Alex Neil likes to keep things simple. But his greatest strength appears to be his ability to adapt and shift his focus. Dan Brigham on a manager who always gets what he wants
There's a good story about Ronnie Kray. When brother Reggie was spending six months in Wandsworth Jail, Ronnie took over the running of their club, Esmeralda's Barn, in Knightsbridge. After a jaunt around Harrods, which boasted it could get anything its customers wanted, Ronnie decided to buy an elephant to spruce up Esmeralda's.
After someone pointed out that an elephant might have trouble getting up the stairs, he instead bought a chimpanzee, dressed it in a shirt and bow tie and placed him at the gambling tables. Whenever it rolled a lucky dice, Ronnie ordered the croupiers to pay out the winnings to the chimp. Even when Ronnie didn't get what he wanted, he got what he wanted.
The story brought to mind Alex Neil. Not that we can compare the Norwich manager to the paranoid schizophrenic murderous thug Ronnie Kray – at least not to Neil's face – but the way in which Neil always thinks Big first, and then finds a clever way to adapt to situations when Big gets out of reach. And the way he always gets what he wants.
Top two was the aim when Neil first arrived at Norwich, and for a giddy couple of months it seemed as if he would achieve it. But then a smash and drab performance from Middlesbrough at Carrow Road shut down those ambitions. Neil shifted his focus. He could no longer get his elephant, so in came the chimpanzee. He changed tact and brought back Nathan Redmond for the play-offs, sat back against Ipswich and held them at bay at Portman Road before cutting them open at home – just as he had set his team up to do. At Wembley he thought big – and this time it worked. He wanted to overrun Boro, score quick goals and then control the game. Hey presto, Neil got himself the elephant.
He thought Big in the transfer window, but missed out on his first-choice targets. So he adapted again, selling Bradley Johnson and replacing him with exactly the kind of player Neil knew – but few fans knew – we needed: a pacy left-winger who can get behind teams. The Premier League requires the ability to keep possession or, increasingly commonly, hit teams with pace on the counter, and Johnson fitted in with neither of those models. Matt Jarvis does, as does Robbie Brady, and on Saturday against Bournemouth they both highlighted the astute thinking behind Neil's summer signings – despite his No.1 targets up-front and in central defence being out of reach.
The way he adapts marks Neil out as a little different to our previous bright, young manager. Paul Lambert's habit of mixing formations and personnel was like a drunk matador at a bullfight (or, indeed, Ronnie Kray in a bar brawl), and it was often hard to fathom the method behind the madness, but the madness would still work regardless; the power of his man-management overriding curiosities in selection.
Neil's method is clear to see, though. And if it’s clear for us fans, it’s definitely clear to the players. He rarely strays from a five-man midfield, full of ball-players shielded by Alex Tettey and complemented by the two attacking full-backs. But he is keen to change it subtly dependent on the opposition: in the Championship he often went without a recognised winger and kept it narrow with Howson right and Johnson left, breaking teams down with movement rather than pace. When speed and directness was needed, Redmond was deployed.
After Norwich were overrun in midfield at Southampton, Neil dropped Graham Dorrans and brought Howson in to the centre from his unfamiliar and ineffective dispatch to the left. While Dorrans’ gift is to keep the game ticking over and keeping possession – effective against a team not looking to shut down space in midfield – Howson is less static. He’s happier putting his boot in, plays more forward passes and is better at driving forward, dragging the opposition with him. Norwich's midfield immediately becomes tougher to dominate.
Now Neil faces one of the Premier Leagues big teams for the first time on Sunday. Does he go elephant or chimpanzee at Anfield? Does he start Wes Hoolahan, sometimes seen as a luxury against the bigger sides? Will Jarvis get a second start or will the more defensively-attuned Brady push up and Martin Olsson come in at left-back? Will the sitting Dorrans come back in ahead of the more attack-minded Howson?
This isn’t the first time Neil has led an underdog against a big side in a top division. Less than a year ago, he took Hamilton Academical to Celtic Park, where his newly-promoted side win 1-0. It was Hamilton’s first victory away at Scotland’s most famous club for 76 years, and it was achieved with a little bit of luck – Celtic missed a heap of chances – but plenty of verve. Hamilton were set up to attack, and attack they did: five in midfield, the full-backs pushing up, and using pace on the counter. Very Neil. He’d thought Big, and got his Big rewards.
On this evidence Norwich may be going full elephant at Anfield, especially against a jittery Liverpool unsure of their method. Even if it doesn’t go to plan, you can be certain he’ll have a chimp waiting to bring in instead to put things right. Because that’s the thing with Alex Neil: even when he doesn't get what he wants, he gets what he wants.
Dan Brigham tweets at @dan_brigham