Just when we thought City had exhausted that long list of ‘how to lose a game of football’ they go and find a new one. To get knocked out by a side that played all of extra-time with ten men while having the game, and said opponents, metaphorically by the scruff of the neck was quite some achievement.
But if anyone can do it…
The post-match fall-out was typically calamitous and fractious but amidst the name-calling and venom were some valid and searching questions:
Why are City so terrible in the second half of games?
Last night they took this particular trait to a whole new level by failing to turn up in two second halves, but not before completely dominating in the first period of normal time and extra-time. And I mean really dominating.
So comfortable were they in the first-half of extra-time, during which they actually made decent use of the extra player, for anyone other than Norwich City it would have been an almost impossible position from which to lose a game. But they found a way.
Yet this was a side that had only Ryan Bennett, Robbie Brady and Alex Tettey starting from Saturday’s opening XI and so it’s doubly difficult to fathom without looking at what’s said in the changing room at the interval.
The first-half of normal time too was, at times, a passing masterclass and Alex Pritchard’s stooping header should have been the signal for City to take a vice-like grip on the game. But a few warning signs late in the half were not heeded.
Both second halves were typified by sloppy passing, lethargy and, of course, some truly horrible defending – none of which obviously formed part of Alex Neil’s half-time chat – but more significantly also by an all too apparent fragility of the mind. The body language suggests the players themselves question their ability to hold onto a lead.
Why are we continually so poor defensively?
While last night’s back-four was radically changed from the weekend, three-quarters of it was vastly experienced and had more than enough nous to see out a game that was there for the taking. Yet the problems persist, with Leeds’ second equaliser being straight out of the Laurel and Hardy book of defending.
It had the lot: poor positioning, poor marking, slapstick goalkeeping, lack of awareness. You name it…
But it’s not just last night’s defence, or Saturday’s defence, or the weekend before’s defence. It’s just how we defend right now, with individual errors invariably around the corner. And clearly it’s not just a back-four thing – it’s a team thing and about how the XI defends as a unit.
And, before I’m reminded, this is a riddle that’s not been solved since the summer of 2015 when, with two quality centre-backs at the top of the shopping list, we left it until January 2016 to get one.
I’m afraid I only know the question – not the answer.
Are they fit enough?
It seems a ludicrous question to ask of a squad that is cared for by sports scientists, data analysts and those whose sole remit is to ensure the players are super-fit, but from the outside looking in the answer appears ‘no’.
Without the ball some appear sluggish, lethargic and ‘blowy’, all of which I’m sure can be refuted by reems of statistics and data on the players individual fitness levels. But, whatever the reason, there’s often a lack of bite and sharpness, particularly late on in games. Perhaps it’s again in the mind.
Either way, there are questions to be asked as to why we rarely finish a game on the front foot.
Where’s the bottle?
Another ludicrous question to be asking of a team that sits in the Championship’s play-off places. But unfortunately last night was another excruciating example of the Canaries wilting when mental toughness, doggedness and bloody-mindedness were the order of the day. And again it appears something that’s permeated the whole squad.
Garry Monk, who knows a thing or two, would have been drilling into his troops the fragility of this City team and been reminding them that if they could stay in the game they’d, at some stage, be able to ‘get at’ their opponents. And they did. And it’s something that every Championship manager will have identified.
To use a cricket analogy, City are ripe for a bit of sledging. They buckle.
Quite how a fragile mentality can be turned into one that’s robust I’m not sure – it tends to be intrinsic in the individual – but now’s a good time for the sports psychologists to earn their keep.
Finally…why are we so cr@p at penalties?
To some this may have the feel of a rant – and I apologise for that (it is) – but it feels like the season’s, perhaps prematurely, approaching a tipping point. The ship is rocking a little right now and needs to be steadied while we’re still in touching distance of the Toon.
Toxicity is never far away at this club and I’d hate for it to spill over – no-one’s the winner when that happens – but the best way to keep a lid on it is to see some remedial actions (maybe just ‘remedial tweaks’ are needed) to address some of the all-too-obvious failings.
To jog along as we are won’t be sufficient for a promotion push.
Oh, and if the players would care to thanks their supporters, many of whom had made a 340-mile round trip to cheer their team on, rather than slope off like petulant children that would be good. Fans have feelings too.
But, amongst it all, there was one positive. Louis Thompson again showed that he’s ready for a Championship start with another eye-catching display, and is breathing down the neck of, in particular, Master Tettey.
And. in truth, I’d happily swap defeat last night for a win against Leeds next Saturday.
So maybe there is still light, especially if we could go to Brighton on Saturday and win… with a clean sheet.
Just imagine that.
“On the Ball City…”