Alex Neil: two's a crowd

While some fans still want Norwich to play two up front, after the draw against Stoke Alex Neil revealed his thinking behind preferring a lone striker. It was good to hear a Premier League manager be so candid, says Dan Brigham

Last season, Sam Allardyce, with the knowingest of knowing grins and the air of a man who believes he is about to do something incredibly clever, accused Louis van Gaal's Manchester United of playing long-ball football.
Allardyce didn't really mean it. But he knew how the press would react, and react they did. Every newspaper had pieces discussing the legitimacy of Allardyce's claim, as if anyone really believed United had turned into a bunch of hoofers. Like a hippy accused of wearing fashion labels, Van Gaal was aghast at the accusation and, at a press conference, presented the statistical case for his defense. It was a prickly move, and much of the media quickly, and depressingly predictably, depicted Van Gaal as a rather silly foreign clown.
In response, Rob Smyth wrote a good piece bemoaning a certain culture of tabloid football writing which chooses to mock a manager for explaining tactics, rather than be inquisitive and interested.
Some journalists got shirty. A few because they found it absurd that anyone would want to discuss tactics, as if it was a suspicious foreign concept, while some rightly pointed out that questions on tactics do get asked, but are often flat-batted away. After all, why would a manager want to reveal their hand? You wouldn't get Mr Kipling holding press conferences to tell the world about his secret ingredients, because he knows that the residents of Bakewell will be listening in.

It was a gentle, articulate two-fingered salute to those fans – and every club has them – who still believe more strikers will equal more goals

For this reason, most managers don't like talking tactics. So it was interesting to read Alex Neil, post-Stoke, explaining his decision not to introduce a second striker as Norwich searched for a winner, as reported in the EDP.
“I think at that stage, because we were on top and creating chances sometimes to put another striker on means changing the shape and that might mean you lose that dominance in the centre of the park,” he said. “Then what happens is the second striker ends up running back towards his own goal. That makes no great sense.”

This wasn't Neil revealing his secrets. This was a Premier League manager engagingly explaining a few thought processes. It's good for the game; it's good to have someone who is accessible, who can explain tactics without talking down to people or flashing a diamond-white Brendan grin.
Neil's words were also revealing on another level. It was a gentle, articulate two-fingered salute to those fans – and every club has them – who still believe more strikers will equal more goals. There was a caller to Canary Call last season who celebrated Norwich's 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest by attacking Neil for playing only one man up-front. He probably also owns two cars because he thinks it'll get him from A to B quicker.
Well, he and other like-minded fans are going to have to get used to it. From memory, only once has Neil fielded two up-front from the start, when Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban followed a very effective, singular plan and destroyed Watford away. Gary Hooper's apparently imminent departure further emphasises Neil's allergy to playing more than one striker – for all of Hooper's qualities, he very much needs to play in a two. Plus, with Grabban apparently packing his swimming trunks and heading back to the coast with Toblerone smeared around his mouth, Neil's not really going to have much option but to play one up top.
Against Stoke, Norwich's five-man midfield – which often becomes seven when the full-backs push up – dictated the pace and rhythm of the second half. They also created plenty of chances. So why change that?

Thanks to an open, accessible (and pleasingly terrifying when necessary) manager, we now know why he chose not to. The Premier League is already better off with Alex Neil.