There are times when my day job, as Football Correspondent of the Daily Express, interferes with life’s important stuff: my family and my football club. But at least it exposes me to the loopy supporters of other teams – and that has helped keep me sane this season.
Liverpool fans were the most recent group to orchestrate a campaign against me. I suggested Luis Suarez might not be quite ready for sainthood, so Scouser forums organised a deluge of messages which accused me of being a racist and/or a Man U supporter.
In my replies I was able to convince them that they’d got the wrong gold and green when it came to my affiliation. But I made very little progress persuading any of them that the verdict in the Patrice Evra affair was spot on.
In the last decade I’ve been targeted by Newcastle followers (upset at my view that their passion for their club is not special), QPR fans (who objected to my describing their club as shoddy and shabby), West Ham supporters (who thought their club was too big for relegation) and Chelsea fans (unable to accept that Jose Mourinho had any flaws).
And so it has gone on. Extreme views, delusions and strident opinions.
So I know that the Yellow Army dissenters are just behaving like fans everywhere. If I didn’t understand that, the utter tosh talked by some this season would have done my swede in by now.
Everybody I spoke with at Loftus Road’s School End thought that the draw at Queen’s Park Rangers was a decent result, a valuable point and stride closer to achieving this season’s objective.
So I was astonished to read yet more criticism of Chris Hughton, the system, Grant Holt and just about everything.
Some of the “everything” included barmy views. The Facebook comment:’I can’t see what Bradley Johnson brings to the team,’ falls into that category.
But let’s dissect some of the other criticisms, starting with complaints about using only one striker.
It is not inherently a defensive system. The favoured formation for many Premier League teams is 4-2-3-1, and nobody suggests it is a negative deployment when used by Manchester City, for instance.
Tottenham often line up like we do, with Clint Dempsey operating behind a solitary Jermain Defoe. It is carrying them towards the Champions League.
Barcelona frequently operate without any out-and-out striker. Lionel Messi is a ‘false nine’, a centre-forward who drops deep. But they’re not too bad at attacking.
And if you want further proof that you don’t require two strikers to be effective offensively, remember that Liverpool played with one man ‘up top’ at Carrow Road in September. I won’t remind you what happened.
City’s system evolved because Hughton decided to play Wes Hoolahan centrally, behind a striker, in the role which Spurs give to Dempsey. So the question to those who desire two strikers – and to those who urged the earlier introduction of Luciano Becchio from the bench at Loftus Road – is a tricky one.
Who makes way for the extra striker?
Wes? Or one of the wide players? Either of those choices would actually make us less positive.
If Wes goes, we lose a lot of creativity in and around the opposition box. If it is one of the widemen, we become unbalanced and strip out a lot of the service to the strikers.
One of the holding pair (Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey) could make way for a striker, but with Wes in his normal role we’d be very vulnerable through the middle.
Paul Lambert’s solution was to play a diamond more often than not, but that was a very narrow system. Some teams noted that weakness and made a point of attacking us down the unprotected flanks last season. I think more sides would have been ready for our diamond this campaign and I am not at all convinced it would have sparkled.
We could drop Holty to play someone else in the lone striker role, but we shouldn’t do that without thinking about the work our captain has done this season. It hasn’t been producing his normal hat-full of goals, and so some have not spotted what he has been contributing, but consider how results have improved since he returned to the side.
I outlined my view about what Holt does in the piece on this site about the first-half at Swansea.
And that first-half at Swansea, which, I repeat, was as good a 45 minutes as I can recall seeing from a City team of any era, demonstrated that the 4-4-1-1 system can be an attacking set-up. It also showed that Hughton himself is not a negative manager.
Hughton’s teams attack when they can. His Newcastle team won 30 games in the Championship and took the title in record time. His Birmingham side scored 41 goals away from home in the Championship, more than any other side in any of the top four divisions.
In some games – like the match at Loftus Road – the opposition make the running and the 4-4-1-1 does enable Norwich to defend resolutely. But that’s a good thing, surely.
Most pundits expected QPR to beat us, because of the improvement wrought recently by Arry, and because his new signings would lift the mood and the performance. Hughton’s City proved the pundits wrong. Again.
As for the idea among some Norwich fans that our men ‘should’ have been able to beat QPR because they are bottom. Well, with a little more sharpness from Wes, they would have.
But not losing was entirely worthwhile. It meant that, when the weekend’s games had all been played, none of the bottom three had gained ground on City and all of us were one game closer to the finishing line.
And here is a truth which some will find unpalatable: as long as we live, Norwich will always have to scrap for every Premier League point. And any point earned away from home will be a good one.
Anyone who compares out finances to most other Premier League clubs, or dares to point out that three years ago we were edging to a win against Hartlepool is accused of allowing a ‘Little Ol’ Norwich’ ethos to blunt ambition.
I reject that accusation. I assert that acknowledging how quickly we have climbed and understanding how perilous our grip remains are both essential. Without that proper perspective, you cannot have a sane evaluation of performances or a sensible discussion about attainments.
Did I hurt when Luton won at Carrow Road? You bet. But I wouldn’t swap a place in the FA Cup fifth round for the points taken from the home game against Spurs and the trip to QPR.
Would I like us to win every game by playing flowing football? Daft question. Of course I would. But it is a daft idea as well. Burnley tried it. So did Blackpool.
Am I ambitious for Norwich? Certainly.
My ambition is for the great club in the Fine City to stay up this season, pay off their debts (as they must on 31 May), improve in the summer and maintain the progress. The model must be West Brom or Stoke (in the way they have built, rather than the way they play). Then the day might dawn when we can say we should strive to emulate Everton.
I am encouraged by the fact that all of Hughton’s buys have been successes. I am cheered by the fact that he is patently a decent man. I am over-joyed by what folk tell me about his coaching prowess and his tactical nous.
And I make no apologies at all for looking back as well as forwards. Three years ago this week we followed that narrow win over Hartlepool by losing at Millwall in League One. Two years ago this week we lost at Burnley in the Championship. One year ago this week we had just suffered a 3-0 drubbing at Sunderland in the Premier League.
Sometimes, Norwich fail to win. That’s football. That’s life.
Get used to it and get over it. Don’t let it blacken your mood so much that you lash out at the thing you love. Don’t let it obscure your view of the progress that has been made and the prize which is within sight this season.
I drove home from Loftus Road singing. The ditty about them being loaded and us staying up.
100% right, beginning to end ….
Gary Gowers says
Yep… spot on Mick. A fine piece of perspective.
Frances Lewis says
Wonderful reasoned article Mick (as always)
The trouble is that although other teams play to the same formation whilst not being defensive, WE on the other hand do. Just look at the goals scored column and the few clear cut chances we create during a game. So little passing around the penalty area, when we do this we look such a better team, as against Tottenham.
We have two defensive midfielders who dare not enter the opposition area for fear of leaving gaps.
The rigidity that we play with is resulting in this awful product to watch. I thought that you watch football to be entertained. When I go to a football match I want to see my team play football, not the opposition.
This stoic approach to me could cause long term damage to the players and club because its an approach which if it goes wrong is incredibly difficult to change. We defend the easy way by using numbers, for me, thats not tactical ingenuity.
Strangling games and whacking in deep early crosses because the midfield can’t move and interchange positions. Do we really want to be seen as sitting in the same bed as the likes of Allardyce and Pullis with this anti-football philosophy?
We are not quite there yet but the gap is getting closer. I’m hoping that the Summer may bring in a fresh outlook for next season should we stay up.
Best article I’ve read for ages and so true. We do have a diamond, it’s Chris Hughton and let’s value it.
Absolutely spot on Mick. I am trying to keep away from the forums these days, as the utter negative dribble you read there is depressing. CH is doing a fantastic job, and long may it continue. I’ve watched our team for over 50 years, and we are in as good a shape and position both on the pitch and the balance sheet, as we have ever been.
Couldn’t agree more Mick. We needed to become more defensive minded after the start we had, as history has shown teams are not going to stay up long term without being tight at the back. Blackpool, Burnley, Blackburn etc are recent examples, Villa may well be the next. The only caveat I would apply to our system is that we can often struggle to get back into games if we lose the first goal. I agree that the diamond formation employed with such efficacy over recent years may have been found out, but perhaps we do need a Plan B occasionally to freshen things up and give opposing managers a bit more to think about?
Agree with your overall perspective – as Norwich fans we do need to be appreciative of our situation and have a reality check once in a while.
But I find the constant praise for Hoolahan baffling – he’s been woeful in recent weeks. Ok he scored the goal against Spurs (right place right time), but his passing in that game was atrocious. I counted 5 wayward passes (some failed attempts to players just 5 yards away) in the first half alone! I note he gets defended constantly because he’s “creative” and therefore creative passes are deemed more likely to be intercepted, but anybody who watches closely and counts the daft mistakes will realise this simply isn’t true of Wes – he makes poor attempts on simple passes and gets caught in possession all too often. He then lacks the physicality of a Snodgrass to scrap and win it back. So I don’t agree that his place in the side is not up for grabs by Becchio and indeed, given Luciano’s cameo at the weekend and Hughton’s own comments on the player (“he can play up top or in behind the strikers in a 4-4-1-1”) I think this is where he will play for us and would not be at all surprised to see him start against Fulham.
But I agree wholeheartedly with your defence of Bradley Johnson – the criticism is baffling. He’s the first name on the teamsheet every week if I’m Norwich manager. If anything, it’s Tettey who has not contributed much of late, and might benefit from a rest (although I hope he can regain his form without being rested as him and Bradley have been a formidable pairing at times).
utter bullshite.hughton is a clown and the sooner he goes the better
Love your positivity Mick as always. Is there still a newspaper called the express ? who knew ?
Problem is like Hughton you are not prepared to look at the difficult questions. Clearly Hoolahan is one of our most creative players but in the current formation we just cannot afford to play him where he is. Away from home when we want to be solid and maybe nick a goal perhaps but the Wes of league one free scoring and shooting at will seems long gone. Add to this Holt working his socks off but generally struggling to be in he box enough and Snodgrass only appearing to get a decent shot away when the ball is stationary it leaves only Pilkington to shoot regulary.
The only choices we have are the Diamond , Becchio instead of Hoolahan , Kei Kamara instead of Snodgrass or probably the option most city fans would prefer Hughton to use Start with this formation and make the switch 60-65 minutes when it hasn’t worked.
Great article but I have to disagree with “If Wes goes, we lose a lot of creativity in and around the opposition box”.
For 60-70 mins against Spurs and QPR that was very true but for the last 20 mins or so in both games he hardly had a kick and the ball just bounced off the front 2 putting us under pressure. Once Becchio came on we seemed better equiped to hold on to possession.
Superman wears Grant Holt pjs says
Thank god for the words of a sane Norwich City fan. Excellent piece Mick.
The criticism from certain fans is perplexing at times. I do sometimes wonder whether they understand that the club is not a big club in this league. We are far from being in a perilous position but we will probably continue to be in relegation trouble for some seasons to come.
In the grand scheme of things, beautiful football is a long way down on the list of needs (although I can only think of about five league games – from 25 – which have been very poor fair). The remit for Hughton this season was to stay up, any way possible. Play ugly, play negative, play dirty… whatever.
Just. Stay. Up.
If you don’t like the entertainment on offer then don’t renew your ticket. I personally don’t think its been bad, but then I watch other teams in lower leagues sometimes and some of the crap served up there is beyond bad.
Our football will get better but the squad will be overhauled in the summer to allow for this. The focus in the summer was the defence and although they’ve had their bad moments, I think we’d all agree Hughton has done good work on that front. Next up will be our offensive side and the interest in the likes of Hooper and Van Wolfswinkel suggest he knows how to go about that challenge.
I’ve long said the only negative thing about our football club right now is a section of the fans and I stand by that. Moan moan moan. I remember a fan moaning outside Portman Road following our 5-1 win that we ‘should have won by more’.
Well I for one am happy. 14th in the Premier League with 13 games remaining, 7 points clear, clean sheets, new signings and potential for spending on exciting players in the summer months.
Douglas Millar says
As usual Mick Dennis gives a good perspective on where we are in the football world. I have spoken to Chris Hughton at the AGM and he came over as a genuinely nice person who loves football and is developing a great affection for our club. He did not mind listening to my simplistic comments on his team.
The club was right not to mortgage its future in the transfer window. But that means we must get the best out of what we have. Playing the same team almost every week risks burn out. As the manager said after the Tottenham game the team cannot play with that intensity every game.
Using subs earlier/and or rotating the squad does help keep the team fresh. It is no surprise that E Bennett and Jonny Howson, two of our best performers last year seem to be less good this season when they play only the odd game.
But on the whole C H , like the team needs our support OTBC!
I agree with most of this.
My one complaint about Hughton is that he won’t make changes when we’re drawing – or winning – a game and are sitting back at high risk of conceding with 15-20 minutes to go. Saturday was typical, QPR had made 3 changes and with about 75 minutes gone had their best spell while we simply didn’t keep the ball at all, and Hoolahan was doing very little having been excellent earlier.
As soon as Becchio came on we had options going forward (with a fresh striker who looked a lot more willing to run for the ball than Morison) and the pressure was greatly eased at the back – but we had to endure a sticky 10 minutes first. If Becchio had come on 10 minutes earlier, I think we would probably have won.
I can understand Hughton not wanting to disturb the defensive side of the team when we’re not losing, but why not put someone fresh on up front when the other side have used all their subs and are pushing for the win ?
Selwyn (even though you can’t spell your name on this occassion Selwy) save your trolling for Ipswich’s predicament. Surely you have enough to moan about due to the woeful thing you call a football club. Withered, and not even a rival to us anymore…how sad. It’s sad for us as well, it’s like having a twin brother to scrap with who has brittle bones disease. Anyway, 100% right Mick – the only thing that would have set us apart is a player with a bit more quality in the window, but it wasn’t to be.
Absolutely spot on for me as well Mick. City are building a stronger and stronger squad and will, I hope continue this in the summer. I’m pleased that Becchio can take some of the pressure off Holt, as Moro seldom did (he’s a good player, but not for this formation). I’m also keen to see what Butterfield and Kamara will bring to the mix as well. CH is doing a great job and long may it continue.
Chris Riches says
I often agree with you, Mick, but I’m firmly with ICF on this. It’s not a general complaint about tactics, or personnel, but the perceived inflexibility when the game is finely balanced.
The contrast in style to Paul Lambert certainly heightens the perception that Chris Hughton is more negative – perhaps that is behind my (slight) dissatisfaction…?
Stay up and most will be happy, regardless.
Anyone who disagrees has a very, very short memory…is this not the same team/frmation that scored 3 in the 1st half against Swansea or 3 against Man City?!
Game, set and match Dennis.
Strident points Mick and well made.
Lindsay McNeile says
First class article. CH is fulfilling plan A ; every chance of survival. Balance sheet, hence cash, pretty much intact after January.
It may feel inflexible and unambitious but it is an essential part of what feels like a very solid business plan.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Spot on, Mick. My only criticisms of Hughton would be not the 4411 system, but the lack of substitutions when players look tired- especially Holty- and the lack of a plan B when it’s not working. Both may say a lot though about Hughton’s lack of confidence in much of the rest of the squad he inherited. Lambert was far more prepared to gamble with what he had and often it paid off.
It’s good to hear a sensible realistic opinion about the team and manager.
patrick higgins says
this week last year we were beating Bolton 2-0 to go to 32 points and followed this with a 3-2 win at Swansea, our THIRD away win in four League matches.
By mid Feb we will be either 4,5 or 7 points behind where we were last seasom..and already out of the F A Cup
I see the likes of Southampton, Reading,even Newcastle now WINNING matches like we used to last season with bold attacking football up to the 90th minute and beyond.
I know all the advocates of the current manager are counting on the so called winnablre home matchee to save our season.
WISH I COULD SHARE THE OPTIMISM
This season smells more and more of 94/5 revisited
Most of the time when I look at this site it is in the hope that Mick has written a piece, he is a fine journalist and also a top advocate for NCFC when he appears on Talksport’s only show to be watched – Hawksbee and Jacobs. A great article which lifts my spirits, I’m so proud of how far we’ve come so quickly. OTBC
It seems obvious to me that citys recent drop in form is down to a weakness on the left side, i cringe whenever the opposition attacks down that flank as garrido dosent seem the player he was when he first arrived,and of late not much pressure coming from pilkington attacking their defence, hopefully it will all come together again in the not to distant future.
Totally agree Mick, I’m often quite ashamed at what I read on the forums. However, I would echo what a lot have said here, we need to make our subs earlier.
Against Spurs, we started to tire badly after 70mins – Pilks, Holt and Wes were walking in treacle. If we had brought fresh legs on, we may have kept the ball longer and not let Bale in to score. Subs lift the team – as they lifted QPR on 75mins. Bringing Becchio on after 88 minutes was pointless.
In this respect, CH reminds many fans of Worthington, and I think the problem is we’ve all been spoilt with expansive, attacking, winning football over the last 3 years, and we want more.
Thank you Mick. A great riposte to the nonsense found on some of the ‘supporters’ messageboards. Full of realistic enjoyment of our marvellous football club. Just wish we could see more like the first hour against Spurs but know it’s difficult for players to keep doing that.
Geoff briggs says
Be good to read more positivity like this on the pink un etc, sometimes our fans overexpectation is astounding .we all want the same, thing and that’s to see NCFC flourish