Was that good? Or was that bad? Dan Brigham looks back at Norwich's draw against West Ham and wibbles on about the return of attacking football, high lines, game-management, Jonny Howson, Nathan Redmond, John Ruddy and the end to tinkering
Attacking football is back
Ah, welcome back. Here's the Norwich I loved under Alex Neil. Still a bit crap, but far more loveable.
For the last few months, other than on a couple of rare occasions, Norwich had turned into a timid, grumpy, boring next-door neighbour. They’d cosied up with Angry Allardyce and Prickly Pulis from down the street, formed a neighbourhood watch, banned the kids from playing fun ball games and started leafleting about noise after 8pm. For a while, young Alex Neil fell under their spell. Now, though, he's stuck two fingers up at them, turned up the music and invited everyone to his party.
The Norwich of last season, of Bournemouth, Stoke, Sunderland and most early-season encounters, was back. High-tempo pressing, quick passing, a slick, interchanging front four, no hoof-ball and a taste for goalscoring. It was by no means perfect – some of the first touches and passing in the first half were rusty (a hangover from the Pulis and Allardyce spell, let's call it) – but, crucially, the passing was brave, and the movement was brave. There was no whacking it long or taking the easy option – this was a side once again trying to thrust their way incisively through the opposition. It was fun. If only we'd gone to Aston Villa with this attitude.
Of course the defence was still shite – we'll come to that – but the meekness and passivity of the last few months had been cast off. The players looked more comfortable and the manager far happier with the system. Neil has said we’re going to stick with this style for the remainder of the season: If we're going down, we're going down fighting.
Two more points thrown away
In the end, though, it was two points dropped. Two times in four home games we've blown two-goal leads, and twice because we’ve been blasted open too easily through the middle.
There was talk that Norwich should have dropped deep, that Nathan Redmond and Wes Hoolahan should have been immediately sacrificed when we were 2-0 up. There is some logic to this, of course. But there was also logic to keeping them on – if your XI retreats 10 yards, then it's pretty handy having Redmond's pace as an outlet and Hoolahan's ability to keep possession, otherwise the ball just keeps coming back at you. Bringing Graham Dorrans on is just plugging a hole with a sieve.
As it was, the high line was fine, and it had worked well for 70 minutes. At 2-0 we dropped five or 10 yards as a team, but it was still pretty high. But, like against Liverpool, too many players overcommitted. It’s stretching things to blame Neil for this: against Middlesbrough we went 2-0 but kept a high line. The difference was that our shape became more solid and, in the words of Neil, our game management was good. On Saturday the shape wasn't kept, and the game management wasn't good. We still bombed forward when we should've been looking to just keep possession. Our inability to switch from all-out attack to all-out possession – as we had against Middlesbrough – cost us, as it had against Liverpool.
However, dropping too deep would've been an invitation for carnage, especially with Andy Carroll on. After all, just look what happened for West Ham's equaliser, where we had about six players near our own goalline. The deeper we got after it became 2-2, the messier we were and the more we looked like that photo from New Year’s Eve in Manchester.
The truth is, whatever line we hold as a team, our back five is likely to be breached.
Howson back where he belongs
It was good to have Jonny Howson back. Too often wasted out on the right – or the left – here he was in central midfield. Getting things ticking. Breaking up attacks. Running with the ball. Doing what he does best.
Throughout Norwich's slump in form, he's been the one player who has kept running, the one player who has kept his standards high. His pre-Christmas loss of form appears, thankfully, to have been a blip. He's back to his best, and back where he belongs. Technically gifted, two-footed, box-to-box midfielders are a rarity, and we're lucky to have him.
While Gary O'Neil was decent on Saturday, the return of Alex Tettey will provide even more energy – and bite – in the centre of midfield (and O'Neil provides a far more solid option off the bench than Dorrans if we need to plugs things up). The Howson and Tettey partnership should have been in place from the start of the season. Now, finally, it may be given a proper go.
Norwich better with Redmond starting
Redmond gave the ball away quite a bit. His passing was a bit awry. He could probably have attacked his full-back a bit more. His tracking back was non-existent. But Norwich were a more potent, dynamic threat with him starting.
He often scared the West Ham backline, forcing them to retreat and creating more space for Hoolahan, Steven Naismith, Cameron Jerome (who was terrific) and Howson.
His dribbly-sexy flick that led to Hoolahan's goal was also proof that his natural ability deserves the opportunity to flourish if we are to stay up this season. Matt Jarvis is far more one-dimensional – and poor on the right when he played there for West Ham – while Howson is wasted out there. Redmond must start.
No more tinkering
It's rare that we don't have quibbles with the starting XI. We're all mini-managers, thinking we know the perfect formula for success. On Saturday I'd have gone with Patrick Bamford up top and Robbie Brady on the left of the three behind the striker, with Martin Olsson at left-back. Nearly everyone reading this will probably have gone for something different. So what's important is that, certainly going forward, the XI worked. So let's stick with it.
Only one change is really necessary – Tettey to return from suspension for O'Neil – but, otherwise the tinkering needs to stop.
Seb Bassong and Timm Klose look to be forming a natural understanding (if only Klose had been recruited in the summer), while Martin has been relatively solid at right-back (especially with Redmond reluctant to help him out). Jerome made some intelligent runs and was a constant irritation to the West Ham back line, while Hoolahan was far more effective from a central position and Naismith industrious and creative on the left. Meanwhile, John Ruddy's return appeared to have a calming influence – and his low save to keep out Victor Moses' drive that led to the first goal hinted that perhaps some of his agility had returned.
There was, finally, a good balance to the team. Keep the same XI and hopefully the awareness each player has of one another will mean the game-management will also improve. So, Neil, let's not change it.
Daniel Brigham tweets at @dan_brigham
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