Sign of the times as Norwich City boss rings the changes
It is often said that the only constant in football, as in life in general, is change.
Just four matches into the Premier League season, it is reflected in the fact that Norwich City’s starting XI for the televised game against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday included only four survivors from the team that kicked off at Portsmouth on the night they clinched promotion from the Championship little more than four months earlier – Marc Tierney, Andrew Crofts, Andrew Surman and skipper Grant Holt.
Three of the seven differences from the side that took the field on that memorable evening at Fratton Park were unavoidable, suspension and injuries combining to keep goalkeeper John Ruddy and central defenders Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread on the sidelines last week.
But four more of the players who were breaking open the bubbly and celebrating in front of 3,000 travelling fans at Pompey were on the bench for the game against Albion, perhaps reflecting on just how quickly things can change.
Full-back Russell Martin, who played every single minute of City’s 46 Championship games, has not kicked a ball in the Premier League since the opening fixture at Wigan five weeks ago.
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The same is true of midfielder David Fox, who started City’s final 16 games last season and was in the starting XI at the DW Stadium on the opening day.
Striker Simeon Jackson, whose nine goals in seven games – including the promotion clincher – made him the headline-grabber in April and May, has played just six minutes in the top flight so far. Few at Fratton Park would have predicted that.
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And Wes Hoolahan, who started the Premier League away games at Wigan and Chelsea, has not started either of the Canaries’ home matches, though he was given the chance to offer some welcome creativity in the final half-hour against the Baggies when he came off the bench to replace Surman.
The changing of the guard is invariably a consequence of winning promotion and already there are parallels to be drawn with what happened last season, when the bulk of the League One title-winning side were either immediately or gradually replaced by the players who provided the backbone of City’s successful promotion challenge – Ruddy, Crofts, Fox, Ward and, ultimately, Jackson, Surman and Tierney.
By the end of the season, the only League One regulars featuring just as frequently in the Championship were Russell Martin, Holt and Hoolahan.
Manager Paul Lambert’s changes were fully justified as players such as Crofts, Fox, Jackson and Tierney successfully bridged the gap between divisions, while others such as Ward, Surman and Leon Barnett brought their Championship and limited top-flight experience to bear at their new club.
The question now is whether City can repeat the trick with the new recruits they have brought in for their Premier League campaign.
Before the season got under way, Lambert made no apology for the fact that few of his summer signings had top-flight experience, arguing that he had none of his own.
Striker James Vaughan apart, there were only a handful of Premier League appearances between the rest of the “young and hungry” summer intake, two of whom – Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington – were being asked to step up two divisions.
The evidence of the opening matches suggests that while most of the new faces have shown promise, few have nailed down their places, as demonstrated by the fact that City have used 21 players in four league games, and only four men – Holt, Crofts, Tierney and Ritchie de Laet – have started all four fixtures. It has not helped that De Laet has for long spells looked the most polished of all the new signings, yet has also committed errors that have handed three goals to the opposition.
Injuries have forced City to make changes in the centre of defence, but further forward there is still a sense that they have not settled on the best combination and, fearing that the diamond shape that has served them well in the previous two seasons cannot be used ad infinitum, they have tried to adapt their formation to suit the occasion and the opposition.
The Canaries have been unfortunate not to take more than two points out of 12 and have been on the wrong end of some ropey refereeing decisions, but the sooner they can decide on their strongest combination, be it new faces or old, the sooner they will chalk up the victories they need to secure a second season in the Premier League.
• JOHNSON’S ‘FITTED’ IN QUICKLY
Watch out for those wide boys at the Reebok Stadium tomorrow.
According to official statistics, three of the top five crossers in the Premier League could be on show.
The EA Sports Player Performance Index shows that Bolton’s Martin Petrov has the second highest tally of crosses in the top flight with 20 this season, while City’s Marc Tierney and Elliott Bennett are fourth and fifth in the table with 18 and 15, respectively.
Whatever else has gone wrong, Norwich are still the team to have covered more ground than any other in the Premier League this season, and Bradley Johnson’s 8.39 miles against Chelsea is the single greatest distance covered by one player in a match. No one can say they aren’t fit.