Norwich’s 6-2 thrashing by Newcastle was the game that changed everything. Dan Brigham looks back at the origins of that costly defeat, what went wrong afterwards and why Alex Neil must stay
Do you remember Norwich's 3-1 wins over Bournemouth and Sunderland? They were nine months ago, but they may as well have been a different season. A different era.
Those performances were infused with the Wembley spirit, perfect enactments of Alex Neil's blueprint: attack, press, pass. Norwich came into this season with an identity. They had a swagger, not just from being promoted, but on the pitch: they played with verve, with confidence, with the belief they were playing football the way it should be played. The players knew their roles, they knew each of their team-mates' roles. Everything was in sync.
In that early period there were also draws with Stoke and West Ham when Norwich intelligently pounded their way through their defences. There were hints of problems: no striker to finish off Stoke, a Championship back four that couldn't keep a clean sheet even when dominant. But it was fun. This was Norwich playing their best football in the Premier League for over 20 years, righting the wrongs of the Hughton era.
Yet, nine months on, those four games now feel out of kilter with how this season came apart at the seams: not just unraveled, but torn apart like Leonardo DiCaprio's bear mauling in The Revenant. It's been brutal, and there are claw marks all over the second half of Norwich’s season, deep flesh wounds that could prove fatal if they are allowed to fester.
It's easy to pinpoint when things started getting grizzly. Just four matches after the win over Bournemouth, and only two after the draw with West Ham, along came Newcastle. And everything changed. Like a dramatic movie twist, suddenly all that had gone before needed to be re-evaluated. Reassessed.
After the 6-2 defeat, the back four, burdened by a terrible lack of recruitment, needed more protection from midfield. But instead of a bit of fine-tuning, we got a brand-new car, a clunky family saloon replacing the spluttering sportscar. It was a mid-life crisis in reverse, where a party-animal wakes up in a wheelie bin and vows there and then to change his life: beige trousers, v-neck jumpers, loafers and a sensible haircut. The change was too sudden, too much of a shock to the system.
Neil, a manager who had known only one way – attack, attack, attack, and a bit more attack – suddenly questioned himself. Perhaps with more experience on his coaching staff, someone would have convinced him not to doubt his methods; perhaps the tinkering would have been lighter. Instead, a collection of confident, marauding players became a team who sat back and tried to soak things up. The swagger had gone, replaced by caution, a team nervously shuffling through an unlit park at night. Full-backs, once instructed to get out of the trenches and storm over the top, now had to stay in their barracks. Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond were regularly pushed to the bench as Neil went against his instincts and chose safety first, in desperate search for a first clean-sheet. Wembley disappeared into the distance.
What would have happened if the post-Newcastle changes had been subtler? If Neil had just tightened up central midfield but allowed the same attacking spirit? If he had kept the same identity which had served Norwich so well since his arrival? Inevitably there would have been a few more hammerings; that's the risk you take. But Norwich would have carried on creating more chances, would have continued in a style that suited the players. More points, surely, would have followed. Even if they didn't, it would at least have been more fun to go down swinging.
But Neil isn't the bad guy in this. It's tough to blame him for going from electric to acoustic after Newcastle. He would have looked at his squad and, like the majority of fans, seen a back four who weren't up to grinding out points, and a strike-force incapable of stealing points. With better forward options and a defence suited to the Premier League, Newcastle may never have happened. But if a hammering had occurred, perhaps Neil would have seen it as a blip rather than a malaise. Perhaps he would have been more confident in trusting his instincts to stick to the same way of playing.
Instead, Neil had to make do with what he had. So the approach changed, and the priority became trying to stop teams from scoring. But it was like adding bike stabilisers to a jumbo jet: Seb Bassong, Ryan Bennett and Russell Martin kept on bouncing down the runway, landing at the wrong airport, and falling asleep at the controls.
It wasn't all disastrous: there were wins over Aston Villa and Southampton, but they were dreary. They were Hughton-esque. Even in victory the players looked unsure of themselves, and the wins quickly dried up. Once that confidence had been lost, once that attacking style of play had been self-neutered, it was almost impossible to get it back. When they did try to set out to attack the opposition – against West Ham and Liverpool – the players' roles didn't seem quite so defined, the gameplan was fuzzier, and the results were suckerpunches; five valuable points dropped. It was an inevitable consequence of Neil being unsure of how his team should play from match to match. And it all went back to Newcastle, and further back to the summer recruitment.
There were other mistakes. Players made plenty of them: Cameron Jerome, Bassong, Martin and Bennett the most culpable. Lewis Grabban was never upgraded – his style, playing off the shoulder, was perfect for Neil's attacking blueprint (and is why he loved him in the Championship). Robbie Brady was played in the wrong position – which also kept Martin Olsson, probably Norwich's best defender pre-Timm Klose, out of the side for too long. Alex Tettey and Jonny Howson should have been the central midfield partnership from the start of the season; instead they played only a handful of times together in that role. Howson, the deserved player of the season, was wasted out wide for too long, a conductor pushed out to the galleries. Klose's injury came when Norwich suddenly looked like they had enough in them to escape. There was unhelpful tinkering, often but not always a consequence of too many poor individual performances. Hoolahan and Redmond were sacrificed in the name of defensive stability too often. Gary O'Neil's insane sending-off. Kyle Lafferty not being – haha, no. Laffery is terrible.
But we knew all of this. And, after Neil's bravely honest post-match comments, it seems he knows it too. He talked about taking Tettey off at Newcastle like a man who's realised he's let the love of his life leave, and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it other than wonder, what if?
Now it's all about how Norwich go about healing those claw wounds. There is positivity to take from Neil's words. A manager who knows where he went wrong is a good manager and, if Neil had been given a strengthened squad to play with in the summer, there should be little doubt we'd have got the few extra points needed for survival. He must stay, but he must return to what he knows best: playing clever, entertaining football. This season may have scarred him, but if it's taught him to trust his instincts, then he can still be the manager we all thought he would be after promotion.
There will be goodbyes. Almost certainly to Redmond – underrated by many – and, sadly, Klose. Maybe Howson, Brady, Olsson and, terrifyingly, Hoolahan. Dieumerci Mbokani surely won't sign permanently. But the squad is a strong one for the Championship. Their hunger levels for another promotion campaign will have to be carefully assessed, and fresh faces and younger players will be needed to add a spark. And, for the love of all things holy, please buy a new centre-back or two.
The win at Wembley felt like the start of something beautiful; now it feels like it belongs to another era. There is still much hope, though: the Wembley win can still be remembered as the moment everything started going right for Norwich. It might not feel like it now, but if this season can be a blip, and if Neil and the board have learned from their mistakes, then David McNally's decision to appoint an unknown manager from Scotland last January can still become one of Norwich's greatest success stories.
Dan Brigham tweets at @dan_brigham
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