Time for Norwich City’s strikers to deliver
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The Canaries' enduring struggles in front of goal look set to define the club's Premier League season. Norwich City writer PADDY DAVITT argues the searing focus on two men in particular is inevitable.
It does not take Sam Allardyce's grasp of statistics to realise Norwich City's current meagre goal output raises serious doubts about their Premier League survival prospects.
West Ham's experienced boss crunches numbers with almost religious fervour, to the extent he took his players away after beating Norwich for a warm weather break to Dubai, justified on the grounds of historical data accrued from his managerial career extolling the virtues of improved performance for elite athletes. Allardyce's side ground the Canaries into submission on the way to a 12th league clean sheet to soothe their own safety concerns.
Norwich's style of play by comparison at Upton Park looked rooted in the cultural hothouse of 'La Masia' the cradle of Barcelona's recent era of domination. Yet all the controlled possession and territory at the Boleyn brought no tangible relief in City's quest to avoid a full-scale repeat of last season's tense finale.
Hughton was routinely castigated for the drab approach that secured Norwich's Premier League survival in his debut season; now he is in the firing line again because the desire to evolve universally applauded last summer is an experiment failing to deliver sustained benefits. Norwich spent record amounts in the close season transfer window designed to equip the squad with a level of firepower so painfully lacking, yet they appear no further forward in the potency of their overall efforts.
The football at Cardiff and West Ham was pleasing on the eye but lacking in punch. The games against Manchester City at home or even Chelsea's earlier season visit to Carrow Road and a fearless trip to Arsenal the following week were notable for passages of play when you could justifiably argue Hughton's side did not look deficient or worthy of unfavourable comparison in their ability to retain possession and carry an attacking threat against the very best.
But reasonable grounds for optimism have been sunk by the crushing reality they are embroiled in another relegation fight. Norwich's spirit and battling qualities are entrenched in the DNA of a dressing room which retains a core element who well remember what it took to reach the Premier League.
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That will form the basis of Norwich's latest attempt to prevail, but ultimately City's survival rests on unlocking the latent goal-scoring potential apparent in the previous career postings of Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel,
Bar Hooper's productive burst just before Christmas the duo have flattered to deceive. That is not solely the fault of Hughton or his coaching staff who are often labelled tactically inflexible.
That does not stand up to closer inspection on recent evidence. The Canaries have lurched from playing both strikers up top with no discernible end product to one up top supported by the likes of Johan Elmander to the current incarnation of an aggressive midfield three anchored by two holding midfielders and Leroy Fer as the pivot behind Hooper.
Even allowing for unwelcome injury interruptions which have afflicted both, allied to the not inconsiderable issues of adjusting to a league vastly different in tone and texture to Portgual or Scotland, the pair have now experienced half a season of Premier League exposure.
To lambast Hughton for not playing to the pair's strengths or for an unwillingness to abandon a commitment to defensive resolve in favour of all-out attack is to absolve Hooper and van Wolfswinkel of any culpability for Norwich's current predicament. In such a polarised debate fuelled by an increasing sense of desperation as the games run away the truth settles somewhere between fact and fiction. Nor is it remiss to narrow the focus onto two players in a squad that have
collectively fallen short in the final third of the pitch.
Both Hooper and van Wolfswinkel are used to the pressure and the attention lauded on the leading men. That is why forwards cost the earth in the transfer market because they have an ability to score the goals which make the difference.
Hooper played in front of 60,000 Celtic supporters every other week, with their unyielding demands and expectations to be not simply the best in Scotland but in the city of Glasgow.
Van Wolfswinkel has plundered in such ratios in Dutch and Portuguese club football that he arrived at Carrow Road a fully-fledged international for a country who can call on the attacking talents of Robin van Persie. That is the pedigree of a talented young footballer who so far has failed to stamp his mark on the Canaries or the Premier League in the way everyone expected he would.
But to borrow from one of Hughton's favourite truisms there is always another chance, always another game to respond. To answer the critics and temper the disappointments of West Ham and Cardiff and too many other similar episodes in a Premier League season which began full of optimism with van Wolfswinkel's sublime improvised header against Everton on the opening day. Difficult as it to retain a sense of perspective, that is a crucial quality over the run-in.
Norwich may well find themselves in the bottom three come kick-off against Tottenham this weekend given they play a day after all their direct rivals.
The home fans witnessed last season Hughton has players with the courage and bravery to produce under the most intense pressure imaginable.
Those questions have already been answered. What hangs worryingly in the balance is whether they can address a shortfall in goalscoring output which will
ultimately decide their fate.