Those of us lucky enough to write about Norwich City know only too well Alex Neil’s uncanny knack of taking the sting out of any potential negativity. He did it again last night.
There I was, poised to question why after an hour City looked leggy, jaded and off-the-pace, and the manager only goes and explains succinctly and logically why precisely that was the case.
As it transpires, having Graham Dorrans, Russell Martin, Alex Pritchard, Martin Olsson and Youssouf Mulumbu on the pitch at the same time, while all were suffering varying levels of fatigue, was sufficient to hand the initiative almost entirely to the impressive travellers from Wigan.
That City were able to see it through (just…), was testament to those whose legs were slightly fresher – particularly after conceding the almost inevitable goal by virtue of the left-foot of the excellent Jordi Gomez – but it was uncomfortable and nervy and not good for those of a nervous disposition.
Neil’s hand was hindered considerably of course by the necessity to swap one Alex with another and replace Ivo Pinto with Ryan Bennett at half-time, and was therefore unable to offer fresh legs to aid his ailing troops, even though the ‘freshness’ of Mulumbu – on to replace a tired-looking Wes Hoolahan – did little to help the cause.
Dorrans, in particular, struggled to cover the ground in the second half – having made good use of the ball in the first – and but for the enforced substitutions would surely have been hooked for the last 20+ minutes
For all that was good about the first-half, the three points only arrived courtesy of a backs-to-the-wall struggle. But arrive they did.
Of some comfort was the manager’s assertion that the issue was one of match fitness rather than fitness per se – were it the latter there would be some serious questions that needed answering – and one can only hope that ‘leggy’ and ‘second-best’ will be phrases used increasingly sparingly as the season progresses and suitable numbers of minutes are tucked under the proverbial belts.
Equally it would be of some concern if last night’s second-half horrors were the result of City taking their foot of the gas having considered it job done because anyone who’s ever played the game will tell you just how difficult it is to get back on it once the foot has been taken off the pedal. It’s nigh on impossible.
But, despite that being the obvious call, now’s the time not to question the manager’s judgement and if he lays the problem at the door of fatigue I’m happy to go with it.
And there’s also the fact that Wigan were quite good, even in the first-half, despite City being bright and breezy and enjoying success in the final third.
For my piece in the match programme I spoke with Paul Kenrick, football correspondent at the Wigan Observer and Wigan Evening Post, and asked him to describe Gary Caldwell’s footballing philosophy in one sentence. He wrote, ‘A disciple of the Roberto Martinez school of thinking, while trying to inject more of a cutting edge going forward.‘
And he was bang on.
Buoyed by the return to the club of the aforementioned Gomez, the Latics still offer a very passable impersonation of a Martinez side, even down to the occasional over-playing rather than shooting, and were pleasing on the eye throughout.
To be 2-0 up in 11 minutes was grand from a City perspective but gave rise to a sense of comfort that was probably a little unwarranted given the long spell of possession the visitors were enjoying. City’s football going forward was entertaining and progressive but minus a third goal the Latics remained in the game.
The positives for City were there for all to see however and Jacob Murphy’s double was testament to his desire to grasp the nettle offered to him by Alex Neil. Pleasing too was the neat interplay, particularly around the edge of the Wigan penalty box, which was epitomised by the build-up to Jacob’s second goal.
And Carrow Road responded accordingly, the atmosphere being infinitely better than the weekend offering against Cardiff, with a floodlit stadium doing what floodlit stadiums do to the atmosphere at a football match.
The second-half performance as a spectacle is unworthy of description but what it was was gutsy, whole-hearted and brave, and for all the ifs and buts was sufficient to win the game; the agility of Michael McGovern becoming ever more apparent as the weeks pass.
The old cliché about winning without playing well was predictably doing the rounds post-match, and it’s true that to be just two points behind the leaders at this stage is fine, but the flip side is that eventually results will even out to match performance levels rather than vice-versa.
At the moment we’re on that dangerous cusp but I remain hopeful that once match fitness levels increase and a couple of the injured players return to the fold we’ll come out on the right side.
Saturday afternoon in Nottingham will be interesting.