There’s a way to lose a football match, and that was not it.
City’s latest poor performance came in the midst of a Covid crisis, upcoming fixture congestion and injuries to key players, but there was little excuse for a showing as submissive and uninspiring as the one they produced in the 5-0 loss to Arsenal.
The Canaries have traditionally struggled on Boxing Day. They’ve never won a festive Premier League fixture and have scored one goal in those games, but a match less enjoyable for City fans to watch would be hard to find, even among that grim sample.
Arsenal’s near-full-strength XI had ample time on the ball, picking pass after pass with as much space as they required and as casually as they liked. Throw in individual errors from Brandon Williams and Ozan Kabak and it felt more like a Halloween horror show than a Christmas cracker.
Head coach Dean Smith summed the performance up, saying: “We have to be better than that, and we are better than that. Unfortunately, the standards have dropped off massively since Manchester United.
“Yes, there are reasons for that but I am not here to make excuses. At the end of the day, Arsenal made better decisions than we did.”
The only semblance of excitement came via spats between Smith and the Gunners’ Granit Xhaka and a similar altercation between Przemyslaw Placheta and Ben White, two instances that briefly captured the Carrow Road imagination before the air was sucked out of the ground upon the visitors’ second soft goal.
Smith ceded that his side has failed to provide the fans with the ammunition they need to create the desired atmosphere. “We want them to keep the faith and give [the players] the belief they need,” he said when asked about the home support, “but we also have to give them something back.
“We have not scored a goal in four games. We are not adrift but performances like that drain the confidence out of everybody. It is my job to make sure it doesn’t and turn this around as quickly as we can.”
Nobody present at Smith’s debut 2-1 defeat of Southampton could’ve predicted this. Where was the intensity from that hopeful afternoon? The creativity? The ability to recover from adversity?
City fans were left with all of these questions and only one conclusion; that the Championship beckons.
For all of the millions of pounds spent this summer and the international players brought in, the squad Smith has to choose from is lacking in quality compared to the group Daniel Farke had last term. Not only have City failed to replace Emi Buendia – their creator in chief and a player in the ‘best ever’ conversation – they’ve lost the midfield steel they gave up when Oliver Skipp returned to Tottenham Hotspur.
Mathias Normann and Milot Rashica are the only players who begin to even threaten to fulfil those roles, and they’re the two most injury-prone individuals recruited in the window. With Todd Cantwell failing to step up and the defence leaking goals at an alarming rate, Norwich look miles away from the dominant side they presented in 2020/21.
Because of the systemic nature of the problems at Carrow Road, the answer also appears so far from being found; it’s feeling increasingly like City have found the ceiling for self-funded clubs in the English football pyramid. There will be various people blamed for the Boxing Day disaster, from Delia Smith down to the players, but none of that will even be processed by the time the Canaries face Crystal Palace tomorrow.
Heading to Selhurst Park, Smith confirmed, will be the same group that lost to Arsenal, with no ill or injured players set to return in time to bolster the squad.
The Premier League machine rolls on and the question becomes how to halt the negative momentum. With such a severe turnaround and a New Year’s day meeting with Leicester City looming on the horizon, there’s little time for Smith to reflect on the problems he’s tasked with solving.
The games are running out in this busy festive period, and City may already be in ‘great escape’ territory when it comes to their chances of survival. If there’s to be a chance of success, a glimmer of hope even, then something has to change.