Are we barking up the wrong tactical tree? 

First things first, I believe athleticism is the most important detail to modern football success. 

It is why Josh Sargent looks like a world beater on the Championship stage. It’s why building around Moritz Leitner or Mario Vrancic or Marco Stiepermann, in the Premier League especially, was a forlorn hope.  

It was a similar oversight that proved a complication around the otherwise brilliant Alex Tettey. It’s precisely why Bradley Johnson came of age so superbly in that fabulous promotion season.   

Athleticism is not physicality, and it’s why I’m left with egg on my face because I think one of the biggest problems we have is Isaac Hayden, in his present guise.   

In my opinion, media and too many fans are blinded by individual class and are not considering his cumulative effect on the team. Earlier in the season, a mixture of Liam Gibbs, Marcelino Nunez and Kenny McLean were a tasty midfield, and was far better than what we’ve recently experienced.   

We’ve been grumbling more and more every week at a lack of flowing football, but ignoring the lack of movement through midfield because here at Norwich, we tend to put certain players on a pedestal and look for blame elsewhere. 

I hope and believe that DS has persevered with him in the hope that these last six or seven games would get Hayden moving, followed by fine tuning fitness after this World Cup break, so that come December, we’ve got the athlete we expected for the second half of the season.   

But what I’ve seen of Hayden is not the type of athlete I’d hoped for. If you asked any Newcastle fan, Hayden used to be a box-to-box powerhouse. He shows no sign of that here at Norwich. He has been deliberate, conservative and economical on the pitch, maybe due to that long period on the sidelines as he rebuilds fitness. 

He is playing like Tettey, but that is precisely the opposite of the midfielder Norwich need given the other 10 players available to us on the pitch. 

This NCFC need a Johnson in midfield, not a Tettey.   

Hayden is clearly intelligent, his positioning and reading of the game is superb, and coincidentally we’ve started to see a more dynamic and confident Max Aarons as a result. But a lack of mobility in midfield places massive burdens on the other central midfielders.

We saw this too often through the years with Tettey, whereby midfielders had to compensate for his limitations. Norwich, on the evidence so far, don’t have a goalscoring midfielder or a dedicated playmaker to compensate for a player who simply sits and protects the backline.   

That lack of mobility is exploitable and Hayden’s presence during the second half against Middlesborough was, in my opinion, the reason for the capitulation that followed. To persevere with him against Boro’s running midfield was inexcusable and the reason for a lot of unhappiness in the stands. When Hayden has been bypassed, teams score against us. They frankly go through us like a hot knife through butter.  

But of course, nobody in the media or dressing room blames Hayden, instead they choose to blame other midfielders for not being in two places at once.  

I’ll put it simply. 

Gibbs and McLean rarely miss a tackle and if they do, they’ve got the legs to recover.  Hayden doesn’t miss a tackle but you can play around him and then he doesn’t have the legs to recover. I can’t make it any simpler than that, and if you want evidence of what happens next, re-analyse that pathetic second half against Middlesborough.  

We have the brilliant prospect of Gibbs, and (in my opinion) a perfectly capable and ideal (for a club of our stature) box to box midfielder in McLean. I don’t pretend that McLean is a brilliant footballer, but he takes the blame and criticism from only the uneducated eye because for 90 mins, for 40 games of the season, he does exactly what is required of him.   

The trouble is, he’s always doing it second fiddle to players who do other things better, like Olly Skipp and Emi Buendia, or like Tettey and Vrancic. Last season anyone who could argue Billy Gilmour, Pierre Lees-Melou or Mathias Normann was consistently better in any capacity than McLean is being either biased or outrightly unfair.    

Gibbs should be someone to build around, I liken him to a certain Skipp, but with a better range of passing and with a more creative mindset. Given that McLean has also signed a new contract, well earnt in my opinion, then there appears to be a natural partnership to build from in the middle of the park.   

If Hayden comes back in December as a box-to-box powerhouse then we can sing from the rafters, but if he remains a largely immobile CDM then the midfield gets complicated and I would argue we won’t see the best from either McLean or Gibbs, and that there will be other tactical implications to overcome.  

I certainly don’t see the need for all three central midfielders and as Gibbs is the pick of the bunch, and McLean has the legs, to me Hayden is the odd one out, despite his pedigree. There is also an unfair expectation from the fans and media that McLean should have evolved into a player that he is not.  

Name a time when Kenny shirked a tackle, didn’t win a header, didn’t out-run any other player on the pitch, didn’t give it everything he’s got. Kenny is the type of player to build around, not a player to blame. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a formula from this squad that brings out the best from McLean.  

I’ve beaten this drum before, and it’s appropriate to say it again now: Alex Neil inherited what Neil Adams started. Specifically, to our midfield. Adams had his own “Rolls Royce” in Johny Howson, like Dean Smith has with Hayden, but Adams broke the mould and built a team instead around the running power of Johnson, and not the easy option of building around the more coveted and technically better Howson.   

I feel like Hayden is a player that you add to complete a system, much like how Gary Megson helped elevate the existing platform of Jeremy Goss and Ian Crook. Hayden should be a subtle addition that could sustain something already in motion, he is a player you buy after a promotion, not one (in his present guise) to instigate a promotion. 

Hayden is a Premier League asset who imposes tactically necessary changes in order to facilitate his inclusion, but Norwich is a squad without those applicable players.  

The classic case in point is Nunez. A gem of a player in possession of the ball but who was quickly found out physically. There is no way that Nunez should play with Hayden. The lack of running stamina and mobility from two players, not just one in isolation, would be too exploitable to most opposing teams. 

To play those two would necessitate monumental tactical changes. I emphatically believed Hayden would finally provide us with midfield qualities lacking since we lost Johnson. I really hope he comes back in December with more mobility to match his strength and undoubted pedigree, otherwise I expect the season to unravel further, starting in a confused and disjointed midfield. Teams will play around Hayden just like teams could played around Tettey.     

I would love to see something radical happen in the winter funded as necessary by perhaps saying goodbye to some club stalwarts. Any Premier League team flirting with relegation would spend on Teemu Pukki and Grant Hanley, and they are the only real saleable assets left at the club at present.

It is not an ideal proposition but I cannot help feeling that the flowing football that DS cannot presently unlock is in no small part due to the handbrake being applied by the retention of certain players.  

It might be that rejuvenating the squad can actually improve the overall output from the whole team. Unlock that riddle if you can. For me, Sargent, Onel Hernandez, Gibbs and McLean, Angus Gunn and a defender…… we need to enable the majority, not seek to enable a minority.

Selling Pukki, for example, might just mean a tactical change that sees Sargent score 30 goals, it might mean Hernandez scores 10 as he did in his first season, it might mean allowing Gibbs or McLean to get into goalscoring positions.

The same with Hanley in defence.   

Selling him might result in a more balanced back three where perhaps Ben Gibson shines, not as a sidekick, but as the main man, and perhaps it gives a chance for someone like Jacob Sorensen to find a niche role for himself.  I can't make any promises but I do think that some significant shifts, a gamble of course, might just do us the world of good.

I cannot see a natural evolution that incorporates too many of these current players, and I certainly wouldn't suggest this if Pukki was younger, contracted for longer, or if we didn't have Gibson to replace Hanley.  

As for Dean Smith? His tactical decision to play narrow against Sema and Sarr against Watford was staggering, and against Middlesborough, he made five substitutions and every single change seemed wrong to me. He had no legs in the middle of the park, and with each of his five changes it went from bad to worse. It was staggering to watch it unfold and absolutely bewildering.  

I saw more obvious management from Michael Carrick than I’ve seen at any point in a year of Smith. The defeat to Boro left me so angry with the tactical rabbit-warren we’ve gone down.

If someone doesn’t get a grip of this whole situation, then we will be staying put in this league for a long time to come.