For the second time in three seasons, Norwich City have been relegated from the Premier League to play into a league that we can actually win a few games. Unlike the last time Norwich went down, before this season there was an acknowledgement that the squad, without further signings, was not good enough. So before Norwich fans can start enjoying football in the Championship, let’s look at the reasons for this relegation, and what needs to be changed in the future to ensure a more harmonious Norwich side for the years to come. Unfortunately, at times, this diagnosis will feel like déjà vu to what happened in the 2013-14 season, which proves one thing more than anything else, Norwich simply did not learn from the mistakes of the past.
- Russell Martin and Sebastien Bassong
When I think of what I did most while supporting Norwich over the past 9 months, it was moan about Russell Martin, and his hapless centre-half partner, Sebastien Bassong. Sticking out most to this is Martin’s performance at home to Liverpool, which was possibly the worst performance in a Norwich shirt since Michael Theoklitos started in goal when Norwich were thrashed 7-1 by Colchester. Yes Russell might of scored in three games and does actually care, but extortionately in all three games he scored in he also made defensive errors to let in goals and made far too many mistakes all season. To add to this, far too often he is beaten in the air, like against Delaney in the opening game of the season, and his inability to close down. If you collected all the goals which happened as a result of Russell Martin’s defending, the total will be higher than Mbokani’s top scorer tally.
The worst thing about Martin’s mistake is that all of them could have been avoided if Alex Neil played him in his natural position. If this season has proven anything it is that Martin is a right-back, not a centre-half. Bassong was in some circles shielded from abuse early on in the season due to the amount of mistakes made by Martin, when he himself was far too often distracted and was easily bullied by many strong attackers, particularly against Ighalo in the 2-0 defeat to Watford. It can be argued he gave away just as many points than Martin. Bassong’s gutless performances near the end of the season, particularly against Sunderland, Manchester United and Arsenal, all cost the team points, as did Martin and Bassongs’ collective efforts away to Bournemouth, Watford and Newcastle, as well as numerous games Norwich dropped less points. No wonder that by the time Timm Klose had got used to English football and when Ryan Bennett was fit these two couldn’t get in the team.
- Transfer Activity
Yes Norwich did make a couple of good signings; Robbie Brady probably deserved player of the season after singing in August, while January signing Timm Klose once he got used to the Premier League appeared to be the only defender in the squad with real quality and on his rare day Steven Naismith showed glimpses of potential of what he showed at Rangers and Everton. However it cannot be ignored that firstly the lack of money spent in August and then consequently spending it in January when the damage was arguably already done cost the team massively, especially when comparing our spending to fellow Premier League debutantes Bournemouth and Watford. If it had been Timm Klose and Ryan Bennett in the heart of the Norwich defence from the seasons start things could have turned out very differently.
Some of the signings Norwich made were baffling. When Norwich signed both Graham Dorrans and Matt Jarvis there was already a consensus that both were not good enough for the Premier League, while signing an unfit Youssouf Mulumbu was foolish. Ivo Pinto meanwhile came at a time it was impossible to integrate him to English football without seriously hampering an already poor defense. The fiasco when it came to a top striker will be discussed in more depth later. Worst of all however, was selling the previous seasons talisman Bradley Johnson to Derby, in the same way letting Malky Mackay eleven years previously was as foolish. By doing this, Norwich had sold one player who could have added a bit of spirit to a side which certainly lacked that for many games this season. It is unsurprising as a result, the chief executive David McNally has left over the fallout of this season, indicating he was responsible for the over cautious approach to the August transfer window. The salt in the wounds of this ineptness was the decision to spend club money on reviving the cringeworthy clappers, spending money on things which make the club more of an embarrassment than Deilas famous “let’s be ‘aving you” speech.
- Tactical Naivety
As much of a great impression Alex Neil made when he arrived to Norwich in the Championship last season, he was the first to admit that he made mistakes this season. I will not question that he is a talented manager with a great career ahead of him, but this season his naivety did show in many games. Most notably the effect that one substitution decision made on him was striking. When 3-2 down to Newcastle, Neil brought on Hoolahan for holding midfielder Alexander Tetty. Neil then shuffled the squad to put attacking minded Graham Dorrans in that position. This proved to be disastrous as Norwich then conceded two goals in 4 minutes on the way to losing 6-2. As a reaction Neil seemed spooked in his managerial decisions, going overly defensive and looking a mess against West Brom and Everton at home and looking afraid to go forward in Chelsea and Watford away. At times, this made Neil’s side look no better than they did under Chris Houghton, a manager who became a figure of hate from the Canary faithful.
These poor tactics continued to pop up. Near the end of the season against Sunderland, in a game where Norwich needed to go out and take advantage of the weaknesses of the Sunderland defense through the flair players of Hoolahan, Redmond and Naismith combining, Neil chose a rigid, defensive side, and went on to lose 3-0. Against Arsenal next week, where the squad he started against Sunderland would have been in theory the correct tactical starting line up, Neil started the squad which should have started against Sunderland. Would a wiser tactical head collected a higher points tally than Neil? Maybe, just look at the job Allardyce did with Sunderland.
- No Goalscorer
When the Canaries won the play-off final last season, there were two players at the top of every fans shopping list, a proven striker and a strong defender. Norwich could of signed Charlie Austin, Benik Afobe and Andre Gray if we wanted to, but we didn’t. To make matters worse, Norwich then sold the only natural goalscorer at the club (Gary Hooper) to Sheffield Wednesday, leaving an unproven unknown who had never played in a top league on loan (Mbokani), a lead striker who was known to be not good enough for the Premier League (Cameron Jerome), a striker who wasn’t good enough and didn’t want to be at the club (Grabban), and an Irishman Alex Neil refused to play (Lafferty). Just witnessing the lack of cutting edge of bite our strikers had throughout the season, and comparing it to Sunderland’s Jermaine Defoe for example, it isn’t a surprise Norwich went down. These strikers had enough horrific misses between them to fill 4 minute compilation. A couple of standouts being Jerome’s hatrick of misses against Chelsea, miss against Everton, and any header Jerome had all season.
- Unconvincing Goalkeeping
With the other issues this club faced during the season, one would hope for a goalkeeper between the sticks who was consistent, but no. John Ruddy in the first half of the season was woeful. Sticking out most in the mind was his mistakes against Man City and Arsenal cost his team valuable points. When Ruddy was dropped for his namesake (minus the Y) Declan Rudd, it came apparent that Norwich’s number 2 was not up for the challenge. Unlike Ruddy, who knew when to charge down the ball, Rudd was often hesitant, leading to a lack of security at the back. Rudd’s weak performances, particularly against Tottenham, Watford, Liverpool and Aston Villa (Yes Norwich lost to Villa, no wonder we went down) meant that Ruddy was quickly back in the side. Ruddy did improve after he returned to the squad, but by this point the damage had already been done.
What Needs to be Done
If Norwich have been promoted again this time next year, they must be more prepared for the life in the Premier League. Firstly, Norwich must get rid of the deadweight who simply have looked like the lack both the talent or desire to get up to the Premier League. Russell Martin should stay because he actually cares and is a handy right-back. That cannot be said to Bassong, who should be sold off or let go in this summer transfer window. Norwich should also get rid of Dorrans, Mulumbu, Whittaker, Andreu, Odjidja-Ofoe and Jarvis, take the money, and rebuild the squad. Being a debt free club, Norwich should be aiming to repeat the job done by Burnley this season and although it is probable that at least two of Redmond, Hoolahan, Klose, Brady, Howson, Tetty and Naismith could be lost, we should be able to afford suitable replacements. Alex Neil should also look at some of the youth prospects Norwich have got on their books and give them a chance to prove themselves. Josh Murphy won player of the season for MK Dons this season. Although MK Dons also got relegated, winning player of the season suggests Murphy has enough talent for the Championship at least. Other prospects include defender Harry Toffolo, winger Jacob Murphy, who won a player of the month award last season, and midfielder James Maddison, a prospect Norwich beat the likes of Liverpool and Everton to. Such players you would imagine will have drive and may offer a youthful alternative to the norm.
Finally, Norwich should sign a tactician or a mentor to the backroom staff, so that Neil does not become tactically at sea too often both in the Championship, or if he takes Norwich back to the Premier League.