Traditionally the raison d’etre of pre-season is to get the squad fit and prepare the players tactically and mentally for the challenges that lie ahead,
For the elite of the English game things are now a little different of course. While they still wish to do all of the above they also find time to lucratively fly to the four corners in order to promote their ‘brand’ and engage with their fans oversees.
I say elite, but a Stoke-supporting friend recently questioned if the Potters had ‘made it’ because they had been invited to play in the Barclays Asia Trophy – during which they locked horns with such luminaries as a Singapore Select XI. So even those of the mid-table obscurity ilk are at it now.
Perhaps one day that will, rather uncomfortably, be us but this time round City’s pre-season has been the type befitting a team managed by one who will leave no stone unturned ahead of his biggest challenge yet.
So, there have been no unwanted or unnecessary distractions, no 22 hour flights and literally everything has been geared towards a win on August 8. The quality of the opposition has been gradually cranked up and, credit to Brentford, yesterday sounds like it was City’s stiffest test of the summer – just as you’d want it.
But I’ve never been an avid ‘watcher’ of pre-season friendlies – two so far has already doubled my summer quota – and as a resident of Lowestoft I’m beyond the realms of Mustard TV, so my view of yesterday’s game is based solely on the club’s official highlights and the oracle that is Twitter.
While as an attacking force City appear in decent shape, there was plenty of online angst around City’s inability to defend while under pressure and when being hit on the counter-attack. On the receiving end, in particular, were the skipper and Steven Whittaker, both of whom were in situ in City’s last relegation campaign.
While Andre Wisdom may, in the weeks ahead, edge himself ahead of the latter – and add some stability to the right side of defence – it seems a new centre-back is not high up on Alex Neil’s shopping list.
Personally, it would have been at the *top* of my list but Alex knows far better than I and if he thinks he can get a tune out of Russ at centre-back in the Premier League then it’s hard to doubt his judgement. All I will say is, this time round team selection will be based only on what is best for Norwich City, with sentiment playing no part.
Besides, the starting XI on opening day is rarely the same as the one that takes the field once things settle down and the leaves start falling off the trees. And I expect this season to be no different.
Certainly in terms of playing style, the summer has seen a continuation of the same pass and move ethos that became a feature of last season’s run-in – typified by the two goals against FC Augsburg – and I expect City to continue with the high-pressing game that also became a feature.
The quality we possess in midfield – which has been enhanced by the arrival of Youssouf Mulumbu and the form of Tony Andreu – should at least ensure we retain possession of the ball more comfortably than we did in the Chris Hughton reign. As ever in the top flight, the trick is to have someone capable of hitting the killer pass when an opening has been created.
Graham Dorrans will therefore have a key role to play and, along with the trickery of Wes, will need to find a way to unlock some stubbborn, almost water-tight Premier league defences. And if Jonny Howson would care to chip in with the odd through ball akin to the one that led to Wessi’s goal yesterday, that also would be good.
With Nathan Redmond seemingly champing at the bit and Robbie Brady – who apparently impressed at left-back yesterday – also able to operate out wide, the midfield looks reasonably well equipped to tackle the rigours of a Premier League season.
The big unknown – at least for now – is City’s ability, or otherwise, to score goals at the top level.
Cameron Jerome has been there and done it, but only to limited effect. His energy and strength will always make him the proverbial handful for defenders – that much we can guarantee – and he’ll chip in with goals. The question is, can he chip in with enough goals?
But at 28-years old he’s at his footballing prime, he’s bursting full of confidence and will be itching to prove wrong the doubters who question his ability to score regularly in the Premier League. This is a big season for him.
Lewis Grabban is different, both in terms of playing style and expectation. His ability to work the channels and intelligent link-up play is certainly to his manager’s liking and, minus a new face, it will be fascinating to see if he gets the nod ahead of Jerome next Saturday. I suspect he will.
But he’s not played at the highest level and will need to improve upon his goals per chances ratio if he is to stake a regular claim.
Alex has vowed that we will be looking to win games rather than not lose them – music to the ears of most – but with that mind-set has to come an acceptance that City will concede. Therefore chances, when they come along, have to be buried. To be clinical, not profligate, in front of goal is key. Our opponents will be.
Where this leaves Gary Hooper, Ricky and Kyle Lafferty remains for now an unknown.
Hooper is the best finisher at the club but was unable to hold down a starting position in the Championship and is not suited to the lone striker role. Equally, with the emergence of Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe he’s dropped down the pecking order for the ‘number 10’ role.
If he is still here on September 2, I suspect he’ll get some game time but it’s hard to see him starting too often.
When, or perhaps if, the manager brings in a new striker – someone in the mould of a Rudy Gestede or a Ricky Lambert (both no longer on said shopping list) – then it’s hard to see Ricky and Lafferty getting too many opportunities.
So, while to me Wembley is still fresh in the mind, we’re on the cusp of another chapter.
One component that’s barely been touched upon, but which is more important than most, is luck. The fixture list was reasonably kind to us (so that was a start) and pre-season has pretty much gone without a hitch – at least it had until Mulumbu picked up that foot injury in the closing stages of yesterday’s game.
Whether or not he’s able to make next Saturday will perhaps determine if Lady Luck is with us right now. And if she is, perhaps she’d like to hang around.
“On the Ball City…”