Six issues facing Norwich City in the battle for Premier League survival
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City face nine of the biggest matches in their history as they look to pull off the great escape and condemn Newcastle and Sunderland to the Championship.
Today our sports desk tackles the six big issues facing manager Alex Neil and what he needs to do to get it right.
Chris Lakey – SUPPORT
There is always a debate among football fans over whether it is permissible to show your disapproval of your team's fortunes in a vocal manner.
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To boo or not to boo? You pay your money, you take your choice, but now is perhaps the time for those who like nothing more than a good rant at a player or manager to put their principles behind them, cross their fingers and hope no-one uses the word 'hypocrite'.
It is very easy to say, but nonetheless important – your team needs you right now.
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Yes, you have the right to openly criticise, but the amateur psychologist in us all knows that it will do more harm than good. And Norwich City need all the good they can lay their hands on.
Follow Norwich City away and you will be amazed at the noise that a couple of thousand fans can make. Watch them at home and you will be amazed that 26,000 people can be quieter. Again, you pay your money, you take your choice, but the home fans can actually do something to help the team.
Carrow Road is the one place they have the advantage, so use it. Create a good atmosphere: don't wait for the team to get you going. Start it yourself. Be brave, be excited, be noisy.
But most of all, be supportive.
Mark Armstrong – STRIKERS
Alex Neil's preference for operating with one out-and-out striker has seen him flit between Cameron Jerome and Dieumerci Mbokani this season. A combined total of seven goals from 51 appearances tells its own story.
Any striker will tell you that it's when the chances, not the goals, dry up that it starts getting a real worry... I think we're well past that now. Jerome in particular has had opportunities in recent games and failed to take them and it has cost his side. Steven Naismith's fitness issues also haven't helped.
It has at least shown that when City are on the front foot they create chances but surely the time has come for a change of personnel up top. Patrick Bamford must be wondering why he swapped a substitutes' bench at Selhurst Park for one at Carrow Road. While he may not have the athleticism of Mbokani or Jerome, he's a finisher, and more questions will be asked of Neil if he isn't in the starting line-up against Manchester City tomorrow.
The Chelsea loanee looked sharp in his cameo appearance against Swansea and must be the next cab off the rank. If that doesn't work Neil could turn to Kyle Lafferty, but with just 13 minutes of Premier League action to his name don't bank on it.
Paddy Davitt – TINKERING
Alex Neil said it better than anyone during the early part of this depressing decline in Norwich City's Premier League fortunes.
When you don't win games, you have to change personnel and formations in a bid to find that winning formula again. When you do, and the team continue to struggle you get criticised for making too many changes and trying too many formations. That is the lot of Neil and his contemporaries. This is a results business, and a brutal one at that, given Neil's ability to get more right than wrong will make the difference between another top flight season and a swift return to the Football League. The Scot has hardly been helped of late by suspensions to key midfielders, in Alex Tettey and Gary O'Neil, or a mounting late-season injury list. Both are variables beyond the manager's control. But John Ruddy's return to the ranks after a clamour for his demotion prior to Christmas was the clearest signal yet Neil is going to put his trust in his experienced core who have been over this course and distance before. Parallels inevitably are being drawn with the failure of 2013/14 but the likes of Ruddy, Seb Bassong, Russell Martin, Jonny Howson and Wes Hoolahan also know what it takes to stay up. Neil needs that trust to be repaid.
David Freezer – DEFENCE
Finding the balance between defence and attack has often been discussed by Alex Neil this season – yet with nine games to go, his team are still searching.
Switching to a 3-4-3 formation seemed to edge City closer to striking that balance recently, going close to holding leaders Leicester to a draw and pushing reigning champions Chelsea hard in a 2-1 loss at Carrow Road.
However, the desperation for all three points saw Neil ditch that promising shape at Swansea, leading to the kind of flat performance that travelling Canaries fans have had to suffer all too often this campaign.
Surely sticking with three defenders and two wing-backs is now the way to go? It certainly seems to suit Robbie Brady and Ivo Pinto in the wide roles and Russell Martin looks well suited to being a sweeper.
One point from a possible 27, conceding 22 in those nine matches, dictates that a strong defensive shape is now the bare minimum City need.
Timm Klose is starting to look a good signing and Seb Bassong and Ryan Bennett are capable of completing a solid back-line.
Martin and Bassong, as well as John Ruddy and Martin Olsson, were part of Chris Hughton's defence which stubbornly held Manchester City to a 0-0 draw two years ago – now they must summon that spirit again.
Michael Bailey – FIRST GOAL WINS
At a time when City seem to be propping up a lot of form tables and statistical rankings, there is one formula City do still excel at – and can yet propel them to Premier League survival.
As I wrote on Monday in my six lessons from that Swansea defeat last weekend, Alex Neil's side can decide their own fate and pick up the points they need from here on in, with one simple tactic: score first.
Sure, it has not always brought with it all three points – but in Alex Neil's 14 months-plus months as Norwich City manager, when his side have scored first they have never lost.
That includes this season too.
Obviously the problem is when City concede first. Only Aston Villa have done it on more occasions this term than Norwich – 21 times out of 29 matches. No wins, four draws. That's it. The starkest of contrasts.
With nine games to go and the current table, it's only going to take a final run of regular points-accumulating to gain safety.
City create the chances they need and are certainly capable of starting games well – they've proven it numerous times.
So that has to be the attitude from kick-off for every game from now: by hook or crook hassle, harry, get in faces and all with the goal of getting ahead. It will get points – and earn survival.
Gavin Caney – SUBSTITUTIONS
Alex Neil's desire to keep City on the front foot immediately endeared him to the Carrow Road faithful.
That forceful approach saw almost all fans fall in love with the Scot. His desire to influence matches – as when Gary Hooper arrived off the bench to secure a 2-1 win Championship win at Bolton – continued in the early stages of this season.
Proactive decisions to introduce men like Nathan Redmond, who scored twice off the substitutes' bench against Crystal Palace and West Ham, early on may not have earned the full points return they deserved. But at least they effected proceedings in a positive manner.
Since Neil admitted making a mistake in swapping Alex Tettey for Wes Hoolahan as Norwich went for glory at Newcastle, his reactions have become considerably more reactive. That 6-2 hiding has perhaps set about a fear of getting it so wrong again.
Changes are now being made after matches have been lost or City have gone behind. Even on Saturday, you could argue the damage had been done long before the rarely-used Patrick Bamford was given a much longer-than-usual cameo. Much has been said about City's great squad. Now Neil needs to start using it and affecting matches – like he used to.