We’re approaching the halfway point of the season, and time for half-term assessments. Only an idiot would offer such a report before it’s necessary, and especially after a dismal and morale-sapping defeat.
So here goes.
First, as usual, we must dismiss some craziness. With Alex Neil’s greater emphasis on solidity since the nightmare at Newcastle, we’re now hearing “it’s Hughton all over again”, “we never learn”. Sorry – the change since Newcastle shows exactly the opposite: we ARE learning.
Since Newcastle/West Brom, we’ve had fixtures against Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal. Without a change in approach, we’d have conceded a hatful in those games. To come out of them with a point and a goal difference of -2 may not be exciting, but it’s surely no less than we’d have realistically targeted (and a lot better than Paul Lambert achieved with us).
In the middle, we beat a Swansea team whose possession game would have caused us all manner of problems if we hadn’t adjusted. No wonder the columnists and readers of this site were praising AN’s pragmatism and smart thinking just a week ago.
A week is a long time in football, as in politics. Watford was awful. At the start of the season Russell Martin (remember him?) asked us to try and be more even-tempered than in the last relegation season, to resist getting too euphoric over wins and too gloomy over defeats. That was always a big ask, and has proved too big for many of our fans.
Let’s try to step back dispassionately and make some sense of the season so far. Only if we can do that is there a chance of sensibly assessing the future.
With the perspective that we’re the least rich club in the Premier League and have a correspondingly modest squad – a theme I’ll come back to – how have we done so far? Of our 15 league games, I’d argue that 4 have been exceptional performances: Bournemouth, Arsenal and Stoke at home (but for the inspired Jack Butland we’d have won that one by two or three), Sunderland away. Three have been clearly below standard: Southampton, Newcastle and Watford.
To cut short some potentially long arguments, I’ll reluctantly add home to Leicester or West Brom to the below-par list. We didn’t look good in those games, though my own view is that we lost them – as against Palace on the opening day – to greater Premier League experience and street-smartness rather than to playing poorly.
It’s therefore a mix: a quarter of the games better than we could reasonably expect, a quarter worse, half on par. That half includes some performances from which we rightly took encouragement, such as the visits to West Ham and Liverpool.
If that sounds complacent, of course it shouldn’t. Our aim and focus is to stay in the Premier League, we know it’s possible but we need to find ways to pick up more points than we have recently. Do our manager and Board have what it takes?
Newcastle marked a turning point in Alex Neil’s approach, of course. The wide-open, come-and-attack-us Norwich of that day has not been seen since (and personally I hope it never will be).
It’s been replaced with a pragmatic structure and pragmatic team selection. The accusation that AN doesn’t know his best XI is clearly not true. The fact is he’s decided to pick a team for the opposition we’re facing – hence the re-emergence of players like Wisdom, O’Neil and Grabban.
The problem – perfectly encapsulated by the pair of games against Arsenal and Watford – is that the effect has been inconsistent. Individual selections, team mindset and tactics all looked spot-on against Arsenal, and horribly off-key against Watford.
Within the pragmatic approach that I believe he’s wedded to, can Alex fix the problem and inspire more Arsenal/Swansea performances while cutting the Watford ones? He’s such a quick learner and resilient character that I believe the answer’s yes.
But what about the squad? We made big bids for quality players, especially central defenders, at the end of the summer but couldn’t get the deals over the line. There’s no doubt we’ll try again in January; the Board fully recognises the need to bolster the squad if we’re to have a sporting chance of pulling clear of relegation.
In that sense I’ll have to agree with those who point to the January window as crucial for us. Yet it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.
As we’ve seen with Robbie Brady, the addition of quality players can make a difference; we may be able to add 2-3 of them to the squad in January. But that still means our fate will lie in the hands of the other players, the ones already at Carrow Road. Will they, under Alex Neil’s leadership and their own qualities, pull us through?
A question for debate. Again, my answer is yes.