To quote the skipper: “There’s been a lot of cynicism at times from certain people and certain areas, and it’s a bit disappointing as a player, a bit disconcerting, because the effort has always been there”.
While Alex Neil steered clear of questioning his side’s ‘effort’, he did agree post-match that they lacked hunger. And surely the two go hand in hand?
For an hour against Cardiff, the Canaries were excellent but for the final 30 plus minutes they were awful. Yesterday felt just like a continuation.
Faced with opposition who were bursting full of confidence, innovative, vibrant and lively, the Canaries appeared edgy, predictable, leaden-footed and lifeless. Throw the aforementioned dearth of hunger into the mix and we ended up with probably the most painful 95 minutes of Carrow Road football seen this season.
The previous home defeats – against Charlton and Reading – were both crushing in their own right but were games City could, probably should, have won.
Yesterday was different. From minute one Brentford were better, won every personal battle, won virtually every 50/50 and carried a goal threat throughout. To use the boxing analogy it would have been stopped after 20 minutes with City, for the most part, barely able to land a glove on their slippery opponent.
Not since the final game of last season, when Arsenal’s 2-0 win confirmed what we already knew, have Norwich been so comprehensively outplayed. Back then we were afforded a lesson by some familiar names: Ramsey, Arteta, Giroud, Özil, Podolski and co. Yesterday it was the likes of Pritchard, Jota, Diagouraga and Douglas who did the damage. Unfamiliar yes, but precisely the same outcome.
It was hard not be be impressed by Brentford’s work ethic and the way they pressed City high up the pitch. Tactically Mark Warburton got it spot on and in doing so gave Neil a short, sharp lesson in Championship football.
Part of the David McNally gamble in appointing the young Scot was around the fact that he, like Neil Adams before him, will have to learn on the job and learn quickly.
Lesson one: It’s not the league in which to mess around with square pegs and round holes.
Despite his valiant and laudable attempt to deflect the attention away from Steven Whittaker’s difficult afternoon, Master Neil must privately question his decision to plonk his second-choice right-back into the centre of midfield.
It backfired horribly. With many baying for an anti-hero on whom to unleash their frustration Whittaker’s struggles offered them a perfect target; the booing that accompanied his inevitable withdrawal leaving a particularly nasty taste.
Football crowds are notoriously unforgiving but the treatment of the makeshift midfielder was incredibly harsh.
With Gary O’Neil ruled out with a suspected broken foot, injured in training on Friday, Neil had a conundrum. With only one recognised central midfielder in Bradley Johnson he had a choice: to either to change the team’s shape to accommodate the players he had available or slot an unfamiliar face directly into the position vacated by O’Neil.
He opted for the latter but, presumably because he perceived Wes and Conor McGrandles as a too ‘lightweight’ to take on the defensive side of the role, handed the stripes to Whittaker. With the benefit of hindsight it was a mistake. In truth, it felt like one even before a ball had been kicked.
Either way the unfortunate Whittaker can consider himself inadvertently shafted.
With Johnson’s strong suit his tackling and endeavour, City’s control of the centre of the pitch was non-existent. Ironically, they struggled defensively too. Gaps appeared everywhere. Master Pritchard ran the show.
Game, set and match Warburton.
But, while Neil may privately concede that a Hoolahan or a McGrandles bolted in alongside Johnson would have helped City pass the ball better, there is no excusing the aforementioned lack of hunger.
The big question is how do you instil said quality? Part of the downfall of Neil Adams was his inability to do so
In City’s starting XI, ten have sampled Premier League football and have been duly rewarded. Only Kyle Lafferty has yet to kick a ball in anger in the top division. By contrast, unless I’m mistaken, not one of Brentford’s starting line-up have sampled its riches.
And therein possibly lies the answer: One team played as if their professional lives depended on it; the other as if it were another day at the office.
Among many issues facing Neil early on in his City career, that one remains the biggest and most challenging.
On the face of it, it *shouldn’t* be the case – and Russell Martin and co are quick to tell us it isn’t – but the evidence suggests otherwise. Too many half-hearted performances, too many ponderous spells of play, too many sloppy passes. All have been far too prevalent since August.
Yet, still we remain in touching distance of the play-offs. For all the ills listed above and for all the angst that’s befallen the Yellow Army as a result, City are still in with a shout.
As ever, the management team’s job is to now dust them down, make them graft on the fields of Colney and gear them up for the joys of St Andrew’s. If they can do that, and succeed in the unenviable task of instilling some of the passion on view in yesterday’s FA Cup, then all is not yet lost.
But more of the same and, with games running out, even the play-offs may end up a distant dream