The Amex Stadium is famous, or perhaps infamous, for being out of town away from any bars and clubs. Norwich City arrived on the South Coast looking to drink in the last chance saloon.
They didn’t find it.
The team selection had more than a whiff of ‘which eleven are fully fit’ about it. At least that is what we must assume. A diamond in midfield with Mathias Normann at the base, Kenny McLean at the tip, Billy Gilmour and Pierre Lees-Melou in the middle can hardly rank as the most threatening or creative City central quartet.
But Milot Rashica and TeemuPukki paired up front at least offered pace and movement. In theory.
As City lined up to kick-off, they were heavily weighted to the right side. Since Dean Smith came in, City have invariably hoisted a long, high ball to the right side for Josh Sargent to win. Without the height of the American, surely they weren’t going to try this again.
They did. And the first of many high balls were won unchallenged by the Brighton defence.
The tone for the game was further set five unremarkable minutes later. City’s first foray out of their own half ended with a truly woeful pass from Rashica.
And thus the tone was continued.
This really was a battle of the mediocre – City were awful. Brighton were less awful. Every time a Brighton attack broke down, City moved out of the defensive third and then conspired to find new ways to give the ball back. One or two slick passes between players in space, followed by giving the ball straight back to the home team. It isn’t even as though Brighton were pressing with intensity.
On 27 minutes, Sam Byram went for a high ball in the box. He was challenged, receiving a forearm to the face for his troubles but inexplicably had his arm high above his head, and managed to claw the ball out of the air. Simon Hooper cold barely disguise his glee, pointing to the spot.
Enter Tim Krul, the usual tricks, and Neal Maupay obliged by blasting his kick over the bar to the delight of the visiting fans.
At halftime, the efforts on goal tally stood at 14 to Brighton, and one lame shot from McLean for Norwich.
The second half at least brought the prospect of a reinvigorated City side, fresh from a ‘hairdryering’, tearing into Brighton.
Alas, no. The sole entertainment was Simon Hooper having to have his mic pack changed, emerging for the second half to ironic cheers and waving to the crowd as if he thought he was some sort of superstar.
Nothing else changed. To be fair, City were at least defending well. Grant Hanley stood out amongst all but one of the City players, winning everything in the air and tackling with a grit and determination sadly lacking from those in front.
The only other stand-out was Tim Krul who saved City with two or three top-quality blocks. Byram, Dimitri Giannoulis and Ben Gibson stuck to their task gamely and as a unit the back four could, penalty aside, at least point to the fact that the majority of Brighton’s chances were long-range efforts blasted high over the bar.
After 60 minutes, Jon Rowe replaced Lees-Melou. Inneffective in the first half, utterly anonymous in the second I’m afraid to say. The formation switched to a 4-3-3 and gradually City began to improve. That is to say, be less bad.
Rowe bought an energy utterly missing from the rest of the team. On 67 minutes his determined run nearly saw him through on goal, a decent late tackle halting his progress. The extra movement and pace also finally bought Pukki to life.
Minutes later, Gilmour managed to find Rowe on the right. He can claim this as a successful pass because unlike most others he made, it actually went to an orange shirt. OK, it was behind Rowe and bounced off his heels but it was probably enough for Chelsea fans to add to their fanboy highlights reel.
On 78 Pukki ran onto a great ball and City found themselves three on two. His cross found the spare man, Rashica. OK, it may have been slightly behind him but his shot ballooned harmlessly, embarrassingly up in the air. City’s best chance of the game squandered.
It was his last action as Christos Tzolis came on to replace him. And then it happened.
A midfield battle. Tzolis used his muscle to shield the ball before playing a pass that found a City player. Possibly the first midfield pass completed under pressure by a City player all game, and certainly the first physical tussle that didn’t end up with a lame concession. Inevitably though, the ball was then given straight back to Brighton only for Pukki, perhaps inspired, to rob the defender and get a shot off towards the Brighton goal.
In the final minutes, City actually managed some sustained pressure in the Brighton half. But that was all. The game could have gone on all night and remained goalless.
People go on about ‘too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League’. I beg to differ. Last season, City had a shape, a style, a purpose. Last time in the Premier League, we had the same style. At least you could see what we were trying to achieve. This season? No.
At the start of this season, the purchases were based around a switch to 4-3-3. It felt like Daniel Farke was never comfortable with this – City were still trying to play possession-based football whilst trying to move the ball forward more quickly.
It wasn’t working. Under Dean Smith, if anything, it has got worse.
The City players look clueless. Long balls lumped to Pukki which he will never win. No width. No plan. A midfield quartet as poor as I can remember for a long time. Normann spent most of the game chasing shadows and pulling at players once they were passed him. But at least he had the odd moment on the ball.
The other three midfielders….anonymous.
I usually like to see a manager given time to build a team, given the benefit of the doubt. Dean Smith has at least bought some defensive solidity, relatively speaking, to City. But other than that, I have seen nothing to warm to. Nothing to give me encouragement that he will perform a miracle next season.
Farke’s first season was mediocre, but at least you could see a direction of travel. So far, under Smith, City only seems to be rudderless and adrift. Please prove me wrong….