So, what we thought might prove to be Chris Hughton’s Endgame turned out to be more like Waiting for Godot.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to write the whole column with reference to the works of Samuel Beckett, fun though it would be to work in Krapp’s Last Tape and More Pricks than Kicks.
But Godot is the most apt poncey literary analogy I can think of for the peculiar atmosphere at last Saturday’s match.
If I remember correctly (and if I’ve interpreted it correctly), the play is about the way we fill time in our lives – largely through endless chatter – while waiting for some indeterminate event to occur.
That, it seemed to me, was what we were doing at Carrow Road; I’ve never known a crowd to be so non-committal. The atmosphere wasn’t negative, but it wasn’t wholeheartedly supportive either.
Perhaps Dion Dublin’s pre-match speech on the pitch, in which he stated that the players owe the supporters, was a contributory factor in making us sit back and talk amongst ourselves while waiting to see what happened – but after all the debates of recent weeks, I suspect we’d have done it anyway.
What worries me more than this, however, is that the players themselves still seem to be waiting for something to turn up during games. To be clear: I’m not criticising their effort or commitment at all. It just looks as though they’re hoping for a goalscoring opportunity to present itself rather than knowing how to engineer one.
While not admitting as much, Hughton’s post-match comments weren’t exactly at odds with this view: “We got the break that we needed at the end… it was a break that we thoroughly deserved… sometimes you need that little bit of a break”.
Of course, when that break came along, it resulted from a set piece rather than from open play. It was no less welcome for that, but the uncertainty of how to create clear chances in open play, even when we have a lot of possession, has been present for some time now – and it’s this lack of clear intent, rather than any supposed defensive or negative attitude in the team, which has been our biggest problem.
But how to address it? The manager has rejected suggestions that a dedicated attacking coach might help, but here’s another idea…
There was an interesting piece by former Stoke player Danny Higginbotham in Saturday’s Guardian, in which he described how Tony Pulis gave clear, uncomplicated instructions to every player and made sure they each knew what they were to do in a given situation:
“As a defender, it was as simple as this: if I had more than one touch I was playing a diagonal; if I was playing the ball first time it was going down the side. And everyone in the team knew that, so the players in front knew where they had to be. It was simplistic but it got results.”
Naturally, I’m not advocating that we should try to implement the Pulisball approach at Norwich; I simply mean that some simpler instructions might help. (The KISS principle, if you like.) At present, there’s no clear sense of what Hooper and van Wolfswinkel are trying to do together, even allowing for the fact that they’ve had little time to establish a rapport.
If they’ve been given simple instructions already… er… well, there’s no harm in making them even more basic.
I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal story of a manager holding a training ground team talk the day after signing a new striker from abroad.
The manager holds up a ball, points towards the goal and repeats slowly: ‘Ball – kick – goal. Ball – kick – goal.’
Eventually one of the players raises a hand. ‘Gaffer,’ he says, ‘actually Goran can speak really good English.’
‘This isn’t for Goran’s benefit,’ replies the boss. ‘It’s for the rest of you bloody lot.’
Still, at least it’s not just City who lack a clear plan when attacking. During Monday evening’s West Brom-Everton game, Five Live summariser Steve Claridge commented: “For West Brom, it’s about getting it right in the final third. It all looks a little bit complicated from them at this stage… the shape isn’t right. I’m not sure they’ve worked out what they’re trying to do here.”
Striker Victor Anichebe, brought on as a sub by Pepe Mel in the second half, later confirmed how confused they were: “I didn’t understand him. He shouted to me to come over and then sent me on.”
It will be worth keeping an eye on how quickly Senor Mel is able to bring order and direction to this situation, if indeed he is able to do so before the end of the season. Not only will West Brom’s results have implications for our own position in the eleven-team relegation scrap, but Mel’s success or otherwise will doubtless be cited in evidence by those City fans arguing for or against a change of manager.
As to whether our coaching staff will finally be able to resolve our striking shortcomings – well, we’ll just have to wait and see, I suppose.
Which I think is where I came in.