Last week I said ‘what a difference a week can make’ in a positive light. This week I could say the same, but with very different connotations.
City’s 2-1 home loss to Sheffield United feels like a line in the sand for a large proportion of fans, with many now seemingly waiting for relegation to be confirmed.
It’s been a real rollercoaster in the last couple of weeks. We’ve celebrated victory at Everton and came away from Goodison Park with a clean sheet. A draw against a lacklustre Arsenal followed. In truth Norwich could have won the game and probably deserved to; things appeared to be moving in the right direction.
Then the first half at St Mary’s happened.
City failed to get going, conceded two goals and essentially gifted Southampton a two-goal head start in a crucial game at the foot of the Premier League table, before eventually responding in the second half.
Norwich faced an aggressive press during that first half against Saints – something Daniel Farke admitted the team had worked on in the build up to the game, but there was not a lot of evidence to suggest so.
With City struggling to string a set of passes together, there was a visible lack of cohesion, courage and craft to play around the Saints’ press; something they have looked capable of in other games this season, with Man City, in particular, springing to mind.
The other obvious dangers Southampton presented were individual threats – Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse, both of whom rose to the occasion. The first Saints goal was a culmination of both threats and City failing to deal with either.
The first mistake was giving away a foul in the defensive third, tactical suicide in terms of giving a dead-ball specialist an opportunity to deliver a ball into the box. Over the course of a game you are likely to give away a dangerous freekick, but the way Todd Cantwell gave away the foul by grappling with Ward-Prowse was reckless.
As you would expect, the ball in was a dangerous one, so dangerous in fact that it allowed Ings to nod the ball past Tim Krul to put the Saints 1-0 up after just 22 minutes. Norwich, in their usual zonal setup, had the chance to deal with the cross, but Kenny McLean misjudged the header at the near post and then Ings got to the ball ahead of Ben Godfrey – an easy finish for a man in form.
Shortly before the half-time break Southampton were 2-0 ahead, Ward-Prowse with another good delivery – that much was expected – but the way in which Shane Long beat both Christoph Zimmermann and Godfrey to the header was unexpected and shouldn’t be happening.
Nonetheless, Long flicked the ball on for Ryan Bertrand who had made a run to the far post and, unmarked, tapped the ball over the line. Ibrahim Amadou was none the wiser to Bertrand’s movement and it again highlighted Norwich’s susceptibility at set pieces.
While they responded to a certain extent in the second half, with Pukki pulling a goal back with a clever finish, City essential gave Southampton a two-goal head start, and this is in a crucial relegation six pointer.
Returning to Carrow Road, City needed to respond to that lacklustre performance and when Alex Tettey smashed home the opening goal an upset looked to be on the cards, despite how poor Sheffield United looked in the first half.
It was clear that Chris Wilder was going to plug in the hairdryer at half time – Farke said post-match that he and the team had talked about the prospect of a response from Sheffield Utd at half-time – and as predicted the Blades responded emphatically, turning the score line around in just seven second-half minutes.
The first was via the head of Enda Stevens, who out-thought and out-fought Max Aarons at the far post after a cross from fellow wing-back, George Baldock. This was the first goal City had conceded from open play for 357 minutes, since the second Watford goal.
It’s a stat that on first reading sounds quite impressive, but since that Watford game Norwich have conceded four goals from set pieces – admittedly one was from the penalty spot – and that’s in just two games when you consider City kept a clean sheet at Goodison Park.
The second Sheffield United goal was fired home by George Baldock, selling Mario Vrancic with a body feint in the process. Tim Krul will be frustrated he didn’t keep the shot out, but he has kept us in games countless times this season.
Let’s not forget the Southampton and Sheffield United results come off the back of a really positive week for Norwich, having beaten Everton and battling to a draw against Arsenal.
City are currently shooting themselves in the foot. After the endeavour we saw in the first half at Carrow Road, all that good work was undone in moments, leaving Norwich’s young team looking shell-shocked and never really mustering a response.
Predicting the outcome of a City game is becoming increasingly hard – you just don’t know what sort of team are going to turn up.
Are we going to take the game to the opposition with a clearly devised game plan, as was the case against Manchester City and Everton? Or are we going to roll over and submit to defeat like we saw in the first half at Saint Mary’s and the second half against Sheffield United?
For all the ability in this team, Norwich seemingly cannot find a balance this season. Once one problem has been solved – for example, conceding in open play – another one presents itself, such as conceding from set pieces.
We all accept that the Premier League presents a steep learning curve for a young team that finds itself ahead of schedule, but if the team aren’t learning from their mistakes it becomes very hard to paint a positive picture.
I’m going to give it a go though.
Norwich only need to finish 17th. ‘Only’ I hear you say – fair point, but City are only four points off 17th place. For my own sanity more than anything I’ve started to look at the league in a different light.
I’ve reached the conclusion that Norwich’s league, if you like, is from 20th to 13th – there is no point looking above that and worrying about results against teams that find themselves above that mid-table position. Teams will interchange positions, some teams will push onto the top half and others will fall in the opposite direction between now and the end of the season, but you can see where I’m coming from.
By my reckoning, the teams in that 20th – 13th bracket are the beatable teams, the inconsistent teams that struggle to put a run of form together, and as a result the future is a little more uncertain for them. These are the teams City need to outperform.
At this moment in time, Norwich are outperforming two teams, the first is one the league table endorses, Watford. Yes they can defend better than City but they cannot score and with Teemu Pukki up top that is something we don’t have to worry about as long as the team can provide him with chances.
The other team is Bournemouth and, while the league table doesn’t back up my thinking currently, they are a club in dire form, with just one win in ten. They too are struggling to score at their usual rate at this moment in time.
For all the money they have spent, Aston Villa – who are currently sitting in 17th place level on points with Southampton – are reachable and very much in the mix. You can include West Ham, Everton and, maybe, Burnley in that too.
Whilst I expect Sean Dyche to navigate Burnley away from the drop, there are teams in and around Norwich who will feel they shouldn’t be there – the outcome of which is customarily to sack the manager or head coach. This is something Norwich won’t do, and the lack of faith other clubs will show in their gaffer could play straight into our hands.
For example – and I admit this is in an ideal world – if Eddie Howe was to leave Bournemouth for either West Ham or Everton, that creates uncertainty at two clubs both directly competing with City to avoid the drop.
If Howe was to leave Bournemouth, they would have to find a new manager and could conceivably continue their descent down the league table. Equally, he could be the wrong appointment for either Everton or West Ham – the grass isn’t always greener – which could result in either of those clubs sliding further towards the relegation zone.
This is of course entirely hypothetical, but my point is that despite the steep learning curve, despite the sometimes-questionable game management of the players and the seemingly constant shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot, there is still a long, long way to go.
Plenty will happen between now and the end of the season, good and bad, but to reiterate, we only need to try and finish 17th. It’s only four points away at the time of writing and is far from impossible.
Keep the faith.