Paddy Davitt verdict: Norwich City easy prey for Championship hunters

Norwich City midfielder Alex Pritchard's looping header was cleared off the line by Preston's Bailey

Norwich City midfielder Alex Pritchard's looping header was cleared off the line by Preston's Bailey Wright. Picture by Andy Kearns/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Andy Kearns/Focus Images Limited

Far more troubling than a first Championship home defeat is the growing sense Norwich City have been found out.

Norwich City keeper Michael McGovern is finally beaten by Preston's Alex Baptiste. Picture by Andy K

Norwich City keeper Michael McGovern is finally beaten by Preston's Alex Baptiste. Picture by Andy Kearns/Focus Images - Credit: Andy Kearns/Focus Images Limited

In the insular world of professional football it doesn't take long for word to spread. You can imagine the scouting chatter. Defensively weak, susceptible to set-pieces, a midfield packed full of creative talent but vulnerable in reverse gear when aggressively pressed with high-intensity; a team in essence pleasing on the eye who can be bullied.

Preston exposed all the flaws within Alex Neil's squad and the realisation the Scot has some major remedial work ahead was uncomfortable to watch at Carrow Road.

Neil is right. There will be peaks and troughs. Norwich's healthy points tally, despite a wretched few days, underlines the direction of travel remains positive. But there are real structural weaknesses which were evident in the second half at Fulham and again at home to the Lilywhites.

Each fresh stumble sharpens the focus on the manager's judgment. That comes with the territory as pre-season promotion favourites, where public messages revolve around a swift Premier League return.

Preston North End manager Simon Grayson savoured his side's Championship win at Norwich City. Pictur

Preston North End manager Simon Grayson savoured his side's Championship win at Norwich City. Picture by Andy Kearns/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Andy Kearns/Focus Images Limited


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By common consent, Jacob Murphy appears to have lost that mental edge, that sharpness in thought and deed. Neil acknowledged as much since the collapse on Tyneside but persists in playing the prodigiously-gifted youngster. The mitigation surrounding a mounting injury list in that area of the field is sound. But so is the need to limit Murphy's exposure, given the reduced productivity in recent weeks. The Championship is long and arduous and there will be plenty of opportunity ahead to influence the course of Norwich's promotion push.

Robbie Brady is another conundrum on the opposite flank. The Republic of Ireland international, bar that stunning winner at Wolves, looks frankly disinterested. Neil was again searingly honest after his Molineux match-clincher in demanding more from the Dubliner but Brady's sad, slow second-half exit against Preston marked another fitful afternoon.

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The manager spoke of five or six who were simply below-par but it was the same mantra at Birmingham earlier this campaign. City's stylish brand of possession football needs to be supplemented by a miserly, mean, streetwise equivalent when Wes Hoolahan is a sporadic figure, when Graham Dorrans looks up and sees a sea of well-organised opponents and precious few attacking options. When City are unable to get their attacking full-backs down the flanks or Cameron Jerome fails to dominate suffocating central defenders.

This Norwich vintage can definitely play but serious questions persist whether they can scrap and grind in the close-quarters combat. To do so is less a sign of weakness to engage fully-committed rivals like Fulham and Preston on their own terms than it is a pragmatic sign of flexibility when the situation arises.

Few would wish Neil to abandon his ambitious philosophy but it must be rooted in realism. Norwich will not earn promotion by relying on Hoolahan every week, they have to go to places like Newcastle and Fulham and turn winning positions into three points.

Or in a tight, taut affair at Carrow Road, one in which they needed to prevail despite being off-colour, not to concede in amateurish fashion. Alex Baptiste rose between five yellow shirts to plant a header past Michael McGovern. The impromptu inquest that followed Baptiste's unchallenged header is an all too familiar sight.

There is a rising sense of frustration, fanned by the realisation Norwich have yet to really stamp their perceived superiority on Championship opponents.

Neil and his players must accept compromise is required when the occasion dictates and develop a coping mechanism to prevail.

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