Booing the captain, Alex Pritchard in Wes Hoolahan mode, Scott Hogan’s audition and Jonny Howson’s glorious return – Six Things we learned from Norwich City’s Brentford thrashing
PUBLISHED: 11:33 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 08:43 06 December 2016
©Focus Images Limited www.focus-images.co.uk +447814 482222
After five defeats on the spin, Norwich City snap their running by hitting Brentford for five – cue Michael Bailey’s six lessons for the latest Championship twist to hit Carrow Road.
1 – All hail Jonny Howson
It would be wrong to argue Saturday suddenly proved Jonny Howson has been a major miss for City over the last two months – because numerous people, including your writer – declared how big a miss he would be the moment his absence was confirmed.
Others may well say Howson is the kind of player whose work you appreciate only when he’s not there to do it.
Well, everyone noticed it at Carrow Road on Howson’s return – hence his thoroughly deserved standing ovation.
That his comeback was so swift was arguably the best news City fans have had all year. And however good you may feel City’s squad is, there is no one who mops up, passes to a team-mate, drives forward from midfield and chips in with important goals, quite like Jonny. It’s why he’s almost always picked by any manager when fit, and why City can’t afford him to pick up another knock any time soon.
It was nice to see him captaining the side too – although, it doesn’t matter who carries the armband. We just need as many players as possible showing leadership and responsibility on the pitch – and Howson always does that.
2 – Alex needs to leave Alex alone
There hasn’t been much wrong with Wes Hoolahan’s form, even in City’s dismal recent run. Not really. But having spent £8m on a 23-year-old prospect from Spurs, it got to the point where Alex Pritchard needed to be given a go in his preferred central position.
What he went on to do was something as special as any Wes vintage – to the point you could argue Pritchard set the tone with his very first touches, before starting and ending a sublime fifth goal to round off a “perfect” day.
Don’t worry, the state of Brentford will get a talking to in a bit – and it’s always been clear that Pritchard, like Wes, will tear you apart if you give them either too much respect – or not enough.
The energy and quality of Pritchard’s performance was like nothing we’ve seen from him in a yellow shirt so far – almost all had been coming in from the left. It means regardless of tactical nuances, he has to get the chance to repeat the trick at Barnsley at least, so we can see if he can deliver that effectiveness – if not performance level – consistently. If he can, Saturday could be a defining day in City’s season.
3 – It’s full-on for the full-backs
City’s players aren’t doing much for their arguments over squad competition.
We’ve already discussed Jonny Howson. And now we get to bring in right-back Ivo Pinto.
City have lost just once without the Portuguese defender in the league this season – more remarkably, they are yet to pick up a single point from a game he hasn’t started.
Clearly the way Pinto plays is vital to how Alex Neil wants to take on the Championship – and he was influential again at the weekend.
But we could have a conundrum on our hands on the opposite flank. Even the manager has called Martin Olsson the best left-back in the division. And as I’ve said many times before, Robbie Brady is better higher up the pitch.
But like Pinto being defensively solid for the second tier, maybe Brady’s defensive shortcomings can be ridden out too.
What is clear, is that was Robbie’s best performance of the season – and we’d love more of the same.
Here’s to City’s third league clean sheet of the season – all have come at home.
4 – Some supporters are not helping
I’m not going full Peter Grant here – but after weeks criticising players, management and directors for failings, it’s only fair to recognise the same if it’s coming from the fans.
The atmosphere at Carrow Road on Saturday was bizarre. You wonder if some were unhappy things went so well, because they wanted the end to come for Alex Neil. Maybe it was apathy generated from poor opponents, or the damage and doubt festering from City’s horrendous run of defeats. In many ways, that is all fair enough. City have more repairs to carry out before all is forgiven.
What I cannot understand is City’s club captain getting booed for coming on as a sub. Any gripes some fans may have will come down to their views on Russell Martin’s quality; maybe Neil’s decisions on him too. But to audibly boo him for the second game running is, quite frankly, a joke. To those doing it: Come on. You are Norwich City fans, you’re better than that. And have a tweet from Karen (@lancs10): “Win, lose or draw today, I will be singing in support of my team. Fans of Chapecoence would give anything for that opportunity again.”
5 – He’s Scott a bit about him
Given the recent speculation linking Scott Hogan with a January move to City – and Alex Neil’s effusive praise of the Brentford striker, until the speculation was pointed out to him – Saturday handily doubled up as a scouting mission all Norwich fans could enjoy.
I was looking forward to seeing centre-back John Egan in action having heard good things. Like most of his side, he didn’t do much to sell himself.
But with Hogan, it was a little different – in fact, it almost looked at times as if he was trying too hard to impress. And let’s be honest, if City are interested then Hogan’s agent will know and the information would have reached the player’s ears.
He missed one great chance poorly, headed another over and a third was a wonderful volley everyone will remember.
It all translates into the fact Hogan had something about him. His movement for that first chance was superb, and he would definitely offer City a fresh option up top.
So in essence, more than enough to catch the eye – even on a day when little came off for a man who has scored almost half the Bees’ goals this term.
6 – Space and time are City’s best friends
With each passing week, Alex Neil is getting to taste exactly how Neil Adams felt during the very same season he took over.
There was the fast start, then the slippery autumn – and now, a recovery.
Alex Neil has at least bagged his 5-0 win earlier and did it without needing a sending off. But the story of 2014-15 shows that a turnaround is only a turnaround if it takes you where you want to go. That running battle for Alex Neil won’t go away yet, and he knows that.
There are positives for City heading into a tricky December run – including a first league goal and encouraging performance from Nelson Oliveira.
But let’s address the elephant in the room: Brentford were woeful without the ball. Their own manager called it embarrassing. And as Blackburn and Rotherham also found – if you give City all the room and no pressure, they beat you.
That space helps City win – and the win has given them time. In a week of pertinent points, Alex Pritchard’s delight in City turning it on in the second half was good to hear: a clear problem, with signs of it being rectified. That’s what it will take from here.
• Follow Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey and Facebook @mbjourno