Norwich City’s struggles to find the right midfield mixes
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
In the second of a three-part series dissecting the Canaries' successful battle to retain their Premier League status, Norwich City writer Paddy Davitt examines the relationship between the artists and the artisans in Norwich's midfield.
The imperative to protect whilst unlocking the latent creativity of City's midfield was to prove an enduring struggle.
Norwich's final day win at Manchester City perhaps was the prime example the club unquestionably possess players in central areas capable of inflicting damage on the opposition. Wes Hoolahan was the dominant force at the Etihad, with his vision and range of passing causing some high class players innumerable puzzles. Anthony Pilkington's finish for the first and Jonny Howson's thrilling solo match-winner only served to underline that Norwich possess midfielders of technical ability and grace to flourish in the Premier League.
Howson's slaloming run and composed slot beyond England international Joe Hart, coming so swiftly after his breathtaking rapier strike to seal Norwich's survival against West Brom, illustrated the Yorkshireman is a talent around which Chris Hughton could in time construct a midfield unit.
There was much to celebrate in Hughton's ample array of midfield stocks over the course of an arduous season. Robert Snodgrass combined a goal output with a serial set-piece threat that arguably exceeded expectations in what was his debut season at the highest level of his career.
A runners-up placing in the Player of the Season voting provided further vindication. Snodgrass' quality on the ball was routinely matched by a prodigious work rate that endeared him to the terrace population.
Pilkington and Elliott Bennett showed further signs of personal progression without leaving the consistent stamp of Snodgrass. It is all too easy to overlook both bypassed the Championship to bolster Norwich's first assault on the top flight. They are both still young men growing into promising careers. Injury curtailed Pilkington's effectiveness, but the majesty of his glancing header to sink Manchester United and his calmness in goalscoring situations have made him a commodity coveted by the Republic of Ireland's management. Injury also intervened to rob Hughton of the undoubted technical proficiency of Andrew Surman, whilst David Fox found himself an under-used option after a pivotal role in seasons past.
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Industry and endeavour were to be the dominant forces binding Norwich's midfield in the muscular form of Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey, before the Norwegian eventually ceded his place to Howson.
Necessity saw Hughton settle on a policy of containment to protect a vulnerable backline breached with alarming regularity during the opening weeks. Johnson and Tettey were the combative obstacles erected in front of a defence that started to blossom with familiarity and the burgeoning relationship between Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner.
Victory over Arsenal in late October felt at the time like a symbolic cleansing of those early struggles as the club embarked on a new way forward.
City's dogged duo combined in a frenetic shift that early Saturday evening which simply overwhelmed the cultured promptings of Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla in the middle of the pitch. The symbiotic display from Johnson and Tettey typified Norwich's collective resistance to wear down the Gunners. The Norwegian's speculative strike even fashioned a winner for Grant Holt, when the skipper punished Vito Mannone's initial spill.
Johnson's attacking ambition throughout the campaign was laudable, but his fine flick header to beat Stoke was the only goal City's first choice engine room could muster in the entirety of their campaign.
Hughton sought invention from more profitable sources and the extra protection freed Hoolahan to roam at will around a lone striker. When it worked best, like Wigan at home or Villa on the road, City managed to square the circle. The Canaries' play on both those days fused solidity out of possession with Hoolahan's ability to link back to front that brought judicious rewards. Snodgrass' goalscoring purple patch from dead ball situations earned points on the road at Southampton and Swansea. But for Romelu Lukaku's aerial prowess he may well have helped prolong the long unbeaten Premier League club-record run which ceased on a miserable winter's day at he Hawthorns.
Yet there was an equal truisim in Norwich's fallow periods when Hoolahan was denied time and space to probe. Both at Reading and Everton the opposition's chief tactic centred on suffocating the Dubliner's room for manoeuvre. When the struggle persisted into 2013 Hoolahan was sacrificed in an attempt to boost City's forward manpower. The Irishman's timely return for the defining phase of the campaign merely served to illustrate his pervasive influence on this group of Norwich players.
Hughton is clearly an admirer of his countryman, but despite City's impressively strong finish to the campaign there is still a concern the path ahead requires a permanent solution to the conundrum.
The panacea is to retain the defensive attributes of players like Johnson and Tettey within a structure where the genuinely creative midfielders are afforded a freedom of expression which can make the marginal differences that Hughton craves. City's activity in the summer transfer market may provide some fresh clues.