Norwich City landed on their arse against Newcastle. So how does Alex Neil get back up and respond? Dan Brigham wonders if it’s time to tweak the system
What do you when you’ve tripped up on an awkward bit of pavement?
Are you one of those who pretends nothing happened, smoothly adjusting your shirt and putting your hand through your hair as if it was all part of your grand walking plan? Or do you look around madly to see if anyone noticed as your cheeks redden and you can’t quite remember how to walk like a normal human for the next few steps, instead strutting insanely like a Velociraptor drunk on Special Brew? Or maybe you just laugh it off as something that happens to us all and go about your merry way?
How someone reacts to a pratfall can tell you a lot about that person. Are they insecure? Pompous? Able to laugh at themselves? Are they likely to do it again? The same can be asked of Norwich after they went flying headfirst into the pavement against Newcastle. How will they react to their fall? Will they bounce back and brush it off as one of those things that happen to clubs like them? Will they bury their heads in the sand and try and convince everyone it never happened? Will they learn from it and tread more cautiously?
Norwich weren’t walking along the pavement against Newcastle, though. Nope. They were tearing down it in their underpants like they'd just escaped from a Tory MP's sex dungeon, a turbocharged Richard Ashcroft slamming everyone out of the way. They fell hard, and after such a violent fall there is bound to be some scarring. But will the damage be superficial or long-term?
How they react, starting at home against Tony Pulis’s latest incarnation of meat-and-
potatoes football at West Brom, may set the course for the rest of the season.
After the Newcastle defeat, Alex Neil queried his own methods. Like an assassin wondering whether he should maybe cut down on the whole killing thing a tad, Neil appeared to be in a quandary about the merits of his attack, attack, attack policy. Should he carry on encouraging Norwich to play high up the pitch, to push the full-backs into enemy territory, to stick to the principles of always outscoring the opposition? Or should he cede a bit of ground to pragmatism? Should he try and grind out wins?
Well, firstly, despite there being something disconcertingly Neil Adams-esque about the way the midfield and defence poured forward on Sunday like they’d spotted a knock-down television in the Black Friday sales, Neil is more pragmatic than his predecessor or, indeed, Norwich’s last gung-ho Scottish manager, Paul Lambert. Neil likes to keep things tight in the first half; adventurous, sure, but also tight.
His principles have worked well so far; abandoning them at the first sign of panic would be an error. Norwich are a constant pest going forward, and only the top five and Southampton have outscored them. With Dieumerci Mbokani – commanding, strong, skilful – looking like he may well be the answer to Norwich's striker problems, it would be madness to abandon those attacking instincts; it's where the individual talents of the squad lay.
Norwich simply haven’t got a good enough defence to eke out 1-0 wins (as Chris Hughton discovered and then, fatally, ignored). So outscoring the opposition is our only road to salvation, and it’s much more fun heading down that road on the back of Neil’s Harley Davidson than on Hughton’s mobility scooter.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tweaks that Neil can make to provide a more solid base in support of Norwich’s attacking instincts.
The full-backs pushing high is an enormous part of what makes Norwich tick – they’ve been a threat (at both ends, arf arf) all season and it was no different against Newcastle. But when they are bombing forward, you can’t also have Seb Bassong and Russell Martin bounding after them like love-sick puppies. This happened far too often under Adams, and it has started to creep back in. Neil needs them more disciplined. He also needs his holding midfielders to offer the back four more support.
With the full-backs pushed up, Alex Tettey usually drops back into defence to help cover, acting as the responsible parent as the excitable full-backs go charging off to play. If the Newcastle defeat showed anything, then it was that against a pacey, powerful midfield, Tettey’s midfield partner also needs to drop further back to prevent the defence from being exposed on the counter-attack. It's a small tweak, and one that will offer more solidity without eroding the attacking instincts.
Whether Graham Dorrans has that in his repertoire isn’t clear – he was stationed too high up the pitch at St James’s Park and bypassed far too easily, regularly leaving Tettey marooned. Jonny Howson may be the more disciplined choice to sit alongside Tettey until Youssouf Mulumbu returns.
Whatever soul-searching Neil did on the way back from the north-east, let's hope the confidence in his methods hasn't been eroded. He might want to take a glance back to the 2011-12 season, when Lambert's attack-minded Premier League newcomers suffered their first hammering, at the (slightly more respectable) hands of Manchester City. How did they respond to this 5-1 defeat? By sticking four past Newcastle in the next game.
So get yourself back off the pavement, laugh it off, keep a closer eye on the cracks and divots and carry on swaggering. There may he further pratfalls ahead, but the road is still heading in the right direction.
You can follow Dan Brigham on twitter at @dan_brigham