The difference in fortunes of Norwich City and Alex Neil in the two years subsequent to that Wembley victory is astonishing. A team dominant and seemingly unstopped thanks to the unknown Scotsman’s appointment ran rampant in a blistering 15 minute spell that left them with one hand already dipping into the Premier League spoils. Now – well, we don’t need reminding.
It’s a development that was painfully predictable to anyone who has watched City over the past year and a half. We started the Premier League campaign well enough – we were unlucky on the opening day, where Cameron Jerome should’ve been granted an equaliser but was cruelly (and wrongly) denied, before victories against Bournemouth and Sunderland left us with a healthy nine points from seven games. Throw in a deserved draw with Liverpool and things were looking rosy.
Then it all came crashing down in a painful 90 minutes at St James’ Park.
We’ve never recovered from that. Neither has Neil. That result caused him to question his methods for the first time in his career. He lost his swagger after that. His arrogance became misplaced and he was unsure. He abandoned his attacking principles and shut up shop – shown by the following eight goals in next five games in total, having seen nine in the previous three alone. We didn’t even do that terribly after that in terms of results – a win against Swansea, narrow defeats against Man City and Chelsea, and draws against Arsenal and Everton. It was after January that the paper over the cracks fell away and left us plummeting back to the second tier.
Neil did recover some of his verve but this was then ravaged by another trip to Tyneside. 3-2 up in stoppage time and failing to see the game out is criminal at any level, but to go on and lose the game is inexcusable. From then, an already brittle and ageing City side crumbled and, once again, fell down the table. Instead of fighting for automatic promotion alongside Newcastle, we’re now looking at the last eleven games that more than likely will have no bearing on the race for promotion.
I don’t blame Alex Neil, but the Alex Neil of 2015 would not have brought on a defender for an attacker with 10 minutes to go against a side who had not won in 11 games with the scores level at 1-1. I understood his need for a change of system – in fact, I agreed with it – but I would have done it a different way. Seb Bassong was not the man to bring on to win the game – he was settling for a point that was too little, too late. Ultimately, Bristol City had changed system and formation to go two up front and be more aerially threatening, but that means there’s a weakness to exploit somewhere else on the pitch. Bristol City bypassed the midfield with long balls and direct play – to combat this, Neil should have dropped Tettey back further and swapped Naismith for Godfrey. Tettey lends a hand to the defence by creating a blockade in front our penalty area, whilst Howson and Godfrey sit in front of him to crowd out their midfield and prevent the central play. Then, he could have either dropped the wingers back to a 4-1-4-1 to quash Bristol’s wing play and crosses, or pushed them even further up to push for the three points and prevented their full backs from bombing forwards. I would have leant towards the latter. And then work on defending set pieces on the training ground…
Ultimately these changes may have led to the same outcome, but we can all agree that changes needed to be made earlier. All three substitutes were unused on 80 minutes in a game we had to win and were drawing, whilst our hosts were pushing forwards and threatening. Alex Neil of old would’ve made a change to give them something to think about. A tiring Jerome needed a rest whilst Naismith was knackered, yet neither number was held aloft. It all correlated to a man who had ran out of ideas.
I’m sorry Alex, but you should probably have gone six months ago. You should definitely go now. I don’t blame you – I blame two fateful trips to Tyneside.
We’ll always have Wembley.