Epic victory at Watford but flaws in playing 4-4-2 laid bare to those who still wish for ‘two up top’Fri 27 Sep 13 by Mick Dennis
When Norwich were promoted to the top tier for only the second time in their history, in 1975, one of the clubs relegated to make way for them were Chelsea.
And as the London club’s campaign unravelled, their manager said something which has a resonance for the debate raging at Norwich now.
Dave Sexton had won the FA Cup and then Europe’s second most important trophy in successive years at Chelsea, but he was sacked during that 74-5 season.
He recalled seeing two banners – one when he was on an open-topped bus as Chelsea celebrated their European glory, the second during a more recent defeat.
The first said: “Sexton is God.” The second, using an insult of the time, declared: “Sexton is a Womble”.
The man himself said, simply: “I don’t think I am either of those.”
I was a callow reporter, just about to start my first season covering Norwich for the Evening News and Pink Un, but Sexton’s poignant remark has stayed with me.
It revealed to me the binary, barmy view of managers – that they are either great or clueless – which persists and manifests itself as soon as any team loses any match.
You can see where I am going with this, I am sure.
The notion, openly espoused on message boards, that Norwich should change managers now, after five Premier League games, is provoked by profound disappointment. But it defies sense.
After five games last season, Norwich had just three points. They were bruised from a 5-0 opening day thrashing.
The previous season, under the sainted Paul Lambert, Norwich had five points from five games: one more than this season, but they had been dumped out of the Capital One Cup by MK Dons and had not won at home.
Thank goodness that in 2011 or 2012 our board did not panic after five disappointing games. And so let me deal with the arguments relied upon by those who think the directors should do so now.
Hughton is too cautious, too reliant on defence, they say, especially away from home.
Er, no. He won 12 away games as Newcastle took the Football League title at a gallop. Then he won five away games in the Premier League before Newcastle sacked him in the December. At Birmingham, with absolutely no money, he won seven away games in the Championship and his side’s 41 away goals was more than any other team in the top four divisions.
Hughton is not inherently cautious or defensive. How could ten different Tottenham managers have valued his coaching if he does not prize attacking play?
Yes, he likes an organised defence. And he believed that was the area which needed improving when he took over at Norwich. In fact, that was the brief he agreed with the board.
Ah, but he doesn’t play two in attack, moan the critics.
No, and almost the whole of Europe has also discarded 4-4-2. Most teams favour 4-2-3-1. Some opt for 4-1-4-1. That is the way things are and it means that when a team does go to 4-4-2, it becomes outnumbered in midfield.
If you were at Watford for the epic fight-back in the Capital One Cup, you will have seen the consequences of ceding numerical superiority in that critical area.
A goal-down at half-time, our manager (you know, the one some say has no Plan B) switched to 4-4-2. That was what the punters wanted. (I was in the very posh seats, but my son reported the consensus of the half-time pie queue).
The switch brought a stirring victory. But a more detailed appraisal of events reveals a more nuanced picture. By playing the much lauded 4-4-2, Norwich made themselves vulnerable through the middle. Watford got their second goal and Mark Bunn had to make two “worldies” to prevent them getting more.
That inevitable frailty is why nobody plays 4-4-2. That is why, if the board went mad and sacked Hughton now, they would not be able to find a manager who would rely on 4-4-2 unless they accepted applications from the Snakepit.
Talking of whom… What on earth was the thinking behind that unthinkingly ridiculous “You don’t know what you are doing” chant when Hughton took off Nathan Redmond against Villa? The kid had not managed to provide a single decent final ball, was puffing and blowing and clearly needed to be taken out of the fray for his own sake.
Everyone is entitled to his or her view of course. Mine is worth no more than anyone else’s. But some make my blood boil. A response to my friend Chris Young’s latest column blames Hughton for ruining the atmosphere at Carrow Road! It wasn’t the manager who chose to boo and carp and to damage the very thing we all care about.
I don’t say that Hughton is perfect and has never made a mistake. He is a real person, in the real world, operating in a sport in which tiny margins can affect results.
So, just as the game at Watford exposed the flaws of 4-4-2, I’d contend that the period before the home team’s first goal, in which Norwich enjoyed almost uninterrupted dominance and possession, demonstrated that our build-ups are too pedestrian and predictable.
We haven’t found anyone to play off the main striker effectively this season (nor for much of the last campaign). I’d love it to be Wes Hoolahan, but he wasn’t at his sharpest at Vicarage Road. I don’t believe that a striker (Johan Elmander or Gary Hooper) can do the job but I cling to the hope that Leroy Fer might find a berth, eventually, in that forward apex of the midfield.
I’m not sure yet about Ricky van Wolfswinkel. It’s heresy, but I’ve said it. I accept he hasn’t had the service he needs, but neither has he worked defenders sufficiently. He can’t stand and wait for crosses. He has to attack them.
So, yes, like the entire Yellow Army, I am hugely disappointed with how the expensively assembled class of 2013-14 have begun the season. I know you have to run to stand still in the Premier League. I understand that the money Norwich spent in the summer would be regarded by most clubs in that division as loose change. But it is still impossible to avoid hoping and expecting.
But I don’t think Pep Guardiola is lurking in a bed-sit on Thorpe Road, waiting for an opportunity to take over at Carrow Road. I remember about what Sunderland were landed with last season when they thought: “Someone new is needed.” And I consider Hughton’s record of solid achievement.
Then I think: “Calm down.” Steady on, in fact.