Melissa Rudd: Time for Norwich City to step up a level before trend sets in
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Hoping that Norwich City could turn this home hoodoo on its head against Alex Neil’s team was perhaps too much to ask given the current state of affairs at Carrow Road.
The entertainment value may have been higher than the previous Saturday, but that says more about just how poor the performance was against Barnsley than the scale of improvement.
The worsening atmosphere at Norwich home games has been a big talking point this week, with the club announcing they will undertake “full and extensive market research” to get supporters views on how it might be improved.
Essentially that answer will be better performances and results, but more effort seemed to be made on Saturday to make noise and James Maddison’s moment of brilliance at least gave the home fans something to marvel over.
The 21-year-old’s celebration was telling, sprinting over in the direction of the dugout, where he bypassed former gaffer Alex Neil to hug his current one. It was just shy of two years ago that Neil signed him from Coventry, where he stayed on loan until the end of the season. One EFL Cup appearance against his former club followed before Maddison was shipped out on loan to Aberdeen until January this year.
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Neil’s reluctance to involve him in his first-team plans after returning was one of the ongoing mysteries of the second half of last season after the midfielder had fared so well in the Scottish Premiership. Maddison’s continuing development under Daniel Farke has remained a shining light despite the darkness surrounding results in recent weeks.
That set-piece was preceded by a chance for Josh Murphy that left 25,000 people scratching their heads as to how the net didn’t bulge. He’d done the hard part, rounding the advancing Preston goalkeeper Chris Maxwell with one touch as he brought down Wes Hoolahan’s perfectly-weighted pass. Instead of then shooting at the gaping goal, Murphy decided to take another touch, allowing defender Darnell Fisher to scramble back and block his shot.
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That undue hesitation is symptomatic of City’s crisis of confidence in front of goal. A similar situation, though not nearly as clear-cut, presented itself on Tuesday night against Nottingham Forest. A Hoolahan pass over the top found Marley Watkins who, instead of latching onto it with a first-time finish, tried to bring the ball down in the hope of a better angle opening up. Like Murphy’s chance, it had the reverse effect and he could only hit an effort wide.
Farke fielded an attacking team against Preston, with Hoolahan, Maddison and Murphy in behind Nelson Oliveira. What’s concerning is with all that creative talent on the pitch the latter still had very little service and again drifted out wide to the byline in search of the ball himself rather than making sure he was always an option in the penalty area. Oliveira has now gone five games in all competitions without a goal and was largely ineffective for much of Saturday.
Though obviously encouraging to see Alex Pritchard make his long-awaited return, there was an air of desperation about his introduction with 15 minutes to go. Farke admitted during the week that the sheer amount of midfield absentees could force his inclusion and you imagine the head coach would have preferred not to have to risk him so soon after getting back to full training.
Defensively, errors have crept back in too. City had enough warnings prior to the equaliser, the most stark just minutes before when the unmarked Calum Woods guided his header straight at Angus Gunn from inside the six-yard box. It was Christophe Zimmerman’s needless dithering on the ball that led to the Preston corner that they scored from, and the headed knockdown assist was from almost the exact same spot.
The bizarre turn of events following an injury to one of the assistant referees saw the game peter out on a freezing cold afternoon. The draw means City have taken just five points from the last 21 available at Carrow Road, scoring half the amount of goals in all fixtures as they had this time last season.
With no win in six Championship games, the chances of Norwich becoming the first team to win at second-placed Cardiff on Friday night seem somewhat slim. And with Sheffield Wednesday arriving in 12 days’ time to provide an examination in front of the live TV cameras, you get the feeling both the atmosphere and the performance will need to step up a level again if City are to halt this worrying trend.