Wanted: a new backbone

Norwich’s struggles have been blamed on plenty of things this season. But Jon Rogers has his own theory for City’s predicament: a theory involving chess, bogs, bathroom cabinets, Big Sam and one very important missing ingredient – a settled spine

This chap has been missed in Norwich's spine

This chap has been missed in Norwich's spine

When the Sunderland fans shook in utter disbelief and joy as Jermaine Defoe put their team in the unfamiliar situation of being 2-0 up away from home, there was a silent and almost dignified acceptance by myself that we had well and truly buggered this season right up the arse. Right up.

We don’t do comebacks under Alex Neil. Our last one was verses Blackburn in February last year, and even that took a wonder goal from Bradley Johnson (£8m – haha) so I’m resigned. I was worried before the season, worried during the season and, with four games left, we’re pretty much set up for a very humbling and tricky return to the ChampyWampy™. I’ve decided to call it ChampyWampy™ as it makes it seem like a pleasurable, happy place where dreams are made. Not the hell-hole of mediocrity where 95% of the Snakepit demand a 5-0 triumph every game. So, ChampWampy™.

Big Sam, for all his used-car salesman conduct and ill-fitting clothing, did a real job on us. A proper experienced Premier League manager job on us. The sort of job your dad used to do putting a bathroom cabinet up. Loads of swearing and peculiar methods involving superglue, but it somehow comes off all right in the end.

That man has danced with some pretty awful styles of football over the years and has waved his baton of meat pie and shite at his orchestra of average, but boy does he have a knack of clawing points out of teams in a way we just can’t seem to.

Since Allardyce was appointed in October, Sunderland have picked up 27 points from 25 games. In that time, Norwich have earned 22 points from 26 – a win on Saturday would have meant we’d have had more points in the same period. So the difference isn’t that great. But where Sunderland have excelled is against the teams around them. Under Sam, which is an awful thought, they’ve beaten us, Palace, Villa, Swansea and drawn with Newcastle, Bournemouth and, again, Palace. That’s 15 points from their relegation rivals, while we’ve picked up nine points with wins over Swansea, Villa and Newcastle – but we’ve also handed three points to Newcastle, Villa, Bournemouth, Swansea, Palace and Sunderland (those defeats, by the way, add up to a 16-2 loss).

Depressed? Good. Let’s keep going. So why haven’t we been able to match that? Well, it’s pretty universally known that there is a real inconsistent streak in the current Norwich side. The Premier League is a bitch to play in for the financially restricted, but for every momentum-building result we’ve pulled off this season, we’ve followed it up with one which would make the average Aston Villa fan slightly vomit in their own mouth.

There are a few theories to this inconsistent behaviour. Too many mistakes. Players don’t want it. Wrong signings. Bad referees. Carrow Road built on an ancient Indian burial ground. And of course the old one – Neil is actually Marcus Evans' evil twin brother. We’ve heard them all. Bored of hearing them.

The mistakes conundrum, which Neil is justly reminded of weekly either by his clumsy players or a prodding journalist, has been well documented. But this continued lack of performance, when we’ve been faced with imperative yet very winnable games, has been a plate-sized cold-sore that just won’t go away.  

So, let’s do an Andre Wisdom on the subject: clumsily tackle it straight on, with no real positive outcome.

My own theory is that the inconsistency comes from the constant and unnecessary fiddling with the most important part of a successful team: the backbone, or what myself and other knobs like to call it, the spine. Neil seems to mess about with the four players who make up the spine – goalkeeper, central defender, central midfielder, striker – but they are the ones who should be the first on the team sheet each week to grow structure and stability. The issue is our spine has been manipulated more times than an average day in a massage parlour, but with a lot less happy endings.

Let’s take Leicester and Tottenham’s spine and their league starts this season, following Spurs’ win over Stoke on Monday…

Kasper ‘My dad’s a goalkeeper too’ Schmeichel – 34
Robert ‘Steel Shithouse’ Huth – 33
Danny ‘I CAN PASS A BALL’ Drinkwater – 32
Jamie ‘Steptoe’ Vardy – 34
133 appearances in Leicester's spine.

Hugo ‘Harmless’ Lloris – 33
Toby ‘Norwich? LOL’ Alderweireld – 34
Eric ‘Bigger Arse than Lampard’ Dier – 33
Harry ‘Norwich? LOL’ Kane – 34
134 appearances in Tottenham's spine.

Norwich’s spine verses Sunderland?
John ‘He’s Not Worth it’ Ruddy – 23
Seb ‘I CAN DRIBBLE NOW’ Bassong – 28
Gary ‘Scarred for Life’ O’Neil – 15
Dieumerci ‘I’m Too Scared to Say Anything Bad’ Mbokani – 14
80 appearances in our spine. Over 50 fewer than the best two teams in the country.

Coincidence? Maybe. Better players? Of course. But I don’t think a single person connected to the club – fan, player, board member or even management – knows the answer to the question: what is Norwich’s first-choice team? 

There is a very good counter argument about not keeping players in the side if they are constantly producing poor performances, and I agree with it. You can’t wait until the player to click – we don’t have the time or patience, but that is kind of the point of a spine. You know you’re going to get a 7, 8 or 9 out of 10 performance out of them every game. Basically, exactly what Timm Klose was producing before his knee popped.

It’s not easy, and it’s not a quick and simple change, but throughout the season it’s been clear that Neil likes to put players into his team when he knows, or hopes, they’ll be most effective against certain threats and weaknesses. That means tinkering. Prodding and pushing players about like chess pieces on an ice-rink.

We’ve been unlucky with injuries (a lot less than Bournemouth, I might add) with Klose and Alex Tettey sorely missed. But if you include those two players, it brings the total down to 70 appearances. Even less stability. 

Ruddy and Declan Rudd have both had runs in the team but neither have had a run of point-winning performances. Bassong and Ryan Bennett looked like they had as much coherent rapport as two school-kids made to sing a song in an assembly as punishment for scrapping in the playground. We just don’t know if Klose was available at the beginning of the season. If he was, that’s breathtakingly annoying.

Klose is a perfect example of what we would get with a solid addition to the spine. Add him in and the fans breathe happier. Without him, we fall apart like jelly.

What makes Mr Klose such a miss is that Mr Klose knows that Mr Klose can’t play football very well which, curiously, makes him very good at football. Trying to take four touches that Philippe Coutinho would be proud, while being closed down by two players in your own half, is not a good idea Mr Bassong. Mr Klose knows that. 

Midfield is where we’ve shone but only from players who have been at the club for a bit: Jonny Howson, Tettey and O’Neil have been mostly solid, hard-working and worthy of the Premier League. It’s a little concerning that the majority of midfielders Neil has brought in – Naismith, Jarvis, Andréu, Mulumbu, Dorrans – haven’t made any sort of a positive dent in the side.

As for the strikers, with Mbokani and Cameron Jerome being roughly similar – tall, strong and trying to be direct – our only other outlet is Billy Bobby Bamford. But he was so brutally abused after his performance against Crystal Palace that he was probably scared to make the bench on Saturday in case someone from the City Stand tried to batter him to death with a Thermos flask. Personally, I think the real reason people were so upset with Bamford at Selhurst wasn’t his half-hearted display – it was the fact that maybe we had to admit that Alan Pardew was right.

The simple fact is that, we haven’t turned up in most of the important games. Having that consistent spine may have helped us nick a win when the performance was lacking. As it is, we have to play phenomenally each match to get something, and that just isn’t sustainable. It’s like we’re slowly sinking in a bog, and every now and then a Swansea, Bournemouth or Crystal Palace leg wanders a tad too close to our reach and even though we grab hold of their shoelace and start to pull them into the stinky mud with us, we allow them to easily scamper away into the sun, giggling like a drunk monkey.

Overall, from June to the end of August, we failed. The summer and winter windows should have brought a whole new spine to the club. One that was full of quality, promise and pace. We tried. But we failed.

That was the priority and will remain the priority. This summer, if we’re in the PremyWemby™, or ChampyWampy™, the only way forward is to show a lot more backbone.

You can follow Jon Rogers at @BigGrantHolt

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