David Freezer: Squad game is key to SAS saving City’s season
- Credit: Denise Bradley
The fresh feeling of new leadership and a change of direction has been unavoidable this week. Not that Dean Smith has made any particularly bold proclamations.
Whether you had faith that Daniel Farke and his staff would turn things around or had long since made up your mind about the need for change, that fresh voice and renewed energy has arrived.
How long that revitalising effect persists will probably tell us much about whether the SAS (Smith and Shakespeare) are going to be successful in saving this season – and setting up a bright future as a self-sufficient organisation.
Carrow Road will be vibrant this afternoon, alive with the buzz of anticipation, of looking for early clues to what may lay ahead. City fans can arrive full of hope as well.
Not only because this squad of Canaries players actually won their last game, after clinging on desperately to their first half spoils at Brentford, but because we haven’t yet seen what this group is truly capable of.
Of the new boys it’s really only Mathias Normann that has laid down a marker and validated the recruitment team’s belief that he is a Premier League player. At the rate the Norway midfielder is establishing himself, he could soon be worth a serious amount of money.
Milot Rashica has offered moments of quality and put in his best performance yet during the win at Brentford, but is yet to offer much of a goal threat. Brandon Williams also offered some really good signs when pressing forward but struggled defensively at times too.
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That’s a similar theme for the other five as well. Pierre Lees-Melou, Ozan Kabak, Josh Sargent and Billy Gilmour have shown flashes of capability rather than consistency, with Gilmour alongside Christos Tzolis as a frustrated young talent seeing chances dry up.
It’s not just about the new lads though, without even getting into Todd Cantwell’s potential reboot. The whole squad has to lift its levels and realistically that only happens with confidence and a degree of momentum.
So as much as a revitalising home victory over Southampton would be a brilliant start – particularly as Saints have taken 10 of the last 12 points available – the new staff have only had a few days of proper preparation and will be relying on spirit and adrenaline to find that extra 10 per cent.
A steady flow of points and consistency may not sound particularly exciting but those are the underlying trends that should be priorities during the next couple of months.
We’d all be happy to see a dramatic surge and to win three of the next five games, for example, but the Premier League challenge remains just as difficult and more defeats won’t be too far away.
There are 10 games before any potential January tweaks to the squad can be made but as Smith and Stuart Webber stressed this week, a lot of money was spent this summer and getting the most from that investment is the immediate priority.
That would be beyond halfway, with 17 matches remaining, so getting up towards 20 points by then would seem a good target. If City aren’t in survival contention at that point, then persuading any major signings to join in January would seem highly unlikely anyway.
We could pick through that next 10 and point to tough trips to Tottenham, West Ham and Leicester, or Carrow Road clashes with Manchester United and Arsenal, but that almost feels irrelevant. Every match at this level is difficult.
Just look how hard the second half scrap at Brentford was and how satisfied the Norwich players were at full-time. That had included a VAR intervention to disallow a goal for offside, crucial Tim Krul saves and surviving an aerial bombardment.
If a new system, fresh ideas and tweaked tactics don’t bring an element of consistency, balance and increased control of their own game, then City will continue to live on a knife edge.
Much of that may come down to mentality. Hearing from Smith about how he managed two seasons of Premier League survival at Villa or from assistant Craig Shakespeare about his epic time at Leicester, should be capable of lifting the mood and reminding the players that a successful season is very much still within their grasp.
The new boss mentioned the need to “be a good team-mate" during his Carrow Road press conference, a phrase that Villa fans are familiar with.
Whatever happened before the international break is history. Often it is the players surrounding the starting XI who can be influential to keeping the mood upbeat. There is no room for sulking and moaning during a survival push, however difficult that may be at times.
England rugby chief Eddie Jones doesn’t have replacements on the bench, he has ‘finishers’. While that doesn’t quite translate to football due to only three substitutes being allowed – and is why I dislike that nine can still be named – it shows the mentality that is required.
Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction if the new regime are to build upon the positive building blocks of the unforgettable Farke era.