Grant Holt’s absence key as Norwich City’s great run ends at West Brom
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There was a fatalistic inevitability about Norwich City’s Premier League defeat at West Brom.
Shorn of their skipper and talisman through injury, City surrendered their fabulous unbeaten record as the rain swept unrelentingly across the Hawthorns on a drab, dreary winter’s day in the Black Country.
It wasn’t quite the end of the world. It just felt like it. But it had to happen sometime and West Brom was arguably the perfect place. The Baggies have bucked the trend, along with Chris Hughton’s squad this season, until defeat at Swansea triggered a shock to the system which effectively took until Romelu Lukaku rose imperiously above Javier Garrido in the game’s defining act to finally recover from.
Steve Clarke’s men could not buy a win for three consecutive Premier League games before West Ham refused to buckle the previous weekend. Norwich’s immediate task will not be any easier over the remaining festive fixtures, with the Hammers on New Year’s Day the conclusion to a three-part trilogy that brings the European champions and the Premier League champions to Carrow Road.
But you can take many things from a 10-match unbeaten league run forged on common themes. One was the courage in adversity.
City had to repel sporadic onslaughts from Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United at home before prevailing. At Everton and Southampton they came from behind. At Swansea they defied the rampant hosts. At West Brom they looked to have quelled Albion’s best efforts until Lukaku’s towering header. It was enough to separate the sides on a day when the similarities between the clubs were never more apparent.
Albion and Norwich are a mirror image in so many ways. Not just in their commitment to sustainability in the face of competing rivals who operate on the benevolence of billionaires. Not just in their choice of manager and the pragmatic approach to achieving Premier League success, but on every measure the whole equates to more than the sum of the parts.
In Lukaku they have borrowed a high-class talented, if inconsistent, teenage striker, around which Clarke opted against the Canaries for the pace of Peter Odemwingie, the trickery of Zoltan Gera and the guile of James Morrison. Shane Long was kept in reserve until Clarke unleashed City’s tormentor for the final half an hour.
Hughton could be forgiven for casting an envious glance or two. City simply do not possess a similar richness to their attacking resources. Holt’s workload during Norwich’s two months of consistently assured top flight football was always likely to take a toll at some point.
Steve Morison appears the only similar alternative should Hughton wish to retain the counter-attacking system which has brought so much success. Gareth McAuley denied Morison his one clear-cut chance to test Ben Foster in the second period when Alex Tettey had broken up play and slid an inviting pass into the feet of the Welsh international. Morison’s shift was laced with frustration.
Simeon Jackson offers a different dimension, Harry Kane is a youthful understudy on the comeback trail himself after foot surgery – but neither can operate in Holt’s lone front-running role to quite the same seamless degree.
Take Holt out of this Norwich side and it is not simply the latent goal potential you miss, a commodity which by Hughton’s own admission has had to be sacrificed to an extent to kick start City’s Premier League revival, but also the ripples of disruption to his team-mates.
Wes Hoolahan’s influence wanes without the telepathic understanding he has developed alongside Holt from the start of this fantastic journey from League One. Holt has been branded an old-fashioned centre forward on numerous occasions, but he is so much more. The City Hall of Famer is an intelligent link-man who can operate just as effectively with his back to goal as powering on to service inside opposition penalty areas.
He is also experienced enough to buy time when Norwich need a pressure-release, to coax and cajole fouls from officials to compensate for the numerical disadvantage when he has to occupy multiple markers.
With Holt and Hoolahan in tandem, City have a better chance of unlocking the creative potential of Anthony Pilkington and Robert Snodgrass.
The Scot was Norwich’s stand out performer at the Hawthorns, but the visitors’ largely carried a minimal threat in open play.
Foster’s spill from Snodgrass’ sublime free-kick triggered a response that typified the character in Clarke’s ranks. Albion pressed again with renewed urgency, but Hughton may have had a strong case over the incorrect award of a corner from which Mark Bunn could only paw Jonas Olsson’s initial header against his bar before Gera reacted sharply.
Hughton offered no defence in mitigation for Bunn, who had to fight his way around Goran Popov on the goal line. Neither would the keeper himself, you suspect, after his comments during the build up about the physical nature of such challenges in the English game.
Coming on the cusp of half-time Albion may have expected to begin the second stanza on the front foot, but it was Norwich dictating the tempo.
Morison’s indecision contrasted sharply to his fearsome hit at the Emirates towards the end of last season when put through in similar circumstances. The home fans were already exhibiting signs of impatience. Given their poor run of form it felt a pivotal moment.
Norwich had to defend the near post with growing regularity as Albion attempted to suck men infield and raid down the flanks. Michael Turner and Sebastien Bassong displayed cool assurance as balls flashed across Bunn’s box.
Which made the winner all the more galling when it did arrive. Lukaku lost his minders to challenge Garrido in an aerial mis-match that had only one outcome. Clarke withdrew his match-winner soon after for the defensive qualities of Gabriel Tamas.
Such pragmatism was almost his undoing with first Turner, then Russell Martin and finally Bradley Johnson glancing headers wide from the excellent Snodgrass. Johnson’s anguish was clear to see in the final act of the game.
Defeats clearly come with the territory, yet this still felt a little surreal – which is a testament to the longevity of City’s unbeaten surge.
But just like West Brom, Norwich will bounce back.