Norwich City’s draw with Arsenal shows it’s best to wait until AFTER the game before questioning Alex Neil’s teams
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
If Tyson Fury getting a decision in Wladimir Klitschko’s back yard was a touch surprising, Alex Neil’s starting XI was definitely Buster Douglas knocking out Iron Mike.
It’s seemed like Lewis Grabban has been missing for nearly as long as Lord Lucan but he found himself in the starting line-up along with a midfield that appeared solid if unspectacular. I’d thought that with Tettey missing that Mulumbu would be a definite starter but Neil went with O’Neil, Dorrans, Howson and Brady, with Wes supporting Grabban.
Mulumbu, Redmond, Mbokani and Jerome all found themselves on the bench along with Russell Martin, Vadis and Rudd. It appeared that we would again be looking to sacrifice attacking intent in order to contain our illustrious opponents and give ourselves a solid platform from which to take “something” from the game.
Somewhat predictably, that’s how it was panning out 40 minutes in. We’d barely had a look in, had conceded from another series of errors and for all the world it looked as though we were in for a long afternoon. If I’m honest, we’d been distinctly average in that first two thirds of an hour, not mustering an attempt at goal and were about as threatening as Jeremy Corbyn after a peace pipe. Meanwhile, Arsenal were playing with the kind of intricacy that has become synonymous with them over the years.
But, and this took me more by surprise than the team selection, it all changed before half-time.
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It started with Brady, who was head and shoulders our best player on the day, showing some intent, cutting in and forcing Cech into action for the first time. Moments later, Brady pinged a ball into the feet of Grabban, who turned the defender with the sort of ease and sharpness that belied his absence and coolly slotted under Cech. It could have got even better before the break had Wes been able to keep down his connection to Wisdom’s thumped cross.
We created further chances in the second half and were the better team from the equaliser onwards. The increase in confidence throughout the team when we equalised was almost as visible as Ruddy’s relief. We began to play with more intensity, physicality and with a snap and swagger to our passing and approach play that is typical of an Alex Neil team.
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Ok, we didn’t go on to win the game and perhaps we should have. Yes, another mistake cost us but it would be wrong to solely blame Ruddy. It was a poor backpass onto his “weaker” foot, the poor clearance was exacerbated by the poor touch in midfield, in turn that was exploited by an excellent pass and clinical clipped finish from Mesut Ozil. We continue to look more solid defensively and much has been made of the change in personnel. Martin and Whittaker have been the regular whipping boys (sometimes given a break when Ruddy-bashing is the order of the day) and folk will undoubtedly point at their omission as a key factor in this upturn.
Perhaps that is the case but it’s worth noting that we haven’t omitted the “mistake-a-game” that seemed to be blighting us, Ryan Bennett has been caught out a couple of times and John Ruddy doesn’t look any more confident with the current four in front of him than he did with the previous incumbents. While the players have to be a huge part of the change around, they’ve been amply assisted by our more pragmatic approach since the Newcastle debacle. We’re not committing so many forward so quickly and as such, the protection offered to our defenders has become much more resolute. That said, I thought the back four were all decent against Arsenal, Andre Wisdom having his best game in a Norwich shirt as far as I am concerned. They’ve earned their places and deserve to keep them but I still expect there to be changes for the Watford game.
The starting XI might have caused a few pre-match drinks to have been spat across the table but in hindsight it looks a really clever piece of picking. This was a game that we were going to spend long periods of time without the ball, we needed a team that had high concentration levels, positional discipline and excellent ball retention. That made the choice of Dorrans, O’Neil and Howson key, while Brady offers far more defensively and better use of the ball than Nathan Redmond. Redmond is a big player for us but can be prone to perceived poor decision making, especially when we have players committed forward (see Newcastle for examples). Grabban offered us something different in the channels and with Mertesacker in the Arsenal side, it could be argued that his ability on the floor would be more of a threat than Jerome or the aerial threat of Mbokani.
The ability to keep the ball in central positions and move it across the pitch quickly and with accuracy was vital to us, Wes, O’Neil, Dorrans and Howson can all provide that while Brady and Grabban gave us pace and mobility. It worked. A game that we were expected to lose, we managed to take something from by making brave and bold decisions in selection.
Next week it’s Watford. We now have players like Mulumbu, Mbokani and Redmond fresh for the fixture, we have a rejuvenated Lewis Grabban who’ll be keen to build on what he achieved and even Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe looking like he’s ready to make an impact.
People will continue to question the depth of our squad but the depth of Alex Neil’s skills continues to grow and this current horses-for-courses approach gives us plenty of hope for the upcoming fixtures.
A point against Arsenal and both January and May don’t look quite so far off but if we fail to build on this against Watford next week it will count for little. If we should learn anything from today, it’s that we’re probably best waiting until AFTER the game before questioning Alex’s teams.
• Blog post written by Duncan Edwards