Entering Pride Park for the first time on a chilly Midlands afternoon last Saturday felt strange.
As a travelling City fan in the Championship, you become accustomed to the pre-match build up being characterised by notions of anticipation, excitement and expectation. That’s how I felt before my previous away trips this season, anyway.
But Saturday felt different.
It wasn’t apathy. Regardless of City’s serial uselessness over the past six weeks, that sense of adoration, loyalty and fervent following will never die. It was my palpable lack of expectation that was so striking. It sounds appalling, but – and I’d expect most fans who made the trip at the weekend to agree – I found it tough to predict anything other than a Derby victory.
I wasn’t wrong. Whilst our defence did show a reasonable degree of solidity compared to previous weeks, we looked uncharacteristically uncreative going forward. The usually dependable Cameron Jerome appeared so conspicuously isolated up front, whilst the attacking trio of Wes Hoolahan, Jacob Murphy and the divisive Steven Naismith lacked potency, innovation and movement.
Not even Madame Tussauds contained that many statues.
Whilst City’s November nadir has been less a product of our lack of creativity than one of defensive ineptitude, Saturday was nonetheless a concern. City have a talented squad – the second most so in this league – yet Alex Neil seems fundamentally incapable of deriving the optimum performances from his players.
The problems run deep. Jez Moxey’s and the board’s seemingly incorrigible loyalty to Neil is perplexing, particularly in a situation as catastrophic as City’s is. The facts tell the story: Norwich have lost their last five league games with a squad who now possess the ability to do considerably better.
It gets worse. Whilst our recent run still leaves us just two points off the play-off places, a deeper analysis of our accumulation of points this season is required. We have picked up two points from our eight games against teams in the top half of the table – conceding 19 goals in the process – and the other 25 from teams in the bottom half. A blip? Nonsense.
City are in trouble, and this unabating slide appears unlikely to be terminated anytime soon. The board’s unwavering faith in Neil may function as one issue, but the problems on the pitch are manifold.
City may have only conceded one on Saturday, but our defensive is so vulnerable. Sebastian Bassong, Ryan Bennett and Timm Klose have committed such a multitude of individual errors this season, culminating in our gifting of over two goals per game against the top sides.
Despite showing great signs of promise prior to his Selhurst Park season-ender last term, Klose has been appalling of late, culpable for three goals at Brighton and looking not a penny near a £10m player.
Likewise, Bennett’s and Bassong’s seasons have been ones littered with ineptitude and fragility, committing fundamental errors and lacking any form of conviction or coordination in possession. Even Ed Balls on Strictly has demonstrated better movement and awareness of his surroundings.
Fans question the passion of our players. The causes of City’s demise are considerable and subjective, but it is not fair to render individual players disloyal and indifferent to the cause. Instead, Neil is simply failing to extract the best out of them.
City need change. The Neil of November 2016 constitutes a sorrow side in his technical area, hounding his players and commanding orders to produce ultimately futile results. He appears unable to influence games, failing to possess any constructive impact with his substitutions and remaining too devoted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
Jerome miraculously appeared even more isolated up front than his manager did on the touchline, failing to maximise his involvement in the game predominantly owing to the alarming lack of creativity from the three players behind him. When Jerome got injured and Lafferty came on the isolation remained.
If Neil is to resolve this crisis, he must become less reliant on deploying just one up front and instead be more willing to adapt.
We mustn’t forget injuries, though. If City’s decline has revealed anything, it’s surely how much we depend upon the consistently terrific Jonny Howson, whose leadership, ball retention and speed of distribution we have missed so much in recent weeks. The absence of Martin Olsson and Ivo Pinto on Saturday also inhibited City.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The issues that run pervasively through this team are severe and becoming increasingly unsalvageable as each unpleasant ninety minutes goes by. The likes of Cameron Jerome, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady should not be losing five consecutive games in the Championship. Yes, results in this league are grossly unpredictable, but this emerging pattern of constant defeat cannot be put down – Mr Bassong – to bad luck.
The fans want change. City’s demise is ultimately the product of a failing manager, in Alex Neil, being incapable of bringing the best out of his players, struggling to inspire performances to propel Norwich back up to the Premier League.
His team selection has become increasingly baffling, opting for Naismith and Oliveira over Hoolahan and Jerome at in West London last week. Brentford should surely function as the last chance saloon, but the board’s profound sense of commitment to Neil remains a problem.
Under Neil, our defence can’t defend, our midfield fail to move the ball with pace and penetration, and our tactics appear stubborn and ineffective. Instead of blindly backing Neil, Moxey should demonstrate his ostensible skill as chief executive and go and pursue another young, hungry manager such as Birmingham’s Gary Rowett, Rangers’ Mark Warburton or even Scunthorpe’s Graham Alexander.
As I opened my tickets to Barnsley earlier today, a sense of despair became palpable. This isn’t the existence City should be enduring; losing relentlessly in a league where we have a squad capable of achieving so much. Us fans are surely united in our common desire for the situation to be salvaged, but equally agree that the man to fulfil that mission is not Alex Neil.
Things need to change.