Story of a Match: WBA

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Lacking in the final third

Today showed the best and worst of Norwich. After a performance against Stoke where we surrendered the initiative and one against Chelsea that was full of bravery and battling performances, the performance against WBA was one that was more akin to the fluency of last year. We outpassed WBA 336-305, out tackled them 39-28, out intercepted them 23-15 and outshot them 18-15. These are all encouraging stats, showing a Norwich team that wasn’t awed and was prepared to play its own game. Compare this to the other home game we’ve had, vs Stoke, and the improvement is there to see (despite the results). Against Stoke we surrendered the ball to play on their terms. Against WBA we played on our own.

As ever, these only tell half the story. While we did well in possession, up front we were lacking and we provided very few threats in the final third. We put in 21 crosses that failed to reach their target, from both sides of the pitch, and we struggled with putting quality in the box. Holt has a tendency to run the channels (as Morison also did), and when playing the diamond this was fine as we had less out there, but when playing a flat 4-4-2 it meant the WBA defence was relatively untroubled by balls into the box as there wasn’t always someone there to receive them.

Secondly, when we did actually get a sight of goal, our finishing was poor. Of 18 shots, only 3 were on target, all of which were in the first half. The rest were either blocked or wayward (looking at you, Johnson). It’s a cliché to say these are the games you’ve got to be winning, but despite WBA’s turgid performance, Ben Foster had a perfectly untroubled afternoon. When four different strikers take to the pitch and fail to make him work, you’re going to struggle.

Brawn over Brain

I’m in danger of repeating myself here; Wes Hoolahan has to be starting. I find it baffling that he starts two away games but is benched for two home games against perfectly beatable opposition. The preferred Lambert midfield partnership for the last three games has been Bradley Johnson and Crofts, a partnership that is based on running and tackling and not ability with the ball. And ultimately, and this might not be a popular opinion, but Crofts is a player who is going to struggle at this level.

Let’s look at the two of them today. Johnson won 9 tackles to Crofts 3. This is the same pattern from Chelsea and Stoke. When your role in the team is to win the ball from the opponent and break up play, Johnson is doing it better than Crofts. He’s also outpassing his teammate. I believe playing the two of them is overkill to begin with but I understood the rationale behind doing it vs Stoke, a physical team. Against others you are sacrificing guile for brute force, and not a great deal of it. Despite what many people think about Wes, he’s got a defensive game and can put in a tackle himself. In fact, he won the ball the same number of times in half an hour, 3, as Crofts did in 90 minutes.

I know, I know, In Lambert We Trust, but I do find the decision to restrict Wes’ playing time baffling (and Fox, to a lesser extent). Crofts, while an admirable player who was superb last year, showed today frequent poor touch and the turning circle of an oil tanker. By sacrificing your best and most creative player for one who is more one-dimensional, the team is going to suffer. Everyone saw the impact that Hoolahan had when he came on the pitch, and Norwich are simply a better team with him on it.

Naivety

I’m getting tired of talking about referees, and it’s worth pointing out first and foremost that we didn’t win today because we didn’t deserve to. What’s closer to the bone, however, is that we deserved to draw. Dodgy penalty decisions and flailing elbows aside, the referee had minimal impact on the game. We conceded a goal again through individual error. And again, it was Ritchie De Laet.

It’s hard to fathom how De Laet can show equal amounts of composure and complete ineptitude but he manages to do it. Arguably one of our best players in the opening three games, he was nevertheless responsible for the penalty vs Wigan and the third goal vs Cheslea. Today it was a misreading of a ball – or a hesitation. In any case, the defence was evidently nervous as hell and it was easy to see why with Rudd in goal. This isn’t going to be overly popular and may come across as harsh, but Rudd managed to show why he’s not quite ready for this occasion. The penalty save was brilliant and his other save from Odemwingie kept us in the game, but these were two moments among shaky saves, poor handling, complete misjudging of the flight of the ball on a couple of occasions and the feet of Fraser Forster.

This isn’t to blame Rudd for the goal; that isn’t fair. But I would bet that De Laet wouldn’t have made that mistake with Ruddy at the back, and I will be pleased to see the big man back in the sticks next week. But naivety is really killing us. Whether it’s getting caught wrong side of attackers (Barnett), poor decision making (De Laet) or just not being wise or cynical, we are losing because of it. Of six conceded goals, five you can attribute to individual Norwich mistakes, and we’ve given away four penalties. The team needs to get streetwise, quickly.

Conclusions

Ultimately we suffered in this game from a combination of things; a spectacularly bad decision by the referee at the end, a lack of creativity and guile in the middle and some poor finishing. Some of these things are in our hands and some aren’t, and you’ll only survive in this league by taking control of your own destiny and removing luck from the equation. We shouldn’t be sitting here talking about referees ruining games (again). We should be talking about how we made our chances pay, about how we put away the goals that the performance deserved. If you can’t get the job done up front then it makes all the passing, the tackling and the hard work in the middle meaningless, and it’s something Lambert will need to address at Bolton and Sunderland. In my opinion, a change of Crofts to Hoolahan is the first step, bringing in an all round game for a one dimensional player.

 

The Diary of Captain Canary, Part 2

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Dear Diary,

This morning I woke up in the shower and my wings had been shaved. My memory was blank, but from the destruction around me, it looked like Splat had thrown another one of his parties. This isn’t the first time that I’ve been caught up in Splat-inspired carnage, but I will leave those stories for another time.

I sat up. My head was pounding to the rhythm of its own drum. Seriously, it was like I had a second heartbeat. Every movement was an ache, every inch was a struggle. Trembling, I crawled from the shower. It was then that I realised the true scale of the damage. On the bathroom floor there was a used condom. Codeine tablets were scattered about and empty cans of Fosters were stacked on the toilet.  The mere smell nearly forced an involuntary wretch but I held my stomach down.

With all the grace of Gary Doherty, I rose to my feet. I held onto the walls while everything spun, and slowly opened the door. Outside, half his face crusty with his own dried sick, was Splat. I stepped over him and stumbled into the living room. The lemur was there. That fucking lemur. He was also asleep, surrounded by empty cans and fag ends. On the table in front of him was a bong fashioned from a large potato. Splat’s work. On the other sofa was a girl I’ve never seen before, but from the amount of blue fur on her face, I guessed she was pretty close to Splat. I gazed upon her with a mix of revulsion and envy.

Someone had looped the TV. It was showing Ruddy’s haymaker on Drogba on an infinite repeat. On the table in front was a goalkeeper glove with a scribbled signature. The players had been here. Wait… what if they were still here?

I went off to the bedrooms, and my fears were confirmed. In my bed was a triple spoon: Ruddy, Elliott Bennett and Super Chris. At the foot of the bed, curled up like a family dog, was Lappin. I glanced at the clock; it was 8:30. I went to the spare bedroom and held my breath as I opened the door.

Inside was Leon Barnett and Steve Morison, sleeping top and tail in the single bed. On the walls someone had written ‘red card wanker’. These boys go too far when they’re drunk. I remember when young Henri was down last season, some of the things he would get up to would make you blush. He would do anything for a Nando’s. That old-lady had a night to remember.

I surveyed the damage. I was the only one awake, in my own flat, with a bunch of pro footballers, drugs, a random woman and a fucking lemur. I do not remember how it happened. I do not know why my wings have been plucked, I do not know why I ended up in the shower. My last memory was of popping a painkiller and being handed a ‘special drink’ by Splat down at Delaney’s.

I need to find out what happened. And whoever plucked my wings is going to feel my wrath.

To be continued, diary. To be continued.

C.C xx

Story of a Game: Chelsea

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Some games can’t really be examined or explained by chalkboards and stats. They turn on a couple of moments and that is that. Today is one of those games. I’m going to use some boards to demonstrate a couple of tactical things, but the story of todays game can be boiled down to a couple of refereeing decisions; one which wasn’t given, and one which was.

For the third game in a row Lambert mixed things up, going in with a 5-3-2 formation and expecting the full backs to support in an attacking way. This didn’t last too long as Zak became the latest player to be injured at that position, and Pilkington came on in his place. However, it was an interesting tactical gambit that left us both shaky to begin with, but looking increasingly solid as the half wore on. Tierney and Naughton both contributed in the Chelsea half, making more passes there than they did in their own. This setup also contributed to Chelsea playing their fullbacks high with both Cole and Bosingwa playing far up the pitch. With both teams playing without natural wide men (for a time), the fullbacks were the tactical story.

As the shot above shows, Bosingwa was dominant down the right side, spending a lot of time in our half. This told after just 5 minutes when he took a shot from distance. I’m going to bang this bloody drum every single game it happens, but…

Give a player an opportunity to shoot, and he will. We were warned by Ramires two minutes before, and Bosingwa made us pay. Whether it’s Stoke, MK Dons or Chelsea, the tendency of the Norwich midfield and defence to let teams play in front of them is worrying. With 5 at the back this should be especially the case as you’ll always have a spare CB.

To Norwich’s credit, things tightened up after this. Bradley Johnson in particular had a good game, coming out to break down Chelsea attacks repeatedly, and help start a few of our own. Towards the end of the first half we created more and more, Holt going agonisingly close after breaking the offside trap and Wes running the show in the middle. Hoolahan was outstanding on his return to the team and linked with Tierney and Chris Martin to great effect down the left.

The ability of Norwich to hold Chelsea and match them was exemplified by Barnett and De Laet, the two best CB’s at the club. Both put in excellent performances (more on De Laet later), were strong in the tackle, read the game well and kept the Drogba/Torres pairing completely quiet and frustrated.

The picture above shows just one stat, tackles, and the success of both men in winning the ball, stopping attacks and clearing it was very important to what was a good performance. They both made a number of timely interceptions and generally kept the Chelsea attack under control. In fact, for all of Chelsea’s possession (which is put between about 65 and 70% by different outlets) and the wild difference in passing stats (157 to their 484), Chelsea were creating no more than Norwich. Their passing repeatedly broke down in the final third as they hit long shots over, crosses didn’t find their mark or Norwich defended well.

The picture above is a heatmap of Chelsea’s unsuccessful passes, clustering around the wings and high up the pitch. Norwich were able to hold off one of the championship contenders and deservedly equalise, even if Hilario did cock it up. Holt’s lovely finish was no less than we deserved as we put pressure on the defence and exposes the lack of trust the Chelsea backline had in the stand-in keeper.

But ultimately, this isn’t where the game was won and lost. Both teams were putting their all into winning and who knows how the last twenty minutes would have gone if it remained 11 vs 11. But it didn’t. Minutes after Mr Beachball bottled a decision on Fernando Torres, he sent Ruddy off after bringing down Ramires in the penalty area. Down to ten men, down 2-1 once the spot kick was converted, and Norwich were always going to struggle. We played out the remainder of the game admirably, continuing to get the ball forward and Morison had two wonderful chances that could have changed the game, but deep into injury time we conceeded a third. While many have pointed fingers and commented on De Laet’s ‘frequent’ errors, he simply overhit a pass in the 100th minute when, if we weren’t losing, he would have clearly belted the ball out for a throw. He didn’t contribute to our defeat, and the mistake is forgivable.

For me, what isn’t forgivable and what winds me up immensely, is the massive inconsistency in refereeing. The red card for Ruddy was given as he supposedly denied a clear goalscoring opportunity. Except Ramires, in his rush to get the ball past Ruddy and hit the deck, hit it wide and away from goal as Pilkington raced to the line. The ball was clearly going away from the net as Ruddy made contact.

While it may be tough to make out there, the ball is bobbling about behind Ramires who’s done his rolls by this point. The inconsistency arrives when other goalkeepers are given just yellow cards for this. At Premier League level you should be able to expect a standard of refereeing that doesn’t change from game to game, and you should be able to expect a ref who doesn’t bottle a red card for the £50m striker on the home team. Already on a yellow, Torres obviously, and cynically, took out a Norwich player to stop a breakaway. It was as clear a yellow card as you’ll see, and one any other player on the pitch would have received, but the ref bottled it.

There are some things in the game you have a power to change and some you don’t. Your own performances and mistakes you can do something about, but a referee who’s a homer is something you can’t account for. All of this results in a scoreline that flatters a Chelsea team who were utterly unconvincing for most of the game, and is harsh on a Norwich team who matched one of the biggest teams going. Losing 4-0 would be easier to take than being level and having your chance taken away from you. It feels disappointing because it’s a game we could, and should, have got something from. And that tells you all you need to know about a brilliant Norwich performance.

Club Statement a Symptom of Bigger Problems

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When David McNally gave the go-ahead to publish that statement on the club website yesterday afternoon, you would have hoped he understood the PR disaster awaiting him. The statement, attempting to explain the clubs ongoing beef with BBC East, was no more than a petty, childish whinge over Late Kick Offs role in the non-transfer of Craig Mackail Smith. The request for BBC East to just ‘pick up the phone’ and explain themselves might seem fair to some, but stinks of something more worse that has been creeping into the top clubs for years. And unfortunately, it’s crept into ours.

McNally will know full well that the producers at LKO, or Dion Dublin, will not reveal their source for the CMS information, whether its from Posh or Norwich. In demanding to find out where this information came from, McNally is making an unreasonable demand and punishing local fans with a drop in coverage until he’s been satisfied. But more than just a petty attempt to settle scores, this underlines the club attitude to the press in recent times; one of deep hostility and suspicion towards a profession that only attempts to find the truth and inform its readers.

Ultimately, the club, and many others up and down the Premier League, wants to control the information that fans have about day to day goings on. It’s been going on for years. Whether it’s Sir Alex Ferguson saying a player is weeks away from a return before including him in a squad, or Arsene Wenger saying a player won’t be leaving the day before they do. The clubs of the Premier League, backed up by the nauseating organisation DataCo, have attempted to minimise the impact of good journalists and provide only sanitised, safe, club-approved information to the masses.

In this way, press releases become news, the club is secure from embarrassing revelations or dangerous exposures and to assume Norwich would be clean from all this is naïve. There is undoubtedly a wealth of information at the club that would cause problems if it was leaked, the same as any club, and any restrictions they can place on journalists for the pettiest of grievances they will do. It has happened before, to the unlucky Michael Bailey at the Evening News, and I’m led to believe it was threatened again to the EDP (though I’m not going to say when and why).

This is merely the local manifestation of a long running, national trend on the part of powerful Premier League clubs to control content. It is, ultimately, what was behind the recent problems between the Newspaper Publishers Association and DataCo, where the press was threatened with a lockout up and down the country if they didn’t subscribe to the archaic end user agreements being thrust upon them. DataCo, with its Football League and Premier League backing, attempted to intimidate clubs and publishers across the country into accepting their terms which tried to, amongst other things, heavily restrict the way in which live text updates were sent from matches.

But this isn’t the first time that journalists and DataCo have collided. They had disagreements in 2008 over the charges DataCo impose just to print the fixture list; £9,000 for a national newspaper and £22,500 for a website. This is the experience of modern football reporting, where a newspaper cant print fixtures without paying a fee and I certainly couldn’t put them on this blog without being threatened with legal action. It happened even earlier, in 2004, in a row over the release of digital images.

In every instance the conflict comes from one side wanting to restrict the information that is passed to the public, and one side wanting to open it up. Journalists fight fire with fire, blanking out sponsors and closing down coverage until a compromise is met, but the unhealthy balance is just waiting until the next round of contract talks.

And so it comes back to David McNally’s beef with BBC East. The contempt with which journalism is held by the footballing authorities, be it FIFA, the FA or the Premier League, or by individual clubs is a stain on a profession which has helped clean up, modernise and revolutionise the game. Not all sports journalism is perfect but whether its investigations into club ownership, bungs, criminals in football, illegal dealings, transfers, power, finances, racism, homophobia and so much more paint a profession that has done more to try and make football transparent than any of the inept institutions that try and run it. Attempting to make BBC East explain themselves, through their source of information or methods of obtaining it, are not only petty but symptomatic of our club joining the ranks of the bullying big boys.

Which is a shame, because McNally has been one of the best things to happen to this club in a long, long time.

Five Things We Learned From Being Tanked By MK Dons

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Korey Smith isn’t yet good enough to step up

Some of you will say it’s harsh, because he’s young, hasn’t played too often lately, etc. But he isn’t. And the thing many also need to accept is that he didn’t always cope with the Championship. There was a reason his stay in the side last year was temporary, as he remains a player with a one sided game. He harries, tackles and chases, and last night he chased the shadows of a League One team. Korey was admirable in our first promotion and useful in our second, but as he enters his twenties, the limitations on his game mean the club is likely to outgrow him rather than the other way round. He is without an attacking bone in his body, getting a nosebleed if he enters the final third, and while many will cry youth, there is only so long that can be an excuse. A good season or two in the Championship would do wonders for his development and help turn him into an all round player, but on current showing, he remains a long way from the first team.

Andrew Surman remains a player many ‘don’t get’

Surman is a puzzle, a player with poise and intelligence at his best, but awkward and anonymous at his worst. Against MK Dons, he was among his worst. He put in arguably the poorest performance on the pitch, punctuated by his stupid error that gifted the Dons their fourth goal. We all know what Surman brings to the table when he’s on form, and the game vs Forest is an example of the influence he can have. But coming just days after his ineffectual sub appearance vs Stoke, another performance of inept anonymity will leave him in a precarious position. Johnson and Pilkington head a long line of players itching to make a midfield berth their own, and Surman needs to work on his consistence if he wants to prove to Norwich what he failed to do at Wolves; that he is a Premier League standard player.

The timing of Barnett’s ban couldn’t have been better

Whitbread returned to the team tonight and put in a decent shift, among the more creditable in yellow shirts, but he was partnered by debutant Daniel Ayala who had a bit of a mare. Poor positionally, all arms in the tackle and culpable for the first goal, he did little to inspire confidence. Norwich now have a centre-back corps that is five deep but doubts over quality remain. Leon and De Laet are arguably the stand out pairing and will likely start vs Chelsea (Zak is of course in contention), but there is a reason that Ayala cost less than many championship centrebacks, including one who is about to drop down a division, Gorkss who is heading to Reading from QPR for £1m. Ayala has the potential and will no doubt feature many times, and his performances will hopefully improve once he has settled into a better understanding with his teammates, but the return of Barnett to the fold on Saturday is a relief.

Norwich fans are gluttons for punishment

But it isn’t an excuse. Our poor record in cup competition is well known yet 13,000 fans made their way to Carrow Road to the game last night. A credible defeat to concentrate on league games wouldn’t have upset, and a win would certainly have pleased, but to put in a performance so abject and gutless leaves a sour taste. A lot of those who went last night will not be season ticket holders, for one reason or another, and many will be kids. They won’t come back any time soon having seen the show put on last night, a performance that simply lacked guts. It’s the least you should be able to come away with. It is easy to dismiss, however, when you didn’t attend. Simply saying it’s a cup game and we can now concentrate on the league doesn’t help me or the other families paid money for an insipid performance.  So it’s not enough to brush it under the carpet. With that said…

It offered bugger all insight into the Premier League campaign

The team had 11 changes and on Saturday we can expect it again. The setup vs Chelsea is another world away from what we went through last night, the expectation from both the manager and the crowd wildly different. Any players who survive last night and play will have something to prove, and those who come back into the fold will want to show the fight that the team missed yesterday. It all starts again at the weekend and this will be swiftly forgotten.

So that’s ok then, right?

The Myth of Wes Hoolahan

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Our Wessi. A creative inspiration, with a left foot like a paintbrush and the vision of a sat-nav. Nimble. A playmaker full of attacking instinct, but small and fragile. Out muscled. A luxury player.

Except he isn’t.

Hoolahan’s demotion to the bench on Sunday came as a massive surprise to almost everyone as Lambert picked a side that was perhaps more steel than fluid. In Lambert We Trust, say we, and Lambert’s decision was more or less vindicated. The 11 players on the pitch performed admirably and were two minutes away from a hugely creditable win before Jones struck. The draw was a result that the vast majority of fans accepted and credit goes to Lambert for picking a team that hung in with an established Premier League team for 94 minutes, 30 of those with 10 men.

But it does not alter the fact that Norwich are a better side with Hoolahan in the team than without, and as I believe and tried to demonstrate with yesterday’s analysis, we were crying out for him in the latter stages of yesterday. We were much poorer at holding onto the ball than in previous games, and Stoke were (as has been noted by pundits and papers across the country) able to have the majority of possession for the first time in three years. But the possession wasn’t an issue so much when we had 11 men. The players picked did their job and we were 1-0 up through merit. This changed when Barnett got sent off, as Norwich continued to back off, failed to press, failed to keep hold of the ball and attempted to soak up waves of Stoke attacks. Surman was introduced, seemingly to try and provide some stability, but his impact was minimal. And we only have to look at the highlights to see that the Stoke goal came from a period of possession where Surman, Crofts et all backed off onto the edge of the area and allowed the ball to come in. There was an acceptance of playing on Stoke’s terms.

Whether or not Wes would have changed this is irrelevant, but the argument against his inclusion by some fans online was predictable. The argument that he would have been ‘broken’ by the Stoke players, that he’s too small and lightweight to hold onto the ball, that he’s too attacking for the situation or too much of a luxury player. The prevailing opinion on Wes is that he is a free spirted creative genius behind the front two, but that’s all.

That is, frankly, wrong. The side to Hoolahan’s game that gets nowhere near enough credit is that of a straightforward, all round central midfielder. A player who repeatedly tracks back, who can tackle, hold onto the ball and spread it around. Against Wigan, Hoolahan made the middle third his own, spreading the ball from back to front and to both wings. He is one of the players in the Norwich side, along with David Fox, who is able to retain possession. His radar for a pass is among the best in the side and he keeps possession. For a player with his frame, his strength is understated; just look at the video at the number of times he holds players off or darts past. He is able to put his foot on the ball and do more than hoof it – he finds another yellow shirt or he keeps the ball himself. Long gone are the days he dithered on the ball and was tackled, coached out of him by Lambert and co.

Against Wigan he completed more tackles than Holt, Morison, Surman and Fox, and that’s on top of his outstanding passing. In short, he’s a player that can both win the ball and then retain it. He’s not just a luxury attacking midfielder, he is an all round centre midfielder, and the sort of player we were desperate for in the dying minutes against Stoke. A player who can press and tackle, who can then keep hold of the ball and slow the game down, who can find another yellow shirt and stop so many waves of Stoke attacks. He is no luxury, he’s an essential in the current Norwich side, a player with an all round game.

To suggest this is not to lack faith in Lambert. Norwich can be hugely proud of the performance and the result we got on Sunday, and many better sides will lose to Stoke this year. But to suggest there were no other options, or that Wes was not suited to the game, isn’t fair on a player who has worked so hard to become the all round player we all love. We’re better with him in the team, and dropping him against a physical Stoke side merely reinforces the boring narrative that he’s a fragile player who can’t hack the tough games. He’s been kicked off the park by worse cloggers in League One and the Championship – he should be doing it in the Premier League too.

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