Signs that Norwich City scars haven’t healed since Liverpool defeat
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Like any other Norwich fan I was delighted when West Ham's midweek FA Cup match against Liverpool ticked over to extra-time.
When you're in a situation as desperate as ours, you look for any glimmer of hope that could have even the slightest impact on a forthcoming fixture. Not only would Slaven Bilic's side have endured a testing 120 minute run-out but with Cheikhou Kouyate and Winston Reid suffering injuries they'd have to reshuffle what had been a first-choice starting XI too.
On 65 minutes, West Ham showed all the signs of a tired team, resigned to defeat after conceding a second goal away from home. This wasn't like the Liverpool match a month earlier. The Hammers hadn't played with the attacking prowess behind their ascent up the league table, and Norwich's high-line at the back repeatedly caught the visitors offside.
Unfortunately the mental scars of surrendering a two-goal lead at home to Liverpool still haven't healed. In hindsight it's always easy to suggest substitutions that could have prevented the collapse that followed. After Wes Hoolahan's goal though it seemed obvious that Alex Neil should make changes.
The introduction minutes before of Victor Moses for Alex Song and Andy Carroll for the ineffective Enner Valencia signalled the Hammers' intent for the remainder of the game, and they began reaping the rewards. Moses' pace and trickery continually bamboozled Russell Martin, while the back four needed help to deal with the boisterous Carroll.
Pressing high and attacking from the off was almost the opposite approach to that at Villa Park, with Nathan Redmond reinstated to offer much-needed width and Jonny Howson flourishing in a central role. Yet with Robbie Brady playing in defence again and Hoolahan naturally drifting inside, Steven Naismith and even Redmond seemed to take turns with the Irishman to fill that left-berth in the absence of a left winger. The inexperienced Sam Byram was the weak link in the West Ham defence but City didn't provide a direct opponent to get at him.
Having worked hard to gain a 2-0 lead, the midfield continued to overcommit in attack when the focus should have shifted to killing off the game. Replacing Hoolahan with a defensive midfielder would have given the back line more protection, while Cameron Jerome was having less and less impact as the game wore on. The striker had only played a combined total of 77 minutes since his last start against Manchester City in the FA Cup more than a month ago and it was showing.
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With Patrick Bamford, who impressed at Villa, and Dieumerci Mbokani, who's proved he's adept at winning free-kicks and holding the ball up, on the bench, there were better options on the bench to help City retain possession.
Instead, those changes weren't made until Norwich's lead had been cancelled out. That familiar feeling of impending doom came flooding back when Payet sparked into life to pull one back for the Hammers. Despite a hearty rendition of 'On The Ball City' as John Ruddy picked the ball out of his net, it was as though everyone inside Carrow Road knew what was to unfold.
Time and again Norwich have shown they are incapable of defending as a unit, of keeping organised in the face of an onslaught, particularly after conceding. The back four lost their shape again and a distinct lack of on-field leadership was also painstakingly evident.
In a league where the margin between safety and relegation are so fine, dropping five points from winning positions in two out of three home games has cost Norwich dearly. Had we seen out the two-goal leads in both games we'd have been 15th and five points clear of the bottom three instead of hovering just above them on goal difference.
The same positive approach that saw us achieve these leads really ought to be adopted at league leaders Leicester in a fortnight's time. With games running out, and every point so precious, employing a damage limitation exercise will hardly help our cause.