Paddy Davitt verdict: Rudderless Norwich City heading for the rocks
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's players are not cheating the fans or their manager. They are cheating themselves as they stumble to the Premier League exit.
Alex Neil is an honest, humble man who will face the flak because this is his team, his selections, his formations and increasingly his passive approach in the heat of battle.
But Neil's players are better than one point from the last 27 available since beating Southampton on January 2. Norwich have effectively wasted a quarter of a Premier League season as they career towards an inevitable conclusion. Sporadically encouraging performances are cheap currency; stirring responses to perceived injustice from officials or a worrying injury list simply worthless in the final, brutal analysis.
Norwich performed admirably against Leicester City and Chelsea and got nothing. The outcome when they unravel, as they did so graphically at the start of the second half against Swansea, is painfully familiar. Bullish when the expectation weighs heavier on more-vaunted opponents, inhibited and introverted when they are expected to force the pace against direct rivals.
A willingness to accept their fate, the fatalism that appears to seize these players at crucial times, the lack of conviction and self-belief is every bit as endemic in the worst moments now as it was two seasons ago under Chris Hughton's stewardship.
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Swansea looked just as brittle in the first-half, despite the uplift of beating Arsenal a few days earlier at the Emirates. You could sense a palpable anxiety in the home crowd, as Norwich again flirted with the prospect of unleashing some genuine attacking productivity. Nathan Redmond and Wes Hoolahan probed in advanced areas to support Cameron Jerome and Steven Naismith, but it was a tease, the latest mirage since that fertile festive period.
Ivo Pinto was brushed aside by Wayne Routledge high up the pitch to trigger a chain of events that saw Leroy Fer roll in the unmarked Gylfi Sigurdsson, in the space vacated by Pinto, to guide a low finish past John Ruddy.
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The saddest, most predictable indictment of that whole episode was the crushing inevitability once Fer entered the fray against his old club. Swansea had already willingly accepted Norwich's invitation to grab the initiative immediately after the interval, the Dutchman injecting drive and a renewed sense of purpose from central midfield.
Neil responded with the introductions of Patrick Bamford and Dieumerci Mbokani in the aftermath. The Chelsea loanee did enough again in a second half cameo to suggest he warrants greater involvement. Neil's faith in Jerome is commendable on one level, but with Naismith an increasingly ineffective presence alongside him since that stunning debut against Liverpool, Norwich look anaemic in the final third. This was more ammunition for Neil's critics, who felt he was equally passive at Leicester when Claudio Ranieri went for broke with fresh reinforcements from the substitutes' bench.
The Scot cuts an increasingly isolated figure at the front of his technical area. Even a man with such unquenchable reserves of self-belief as Neil must feel the burden and the pressure building. In the midst of the maelstrom, with so much at stake for so many, Norwich's Premier League fate hinges on their manager making the right calls at the right times. He is falling short in this depressingly fallow period, but be in no doubt his players are failing him as well.
Redmond dragged a first time shot agonisingly wide from 14 yards in what proved Norwich's best chance for salvation late on, after Wes Hoolahan had mis-kicked seconds earlier at close range.
The body language and the dejection at the final whistle told its own story. Neil and his troops had tripped up again on an afternoon when it felt like much more than simply three points at stake.
Perhaps this is Norwich's lot in the Premier League; hoping for more and expecting less given the Canaries' financial muscle compared to the rest. That would be palatable mitigation if Norwich had not shown they are capable of better. The boldness and freshness which marked out their initial forays this season have long since been replaced by passivity and a chronic decline in confidence.
City can still survive, with Sunderland and Newcastle continuing to toil in the vicinity, but after losing at Bournemouth, Aston Villa and now Swansea since the turn of the year there is precious little evidence to suggest they can buck that trend when the north-east's finest head to Carrow Road.
First there is the small matter of treble-chasing Manchester City. The Premier League is an unforgiving environment but that is what Norwich signed up for. Embrace the challenge or depart meekly.