In the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2-0 win against Wolves last night, Mikel Arteta was asked the reason for his team’s outstanding start to the season. His reply was obvious, yet telling.
”The unity… from the top of the club through to every single member of the team and the staff”.
Something that, right now, we can only dream of.
Okay, so we’re a very different animal to Arsenal, and they themselves have had more than their fair share of in-house turmoil, but Arteta’s description of a vibrant, bouncing Emirates, which is fully behind a club that’s at ease with itself, is a million miles away from the current version of Norwich City.
Conversations I had on Friday and pre-match painted a rotten picture. Of a club that’s hunkered down, that’s pulled the coaches in close and which regards the outside world as the enemy.
“You are either with us, or against us” is the new “ignore the noise”. An organisation that’s more Dominic Raab than community-friendly.
Only if things are going well on the pitch can such situations be either ignored or temporarily swept under the carpet. Wins are the great footballing healer but when armed with (on paper) one of the stronger squads in the division and you’re on a run of two in ten, then it’s all laid bare.
This appears neither a club nor a team comfortable in its own skin. The only glimmer we have at the moment is Team Attanasio, which appears keen and willing to increase its involvement going forward.
But in the here and now, the Dean Smith project continues to stumble along in its own inconsistent and uninspiring way. Teams continue to find us easy to play against and any steps forward are quickly negated with dropped points and defeats, invariably from winning positions.
That yesterday’s game was lost from not only a winning position but one that contained City’s best footballing spell of the season somehow makes it worse. As does the fact we can all vividly recall the few really good spells of football we’ve watched since the start of the campaign.
With a squad that’s proven itself capable of playing some good stuff, that these spells occur infrequently and it all falls apart so readily should ring alarm bells with the club’s executive committee and the board.
It won’t. But it should.
And that this group is unable to consistently produce the levels of which they’re capable has to be a failure of management and coaching. Has to be.
And then there’s the other question…
Has Smith created a team that’s, at the very minimum, equal to the sum of its parts?
We all know the answer… even those who remain supporters of Dean Smith.
Let’s not take anything from Boro though. They were good yesterday. In a very short space of time, Michael Carrick has rid them of any lingering vestiges of Wilder-ball, and they looked bright, breezy, full of energy, and very well organised.
Even in that 20-minute spell when they were under the pump, they refused to buckle or lose their shape and always looked dangerous on the break. But for most of the game, they didn’t have to rely on playing on the break.
For long spells, Boro enjoyed controlled possession and based on a solid game plan, used the full width of the pitch and tested City’s fullbacks. For most of the first half, both Sam McCallum and Max Aarons held firm but in the second the cracks started to appear.
But at halftime, most of us were reasonably satisfied. While Boro had had some promising spells, especially early on, it had been a performance of promise that contained some equally promising individual performances – most notably from Aaron Ramsey.
It felt like a game we could and probably should win.
But when it goes wrong under Smith, it *really* goes wrong. They don’t just drop off one or two beats, they disappear off the edge of a cliff. Heroes to zeroes in the space of a halftime team talk.
And those who have played the game will recognise all too well how hard it is to raise your level when it’s plummeted so far. Usually, something out of the ordinary has to happen to reignite you or the coach makes personnel changes that alter the dynamic of the match.
Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow became just plain slow. No desire, limited movement, no tempo, as if the turf in the centre of the pitch has been swapped for quicksand – but only for our players. Boro continued to fizz and zip and play with total abandon.
When McGree lashed in that brilliant equaliser, the only surprising thing was quite how much time and space he was afforded.
From there, seldom did it look and feel as if City would go on to win the game although, in truth, it did look as if we’d ridden out the Boro storm and claimed a point.
But when so many dangerous crosses are whipped across the face of your goal, there’s an inevitability about one eventually finding the back of the net.
And from there, we huffed and puffed, missed a couple of presentable chances, but mainly relied on hoofing it long to the head of either Jordan Hugill or Grant Hanley in the hope of a fortuitous knock- down.
If he were to depart stage left during the World Cup break (he won’t), that would be my enduring memory of Smudger-ball. Hoofing it long and hoping.
As ever, Dean Smith’s post-match analysis was spot on. “Inconsistent” … “dropped off” … “lethargic” … “we stop after losing the ball” … “contributed to our own downfall”.
All of this is right and would be considered perceptive were they not the words of the head coach whose job it is to stop all those things from happening.
My big take from that is that spotting problems are one thing; finding a way to rectify them is completely different. And that the same problems have occurred since the start of the season, some since last November, suggests to me that he doesn’t know how.
If I were Stuart Webber, that would bother me.
But, there’s not even the slightest hint that Smith and Shakespeare’s positions are in any jeopardy.
With those coaches pulled in so tight, those, like me, who question the status quo are deemed nothing more than makers of trouble. And so they carry on – those in the inner sanctum versus the world.
And there’s also that thing about getting out there as soon as possible and getting defeat out of the system, which in the Championship is usually only ever a couple of days away. Well, let’s try 28.
What a mess.