Norwich City’s gamble backfires at Swansea City
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The bitter irony at the heart of another inept Premier League away offering is Norwich City paid a high price for their boldness.
"The energy and the urgency mustered at Carrow Road against the very best appears lost in transit."
Chris Hughton’s circumspection and inherent caution are projected by his critics as evidence of his managerial limitations. Here he brokered a gamble not out of step with the man he replaced at Carrow Road and watched helplessly as Swansea profited from such adventurous intent.
Apportioning blame squarely at what many will perceive as the manager’s flawed approach or shifting it to those incapable or carrying out his instructions misses the point. It was a collective failure and Hughton’s double change at the interval was a tacit admission.
Swansea’s plight was no less precarious than the visitors, which only served to magnify the scale of Norwich’s anaemic effort. This was not the Swansea of last season. This was a club weighed down by their Europa League involvement and the blood-letting that saw Michael Laudrup depart to be replaced by a player with no previous managerial experience.
The 2013 League Cup winners had also lost to West Brom at home last time out and that anxiety was evident in the briefest flurries of early possession Norwich pieced together.
But the lack of conviction that has defined City on the road since the turn of this year is never far from the surface. When Wes Hoolahan’s most meaningful contribution prior to his sacrifical half-time exit along with Jonny Howson is a sliding challenge deep inside his own penalty box to halt Jonathan de Guzman you know the Canaries are in trouble.
Hughton has rotated personnel and tweaked formations in a search to replicate the consistent productivity seen at Carrow Road, but the men he entrusts continue to commit the same crimes. De Guzman’s second goal, racing through unattended to despatch Wilfried Bony’s back heel, echoed Morgan Schneiderlin’s early strike for Southampton when City’s midfielders had also abdicated responsibility and displayed a chronic lack of concentration to track runners. They had already been warned once when Jonjo Shelvey leisurely ranged forward to trigger the opening goal.
Norwich look alarmingly vulnerable to pace and direct intent in wide areas. The Saints probed relentlessly in those channels, so too Aston Villa through Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, and Wayne Routledge was unstoppable here through fair means or foul. Angel Rangel routinely broke free in the initial skirmishes on the opposite flank, with Shelvey afforded the freedom to set the tone and tempo in a key battleground where Norwich’s main tactical thrust appeared to hinge on Johan Elmander or Ricky van Wolfswinkel shuffling back behind the ball.
It is easy and lazy to castigate the visiting frontmen who, bar van Wolfswinkel’s tame second half header at Michel Vorm and Elmander’s near post flick parried by the Dutchman, were again lightweight, but Norwich’s collective urgings when they travel away are torturously ponderous and predictable.
City’s build up is slow, stilted and more often than not blunted by well-drilled defensive lines dug in around the vicinty of the opposition penalty area; when they eventually get that far.
The energy and the urgency mustered at Carrow Road against the very best appears lost in transit. Norwich squeezed the play and pressed from the front against the Black Cats but the experiment’s limitations were exposed by a Swansea side who, given their cultural commitment to playing through midfield, were always going to dominate possession and with it, territory. The hosts’ numerical advantage in the centre of the park merely
magnified that painful imbalance.
Norwich exhibit so many recurring structural weaknesses on the road there appears no end in sight to the misery; certainly not for the remainder of a season which involves trips to Fulham, Chelsea and Manchester United. Instead they must go to the well again back on home soil against a West Brom side desperate to ease their own suffering and recover from the psychological blow of conceding a stoppage time equaliser to Cardiff City on Saturday at the Hawthorns.
The Canaries will respond from this latest forgettable episode in Wales because they have no other choice, but the pressure they are putting on their residual ability to mine points in Norfolk is approaching unbearable proportions at such a fraught stage of the season.
West Brom’s league visit 12 months ago proved no less pivotal in shaping the club’s short-term destiny, but Albion’s own relative decline since changes the whole dynamic.
Hughton was calm and measured in his post-match dealings with the media in the darkest recesses of the Liberty Stadium, but there was no disguising the sense of exasperation. City’s boss was right to focus on what Norwich must do – starting with the Baggies – rather than rely on slips from rivals, but that focus can be narrowed even further.
Really it is all about what Norwich can produce in familiar surroundings because another fruitless road trip served to highlight this group of players under this management do not appear to have the answers to the away conundrum.