Let’s not kid ourselves. That wasn’t the ideal pre-season.
In truth, it’s probably up there with the infamous pre-season of 2014. which included that tour of Italy that was well and truly and in the realms of piss ups and breweries. But this one was nothing to do with poor organisation.
In terms of leaving no stone unturned, this iteration of Norwich City is unlike any other, but a close-season that was on hold for several weeks because of the Euros and then a summer training camp infiltrated by the Covid virus has left us six days away from the big KO against Liverpool feeling seriously unprepared.
No one’s fault. No blame apportioned, but however we try and spin it, that game against the darlings of Merseyside looks an even bigger test right now than it did when the fixtures were first announced.
Yesterday’s 3-0 defeat in Newcastle shouldn’t be used as a barometer of what’s to come any more than the 5-0 win over Gillingham should, but that we concluded our preparation for another crack at the Premier League with a team bereft of six first-teamers – all still completing Covid-related periods of self-isolation – is a pretty rotten scenario.
All of said group should be free to return to the fray tomorrow morning, but at the elite level of sport, those fine margins count, like being 98 percent fit instead of 100. Those tasked with getting this group of players in tip-top physical condition have quite the week ahead.
What’s even more difficult, nay impossible, is to get match fitness into the bodies and minds; something that really can only be done by playing competitive games of football. Maybe there’ll be a hastily arranged behind-closed-doors game at Colney this week, but even if not there’ll be some long, intense shifts ongoing at Colney. That much we can guarantee.
All of which will help and be done scientifically and with precision, but for the likes of Grant Hanley – critical to City’s chances but yet to kick a ball in anger – the need for a Colney miracle cannot be overstated. One could also be handy if the scan on Todd Cantwell’s rolled ankle reveals some ligament damage.
There’s a lot of love out there for Christoph Zimmermann, and with good reason, but watching the way he was twisted and turned yesterday by Dwight Gayle, Allan Saint-Maximin and co was a timely reminder of what an unforgiving and ruthless arena the Premier League is when it comes to exposing under-par centre-backs.
If we are going to be playing a three, that three – based on who we have available right now – desperately has to be Andrew Omobamidele, Hanley and Ben Gibson. On the plus side, it’s great that Gibson has been able to get some game time in the legs and looks set to start against Liverpool.
There was, of course, a positive first-half performance at St James’ Park on which to build, in which City were reportedly the better, more dangerous side in possession, but the sheer volume of absentees in City ranks meant the second half, with the Toon able to rest players and give game time to virtually a whole new team, put a rather different slant to the afternoon.
The Athletic’s Michael Bailey summed Daniel Farke’s predicament up perfectly.
So it was no surprise that City were leggy and out-gunned in that second half, but the concern is that six days is a very short space of time to transform that threadbare 17-man squad into one that is ready for the challenge ahead.
The issue isn’t that we were hammered by a team who are likely to be Premier League strugglers, or that we looked disjointed and a bit too easy to play against, because, as many have pointed out, an indifferent pre-season doesn’t equate to a bad start to the campaign. Neither does a good preseason guarantee that you’ll come flying out of the blocks.
But we are undercooked, no question. The metrics by which the sports science team measures the preparedness of the players will tell them as much. And, crucially, there remains an Oliver Skipp-shaped hole in that midfield just in front of the back three (or four).
Last season’s new-found solidity in defence of course owed much to the arrival of Gibson, who slotted in perfectly alongside a fully fit Hanley, but the crux of it was this sturdy little bloke from Tottenham who could read the game beautifully and who, through energy, tenacity and skill, was able to offer that extra layer of protection that many had tried valiantly to provide but had failed.
Obviously, the ideal scenario would be to persuade Tottenham and Skipp that another tour of duty in Norfolk is needed, but to await the final yay or nay from Nuno Espírito Santo, running the risk that it could be a nay, is a high-risk game of poker to be playing. Maybe it isn’t the case and maybe the club already knows the answer, but still that void remains.
Maybe (before someone in the comments points it out) Jacob Sorensen is the heir apparent to that role but if he is, then he’s had precious little opportunity, through no one’s fault, to hone his skills in that role.
Also before someone points it out, that defensive midfield role changes if City are playing a back three instead of a back four, but still it remains a key position if we are to avoid that hot knife through butter scenario we’ve become so familiar with in the Premier League when we’re under the cosh.
To stand firm and to compete and to be physically and mentally tough when the flak comes is going to be so important if this season is to have a different conclusion to 2019-20.
But, for all my pontificating and navel-gazing, it’s only six days away. Six days before a nearly-full Carrow Road gets to roar in unison for the first time since 28 February 2020. That’s 533 days for anyone who’s not counting.
533 days of being away from our second family. 533 days in which we’ve watched loved ones suffer or have suffered ourselves. 533 days during which some have left us.
Carrow Road will be different when we reunite next Saturday; never the same again. But it will still be Carrow Road.
Liverpool, however hard they try, are not going to spoil it.
My god I’ve missed it.