After the Hull defeat, I tweeted something along the lines of if Norwich fans were going to react so badly every time they lost, it would be a very long season indeed. But having gone to see them in the flesh for the for the first time this season on Saturday, I do think there are causes for concern. Yes, Norwich came up against a very good Spurs side, full of expensive players bought with the Gareth Bale money. But two seasons ago Elliott Bennett scored the winner at White Hart Lane, and last year, Snodgrass (and more on him later) announced his arrival on the Premier League Stage with a fantastic performance in a creditable draw. Meanwhile, NewSpurs had clearly yet to gel as a team, and hadn’t scored in open play this season. There was an opportunity to get something from the game. So why didn’t they?
It is, of course, easy to say this with hindsight. But Tottenham dominated Norwich in midfield, in large part because the Canaries played, for all intents and purposes, a straight 4-4-2. This was bizarre, given that Hughton has been slowly but surely introducing Norwich fans to the delights of 4-5-1 – a formation that can be attacking if used properly. Which it often isn’t for Norwich, isolating the striker, but that’s another story.
Elmander, to my eyes, picked the ball up in midfield about once, and then ran down a blind alley with it when a break was on. Surely, this was a game for Howson to play as the link midfielder, dropping back when the going got tough – which it often did – and providing an out ball when we gained back possession.
But then, this revealed another of the problems inherent in Hughton’s sides from last season – he doesn’t rotate the squad. I’m a firm believer that a lot of our problems in the shocking run came from playing the same side week-in, week-out: not only did it tell the squad players they probably weren’t going to get a game, it didn’t put pressure on those in possession of the shirt. With some of the signings we’ve made this season, he can’t do that if he wants to keep a happy ship.
How the game panned out
After the game, Hughton hailed a “midfield masterclass” from Spurs. So why on earth didn’t he do something about it while the game was going on? It wouldn’t have been ideal to push Elmander into one of the wide positions, but in the first half when Spurs were pinging the ball about everywhere, five minutes with Snodgrass or Redmond in the middle of the park, closing down their men and breaking up play, wouldn’t have hurt.
And if not that, other teams’ wingers swap sides when they’re not getting any joy, so why don’t ours? They’re playing on the ‘wrong’ side anyway. It gives the impression that Norwich aren’t dynamic or reactive enough when things aren’t going their way.
But it was the second half choices which were so poor. Hughton said something along the lines of when it’s 1-0, you’re still in the game, but everyone could see that unless something changed, Norwich weren’t, really. Everyone will have their opinions on what should have been done, but there were a multitude of options at half-time that would have at least sent out a signal of positive intent. Pilkington for Snodgrass, with Redmond moving to the right. Howson for Elmander – as I said, not necessarily a defensive move. Tettey for Johnson, who was on a yellow and having an awful game anyway.
Instead, Norwich did nothing, quickly went 2-0 down, and that was obviously that.
Understanding the fans
We were going to lose the game. But it was the substitutions on 76 minutes which were really depressing, and basically said we would defend a 2-0 defeat. If Hughton had brought on Hooper for Elmander, Norwich still would have lost. It may have been 3 or 4. But again, it would have given the fans something to get excited about, a multi-million pound striker on debut, it may have given Norwich a bit more forward impetus, and, well, it would have just alleviated the utter, crushing boredom that is, currently, watching Norwich away. Hooper, in his press conference when he signed, even said he could play ‘in the hole’ if needed, and he couldn’t have done a worse job at that role than Elmander.
But no. Maybe he didn’t come on because Hughton didn’t want to risk him, in which case, why was he on the bench anyway. And it also suggests that the manager thought the game was lost – with 18minutes to go, including injury time. Depressing.
Sometimes, Hughton doesn’t help himself in this regard.
Of course, it’s not all the manager’s fault by any means. In both the away games, Norwich have played dreadful football. When Fer first got hold of the ball in midfield in any kind of space, he stroked a lovely crossfield ball… straight to one of Spurs’ attacking players. Johnson had one of those games when his ‘journey’ to the Premier League is all too apparent. The two central midfielders are key in a 442 and they were awful.
What was interesting was how high Spurs pressed – on a number of occasions, when Whittaker would usually expect to have time to find a pass to a midfielder, he had three players closing him down. It meant that Norwich’s passing was loose (although often the midfielders didn’t make themselves available) to say the least. And yet when Norwich did manage to break through the Spurs midfield, there was definitely room to exploit because they were playing so high up the pitch – only the wrong decision was made nearly every time.
To me, the Norwich players looked stressed on the ball – that’s the best way I can describe it. No-one looked comfortable or composed. It’s pure speculation but I wonder whether some of that is because they are so worried about either losing the ball or the rigid shape. It was also worrying that they seemed a yard slower than Spurs.
Snodgrass got booed. Probably out of sheer frustration to be honest – he’s not playing well and he will keep diving when in good positions, which referees and linesmen have got wind to. Hughton said ‘these are a good team’ about Spurs, as he does about every side he comes up against. And there is the sense, repeated again and again, that Norwich fans don’t want to hear about the qualities of everyone else, they want to see that their team have some belief that they can impose some of their own skills on the opposition. Which, tellingly, is almost exactly what John Ruddy said after the game.
On the journey home, 606 – which is hardly the epitome of football sense, but anyway – discussed whether you’d rather have your team in the Premier League and bored, than in the Championship or League 1. This is a discussion that more and more Norwich fans are having. Of course it’s great to pit wits against the very best. But Norwich, away from home, don’t do that. They set themselves up not to get hammered. And that’s, really, not very much fun when a ticket is nearly £40. It’s impossible not to see away attendances dropping off – and the pressure on winning home games increasing – unless the team is a bit more free to express itself, and the tactics are more fluid based on the circumstances of the game.
It’s not like there’s an expectation to win these games now. But it would be nice to think we could at least compete in them.