Norwich City’s search for firepower proved an arduous task
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
In the final part of a three-part series dissecting the Canaries' successful battle to retain their Premier League status, Norwich City writer Paddy Davitt highlights the underlying factors behind a slim goal return.
Tempting as it is to judge Norwich's strikers on their sparse goal output there is a telling measure in mitigiation when you assess the club's forward stocks.
Grant Holt spent more minutes on the pitch leading the line for Norwich in the Premier League these past nine months than the combined total of the six other strikers at Chris Hughton's disposal.
That statistic alone triggers numerous conclusions. Pertinent above all others perhaps that Holt was the manager's most trusted asset to spearhead a tactical revision which left the captain to plough a lone furrow at the top end of the pitch.
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Hughton's thrust to build from the back was understandable and in its robust construction admirable but the manager himself readily admitted it blunted City's potency. Holt was the man who bore the brunt.
When Norwich dug in to repel he tended to be the only outlet, patrolled by two central defenders and sometimes extra reinforcements in wide areas should Holt attempt diversionary raids down the channels. Hughton's decision to abandon a two-pronged strike force in the face of that early season barrage demanded a degree of re-invention to Holt's game that limited his time and effectiveness in penalty areas; the one place where Holt has forged a career propelling him all the way to the top as his prowess at close quarters helped lead City's charge through the Football League and then a 15-goal debut top flight campaign.
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In that glorious first Premier League excursion defenders with international pedigree like John Terry and Rio Ferdinand had been mauled at close quarters. Second time around, Holt increasingly found himself locked in muscular tussles with powerful adversaries such as Everton's Sylvain Distin on the half-way line at Goodison Park.
Norwich's judiciously economical probings and set piece accuracy made up the shortfall on that club-record Premier League unbeaten run prior to Christmas but the physical and mental toll began to tell during City's prolonged difficulties during the early months of this year.
Kei Kamara and Luciano Becchio were deployed to varying degrees of success but it was only with Wes Hoolahan's return to the starting line up and the telepathic understanding forged in more forgiving environments that Holt emerged from his relative hibernation.
The 32-year-old may have rifled more aesthetically pleasing goals than the trio of close range strikes in Norwich's final three Premier League games, but it was a pertinent reminder to those who routinely question whether the captain's powers are on the wane.
Holt has managed to construct a successful career on being in the right place at the right time but his latest chapter will perhaps be framed as a selfless season of endurance.
Hughton appeared to make early calls on the fitness and effectiveness of James Vaughan and Chris Martin. Harry Kane's moonlight arrival from Tottenham in the closing stages of the August transfer window was a portent of troubled times ahead. The England youth international fluffed his big chance to secure a maiden Premier League win on Hughton's watch in the closing seconds against West Ham at Carrow Road. A broken foot injured on League Cup duty and a brief flirtation with the first team again around Christmas, prior to that darkest of FA Cup days, was Kane's swansong.
Steve Morison and Simeon Jackson were tried and despatched to the sidings. Becchio arrived as Morison headed in the opposite direction but two starts against Fulham and Everton were a circumspect introduction to the big time for the Argentine. In both matches, his late second half exit paved the way for Kamara to carve out a unique niche in Norwich's season.
The permanent deal from Sporting Kansas eluded the Sierre Leone striker, but along with Holt he was the other striker to drag City over the line. A goalscoring cameo against the Toffees and the added aerial nuisance value that later helped trigger Holt's 94th minute winner produced a seismic moment in Norwich's season.
Kamara's loan move, much like Norwich's survival, can now be portrayed as a successful episode. Yet genuine frontline alternatives to Holt would undoubtedly have reduced the escalating draw count and by definition smoothed the club's passage to a third consecutive season in the Premier League.
The pending arrival of prolific Dutchman Ricky van Wolfswinkel is a major signal of intent; both in conception a record transfer outlay and an audacious leap forward. Norwich have recruited a gifted footballer with the pedigree and the goalscoring prowess that suggests the manager has already armed his current squad with a rich seam of attacking firepower that was simply not available in a Premier League campaign of incremental progress.
Given the over-reliance on Holt one would expect Norwich to have identified further potential additions to boost a squad that has now lost both Jackson and Martin in recent days. How the returning Vaughan fits into Hughton's thinking after a sustained run in Huddersfield's side could also alter the striking dynamic.
Norwich's manager should be rightly applauded for maximising his resources over an arduous season. Hughton achieved the sole remit he was tasked with at the start of his tenure.
There are genuine grounds for optimism regarding a set of players who look capable of further growth under his measured guidance, but the search for goals is a challenge City must master to achieve further progress.