Alex Neil vs Chris Hughton

The gameplan may have been Hughton-esque on Saturday, but Ben East says the tactics against Manchester City show that Alex Neil has the adaptability and nous to keep Norwich in the Premier League

A left midfielder as a right-sided wing-back in a five-man defence. Two defensive midfielders in the centre. One lone striker. If you were to ask which manager in our recent Premier League excursions had dreamed up that particular formation, Chris Hughton would come top of the list.

But, of course, it was Alex Neil’s plan to thwart Manchester City on Saturday – the man who recently said: “I'm an attacking-minded coach. I was brought here to win games. That won't change. That is how I believe the game should be played.”

What was so impressive about Neil’s approach to Saturday’s game was the thinking that had gone into it. Norwich didn’t simply play the same formation with more defensive players sitting 10 yards deeper. There was a plan to press and pack the areas of the pitch – wide, usually – where Manchester City are the strongest. Kevin De Bruyne had his quietest game in a blue shirt, and even when Norwich went 1-0 down, there was still the sense that they might carve out a decent chance. Memorably, they did. 

Which made John Ruddy’s howler all the more frustrating. Norwich are blessed with a manager who is clearly working day and night to get the best out of his players. He comes up with fascinating schemes to do so – read his interview in The Independent this weekend for an intriguing insight into his tactical plan for Liverpool. And then individuals make stupid errors. There’s little Neil can do about that, apart from drop them and hope the replacements don’t have a rick in them too. 

The game against Manchester City was in stark contrast to 2013 - and by that I’m not talking about the 7-0. Remember the Spurs game? In September 2013, Norwich City arrived at White Hart Lane with expensive new signings Leroy Fer and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel in the side and Gary Hooper on the bench. It looked attacking enough, but by the time they were 2-0 down after 49 minutes, Hughton brought on a load of midfielders – Jonny Howson, Anthony Pilkington and Alex Tettey, took off two attackers (Nathan Redmond and Johan Elmander) and left Hooper to stew on the bench. It was difficult not to surmise he’d basically declared a 2-0 defeat. 

The Everton and Manchester City games showed that the spirit is still willing and that, given a fair wind, Neil can fashion a side who can be a bit more solid without losing their attacking intent

So, last month, when Neil substituted Tettey against Newcastle to go for the equaliser – and possibly a winner – against Newcastle, it was everything Norwich fans had begged for last time they were in the Premier League. Attacking intent, never-say-die spirit, good football. Neil admitted afterwards he’d made a mistake – and he could have left that change another 10 minutes. But isn’t this philosophy exactly what Norwich fans dreamed of, the kind of football when you’re bumbling around in the Championship watching Palace, Swansea or Southampton doing annoyingly well that makes you think: “why can’t we play like that next time we’re in the Premier League?” 

And when Norwich went to West Ham five league games ago, they did play like that. It was a total joy to watch. Another dumb mistake cost Norwich three points. Just to complete the circle, the previous visit to Upton Park under Hughton saw Norwich dominate the game, only for Hughton to settle for a draw, take off Hooper and Redmond... and lose 2-0 after two late goals. 

And that’s the paradox. The people who are getting concerned about Norwich’s approach in October booed Hughton’s Norwich for being too defensive. Neil is getting found out, some have suggested. He’s not getting found out, he’s learning, quickly, that the Premier League is often really, really hard work for a promoted side (which some fans appear to have forgotten). The Everton and Manchester City games showed that the spirit is still willing and that, given a fair wind, Neil can fashion a side who can be a bit more solid without losing their attacking intent. But it may take time.

There are a multitude of reasons to be worried by the post West Ham form, and most seem to spiral out of not being able to attract the likes of Virgil van Dijk. But – and this is absolutely not to get all ‘little old Norwich’ here – face the facts. Norwich don’t have a rich owner, or the desire to get the club into the financial difficulties that nearly spelled the end not so long ago. They have an unproven, relatively unknown manager at the top level. Wages for even loan players are absolutely ridiculous. Southampton finished 7th last season and 8th the year before that. 

Which is not to say that Norwich didn’t have a poor transfer window. But – honestly – how will it help at all between now and January if the fans go quiet (or angry) at the slightest sign of poor form? Norwich got to the Premier League on the back of the greatest performance in a big game they have ever managed. They are playing against the country’s best teams every week and – in the main – doing ok. This season was always going to be hard, but you can bet it’s not as hard as it must be to support the team we played just six years ago on Halloween. While we were nearly getting a point at the Etihad, on Saturday Stockport County lost 1-0 away to Solihull Moors in the Conference North. 

So yes, it’s likely that in the next month Norwich will be in the bottom three. Get over it now before it happens. It may be instructive to note Leicester hit the drop zone on November 3, 2014, and stayed there for an incredible five months. Not doing too badly now, are they? 

Ben East is a freelance journalist and writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @beneast74

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