Photo Gallery: Below par sign of Norwich City improvement
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A drab afternoon in Berkshire was hardly a fitting backdrop to illustrate just how far Norwich City have travelled on their Premier League journey.
Chris Hughton’s side were largely ineffectual as an attacking force until the final quarter loosened the binds around a contest in which the protagonists effectively cancelled each other out.
The defensive discipline of recent weeks, bar the odd momentary individual lapse of concentration, earned Norwich another point to an ever-growing collection. Yet there will be an undeniable sense of frustration felt by players and supporters over City’s perceived failure to put away a newly-promoted rival still searching for that maiden top flight win.
To accept such a premise overlooks the struggle to survive last season and the arduous start to the new campaign. It also hints at another theme. A more positive, uplifting caveat that suggests Norwich City’s squad are so much better than they showed at the Madejski Stadium; both in terms of creative potential and individual output. On that measure, anything mined in the Premier League when the performance drops a notch or three short should be a cause for celebration.
You look at Reading’s starting line up and you see Norwich City 12 months ago. Honest players who, with one or two notable exceptions, have been given their first concerted chance in the big time; loyal to the man who got them there after play-off heartache the previous summer at Wembley.
Brain McDermott said as much in the aftermath of Reading’s ascent. Norwich and Swansea should be a template to follow - a weather vane for similar upwardly mobile aspirants graduating from the Football League.
Saints’ skipper Adam Lallana has been quoted in the past along the same lines. The Canaries have been portrayed as developers of an exportable brand, underpinned by a culture where the whole mattered more than the constituent parts. But Reading and Southampton are now discovering how painful the evolutionary process can be.
Norwich faced little devil in the detail here. Jason Roberts was an awkward focal point; Noel Hunt the willing support act to plough furrows down the sides of City’s defence. Nicky Shorey lumbered forward at every set piece opportunity.
It was a bludgeoning style of football that carried them to success in the Championship. Reading and McDermott owe no-one any apology for maximising available resources; but it will not work in the Premier League – not over a nine month campaign when better players and better managers swiftly work out the opposition. City’s survival last season was founded on a degree of re-invention in formations and personnel. Flexibility was key.
Those who promote the cult of surprise and the new bounce benefits are correct only to a point. That may carry a club forward through the opening months of the Premier League campaign, but it takes fresh blood and fresh ideas to flourish.
Reading pounded away at City’s lines. John Ruddy was largely a spectator again like he has been since the previous international break. Contrast the man prone on the turf looking skywards for inspiration when Branislav Ivanovic powered home a fourth at Stamford Bridge with the keeper who has since kept three clean sheets. Garath McCleary’s dipping strike from range in the first period was batted away. Reading sought refuge in the familiarity of a muscular, direct approach funnelled through Roberts.
Greater precision from Norwich on the counter would have brought not only a first clean sheet on the road in the Premier League since 2004, but a first away league win of this season. Defensively, the Royals were a credit to McDermott. Kaspars Gorkss and Sean Morrison subdued Grant Holt. McDermott’s bid to smother Hoolahan proved largely a success, until the Irishman started to roam in the wider spaces afforded by a tiring home unit.
Perhaps the dye was cast as early as the 12th minute. Hoolahan’s unerring accuracy betrayed him when an intended pass sailed over Javier Garrido’s head and landed in the vicinity of the away dug out. A lack of cohesion characterised most of City’s work.
Blame human fallibility perhaps, but there was also an element of failing to handle greater expectations. When Arsenal or Tottenham come to town the onus is on Norwich to remain disciplined; to frustrate and make the most of limited opportunities in opposition territory. Here they could dance to a different rhythm.
City were the form side, both on recent results and the club with a successful season of Premier League membership behind them. Norwich’s play in the opening exchanges oozed maturity as they moved the ball slickly. The approach appeared proactive, rather than reactive, until the physical urgings of the experienced Roberts seemed to sap collective confidence.
Norwich struggled to get the ball forward to Holt with any quality. Back it came with interest into the visitors’ final third. The half-time whistle brought blessed relief, but the entertainment value remained negligible after the interval. Gorkss’ faintest of touches denied Holt a late close range headed chance from Garrido’s cross that you sense on another day he would have buried past Adam Federici; a stand-in keeper criminally under-employed.
Jimmy Kebe injected some urgency into Reading’s forward motions. One over-hit cross clipped the top of Ruddy’s bar before the England man calmly gathered another angled strike at his near post.
Alex Tettey galloped clear deep in stoppage time into a Reading half bereft of his team mates. Tettey squared up Morrison, but pulled wide of Federici’s far post. It was a foray symptomatic of the Canaries’ inability to seriously threaten.
Hughton acknowledged City’s efforts with the ball fell a long way short of their previous games. That admission should not deflect from Norwich’s resolution to salvage a point, to show a willingness to dig in when their play was pockmarked by imperfections; when Hoolahan and Holt were not the dominant forces at the top end of the pitch. When the best Norwich players on the day were all defenders.
For City to survive a second season they will have more days of hardship like these. Whether it is Reading away or Manchester United at home is immaterial.