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Have Norwich City done enough to survive?

Norwich City have gained promotion using pretty much the same team that got relegated a couple of years ago, and have immediately been decried as favourites for the drop. Liam Bambridge looks at Alex Neil’s business and talks about the concern around Carrow Road.

Alex Neil Norwich 2015

4.13pm, Saturday 15th August.  Nathan Redmond has just slotted home Norwich’s third goal of the afternoon to give the Canaries an unassailable lead over the Black Cats at the Stadium of Light.  A sizeable away following, swelled no doubt by their club’s generous and curiously unheralded subsidy on the price of a ticket, are so overcome with joy that the inevitable ‘easy’ chant starts to ring out as  huge swathes of stunned home fans head for the exits.

Fast forward just over two weeks, to 6pm on Tuesday 1st September, and the mood is very different.  Since that heady afternoon on Wearside, Alex Neil’s men have been given a footballing lesson by Southampton, and perhaps more significantly, the transfer deadline has passed with seemingly glaring inadequacies in the make-up of the squad left unaddressed.  Suddenly the words of all those pundits who were predicting an instant return to the Championship seem less likely to be rammed back down their throats.

It must be remembered that the top flight of English football is arguably a more fickle beast than ever before, a world in which heroes become zeros with frightening velocity, and more often than not, the process is then reversed. One day Brendan Rodgers is the Messiah and the obvious replacement for a misfiring Luis Enrique, and a couple of defeats later, he is in danger of losing his job. The voice of reason would contest that Southampton are now an established Premier League side who will undoubtedly finish in the top ten in spite of their poor start, whilst all the money in the world would not attract some of the desired new signings to the depths of Norfolk.

However even the most level-headed of Norwich supporters cannot fail to have been somewhat alarmed by the club’s transfer strategy over the last few months. Promotion via the play-offs was an unexpected bonus after the poor form under the leadership of the hapless Neil Adams, and whilst Neil’s appointment was clearly a turning point, the club’s unwillingness to sell off their assets following relegation in the summer of 2014 was also key.

Nevertheless the fact remains that the majority of the side which started the season opener against Crystal Palace were not good enough to keep the Canaries in the Premier league last time around, with the familiar fatal combination of too many goals shipped and not enough scored sealing their fate. Yet the majority of the additions in the close season have been in midfield, and whilst the trio of Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu and Robbie Brady are all proven Premiership performers, they are unlikely to add much to the goals for tally between them.

The only addition to the back line has been the loan signing of Andre Wisdom, and the lack of pace in central defence remains a real worry to many of the club’s more ardent followers. Meanwhile Brady, the costliest acquisition of the summer, is being played out of position at left back as Martin Olsson continues his recuperation from a shoulder operation, and up front Cameron Jerome continues to demonstrate the same wholehearted approach which endeared him to Stoke and Birmingham fans, but a similar lack of killer instinct in front of goal.

And so as the clock ticked towards the deadline, most Norwich fans were expecting a significant upgrade in various areas of the pitch. What they got in its place was a muddled and ultimately unsatisfactory end game which casts serious doubts over the team’s ability to survive and eventually thrive at the top table over the next eight months. The departure of club record signing of Ricky van Wolfswinkel was not a big surprise; despite the manager and player saying all the right things during pre-season, it was clear that the Dutchman did not fit into Neil’s long-term plans.

On the other hand, the sale of last season’s top scorer Bradley Johnson to Derby County was a whole lot more unexpected. With Brady pressed into defensive duties, the combative midfielder must have expected to fill the berth on the left side of midfield for which the two players would normally have been competing. However Neil has instead opted for Jonny Howson in that role in the first four games of the season, and reading between the lines, it seems that Johnson was not shy about voicing his disapproval. The young Scot may well have decided to remove a potentially disruptive influence from his dressing room in return for what is indisputably a sizeable fee for a player yet to prove that he belongs in the Premiership – but this decision may come back to haunt him if he cannot find goals from elsewhere.

Talking of goals, Neil was unequivocal in public in his stance regarding striker Lewis Grabban and his desire to return to Bournemouth, stating categorically that he would not sell him to a direct rival. Yet it is an open secret that the forward was indeed on the verge of heading back to the south coast, until the eleventh hour breakdown of Dwight Gayle’s move from Crystal Palace led to the deal being scrapped. Neil now has to find a way to get the best out of a forward who knows he was not wanted, as well as the one addition to the squad up front, the Congolese striker Dieumerci Mboekeni, who like van Wolfswinkel before him has been prolific abroad but has never played in the Premier League.

The final signing of the summer has also left many scratching their heads. Matt Jarvis is a player of undoubted quality when on his game, as his brief England career indicates, but there is little to suggest that he is anything other than an out and out winger. This seems to be in direct contrast to Neil’s favoured 4-1-3-2 formation, a system in which the full backs are encouraged to push on, and indeed Redmond has even been moved inside to accommodate this style of play. It may be that this is simply an option that has been taken up to allow for a switch to 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 should the circumstances favour it, but there remains the feeling that more pressing needs have slipped by the wayside.

The first match after the international break provides Neil and his players with the ideal opportunity to silence the doubters, with Grabban’s former employers the visitors to Carrow Road. A first home win of the season will undoubtedly lift the spirits which in reality ought not to be that dampened by one poor performance out of four so far. Unfortunately the flip side of the coin is that defeat will undoubtedly spell the end of the honeymoon period for the Premiership’s youngest manager.

Written by Liam Bambridge

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Liam Bambridge
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