Time for back-to-front Canaries to restore some balance

Michael Turner notches the latest goal from a City defender in the defeat at Arsenal. Picture: Paul

Michael Turner notches the latest goal from a City defender in the defeat at Arsenal. Picture: Paul Chesterton / Focus Images - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

It is not an exaggeration to say that the next three matches are among the most important in Norwich City’s history – especially if they fail to win the first of them against Reading at Carrow Road tomorrow.

The riches on offer in the Premier League next season make it imperative that the Canaries secure their top-flight status for another year. They still ought to be plenty good enough to do so, but after one victory in 16 games, they are keeping their supporters in a state of suspense much longer than any of us would like.

Back in February, when Chris Hughton’s men were 14th in the table after nine games without a win, I pointed out on this page that City had been relegated from much better positions at the same stage of the season in both 1985 and 1995.

A dramatic late victory over Everton in the very next game appeared to ease any fear of a repeat performance, but after taking just three points from a possible 18 in the subsequent six matches, they are still too close for comfort to the danger zone.

The cruel injustice of the 3-1 defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, with three controversial goals conceded from 85 minutes onwards, bore all the hallmarks of a team whose luck has deserted them and, following the spurned penalty against Southampton, some costly refereeing decisions at Sunderland and the late goal conceded at Wigan, the whole afternoon added to the unhappy parallels with seasons past.

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The mood can be lifted totally if City dispose of the Royals tomorrow and move on to 38 points with four to play – but it must be asked if they can’t beat the bottom club at home, which of the other four matches will they win?

One contributory factor to their struggle for goals – and they are still at risk of recording their lowest top-flight tally – is indisputably a painfully barren season for the strikers.

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Whether it is a symptom of the formation used or a failure in the level of service or the quality of finishing, or more likely a combination of all three, it is a fact that the back four on duty at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday have scored more Premier League goals between them this season than the strikers on City’s books.

Russell Martin, Sebastien Bassong, Michael Turner and Steven Whittaker have managed 10 of City’s 31 league goals between them, while the strikers, if we include the departed Steve Morison’s effort against Liverpool, have scored a combined total of eight, five of those from skipper Grant Holt.

The statistic, underlining a productive season for the defenders, brought a grin from Martin yesterday, but he was certainly not blaming the front players for their comparatively meagre tally.

“Not too bad is it? It’s the way we’ve played, maybe,” he said. “It’s a sign of how good the set pieces have been throughout the season and the lads’ willingness to go and attack them and we’ve worked on it quite a lot.

“That’s a good statistic for me and the defenders but maybe it’s just a by-product of the way we want to play and the fact we don’t want to concede goals and want to stay in the game as long as possible.

“It’s been hard at times for Holty or Kei Kamara or whoever plays up front, with little Wes Hoolahan behind them, but to get a balance between both in this league is really tough and maybe it was the other way round last season. It doesn’t mean the strikers have put in any less effort than the defenders.

“Whoever has played has put in a shift and that’s what it’s about. It’s a team effort. There are no egos in there. They don’t want it to be about personal glory. If we stay up, maybe next year we go again and try to find a better balance between the two.”

With so much at stake, finding a better balance in the next five games would be even better.

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