassing late spill gifted Cameron Jerome an equaliser Norwich fully merited. Anxiety bubbled again around the Etihad until it was released by Ruddy's donation at the opposite end to trigger a chain of events which cost Russell Martin a red card and Norwich the chance of a positive result. Yaya Toure rifled his low penalty past Ruddy before Hart then denied Martin Olsson as the visitors' bravely tried to defy the odds.
But fairytales seldom happen in the Premier League. Norwich already know by now it is an unforgiving environment. Manchester City launched a relieving counter-attack deep in stoppage time and Sterling's trickery coaxed a rash challenge from the tireless Robbie Brady inside the Norwich penalty area. It was a cruel epitaph for the Irishman, who again demonstrated his residual value to the cause with a deployment on the right of a new-look formation. Aleksandar Kolarov had the good grace to drag his penalty wide with Toure departed; Norwich hardly deserved another dent to their goal difference.
But it is the escalating number of individual errors that should be of greater concern than the headline rate of concessions.
Norwich's tactical prowess was eroded by a lack of individual responsibility. Neil is also culpable for his selections, which will now come under even closer scrutiny ahead of Swansea City's visit. The Scot may point to a degree of flexibility in recent times with the likes of Olsson, Bennett, Youssouf Mulumbu and Dieumerci Mbokani all brought back into the fold. Yet that has failed to stem the negative tide of results. If the answers do not lie inside his squad then thoughts inevitably turn to a January transfer window which could be crucial in the final outcome.