I’VE had two spats with Norwich fans at recent matches. My wife tried to stop me, but sometimes I am so angered by some of the glass-half-empty contingent that I cannot bite my tongue.
Both rows centred on Steve Morison.
At West Brom, a guy behind me made a highly disparaging comment about Morison as the City striker beat an opponent and burst into the box. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – not just the timing of the remark, but its content.
Worse occurred after the Manchester City match at Carrow Road. As I trudged towards my car, I overheard a man and a woman discussing Morison. They intimated that they would be happy if he never again pulled on a yellow shirt. I am afraid that, although theirs was a private conversation, it riled me so much that I commented on their intellect.
Mrs Dennis told me off severely.
Football is a game of opinions, of course. But if anyone at Carrow Road believed Morison did not shine against the Champions of England until he was injured then that person’s opinion must have been formed behind closed eyes. Certainly with a closed mind.
The game at West Ham, in which poor young Harry Kane laboured to such limited effect as the lone striker, demonstrated what a thankless role that is. Yet many seem unable to extend any understanding when Morison has the same unrewarding deployment.
I’ve even heard folk moaning about Holty’s lack of success as a solitary striker. They say he hasn’t collected sufficient goals. They complain that he “drifts out wide too much”.
So I assume they cannot understand that being the last one in a 4-4-1-1 formation limits scoring opportunities and necessitates moving to the flanks – either because that is where the ball is headed or to create a hole in the middle for midfielders to fill.
But the Morison moaners have a more ingrained problem. They have made up their minds long ago and now won’t allow themselves to see evidence which contradicts their blinkered, binary view.
If you watch Holty carefully, you’ll see that, often, he dawdles back after an attack has broken down. That is because he knows he will need his energy reserves for another lone slog in a minute or two.
But when Morison ambles back you can here the staccato chorus of ill-considered tutting.
And his legion of critics won’t acknowledge that it is tough for a sub – which is what he has often been – to produce the reactions and pace of players who have had their blood coursing for an hour or so.
As for that 4-4-1-1 system, it worked so well during that ten-game unbeaten Premier League sequence that is no wonder at all that Chris Hughton intends to stick with it.
His fondness for it was emphasised at Peterborough. That could have been a chance to experiment with two strikers (Kane and Simeon Jackson) but, although there were nine players in the line-up who are not currently first choices for the first team, Hughton sent out his troops in that familiar 4-4-1-1 – presumably so that, if any of the second choices are called up for Premier League action, they will be versed in the required tactic.
Hughton started the season with a 4-5-1 at Fulham. Let’s just not talk about that.
Then our manager went 4-4-2 for a run of games in which performances definitely improved but results remained worrying.
It was after the defeat at Stamford Bridge that things changed. One of Chelsea’s goals came when Wes Hoolahan, stuck out wide left of the midfield four, gave away possession. I think that was when Hughton concluded, as Paul Lambert did before him, that our little Wessi should be moved to a central, advanced position. That is where he can damage opponents and where, if he loses the ball, the damage to Norwich need not be calamitous.
Lambert’s solution was to use a diamond formation in midfield, with one holding player behind two midfielders and with Wes in front of them all – but behind two strikers.
The diamond was City’s best friend – but Lambert abandoned it when he felt the opposition would exploit its narrowness and attack down our flanks. And when he dropped the diamond, he usually dropped Wes.
I think if we’d opted for the diamond this season then teams we beat last campaign would be ready for it. They would, indeed, get at us down the wings.
Hughton’s solution, used for the first time immediately after the Chelsea reverse, is to play two central midfielders, two wide men – and for Wes to “float” behind a solitary striker. We first saw the 4-4-1-1 against Arsenal, and it remained in place throughout the long unbeaten sequence, with its exhilarating home triumphs, resolute away shows and one magnificent victory on the road.
It was that win at Swansea, or rather the first half of that match, which epitomised what Hughton wants: quality passing, considered possession, deadly accuracy in the final third.
Intriguingly, at Peterborough, Jackson operated effectively enough as the lone striker. The conventional wisdom, which I’d bought into, was that the little speedster would flounder in the role. I’d assumed you needed to be able to play with your back to goal, and hold the ball up – as Morison did against Man City. But Jacko played on the shoulder of the last defender, ready to sprint onto through balls, such as the one provided with considerable excellence by David Fox.
I know City were disappointed not to sign an extra striker on a permanent deal in the summer transfer window. I know there will be attempts to land one during this window.
But if we want to keep playing Wes – and most of us do – then we have got to expect the 4-4-1-1 system to remain in place.
So let’s hope, if there is a new guy, he gets a more understanding, perceptive audience than Morison.