Alex Neil: bring back the fun

After a miserable afternoon of hoof-ball at Watford, Dan Brigham says it’s time for Norwich to ditch the short-termism and get back to doing the only thing they do well: attack, attack, attack. Otherwise, what was the point of recruiting Alex Neil?

Watford wasn’t fun. It was anti-fun, like when you’re expecting a great night out but Scary Deano turns up and makes you do those shots and takes you to that club with that music, and he doesn't even blink all night. Not once. Just stares.

Because Watford was supposed to be fun, wasn't it. Norwich had played really well last Sunday against Arsenal and suddenly we were all cheery and football was great again, not a horrible drain on our limited reserves of happiness.

And then along came Watford, who we hammered twice last season. Bonus.

Now, you can't expect a guaranteed point or three when you’re away from home. History shows you the mostly likely result is to leave with no points. That's just the way it is. And we're alright with that, aren't we? But only if our team plays well, and you can come away thinking, 'well, we lost, but it was fun'. It’s all part of the ride.

Then the Norwich line-up was announced and everyone was still happy. There's Redders, there's Brady – pace on both wings, nice – there's Dorrans – a bit of tidy possession in the middle of the park, sensible – there's Grabban, and Alex Neil plays Grabban when Norwich like to keep the ball and attack. Brilliant. We might not win, but this is going to be fun.

And then. Well, then it just turned horrible. Like being trapped in a lift with Mr Unhygenic from accounts – the one who always gets a can of deodorant in Secret Santa – we just had to sit there and bear the grimness of it all. Those with eternal hope waited for the fun to start, for that little spark to get things going. But it never came. It never looked like coming.

The previous week, against Arsenal, had felt like a watershed. Neil had found the perfect balance between defence and attack, and everything was going to be ok. We were going to create chances and keep clean sheets. Football was great.

If you bring in a young manager who has been successful playing with a certain philosophy, and want him to build a legacy, you can’t then change that philosophy at the first sign of trouble

Then came the shuffling, the hoofing, the sheer Ipswichness of the whole 90 minutes at Vicarage Road, and the balance was violently transferred back to the defensive side, like an elephant on a see-saw with Wes Hoolahan.

The shift of emphasis to a more defensive team was sensible against Manchester City and Arsenal – against a frail, jittery Chelsea is debatable – but away at Watford? Nah. Being defensive-minded and cautious should be Plan B, not Plan A. Otherwise Norwich may as well have appointed an experienced defensive coach – Chris Hughton was available – rather than bringing Neil in.

Neil is attack-minded. The board knew that. So for Neil to switch philosophy so early in the season, and then talk about making sure Norwich establish themselves in the Premier League before building an attractive style of play, you can't help but think the board have their fingerprints on the change in emphasis. Pragmatic, maybe, but you can't have it both ways: if you bring in a young manager who has been successful playing with a certain philosophy, and want him to build a legacy, you can't then think 'legacy schmegacy' and change that philosophy at the first sign of trouble. Neil was recruited for the long-term health of the club, and it took fewer than 10 games for short-termism to crash into the building with its offers of quick fixes and easy solutions. It's all gone a bit Wonga.

Sure, Watford may have been a blip – they're a tough, tough side to break down at home – and the line-up suggested Neil wanted his team to take the game to Watford, but it's now seven defeats in 10 games for Norwich in all competitions. I don't want to over-analyse that, but, and keep with me here, that is really shit. The sequence includes losses to West Brom, Newcastle and now Watford – with a combined score of 2-9 (which, if you haven't caught yourself doing a little laugh at, probably means you're taking football too seriously).

What does Neil do now? He's tried keeping the same team, he's tried chopping and changing. And still we've lost 70% off our last 10 matches. After 15 games we're four points off where we were in 2013-14 when we were eventually relegated; we're six points behind where we were in the two seasons prior to that. Contexts change from season to season, but that doesn't sound too smart whichever way you look at it. It's got to the stage, already, were you're wasting way too much time staring at your phone and hoping the teams below us are losing. Already.

Let's not be too miserable though. Neil has not become a bad manager. He is very much still a good one, and has shown against Manchester City and Arsenal that he can successfully adapt his style against the bigger teams. But he needs to trust his original instincts. He needs to remember who he is, forget about short-termism and attack, attack, attack against the teams around us. It’s what Norwich’s players are best at (and this is a point which appears to have been forgotten recently: we have good attacking players. So let them attack) and it's what the crowd wants.

If Norwich get relegated playing like that then, well, you know what? That's fair enough. There might be a few Newcastle-style hammerings, but there’ll be drama, goals and fun along the way, with a defensive Plan B tucked neatly up Neil’s sleeve.

But go down playing like they did against Watford? No thanks. Not again.

 

You can follow Dan Brigham on Twitter at @dan_brigham