Whatever your pre-season predictions – and mine were optimistically for a mid-table finish – life back in the Premier League was never going to be easy. The distinct lack of summer transfer activity simply meant that we were, Robbie Brady apart, going with substantially the same squad that got us relegated back in May 2014.
For many pundits, City were simplistically viewed as lacking genuine Premier League quality, thereby firmly putting us into the category of relegation certainties.
Now, as we rapidly approach the season’s half way point, it’s stating the obvious that we’re not where we want to be and that the pundits’ pre-season predictions are now generally being mirrored by many City fans’ own sense of foreboding.
To be fair, in most matches, City have given competitive performances, at least in part, and there also seems an overall sense that performances have merited more points on the board. However, there’s an equally common perception that, all too frequently, City’s own woeful defending just makes the overall survival task so much more difficult than it really should be.
Is it unsurprising, with 16 Premier League games played, that only four teams – Bournemouth, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa – have conceded more goals than City?
What is perhaps more surprising is that City’s 18 goals scored is actually currently better than no less than five other teams – Villa, Stoke, West Brom, Swansea and Sunderland, with Newcastle and seventh placed Watford also on 18.
And, whilst the headline figure may look moderately impressive in comparison to our competitors, the underlying detail actually tells a different picture.
The hard facts are these.
Our 18 goals have actually been scored by TEN different players, with Nathan Redmond being top-scorer with FOUR goals. Perhaps more telling, our main three strikers – Cameron Jerome, Dieumerci Mbokani and Lewis Grabban – have just FIVE goals between them.
That’s simply not good enough.
Arguably, many will perceive that playing with just one up front is the root cause of the problem; yet most Premier League teams play that way but don’t seem have similar goal scoring issues.
So, is it simply a case of the main strikers “not being up to it”, or, are there other associated problems?
Certainly, when playing with just one up front, there is a greater emphasis on the role of your “Number Ten”.
For City, that’s usually Wes. Two goals, plus five assists, from eleven starts, plus two substitute appearances, is also a modest return. And, if that’s perceived as harsh on Wes, he now has ten goals in 74 starts and 21 substitute appearances. That’s roughly a one goal in every eight Premier League games.
However, before I get accused of being on an “anti-Wes” crusade, there are clearly other problems to be addressed.
So, here goes.
Everton, as we all know, are distinctly better than your average Premier League team, having far more resources available to them than City. That said, there was one telling difference between the two sides on Saturday: the transition from defence to offence.
They frequently countered with pace and often had three, four and, in one case in the first half, five players racing forwards in support of the man in possession. It wasn’t “gung-ho” or all-out attack. It was co-ordinated, combining pace with movement and seeking to overload areas where City were short in numbers.
By contrast, City’s approach couldn’t have been starker. Jerome was often isolated, Wes frequently outnumbered by three or four Everton midfield players, the build-up play out from the back was usually half-paced and speed of movement of the ball through midfield all too often painfully slow.
City rarely manage to counter-attack the opposition at pace – and not just on Saturday – and, when they do, frequently struggle to get sufficient numbers forwards, unless, of course, it’s for a free kick or corner routine.
Overall, City’s approach during the opening weeks of this season was often too open and expansive. We looked like regular scorers, but, also, frequent conceders. The change in emphasis following the Newcastle defeat was necessary but, whilst it tightened things up at the back, it also reduced our effectiveness offensively. Yet somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a plan which recognises both our inherent weaknesses, whilst also yielding a greater points return?
Forthcoming team selections; whether it means dropping the captain, sacrificing a crowd’s favourite, or a misfiring striker, will be critical. This simply isn’t the time for accommodating non-performing players.
And, critically, the additions of at least two or three quality players during the transfer window is absolutely essential to give a realistic chance of avoiding relegation.
I still believe that there’s little to choose between 14th placed Bournemouth and 19th placed Sunderland – although I exclude Chelsea from relegation candidates. However, we can’t go simply hoping that there are three worse teams than us.
It may be stating the obvious, but, January is simply HUGE, both on and off the field. Time to deliver, in both areas.
“On the Ball City…”
Great article Gary and a very thorough analysis of our major problems. My personal feeling is that we lack: (1) on the pitch leadership; (2) fire-power up front; (3) a consistent and proven performer at centre-half; (4) flair in midfield. The first three issues have been well rehearsed by many but the fourth issue which you highlight is critical. The majority of our midfielders are fairly static and those we have the instinct to run with the ball Redmond is inconsistent, Bennett out on loan, Jarvis injured and Wes not quite as productive as you’d hope. Pace and flair in attacking midfield areas is a crucial must in the transfer window – pace hurts the opposition and has the double boost of getting fans of their seats and cheering the team on. Can we bring Huckerby back?!
Do not get your hopes up for the January transfer window. McNally and ‘head of recruitment’ Darnborough struggled to achieve much in three months during the summer so one month for a now relegation-threatened side doesnt look promising.
I think the best we can hope for in attracting quality is a couple of half season loans from Europe. What top players would commit themselves longer term to Norwich when there is strong chance we could be out of the premier league within a few months and the drop in wages that brings?
Yes Hoolahan has limitations, but it was glaringly obvious as soon as last season ended that the priorities should be a commanding first-choice centre half and proven striker.
Cosmo P. says
Performances such as those against Bournemouth and West Ham (and Arsenal/Everton 2nd halves) show that with confidence and form, we do have a strong squad nucleus.
The trickle of costly individual errors seems to have eroded collective form and confidence – the two fickle mistresses in football.
Last Jan. window, a rock bottom Leicester didn’t make wholesale changes. In fact the only incoming was an experienced German CB (on loan initially) and an unknown Croatian CF. The former has galvanised their defence while the latter can’t even get on the bench (9 million wasted on him!).
Their meteoric rise since has largely been down to the same players who were struggling before rediscovering the two fickle mistresses.
Pab – whatever your views on the CEO, surely you don’t think he’s sitting on his thumb waiting for the window to open before considering options and putting feelers out?
Douglas Millar says
On the point that of City relying on three teams being worse than us, I recall that in 2013-14 City were definitely not one of the three worst teams but were still relegated.
What is beginning to concern me is not just the personnel but the lack of an established pattern of play. Under Lambert and Hughton, City had managers and in some cases coaches who had played at the highest level. I have seen nothing over the last few games to suggest that our team can play to a system which they are comfortable with and which can cause problems to other teams.
It is not just about having the best players, it is about getting the best out of the players we have. Look at Leicester! They still have some ordinary players playing to an extraordinary standard.
Come on City. lets be having you!
Mike Reynolds says
This is spot on, of the televised matches last weekend that I watched, the success of Bournemouth, Newcastle and Leicester was the injection of pace every time they broke from defence. Surprisingly only Arsenal are as slow as us bringing the ball out of defence and they can afford to be with the talent they have available. I think the “raids” of Martin in the second half gave us that extra pace and probably helped salvage a point.
Keith B says
It always amused me last season when we took on various Championship clubs and their beaten managers came out with “Well, that’s only to be expected, they’ve got Premiership players”. I think Mick down the road was one of them. Wrong! We had players who happened to have played in the PL, which isn’t the same thing at all.
I totally agree with Gary’s points about moving the ball forward with pace. You might have added “and precision” because in the early weeks Neil WAS trying to get us to attack in numbers, but the moves broke down too easily and we were caught on the counter again and again.
“Can we bring Huckerby back?” asks Notts Jon (1)?
Or someone like him, obviously. Well it sounds tempting, but don’t forget that he was barely a Premiership standard player. He made his impact with us in the Championship, a breath of fresh air, the first true entertainer we’d had for several years.
He briefly brought us out of the doldrums, but back in the PL in 2004/5 he was in and out of games in the same way Redmond is, and had his own dedicated button on the BBC text service for following our games marked “Darren Huckerby (Norwich) caught offside”.
He scored 7 goals in the season, 3 more than Redmond currently has. I think Redmond’s career is going to pan out much the same as Huck’s – good at u-21 level, brilliant in the second tier, not quite good enough for the PL.
The class of player we need is another Dean Ashton. Good in the air, good on the ground, good vision. But for the cruelness of injury I am convinced he would have been England’s number 9 for several years.
Hucks was never in that class, but because of the way he handled himself and stuck around after relegation fans have a much fonder memory of him.
So who is there out there who has Ashton’s talent and the hunger to prove themselves at PL level? There must be someone if only we can find them.
Our player recruitment, or lack of it, in the summer was a complete embarrassment and showed a total lack of ambition to retain Premier League status. A virtual ‘nil’ spend taking into account the departure of Bradley Johnson is now going to bite McNally and the board on the backside with relegation now a certainty barring a miraculous turnaround in results. The best analagy I can think of is that Alex Neil is an apprentice plumber being sent out on his own to install a complete central heating system and not being given the correct tools to do the job ! As a result the boiler won’t fire up, the pump and controls won’t sync, basically the whole thing needs ripping out and replaced by someone who knows what they are doing. Every man and his dog knew where the squad needed most urgent attention, namely an experienced head at the heart of the defence and a striker who was capable of hitting double figures minimum. I have lost complete faith in our board and their willingness to keep the ‘little Norwich’ tag and rather than being disappointed with how this season is panning out, I’m absolutely fuming with rage at how once again the board of directors has got things so wrong. I’m not saying we should have gone out in the close season and spent millions on players and wages because I accept that would have been ridiculously ‘koo-pee-aah ish’ and folly. Our scouting system must be one of the worst for a club of our stature and needs a complete overhaul in my opinion, gems are to be found out there but it always appears these days we never seem to find them. Oh for a Jamie Vardi in a Canary shirt eh?
Rant Over ….. ;-D
Nick C says
The January window will be the acid test for the Board. Will they spend the money and make a committment to making City a genuine Premiership club. Or will it be small town mentallity, we’ve always done it this way, and just hope that under performing players will get us there.
Do we have anything to loose by bringing back RvW. He owes us so he can put his / our money where his mouth is
e j mason says
” smiffy is 100% right, cant add any more ! ticket prices frozen for next season ? yes for championship football !
Stewart Lewis says
Smiffy (7): There’s a fair criticism to be made of the Board last summer, but I don’t think it’s the one you make.
The more I hear, the more impressed I am at the amounts of money we apparently offered for players. As the least rich club in the Premier League, we have to be careful with our spending (contrary to popular opinion, the money spent by Bournemouth etc doesn’t come from the TV deal – it’s their rich owners prepared to write personal cheques IN ADDITION TO that income). But my understanding is that we put in very large bids for both defenders and strikers, and had reason to expect some of the moves would happen.
The fair criticism – which I suspect they’re desperate to put right this time – is that we didn’t get those deals across the line.
Keith B (6): I usually agree with everything you say, but this time is the exception. Hucks was very good for us in the Premier League – clearly our most effective layer and a shoo-in for POTS. If some of the others had put in the same effort….
Jon Dunn says
Have to agree to a large extent with Smiffy #7 and E J Mason #9.
Considering we’re the closest club, geographically, to Holland and Belgium, our scouting ‘network’ (?) should have unearthed a gem or two from there by now. It really is quite pitiful that we appoint a guy who failed to impress while at Burnley, and didn’t manage any significant signings while there – what sort of C.V. is that to alert the Norwich board enough to appoint him?
Lots of really interesting comments.
Keith B – yes a Huckerby-type player would be a great addition but to be honest, by their very nature, attacking midfielders or wingers of this type tend to blow a bit hot-n-cold. At PL level, defenders are armed with more pace to counter that. A PL level winger I guess has to be the complete package to deliver consistently – pace, flair and critically the end product.
Jarvis to my mind is an effective winger. Whilst he perhaps lacks the pace or flair that Hucks / Redmond possess the end product is probably more consistent because he has the ability to create space for himself to put in a cross, shot etc. A bit of a surprise to me has been why Alex Neil elected to send Elliot Bennett out on loan. He would have provided good competition for Redmond and does have the ability to put a good ball in.
In terms of January recruitment I don’t think there is any doubt that we need quality in. Did the club drop a clanger with their transfer policy during the summer? In my opinion Yes and No. On the one hand AN has recently said that they initially scouted for a second season in the Championship and therefore had to pretty-much start from scratch following promotion. This seems fairly short-sighted given the progress made during the second half of the season and the different scenarios that could have occurred. That said, we have also heard from AN that the poor-show in the last transfer window wasn’t so much down to finances (transfer fees or wages) but due to geography and the perception that as play-off Champions Norwich were the weakest of the 3 promoted clubs. Not sure what we could do about that and whether that perception would change now.
Keith B says
“Keith B (6): I usually agree with everything you say, but this time is the exception. Hucks was very good for us in the Premier League – clearly our most effective layer and a shoo-in for POTS. If some of the others had put in the same effort….”
Lol Stewart (10), I shall have to point that first sentence out to my wife!
Don’t get me wrong about Hucks; you’re exactly right that nobody tried harder in 2004/05 (a few such as Drury and Holt did their utmost too) and the way he became part of the club and the county is one reason he’s such a legend. I’m just trying to put him in context.
All I am saying is that to become firmly re-established in the PL for the first time for 20+ years we actually need people better than Huckerby – people of the calibre of Woods, Crook, Bruce, Watson, Fleck, Sutton, Fox, Townsend, Sherwood, Phelan and the so unfortunate Barham.
I think people tend to think of Huckerby (possibly Iwan too) as in the same league as those guys, but to me they weren’t; they were just vastly superior to what they had around them most of the time they were with us.
Bob in Diss says
Gary – I congratulate you. You’ve managed to sum things up succinctly without sounding like the veins were popping – a rare quality amongst most fans.
Singling out Wes though is a bit harsh. I’ve criticised him for blowing hot and cold too much in previous seasons but I shudder to think where we’d be now but for his and Robbie Brady’s efforts. Take them out of the equation and the creativity dips to zero.
As for all this “oh why can’t we find another Huckerby/Ashton?” – throw those nostalgia goggles away – they had the odd moment but it doesn’t help to be romanticising about past (largely failed) efforts. Both only played one (relegation) season in the PL for us!
To Cosmo – No I don’t think our CEO is doing nothing, but whatever he did in the summer by means of overseeing a scouting network and negotiating transfers failed.
The club seems determined to pour more money into an Academy with questionable “output” to date, and has neglected the recruitment/scouting area.
McNally blamed our previous “worse than death” relegation on poor summer recruitment, but has repeated the same mistake again.
Keith B says
“As for all this “oh why can’t we find another Huckerby/Ashton?” – throw those nostalgia goggles away ”
Where Ashton’s concerned it’s nothing to do with nostalgia, but all to do with wanting another genuine Premiership class player in our ranks. He’s the only outfield player I can think of who left us after relegation from the PL in either 2005 or 2014 and re-established himself firmly in the top division.
But for injury Snodgrass might have done. Francis and Fer certainly didn’t.
As far as I can recall nobody tried very hard to poach anybody else from our relegated squads – not Redmond or Howson or Wes or anyone from Worthy’s squad apart from the above. How other managers and their scouts view our players is a very good indication of what their true level is rather than the rose-tinted view we tend to have as fans.
I don’t care whether Ashton played half a season or half a century, the reason his name comes up is because he is simply an example of the quality of player we should be aspiring to, throughout the team, if we want to become a firmly established PL team again.
Bob in Diss says
Keith – if I were to put those goggles on, I’d suggest another Chris Sutton is who we need. Went on to bigger and better things and matched Deano’s 1 England cap!
The fact that he did the biz for us 20 years ago shows how rarely such a gem comes along for a club of ‘our size’. I’m not holding my breath in January.
Keith B says
Yep, and he could play centre half too, and if he hadn’t been around at the same time as Shearer (and perhaps stayed in England) he’d have had more caps. I think he and Ashton are a good comparison really. Ashton would have won a lot more caps but for injury, but not if he had he been up against Shearer.
As I say it’s not so much nostalgia for a particular player, but for players of a certain level, like those before and around Sutton’s time.
Gary Gowers says
Nice piece Gary and an interesting (and civilised) debate that’s followed.
As much as I take your point re Wes, and his age naturally limits his shelf-life, I’m not sure a like-for-like replacement/improvement is in our price range right now. For all his foibles, without him we are almost bereft of imagination and creativity, and players who possess both of those qualities are almost as costly as a 20 goals/season strikers.
And that brings me on to my old favourite. As huge as January is for us, my gut (which is notoriously unreliable) tells me we’re about to engage in several more games of unsuccessful poker. We simply don’t have the financial muscle, or allure, to see off any other PL team in a two-way shoot-out.
My suspicion is we’ll lose every time. Therefore we only attract those *not* on the wanted lists of others – and there’ll be a reason for that.
I really hope I’m wrong.
Moving away from the reminisce-athon for a moment…
Pace aside, we’ve two talented and experienced premier league players in their prime on the bench – Dorrans & Mulumbu. Surely worth a regular outing? It’s kinda what we’re crying out for in this difficult period.
Gary Field says
Thank you all for your comments. Too many to reply to individually, but, appreciated nevertheless.
From a nostalgia perspective, I still don’t think you can top the signing for Huck’s for the pure excitement generated for fans. RVW was nothing but hype.
Ashton will always be considered as “the one who should have been signed earlier.” Whether he was ever considered the previous summer, we’ll never know and, whether Crewe would have actually let him go then, is pure speculation.
It does strike me as odd that he was actually playing at League One level at the time. Would City fans accept such a signing now, or would that be considered as “little old Norwich” were we to acquire a player from there now?
Bob in Diss – maybe I am being harsh on Wes. Certainly, the way he started this season was exceptional. However, his performance levels have dropped from those levels and, to put this down to the revised playing style is, in my view, too simplistic. Surely, good players thrive whatever the formation?
Cityfan – I agree with you regarding Dorrans and Mulumbu. Injury to the latter hasn’t helped, but, surely, it’s worth a go?
Stewart Lewis says
Gary (19): I admire your realism, but there’ll still be the odd gem out there who’s been overlooked by other Premier League clubs. Vardy and Mahrez at Leicester are obvious examples, but don’t forget one closer to home: Robbie Brady. Another one or two like him and I won’t be complaining.
Ashton and Sutton were outstanding players. Even towards the end of his career I’d have liked us to try and re-sign Sutton; I gather personalities got in the way.
The big surprise to me this season is that Mulumbu hasn’t made more impact. His injury was badly-timed, but he always struck me as an upgrade on Tettey.
Keith B says
Gary, hope you see this now the article’s dropped in the pecking order!
Re. Ashton, I was working in a company in Crewe at the time and one of my fellow Directors was well connected at the Alex. I think he may have known Ashton’s family too – everyone knows everyone else around there, certainly in sporting circles.
Some time after we signed DA my colleague told me the gist of the background to it.
Crewe were actually in their second season back in the “First Division”, which is now the Championship when we signed him.
Ashton had a good season 2003/04 and people were beginning to take notice. The question really was whether it was a flash in the pan, or whether he could kick on further; Crewe believed it would be the latter in which case his value would rise rapidly.
Whether they simply refused to sell at all in the summer, or put a silly-money price on his head which at that point would have been a big risk for anyone to take, he wasn’t sure.
But certainly Crewe believed that come January – when they pretty well knew he would go, partly because of his own ambitions – there would be a queue of clubs in a bidding war. And of course they wanted him to help acquire some points as insurance against potential relegation before letting him go.
As we know he did indeed carry on where he left off although in the end surprisingly there wasn’t much competition for him and they were pretty happy with what they got for him.
I can never be absolutely sure how accurate what I was told is, but I think it rings true, and my colleague had no reason to say anything misleading. Fact is Ashton was not available in the summer, to anyone, without taking a very large risk.
The way that so many of our fans, and indeed commentators like to re-write the Ashton saga to berate the Board – even the present one! – thoroughly irritates me.
For a start people forget we had acquired Leon Mackenzie only a few months earlier, whose background like Ashton’s was 2nd and 3rd tier, and there was optimism that he could kick on in the PL.
But because Ashton did so well when he arrived history has been re-written as “the one who should have been signed earlier,” and that’s been turned into “evidence” that our Board didn’t know what they were doing – and still don’t. 20-20 hindsight and all that!
The fact that the Board is totally different now, as are our finances, doesn’t stop people making the link with the current position.
What might be a more reasonable criticism is to say that rather than rely on Mackenzie or take a risk on Ashton – both unproven – they should have acquired a proven PL striker. But after years in the second tier they presumably just did not have the funds for that expect possibly a has-been looking for one more payday.
Gary Field says
Keith B – 23 – thank you for the insight and for correct, Dean was of course playing Championship, rather than League One football as I thought.
I always sensed that Crewe wouldn’t have sold the previous summer, but I also recall much debate at our end as to whether we could actually afford to buy Dean Ashton in January?
As you say, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I’ve been saying all along that the mixture of three things has left us on the situation we are in.
1. Shambolic Transfer Window.
2. Sale of ‘Player of The Year, but somehow not good enough for PL oxymoron’
3. Embarrassing Lack of Funds given to Neil.
Will the board ever learn?
Gary Gowers says
Darren (25) – Hard to disagree on no.1 but the ‘Player of the Year’ struggled last time we were in the Prem and AN obviously felt it would be the same this time round. An excellent Championship player but…
And I’m not convinced it was the ’embarrassing’ lack of funds that was the issue, more our inability to lure the right players through the door. Rumour has it some eye-watering sums were offered but were still insufficient to get the deals done.
Ash Diback says
Darren – are those your seasonal alternatives to gold, frankincense and myrrh?
1. “Shambolic” – because players we bid for preferred to go to other clubs or were prevented from leaving their current clubs?
2. Bradley had already proved that he wasn’t up to the PL grade with us. He’s not repeated his form of last year at Derby.
3. “Embarrassing lack of funds” – big money for Brady – worth the price. There is a lot of overinflated middle-grade ‘talent’ out there. Just throwing pots of cash around doesn’t guarantee anything i.e. RvW/Fer.
Will the board ever learn? From you, probably not.
Stewart Lewis says
Darren (25): We were in a truly shambolic position when the current Board took over in 2009 – in League 1, demoralised and broke.
We’re now the envy of many – a Premier League club despite relatively modest resources, free of debt and with perhaps the brightest young manager around. But the summer window was disappointing for the reason Gary describes. My guess is McNally is as keen as any of us to do better.
Mahrez cost 400k and Vardy 1 Million. Whilst Brady has been a good signing for yourselves, I would not describe him as a Gem at 7 Million with only a year left on contract.
AN brightest young manager around. Not looking like it atm is it? Constantly chopping and changing the team does not provide continuity or give the players confidence as they know they may not be playing the following week. They then all look after there own performances instead of playing as a team. Selects Grabban on his own against us then plays long balls as a service to him. No wonder he looked dispirited.
Gary Field says
@29 Mick – thanks for popping by and reminding us how bad things were for us at Watford. We know there were a whole host of issues that day; we’ve examined them in detail and we’ve moved on.
Thankfully, the last game against a every useful Everton side was infinitely better.
Suspensions, injuries and poor form have all played there part in recent team selections. More a case of changes due to necessity, rather than change for change sake.
Anyway, enough of living in the past – there’s a team just down the road renowned for that – there’s 22 games left and, if the Premier League teaches you one thing, it’s just when you think you’ve got it sussed, that it has a nasty habit of biting you back, big time.
Stewart Lewis says
Mick (29): Thanks for your characteristically ungracious and tangential input.
If you’d read my post properly (or wanted to), you’d know I was responding to Gary Gowers’ suggestion that Norwich would always lose out to richer clubs for an exceptional talent. No doubt you’re finding reason to rubbish Brady, but the TV pundits of all channels are saying we did well to get him and will likely have to fend off much bigger bids than £7m to keep him.
As I continue to say, congratulations to Watford on a fine first half of the season. Cheers.
Gary Gowers says
Mick (29) – You’ve had your fun. You made a ‘point’, the guys have responded.
Bye for now…