Saturday’s tea-time date with Arsenal will have given City boss Chris Hughton plenty to ponder over the last fortnight.
With the North Londoners yet to lose way from home this season and his own team currently struggling at both ends of the pitch, he can be forgiven if he’s had the odd sleepless night.
How to make the defence water-tight while still providing an attacking threat at the other end… tis the ultimate managerial conundrum.
Whether, amongst all the pondering, he has discovered a formula that will provide the solution remains to be seen – but don’t be surprised if there are, again, several changes to the starting XI.
I’m fairly sure ‘The Gaffer’ would be loath to admit it – but I suspect he’s yet to get even close to knowing his best starting line-up.
There’s a school of thought – of the old, traditional kind – that says a manager should write his best starting XI on a scrap of paper, shove it out of sight in the bottom drawer of his desk, but then call upon it when the chips are down. Well, the chips are fairly low right now, but I suspect the drawer is empty.
The tinkering is happening in live time… and the questions currently outnumber the answers.
At least the goalkeeping gig isn’t an issue. John Ruddy – fresh from his brush with royalty whilst on England duty – has grown nicely into the role of Joe Hart’s able assistant. He now looks a million miles away from the talented but jittery character that arrived from Merseyside.
The full-back positions currently looked nailed down by Javier Garrido and Russell Martin, although both have suffered to varying degrees of late. Whilst class is indeed permanent, the ‘going-over’ given to the Spaniard by Liverpool’s Sterling and Suso would not have helped the confidence.
With Stephen Whittaker still not in contention, Martin looks unlikely to be challenged on the right side, but – within that box of DVDs – Hughton would have seen some great performances by Marc Tierney. It’s still Garrido’s spot to lose, but any more off-days will no doubt result in a knock on the manager’s door by everyone’s favourite ex-Colchester player.
The central defensive pairing is a curious one. While the Sebastian Bassong effect has been much heralded, who sits alongside side him is still one of those that Hughton has to ponder. As a pair, the Bassong/Barnett combo served us well against QPR, West Ham and Tottenham, but flaws have been exposed of late.
With Michael Turner having done very little so far to convince the Canary faithful of his pedigree, one wonders whether now is Ryan Bennett’s time. Clearly rated within the international structure, but scarred by that opening day horror show by the Thames, will Hughton decide that he should become Bassong’s latest apprentice?
In terms of pure numbers, the options in midfield are plentiful – some may argue too plentiful. To date, the central midfield area has been the preserve of the ex-Leeds brigade, Howson and Johnson, although at Stamford Bridge the latter found himself providing cover on the left flank.
With Alexander Tettey providing a more natural protection to the back-four – and thus giving more attacking freedom to Howson – perhaps Hughton sees this as the longer-term solution. Much depends on his stated preference for a basic 4-4-2, or a greater need for the ‘one up top’ tactic he deployed at Chelsea.
David Fox is another who must have entered the gaffer’s thought over the last fortnight. His ability to keep the ball on the green stuff, and to pick out with ease a fellow yellow (!) can’t have gone unnoticed. With the last home game affording Joe Allen the opportunity to give us a master-class in retaining possession of the ball, his similarity in style to Fox was difficult to ignore.
From an attacking perspective, Jacob Butterfield and Wes Hoolahan are both wholly capable of slotting into a 4-5-1 – in the ‘number 10’ slot – but one hopes the need for defensive solidity will not mean that their creative talents will be used too sparingly.
Not an easy one … and all part of the same Hughton conundrum.
In the wide positions, Hughton has yet more decisions to make. The pace of Elliot Bennett; the two-footedness of Anthony Pilkington; the tidiness of Andrew Surman; the trickery of Robert Snodgrass… all factors to be considered when perming together when deciding whether the line-up will include a quartet or quintet of midfield players.
Up front, it is starting to look as if one Grant Holt is slowly rediscovering his mojo – and if in any doubt, just ask David Luiz and John Terry. His thumping strike – the one that gave us that short-lived lead at the Bridge – was largely overlooked by all outside the Yellow Army, but signalled a proud man who had been stung by some unfair and disproportionate criticism.
With a long fortnight having passed since that day, I suggest a member of Team Hughton reminds our captain on Saturday of those who questioned his commitment – just prior to kick-off preferably.
The visitors may have riches on a different scale at their disposal, but I’m sure Arsene Wenger will still have undergone a similar level of pondering. The main difference being his dilemma is likely to be more along the lines of: ‘Who should I pick to face little Norwich, and who should I hold back ahead of the visit of Schalke 04 on Wednesday evening?’ Poor old boy… it’s a tough one.
One thing is certain and it’s that Theo Walcott – fresh from his ‘assault’ by the San Marino ‘keeper – is unlikely to figure. I’m sure this won’t have been lost on Javier Garrido.
FAO all those that moaned about having to listen to Messrs Chiles, Dixon, Keane and Southgate ‘fill’ for over an hour and a half on Tuesday night, before the game was abandoned.
Having watched the match on Wednesday… was it really so bad?