Saturday, 18 February 2012

Blog 24 - Norwich v Leicester, a few words on the game and a quick stocktake.

I haven't blogged about Norwich for ages, simply because I haven't needed to. It's all been going swimmingly and there's been nothing to add that hasn't been said already.

With the defeat against Leicester in the cup today it seemed like a good time to take stock as effectively it ends our season. Only the biggest cynic or the most ridiculous optimist can see anything remaining for us but a mid-table finish, which in itself is an enormous triumph for us, and the rest of the season is going to be a preview for next season and a challenge to see how high up the table we can reach.

Today we lost to a team we really should have beaten. Leicester were well organised but they didn't play out of their skins, and as much as the knee-jerk reactionists try to scream that all our players were rubbish and they were trying to lose so they can concentrate on the league, that wasn't true either. The reality is that Paul Lambert lost the game by picking the wrong team and the wrong tactics.

There. I've said it. St Paul was fallible. And it's ok. We can say it. The spell will not be broken and he won't turn into a bad manager because of it, or run to another club outraged at the audacity of one fan thinking this. Christ knows he's allowed one bad day at the office. I love Paul Lambert as our manager. He is without doubt the most tactically adept boss we've had in my thirty years of following the team. But today he got it wrong.

Today, we set out to play a system that was simply too heavily weighted in terms of attacking players and we convincingly lost the battle for midfield. The shape was that of a wide diamond, with David Fox playing the quarterbacking role just ahead of the back four, Pilkington wide on the left, Bennett wide right and Wes sitting close behind Morison and Jackson up front. The intent behind this was admirable. Jackson has been brilliant in recent weeks and on current form alone is probably our best striker. If he is to play though he needs someone to play off, whether that be Holt, Morison or Wilbraham. That's fine. So we have a back four and a front two. The make up of the midfield was the problem however. There was simply no presence in the middle of the park. Fox was so deep and Hoolahan so advanced that combined with the wide men operating with chalk on the boots Leicester had the centre of the field to themselves. As the game wore on, Pilks, Wes and Benno all tried at various times to move inside and help out, but even then there was still an enormous gulf between them and anyone they could pass to, and our passing game never really showed signs of getting going as a result.

So why did Lambert pick such a team and formation? I think partially it was an experiment to see if it would work. The competition being an obvious secondary consideration to Premiership priorities and the opposition being a league below us it was an ideal opportunity to tinker tactically, and Holt, Ruddy and Surman were all given a break despite good current form. Bennett played superbly in the second half against Swansea last week, Pilkington has become an increasingly important influence in recent weeks and Wes and Foxy are our two most technically competent players so Lambert gave in to temptation and played them all. Had it been Premiership opposition I don't think for a second he would have tried it. This selection is the reason we lost the game.

The selection though does highlight one obvious problem with our squad now. The attacking players picked today are the ones you get the impression that Lambert is always trying to find a place for. They are flair players, who when in form can terrify defences and create chances and excitement. And today he picked them all regardless of the fact that it left us light in midfield and he knew that when he picked the team. The real issue though is that there were not players of similar calibre in the middle of midfield he would have equally wanted to shoehorn in. Jonny Howson, when fit, may change that situation, but aside from Fox there is only Johnson, Crofts, Lappin and Surman to pick from and Surman is the only one with any current form. This may well be an area that Lambert will look to improve in this summer.

So to the stocktake. PL will undoubtedly look to take us to the next level next season and set our sights higher than simply avoiding relegation. He's shown before that he's not averse to upgrading players that have performed well for him previously, and one of his key skills has been to keep those players involved and keep competition for places high.

Ruddy has had a good season. He still lacks a little confidence, particularly in coming for crosses but his shot-stopping has been excellent and Lambert's faith in him has been well founded. Rudd and Steer have not let themselves down at all when they've had chances and I can't see us investing in a stopper again any time soon.

Kyle Naughton has been exceptional and I think Lambert will do everything he can to persuade the board to pay Spurs their asking price come May. Quick, good on the ball, defensively sound and adaptable he's done everything asked of him and more. Russell Martin has at times looked every inch a Premiership player, and despite the odd poor game or costly mistake, when you consider the journey he's been on from Peterborough reserve in League One to playing a full Premiership season in just two years, we have to be delighted with him. Martin will continue to be a part of our plans going forward. Marc Tierney had been in good form prior to injury, and although Lambert may look at the position in May, Tierney has certainly done nothing to warrant replacing. The fact is that with every successful stage of our upward journey, Lambert upgrades and my gut says that this could be an area, regardless of whether that's hard on Tierney. Adam Drury has performed stoically in recent weeks, but he'll know as well as anyone that he's winding down his career now and that he's lost a little of the sharpness he once had. He may stick around in some capacity as a positive influence but the days of Drury being a regular on the teamsheet are gone. George Francomb is a good young player but he may prove a casualty of success and still be a little way off what Lambert considers is needed as we progress.

Centre-Half has been a carousel position this season with everyone stepping up to have a go. Ryan Bennett is obviously expected to be a big part of our future at the position if the reports of a £3m fee are accurate. Either way it's certainly the biggest fee we've ever paid for a defender, and as an England U21 regular he's a crucial component of Lambert's next generation. Whitbread, when fit, has been a collosus, and if he can just stay healthy, he's one of the best centre halves I've seen in the Premiership all season. Ayala, is young, calm and composed and if he and Bennett get together, you can see a partnership in the heart of the defence that could keep us solid for years to come. Elliott Ward has returned from injury as if he'd never missed a game and his presence is greatly reassuring at the back. With these four in place I can't imagine we'll be looking for further replacements at centre back, especially with Russell Martin as a further option. Unfortunately I can't see a future for Leon Barnett whose days appear numbered. At one point he and Russell Martin were getting a good partnership going having been thrown together by injury, but a number of lapses in concentration saw the big man lose his place and drop down the pecking order. His confidence is obviously low right now, and he had a bad game today, responsible for Leicester's second goal and looking uncomfortable against opposition that he would usually have no problem with. He's a lovely lad and a top player on his day, but he may be another victim of the Lambert upgrade.

In midfield, Lambert has revolved his tactics around the opposition with generally an excellent success rate. David Fox has enjoyed the extra time afforded to him at this level and remains a positive influence on the passing game when selected. Bradley Johnson has been a huge plus in terms of being much better than we anticipated he would be. He remains inconsistent but he's a presence in midfield with his ability to pick up the second ball a definite plus. Andrew Crofts unfortuantely has not made the transition to Premiership player. Whilst he'll always give 100%, he doesn't have the skill set for a top level midfielder and as I've already stated, I think Lambert will look for better players in midfield. Korey Smith and Tom Adeyemi will return from their loan spells better players and may be given chances to show this, but their futures are obviously in the balance along with Simon Lappin. Lapps is one of those silent heroes that Lambert loves who trains well and never complains and is always there if we need him and if he continues to be content he may just have a squad place again next season. Andrew Surman was anonymous for the first half of the season but since getting a run of games he's been much improved and his tactical flexibility has been key to him slotting into the varying systems that Lambert applies according to the opposition. Anthony Pilkington began the season as a flashy sod, desperate to shoot from anywhere and get his name in lights. However, as he's matured throughout the season and become more of a team player he's shown exactly why PL paid handsomely to bring him from Huddersfield. His work rate has increased, he looks to help getting the passing game going, and his runs are no longer just to get himself in position to score, but are often to help out colleagues and provide options for keeping posession as a team. He's another that will grow with the side. Elliot Bennett has probably not made as big an impact as he would have hoped but he has been involved in nearly every game and he always offers something positive when he's on the pitch. I expect him to get more starts before the season is over and be looking to cement a place next term.

Grant Holt continues to be Grant Holt, and that doesn't change regardless of the opposition. If there's a ball to be won, it doesn't matter to Holty if it's John Terry or Troy Archibald Henville, he'll plough through them anyway and this is why we love him. Holty will be here next season, just being Holty. Steve Morison's development is less clear. He has certainly scored some good goals for us and contributed as much as we could hope in that sense. However, there appear to be two versions of Steve Morison that do or don't show up in matches. There have been games where he has scared the bejeesus out of defenders and bullied them with his presence (Newcastle at home and his goal against Arsenal being prime examples), and other times, such as today where he had a shocker, where he looks disinterested and lazy. I'm sure he's neither of these reasons really, but either way, he remains an unpredictable element and if PL looks to aquire a striker, Morison would be one player who would need to watch his back. Simeon Jackson has worked his socks off whenever he has been given an opportunity and although you got the feeling at the start of the season that PL wasn't fully confident that Jackson could step up, he's currently playing so well that he can hardly leave him out. As much as I think Lambert will look to add firepower next season, I think Simeon will remain in the plans and deservedly so. James Vaughan remains an unknown quantity and hopefully we'll see him more before the end of the season. Aaron Wilbraham is starting to win round the doubters finally. To be fair his performances this season when called upon have been good. Last year, many people, myself included to be fair, doubted he had the ability to play at Championship level, let alone Premiership, but he's aquitted himself well in his brief cameos. With his contract up in May I'd be very surprised if we saw him again next year though.

All in all it's been a fantastic season. Really enjoyable and a positive experience for all of those who were worried that we'd gone too far too soon. With Ryan Bennett, Ayala, Pilkington, Elliot Bennett, Jackson, Howson, Vaughan, Rudd and Steer all coming through and developing apace the future looks solid, and if we can add Naughton permanently along with a few more quality additions to the existing experienced lads, there is no reason why next year we can't go even further than we have this. The sky is still the limit for this club.