Time to face the facts for Alex Neil and Norwich City after Newcastle United rout
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The fatalists among Norwich City's support knew Newcastle United's hunt for a first Premier League win this season spelt trouble. But few can have expected such a pummelling in a Tyneside rout.
Georginio Wijnaldum left St James' Park with a beaming smile and the matchball tucked under his left arm after a four-goal blitz that made a mockery of Newcastle's lowly status in those early Premier League standings. Alex Neil and his Norwich players may struggle to comprehend how swiftly they imploded.
Dieumerci Mbokani and Nathan Redmond had brought the Canaries back within touching distance at the interval after a free-scoring first half, and for the opening 15 minutes after the restart it was all Norwich. Alex Tettey and Graham Dorrans set a more measured tone in central midfield, Redmond was raiding down the right and Norwich were finally getting men in support of the impressive Mbokani.
The drop in the decibel levels from the Gallowgate told its own story. Wijnaldum cleared Seb Bassong's header off his own line in the midst of a bright spell for the visitors. But at this rarefied level, games can hinge on one decision, even one thought-process.
Neil opted to withdraw the more defensively-minded Tettey for the attacking urges of Wes Hoolahan in order to convert their growing dominance into hard currency. Had Norwich levelled at that stage there looked only one winner. All those self-doubts and a brittle self-confidence swirling around Steve McClaren's squad would have started to crowd in again; fanned by a demanding public and twitchy owner. Instead, City were undone twice inside three minutes shortly after Tettey's departure with two ruthless counter-attacks.
Neil admitted in his post-match briefing he had made the wrong call in sacrificing Tettey but that, as he pointed out, underlined his forceful approach to winning football games; one that has served him well to this point in a career which has tracked in a spectacular upward curve.
Norwich's rise from the periphery of the Championship play-offs to the Premier League was a testament to Neil's boldness. Gary Hooper's stoppage time acrobatics at Bolton in April to maintain the club's bid for automatic promotion will live long in the memory. So too the celebrations in front of the away end at the Reebok that day.
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Neil knew a point could maintain their play-off progress but gambled it for the victory with Hooper, Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban all deployed in a frantic search for a winner that came deep into time added on.
But after the manner of Leicester's cunning raid at Carrow Road prior to the most recent international break, this latest counter-attacking masterclass from the previously misfiring Magpies served to illustrate Neil and his players have issues to address.
Norwich's commitment to possession football and the attacking thrust Neil demands are admirable qualities, yet in the last two Premier League encounters there has a been a naivety to their approach; a fraying at the seams that leaves them vulnerable to wily opponents.
Neil preached perspective as he left St James' Park. But he is astute enough to realise he is being asked searching questions now, just like his players. Those early weeks of promise need to turn into a prolonged period of pragmatism. Norwich have earned plaudits and points so far, and they deserved more of both if one recalls Jack Butland's heroics for Stoke and the manner of West Ham's late leveller at Upton Park, but that is not going to insulate them in the battles ahead.
Neil's admission he may have to curb his natural attacking instincts within minutes of the final whistle at St James' Park was perhaps the first public acknowledgement City require a degree of invention. Predictability in whatever form is not a recipe for Premier League longevity. Norwich's burning sense of loss and the acute embarrassment at losing in such graphic fashion will recede. Then it will be all about how Neil and his players react ahead of West Brom's league visit to Carrow Road. This is new, uncharted territory for the impressive Scot who has had a superb galvanising effect on the club he inherited back in January.
Norwich had looked largely assured in the Premier League. There had been inevitable bumps in the road, like Crystal Palace's smash-and-grab or the manner of Southampton's win in their previous televised appearance earlier this season, but nothing as chastening as being caught in the midst of a Tyneside storm. Given Neil's previous, you can expect a response.