Paddy Davitt: If Alex Neil can change then so can this new-look Norwich City
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You would have got long odds on a Championship table that suggests Norwich City have the most porous defence and Preston the tightest.
Daniel Farke may be new to English football but he has a squad of players who by common consent should not be languishing in the lower reaches of the early standings. The same could be said in reverse of his predecessor, Alex Neil, who appears to have developed a miserly streak that was sadly absent at Carrow Road.
The swashbuckling Scot, who often set up his teams to try and score one more than the opposition, has melded a fighting force that leads the way in the second tier.
Preston, remarkably, have leaked just one goal in five opening league games that includes clean sheets in home wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Reading and shut outs on the road at promotion hopefuls Leeds and Middlesbrough.
Any who had the misfortune to witness City’s capitulations at Brighton or Hillsborough last season would scarcely believe it is the same man directing operations from the Deepdale technical area. These are early days, of course, and from Norwich’s perspective that trend must change quickly.
The move for Grant Hanley and the links to Bristol City’s Aden Flint in recent days suggest there has been a realisation at Carrow Road they are missing some Championship nous, some physicality and perhaps some leadership.
That is not meant as a slight on the existing personnel but the rapidly declining goal difference underlines something has to change. City’s backline have routinely been exposed by a midfield mix that itself still needs a degree of refinement but the manner they have been second best in personal duels and the calamitous hesitancy they have displayed at set plays, in trying to adhere to Farke’s preferred zonal system, indicate the focus on those at the back is not misplaced.
This might bleed into a wider debate about the art of defending and the distorted emphasis on comfort with the ball rather than a pride at keeping it out of your own net. But if Neil can meld a miserly rearguard with his raw material at Preston it should not be beyond Farke.
Timm Klose’s prolonged injury absence was in its own way just as much a setback as losing Alex Pritchard. Klose has the pedigree and crucially the experience of a demanding Championship campaign behind him. Players such as Christoph Zimmermann and to a lesser degree Marcel Franke have been fast-tracked and exposed to the harsh realities earlier than Farke may have wished.
That in itself raises genuine questions about the lack of depth in a crucial area of his squad. The pursuit of Hanley goes some way to addressing that imbalance. With Russell Martin increasingly under pressure from a growing seam of City’s support to justify his place at centre back, fresh blood is welcomed on many levels.
It sends a signal to those in the squad these early weeks have simply not been good enough. It also tells those disaffected fans who voiced their angst at Millwall that the likes of Farke and sporting director Stuart Webber share the same concerns and have sought to address the issue.
Once the window closes tomorrow evening Farke then needs to show he can mould an effective fighting force at the back, and fashion an organised Norwich defence in front of Angus Gunn that places an equal premium on what they do out of possession as much as with it.
Neil was unable to find the right balance too often in his spell at Carrow Road. The same questions were thrown at the Scot with each painful concession last season. But Preston’s early work suggests he has learned some tough lessons. Farke must do the same, following his initial exposure to the hurly burly.