Dean Smith was right in saying that last night’s performance was not dissimilar to those we put in during the nine-game unbeaten run.
But that’s part of the problem.
The performances during said run were okay for a few parts of a few games, but were generally accepted as being uninspiring, tepid, and disjointed.
It was also widely accepted that for the season to progress as we wanted, it would need to be a case of performance levels catching up with results.
They haven’t. The opposite is true.
Performance levels have remained the same and are now being matched by results. The get-out-of-jail-free cards, in the form of flashes of individual match-winning quality, have been used up.
And now we’re in a proper muddle.
During the run of good results, we played sides who are now, 21st, 14th,12th,15th, 24th, 11th, 20th, 19th, and 9th, and we haven’t beaten a side who are currently in the top ten.
It doesn’t take forensic analysis of the data to identify the direction of travel.
But it’s worse than that. It’s joyless. Dispiriting. Soulless.
The faces around Carrow Road are glum. No one expects to be entertained. We turn up in hope but with no expectations. And sure enough…
This is just not working.
The football is stodgynessabounds (one for the kids). It doesn’t flow. It’s tippy-tappy in the extreme. And, more importantly, it rarely produces an end result.
As you may know if you’ve read this column before, I’m far more tolerant of the sideways and backward passing than many of my River End brethren because I enjoy possession-based football, but there has to be a purpose to the patience and tippy-tappying.
When the slow, laboured, passing-by-numbers produces the grand sum of zero then it becomes pointless.
The idea is that by shifting it patiently, occasionally switching play and injecting tempo, you shift the opposition’s banks of three, four, or five sufficiently to eventually work a gap or an opening.
But soooo laborious and slow was last night’s passing, especially in the first half, Luton were able to defend it easily. Very easily. No overloads down either flank, no centre-backs being pulled out of position, no City runners getting in behind.
Nothing. One shot on target in 47 minutes.
Yet the second half managed to be even worse.
The loss of Josh Sargent due to injury took away City’s only genuine goal threat, with the service to Teemu Pukki so lacking in quality, the Finn joined the rest of us in looking fed up, dispirited, and accepting of defeat.
The personnel changes didn’t work either, nor did the tweaks in formation, and only the energy and desire of Onel Hernandez injected anything different into the game.
The sending-off of Kenny McLean may or may not have been harsh – although elbowing a defender in the head in full view of the referee is never going to end well – but it didn’t impact the outcome.
If anything, things marginally improved when down to ten as the game lost structure and players were reduced to trying things ‘off the cuff’ – the only way we were ever going to create a chance.
But by then we were a goal down and the massed ranks of Luton defenders had swelled in number.
Carlton Morris took his chance well and the couple of stepovers that left Grant Hanley for dead following the initial error from Ben Gibson, were a lesson in how to create a yard of space in a crowded penalty area.
It felt inevitable that either he or Cameron Jerome would score, but when he did, I doubt there was a person inside Carrow Road who genuinely believed we were going to get back in that game.
Even when presented with eight minutes of injury time, they didn’t have it in them to create a chance worthy of the name. If Luton were expecting the Alamo in a final, frantic throw of the dice, they’d have been pleasantly surprised that it never came.
Apathy and resignation in the crowd is one thing, but you don’t expect to see those same traits in the players in injury time when they should have been throwing the kitchen sink at the Hatters in search of a late leveller.
Something feels wrong.
While I’ve never been especially keen on jack-in-the-box managers, like Nathan Jones, who trawl on the edge and beyond of the technical area and who kick every ball, it does give off a certain energy to their players. It’s no coincidence that his Luton team plays with vigour and enthusiasm.
Dean Smith, meanwhile, generally stands arms folded and calm, even in the face of a rotten, lack-lustre performance, only breaking from character when challenging the officials.
While not intended as a direct criticism – there is no right demeanour for a coach – when things are going horribly wrong, as they are now, I’m not sure calmness and thoughtfulness give off the right vibe when this group is underperforming so badly.
The days of flying teacups and hairdryers have probably gone but the lack of edge and apparent jeopardy in that dressing room must have contributed to a malaise for which there is no obvious solution.
As things stand, it’s hard to fathom what Smith and Shakespeare’s plan is in terms of creating goalscoring chances. I refuse to believe there isn’t one, but whatever it is, it isn’t clear and is certainly not working.
This group of players may not be of a 2020-21 quality, and on paper is not as good as Burnley or Watford in my view, but certainly has enough quality to produce more than it is at the moment.
The class of 2018-19 was infinitely greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The class of 2022-23 is the opposite. And that so many players are performing below their optimum level is also on the coaching staff.
Since Smith’s arrival, it’s hard to find an example of a player who has improved under his coaching, aside perhaps from Sargent – but is that improvement down to him now playing against Championship and not Premier League defenders?
Either way, there are several whose progression has either stopped or gone in reverse.
Quite where we go from here I’m not sure, but with trips to Sheffield United and Burnley to come and the possibility of two more defeats, let’s hope Stuart Webber is not too distracted by the ongoing interview process at Stamford Bridge.
When the only excitement at Carrow Road comes in the form of a mediocre light show and a few pyrotechnics, then you know something is wrong.
And it really is.