Alex Neil faces his old club for the first time this season as he brings his Stoke City side to Carrow Road.
Since his appointment on the 28th August, it’s been a mixed bag for the Scotsman. In his opening 10 fixtures, the Potters have been unable to find any sort of consistency but have picked up three wins against Hull City, Sheffield United, and the defensively resolute Preston North End – all teams Dean Smith has been unable to beat this year.
However, the visitors head into this fixture off the back of two consecutive home defeats against Rotherham United and Mark Robins’ Coventry City. Neil, in his post-match press conference, cited ‘fine margins’ as some of the key components to his side’s current shortcomings.
With a squad littered with talent, Neil will be hoping to be the Halloween villain as he aims to upset the home support who once adored him. This may be an easier task than initially anticipated given the whirlwind of problems Smith and his Norwich City side are causing themselves at the moment.
The narrative really is building that the Scot could be the man to drill the final nail into Dean Smith’s Norwich City coffin.
Make no mistake, this is an absolute must-win for Smith if he is to garner any momentum whatsoever heading into the Qatar World Cup break in November.
After a truly eye-opening performance against a vibrant and galvanised Burnley side midweek, it feels like this City group under Smith appears unsure of who they are and what they are trying to do while on the pitch.
There seems to be no coherent plan both in and out of possession and a shoehorning of a great Championship and Premier League striker in Teemu Pukki in a system and style of play that suppresses his strengths and often leaves him fending for himself.
In Josh Sargent they have a man who’s looked reborn since his season-opener against Huddersfield back in August, looking much more confident, sharp, and composed in front of goal, yet despite his excellent showings down the middle, he is consistently being stifled on the right of the three behind Teemu.
Creatively in possession, it feels completely shot. In Cantwell (0), Sinani (3), Dowell (3), Hernandez (1), Ramsey (3), Nunez (2), and Sara (2) we have a combined total of 14 goal contributions with just five of those contributions being actual goals.
It’s the exact same issues that Smith highlighted last season as a key area in which he wanted to improve upon – goals and creative support from midfield – and he simply hasn’t.
For me, it goes deeper than just the black-and-white goals and assists. The creative players listed above possess the same damning trait – despite their evident on-the-ball talent, they drift in and out of games far too easily. We know the creativity is there but, for some reason, we are only seeing it in small bursts.
Is this a wider indictment of the creatively stifling football Smith has conjured up so far this season? There is most definitely an argument to be made.
The stark contrast between the footballing styles of both Burnley and Norwich on Tuesday night were there for all to see.
One looked vibrant and refreshing, the other looked stale and aimless. The concept of dropping balls into the channel continually for Pukki to feed off just shows how far the footballing philosophy the club once held has dissipated.
One area in which Neil will look to exploit will be the growing disconnect between the supporters and the club, and the minor tilt it will take for it to turn toxic. He will know if he can get his side to control the game early and be in the ascendancy, it won’t take much for the atmosphere to turn.
This disconnect has only been fuelled further as a result of the club Finance Director Anthony Richens’ comments regarding the fan atmosphere at Carrow Road and dismissing the notion that there is a disconnect based on the high home and away attendances this year.
Essentially he is saying that there have been times when, in his opinion, the fans at home games haven’t ‘been there’ for the players when they’ve needed them. Another worrying take from someone in a position of power at the club.
Comments like these from people high up in the club on the official channels make you wonder if these aren’t just individual opinions but more a collective opinion held by those at the club. This further pushes the narrative that those at the club just aren’t seeing what we fans are week in and week out at the moment.
But regardless, it’s a good opportunity against recently struggling opposition to get our season back on track after a difficult period. There are evident weaknesses to be exploited in this Stoke City side, but it’s just a question of whether we finally see Dean Smith and his players coherently exploit them.
My score prediction: Norwich City 1-1 Stoke City.
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