And so the wait goes on. With just sixteen minutes remaining at Carrow Road last Saturday afternoon, Canaries fans dared to dream of a first win in six league games, with a seemingly commanding two goal advantage over West Ham having been established and indeed maintained for nearly half of the second period. Just two minutes later those dreams were in tatters, as a Dimitri Payet inspired comeback left the two sides all square by the final whistle. Newcastle’s hammering at Chelsea at least Alex Neil’s side lifted out of the relegation zone with the point, but in reality the draw felt more like a defeat, with Leicester, Chelsea and Manchester City three of the next four opponents.
Neil continues to be criticised by a sizeable minority of the Norwich fans for what is perceived as muddled tactical thinking and inexperienced naivety, and there is no doubt that he has contributed to some degree to this lack of confidence in his coaching abilities at the top level. The front foot approach was ditched after conceding six at Newcastle in October, and obdurate home successes against Swansea, Aston Villa and Southampton ensued. Draws against Arsenal and Everton merely strengthened the view that whilst conceding possession and territory at home was not particularly easy on the eye, it did at least bring results.
Neil’s decision to revert to his attacking principles in recent weeks is understandable; there is almost a sense that if relegation is going to happen, it would be better to go down with a bang rather than a whimper. However it does also point to a lack of conviction as to which is the best way forward for his team. With the vast riches on offer this summer to all Premier League clubs, most supporters would be happy with doing whatever it takes to stay at the top table, and conceding 18 goals in just five games does not suggest that this stay is likely to be prolonged beyond May. With this in mind, the young Scotsman’s frequent changes in personnel and tactics are always likely to be considered counter-productive.
However, as with all bad runs of form, a significant degree of the responsibility must rest with the players, and most of Neil’s detractors would also admit that they have let him down badly over the last few weeks. Gary O’Neil’s senseless red card at the Britannia left his team mates with a mountain to climb, and four days later a complete non appearance by the entire side led to an inevitable reverse at Bournemouth. A two goal lead was established and duly squandered against Liverpool thanks to some rank bad defending, and whilst a meek surrender against an in form Tottenham was little more than expected, another sub standard display against Aston Villa was too much for supporters to stomach, with the first real signs of hostility being directed at the players after the final whistle.
The way ahead looks daunting, with Leicester desperate to atone for their unfortunate defeat at Arsenal, Chelsea having regained their swagger of last season, and Manchester City knowing that they need to win pretty much every game to have any chance of improving on fourth place. However sandwiched in between these four fixtures is the one which matters more than anything; a trip to the Liberty Stadium. The Canaries’ record on the road this season is terrible; just one win since August, albeit at Old Trafford, and a series of below par displays against sides in the bottom half of the table. A period which also involves trips to the Hawthorns and Selhurst Park simply has to be more productive if there is to be any chance of falling through the relegation trapdoor for the second time in three seasons.
Neil must also stop tinkering with his starting eleven and attempt to bring some continuity to the team’s approach. There are many who disagree with Russell Martin’s inclusion week in week out, and almost as numerous are those who would rather see Robbie Brady further up the left flank. Dieumerci Mbokani and Declan Rudd were both omitted on Saturday after the Villa debacle, yet some would argue that they paid a heavy and unfair price for individual errors which led directly to the two goals that were conceded. However ultimately the vast majority of fans would agree that a settled side, albeit with obvious weaknesses, has to be the way forward from here on in; the disjointed displays which have been particularly in evidence on the road must in part be attributed to a lack of clarity in the manager’s thinking, which has subsequently been transferred to the players.
There has been a lot for the former Hamilton boss to assimilate in a very short space of time, and such is his inexperience that it is unfair to suggest that he could do anything other than learn on the job. It must also be remembered that his arrival last January galvanised a team going nowhere fast in the Championship, and thus it is largely down to him that there is even a Premiership relegation battle in which to be involved. For all the talk that an experienced battle-hardened general in the mould of Pulis or Allardyce is what is now required before it is too late, he surely deserves the opportunity to dig himself out of the hole which is not entirely of his own making.
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