Norwich City trapped in a cycle of desperation
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Norwich City’s Premier League season is drifting aimlessly. Everton was just another depressingly familiar episode.
"No wins in seven since a trip to the Hawthorns is not a trend, it is a decline and those inside the club know just as well as those on the terraces it can not continue."
The Canaries were similarly subservient at Tottenham and Newcastle, but recent away assignments hinted they were now a competitive commodity on the road. Defeat at Goodison Park marked a regressive step that stirs up the debate on whether Chris Hughton remains the right man to guide them into less troubled waters and whether a squad embellished by a record summer transfer outlay is able to accomplish a task that grows more difficult with each passing week.
On this evidence you fear the worst on both counts. Norwich were compliant for 70 minutes, bar the odd glimpse of Tim Howard’s goal, before rousing themselves following the exits of both Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman. It is hardly a coincidence City’s most productive spell came once Roberto Martinez elected to withdraw two of his most creative attacking midfielders.
Hindsight exposes Hughton’s decisions to levels of scrutiny one must temper with the fact. Everton looked the same slick outfit who produced such a polished performance at Carrow Road on the opening day of a Premier League season that held so much promise for both clubs.
City proudly unveiled a club record signing who delivered on his debut with a fantastically improvised header to salvage a point in a stirring encounter where Everton’s smooth passing rhythms had again been the dominant theme, but Norwich deserved some reward for the efficiency of their own incursions.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s career during the intervening months may have been disrupted by injury, yet it was painfully evident as he found himself marooned in areas of the pitch far away from Everton’s penalty box, that the predatory striker toiling at Goodison Park looks bereft of confidence; much like his team-mates. Everton were just as ambitious and progressive as in the corresponding league fixture, but Norwich never carried the same counter-punching menace.
Hughton paired the Dutchman in tandem with Gary Hooper from the start for the first time in the Premier League in a bid to suffocate Everton at source, but the Toffees merely played higher up the pitch and down the channels, where they are as strong as any in the league through the urgings of modern-day full-backs such as Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.
City’s twin-pronged spearhead were isolated figures, detached from a visiting midfield out-numbered and unable to stem the flow as they were pinned back on the perimeter of John Ruddy’s penalty area. Gareth Barry felt suitably emboldened by the Canaries’ fitful attacking impetus to vacate his holding berth and advance unhindered before unleashing a venomous left-footed strike that flew past a sprawling Ruddy.
You can apportion blame should you wish. Whether to Hughton’s tactical nous, Leroy Fer’s seeming reluctance to sense danger or Ryan Bennett’s decision not to engage Barry higher upfield, but they are all symptoms of a greater malaise.
Norwich willingly ceded territory and possession from the outset as part of their tactical approach so it should have come as little surprise they were dismissively brushed aside. They looked dis-jointed and at times disinterested.
Verbal spats erupted all too frequently between players in yellow and green which, in a narrower context, could be packaged as a desire to fight the good fight, but which leave themselves open to less generous interpretations of a squad wracked by frustration.
That is the sour by-product of days like these on Merseyside. When City capitulate so easily - even in the face of superior opposition - the negative aspects of a gruelling season gain renewed currency. Any positivity from battling points at Sunderland or Crystal Palace, even the West Brom win, merely dissolve in rancour and recrimination.
Hughton expects to be judged on results, not how he achieves them, despite the misleading stylistic debate, and on that specific measure the manager and his players are failing at present. No wins in seven since a trip to the Hawthorns is not a trend, it is a decline and those inside the club know just as well as those on the terraces it can not continue.
Norwich now face another in an endless line of home tests where they must prevail not simply to boost their points tally but to raise collective morale. Few may have expected anything other than a defeat at Goodison Park but it was the complicit nature that hardly inspires confidence ahead of Hull City’s visit.
Norwich’s response has been wonderfully robust when they have found themselves in this situation before, with priceless home wins over both West Ham and Crystal Palace, but Fulham’s Boxing Day success is fresher in the memory.
City’s chronic injury problems are justifiable mitigation for their listless labours during recent times but it feels increasingly like an excuse than a contributory factor. Norwich were always going to be one of a clutch of teams fighting for survival. Those grounds for optimism recede with each fresh opportunity spurned and signs of flickering resistance elsewhere from their rivals.