Alex Neil doesn’t seem to be doing himself a lot of favours.
By his frank admission, he was wrong to stick as far as possible with the same team that beat Brentford. With Naismith unavailable, he kept the same system and put Josh Murphy into the open slot. It didn’t work.
His honest confession has been gleefully seized on by his critics as proof of his incompetence and the urgency of replacing him.
Whatever the merits of that view – which I’ll come to – I’m starting to see why other managers are so doggedly determined not to admit their mistakes.
Alex clearly felt pressured to give a vote of confidence to the team that won so well a week ago. Where did that pressure come from? From me, for one.
I argued in a couple of forums that – even in a different and tougher game – the XI who did so well for him against Brentford should get another start. To have changed more than necessary seemed to me to send out the wrong signal.
With the wisdom of hindsight, of course, I can see that he should have brought in Youssouf Mulumbu, Martin Olsson and whoever else. And perhaps replaced Seb Bassong with Timm Klose (though on form that would have been both cruel and unjustified).
In my defence, it wasn’t just me. The mood during the week appeared to be in the same direction, among fans and pundits alike. Cyprus Canary, whose comments on this site I’ve quoted before, seemed to encapsulate the feelings of many:
“This week will be the acid test for Neil. Surely the 5-0 team should be unchanged”
Two things should be said, in fairness. First, I didn’t see everyone’s views. I don’t know whether he reads these columns, but Donald Parish tells me on Twitter he thought replacing Graham Dorrans with Mulumbu in the starting line-up was such an obvious step that it wasn’t worth him mentioning.
I’m happy to give Donald the benefit of the doubt, especially as he pointed out that a couple of local journalists had raised the same suggestion.
Second, and clearly a key point: it’s fine for fans to be wrong (though it might be nice if we had the humility to acknowledge it a bit more often). On the other hand, Alex Neil is paid not to get it wrong.
He did on Saturday, and there’s a powerful argument that he’s got it wrong too often this season.
As regular readers know, I’ve been hesitant to join the call for AN’s dismissal. Perhaps I can try to explain that hesitation, while acknowledging the view that seems to be now prevailing.
It has much to do with season 2014-15 when he joined us. I’ve read a lot in the last few weeks – and especially since 5pm on Saturday – that Alex was lucky with what he inherited, and is essentially no different from Neil Adams.
I don’t buy it. Adams’ record was 37 points from 24 games. With the same players (ie Adams’ squad), AN got 49 points from 22 games. Tactically and motivationally, he proved himself in a different league.
Which is, literally, where he took us. But with the club’s failure to deliver his key targets before the Premier League season, he was left with a squad which only an exceptional managerial performance would have kept up.
To my mind, then, nothing before this season raised serious questions over his ability, or the desirability of our keeping him. I was with the majority of Carrow Road in acclaiming him at the end of the Watford game in May.
I guess, also, I’d have been inclined to join the “sack him now” camp earlier if I thought we had the right squad. I know that sounds strange. Beyond the business we did last summer, though, AN identified further changes he thought were important to make (both ins and outs).
They didn’t materialize, in part because players for whom we set up departure deals wouldn’t accept them.
Whatever we think of the managerial situation, I suspect we’d all agree there needs to be significant re-jigging of the squad in January. AN knows what he wanted, and the past five months will have confirmed and consolidated those ideas.
Another manager, coming in fresh at this point, would probably bring a breath of fresh air and get a ‘bounce’. But would he be able to instantly analyse the needs of the squad, and put it on the kind of sustained positive footing that Alex Neil did two years ago?
Perhaps. But far from a guarantee, surely?
It’s obvious that Alex Neil is in a sticky patch. He seems less sure of his tactics, and of his judgement, than before. Perhaps reflecting that, the players don’t seem to revere him as they once did. It’s serious.
Despite the claims of some City fans that any other club would have sacked its manager at this point, most of my friends who support other clubs think AN has done enough at Norwich to buy himself at least this season. I don’t share that view, but it’s interesting to hear.
The question is: has he irretrievably lost his grip to the point where it’s better to roll the dice, whatever that may bring? Or is the essence of the old Alex Neil still there?
One thing’s for sure. It won’t work for the Board to keep him, but not back him to the hilt in January. If they say they have faith in him, they’d better be prepared to put their money where their mouths are.