Positively negative…

After watching the pulsating Norwich vs Cardiff match, I concluded that it was perhaps the most exciting Championship game I have witnessed all season, and also realised the positives of anti-football. Cardiff started the brighter, and took advantage of some extremely slack defending to draw first blood. After the ball had hit the back of the net on 7 minutes, Dave Jones instructed his players to consolidate the centre of the park, and to keep at least 9 men behind the ball at all times in an attempt to close out the game. It forced Norwich to hold onto the ball and to probe their opposition, trying to pressure them into a lapse of concentration, the  breakthrough finally came on 90 minutes. Thankfully football prevailed in the end, but it’s important to discuss how Cardiff almost stole an undeserved 3 points from Carrow Road.

If anything, scoring so early on was a negative thing for the visitors. On Saturday, they lined up with four very attacking minded players on the field, and looked like they would attempt to take the game to Norwich, and to force the opposition to play on the brake. In recent weeks the Bluebirds have been woeful away from Wales, and this was the first away point accumulated in the past 5 away days. At the start of the season, they played with a sense of fluidity not so different from Arsenal, but this recent run of form has disrupted this confidence, and they are also currently without top scorer, Jay Bothroyd. In place of Bothroyd on Saturday, was debutant, Jon Parkin, and it was immediately obvious to see that he would be the fulcrum of their attack, with a very able supporting cast of Craig Bellamy, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra buzzing all over the final third. It is a front quadrant that promised goals, but after Parkin’s wonderful volley from the edge of the area, were nullified by a combination of fantastic defending and goalkeeping, and profligate finishing. disappointed when given a sight of goal. It can be argued that by scoring so early on, Cardiff were forced to invite the home team to attack them, and attempted to shut up shop. This meant that for the vast majority of the game whenever Cardiff gained possession, it would be launched route one in the hope that Parkin would knock the ball on to a more fleet-footed team mate.

Although I have no authority to compare neither Norwich or Cardiff to Inter Milan or Barcelona, I feel that the associations make sense. This game had shades of that infamous Champion’s League match up from April last year. Admittedly Inter had a two goal league to protect, and were organised with the plan of blocking Barcelona off before they managed to probe their way into the Nerazzurri penalty area. Mourinho’s tactics that day were to frustrate his opponents, and to attack them with pace when they were given the chance. Despite conceding in the final quarter of the match, Inter held on to make the final, winning the competition. There are obvious parallels between the two games: Cardiff got the single goal that they needed to emerge victorious from the contest, forcing Norwich to spread the ball around quickly in midfield in an attempt to carve open a chance. There were nervy moments for the visitors as David Fox struck the crossbar with a furious effort from 25 yards, and Norwich had two penalty shouts waved away, but until the excellent Russell Martin tapped in from a tight angle, it looked like they would hold on for all three points. With so little space in and around the Cardiff box, it was important that the Norwich midfield moved the ball quickly, and spread the play all over the pitch in the hope of creating space for the front two. The main instigator of this play was the marauding Wes Hoolahan, who was at the heart of everything Norwich. He rarely lost the ball, and cruised all over the park, floating into space. His forward thrust forced the gigantic Seyi Olofinjana to backtrack, reducing his impact on the game to some horrendous first touches and a lot of running. It can be argued that as good as Cardiff’s defensive unit were, their midfield was anonymous, and reduced to spectators for much of the match as the ball eluded them.

The most surprising outcome of the day was the contest between Russell Martin and Craig Bellamy. It was only last season that Bellamy was one of Manchester City’s most consistent and mercurial attackers. He struggled to make an impact on the game on his first competitive return to Carrow Road, and looked short of ideas when he had possession. With the approach of Cardiff after opening the scoring, Bellamy was forced to spend most of the game marking Martin, helping out his defensive team-mates. He has never been a defensively minded player, but in the flat 4-4-2 that Dave Jones’ team line up in, forces him to track back and stay in midfield which truly limits his impact on the game. Bellamy’s contribution can be compared to that of Samuel Eto’o against Barcelona. Eto’o made his name as a jet-heeled goal getter, similar to Bellamy, but on that great night, Mourinho played him out wide, utilising his pace in both halves of the pitch, allowing Inter a chance of relief. In both instances the player’s attacking prowess is subdued for the good of the team, but utilised in a quick breakaway.

The positives of anti-football are visible for all to see, and it’s a style that can garner results. It is a tactic that invites the opposition to come and attack, and to attempt to break them down. It is obvious to see that Cardiff’s, like all team’s tactics change from situation to situation, and that against a weaker side they would go all out to attack them. It’s a credit to Norwich City, and documents just how far that they have come in the past two seasons. Negative football can win points, and is a worthy tactic, but I’m just happy that in this instance football came out on top, but neither side were defeated.


Who’d be a manager???

After a turbulent management merry-go-round period, I can quite comfortably say that there is no formula for the perfect manager, nor the exact circumstances in which the position is maintained, only a guarantee that the job will be unpredictable. There are some in the profession who quite frankly should never have made the leap from playing to coaching, and then there are others who have successfully made the grade. In addition to these managerial inconsistencies, the presence and decisions of club owners have severely damaged the game, and it appears that no one’s tenure as manager should ever be taken for granted.

This past month has been one of the most turbulent for managers that I can ever remember. There have been high profile sackings lacking logic a la Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce, and managers that quite frankly should have seen it coming i.e the unfortunate Roys: Hodgson and Keane.  It appears that after every game, the futures of under-pressure managers are discussed, and the odds of a jettisoning of management alternate week to week. For example those in most immediate danger appear to be Gerard Houllier and Avram Grant, and to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti.

On owners making their management choices for their club, Avram Grant recently said that “when you sign a manager, you sign up to a philosophy and you have to know what you are doing.” This is a statement that rings true at the beginning of a manager’s stint, but if results begin to go awry, it is regularly the manager who takes the wrap for it rather than the incumbents of the shirt on the pitch. Grant’s statement can be used to illustrate the horrendous treatment of Hughton at Newcastle. After a demoralising relegation, where there was a distinct lack of fight and hunger, Hughton was charged with a return to the Premiership at the first attempt, armed with a heavily depleted budget. He worked wonders with the team, eventually gaining them promotion as champions. After clearing the first hurdle, Hughton looked for a period of stability for the club on its return to the top division, but was rewarded with a meagre budget, and the installation of Peter Beardsley to his back room staff, without his say. It was an almost identical situation to the one which forced Kevin Keegan out of the club last time they were in the top-flight. Mike Ashley employed Dennis Wise as director of football, without consulting Keegan, and the Newcastle legend soon left the club after being undermined. Despite Hughton recording victories against Arsenal and their local rivals Sunderland, and in top half of the table security, he was crudely shafted, and Ashley drafted Alan Pardew into the hotseat. Post Hughton, Pardew’s team have continued in similar form, and who’s to say that Hughton could not have excelled if he had remained at the helm.

The most worrying factor in this instance, as well as Sam Allardyce’s untimely dismissal, is that those who have decided that change is needed at the club are not football people, they are business oriented, and are oblivious to the realities of the game, and the capabilities of their teams. One only need to look at what the Venky’s group are requesting from their freshly bought Blackburn: a place in the upper echelons of the Premier League, on an extremely minimal budget. There have also been suggestions that they will infiltrate their new manager Steve Kean’s transfer dealings, and that they want a potentially squad disrupting galactio signing, to announce their arrival at the club. Their mooted deal for the washed up star of yesteryear Ronaldhino was a publicity stunt similar to Manchester City’s pointless pursuit of Kaka, and in reality, there’s not enough money in the world to persuade him to swap Brazil for Lancashire, and maybe the Venky’s group will get the message.

Finally it is important to document why managers have traditionally lost their jobs in the past; because they haven’t been able to produce the results that they promised that they would achieve at their very first press conference. Its a strange situation when a manager has cut his teeth at a club, excelling there, and then has flopped at another club. Perhaps the best depiction of this strange situation was Brian Clough’s struggles at Leeds after his triumphant spell at Derby County and later on at Nottingham Forest. This year however, I believe that the pair of Roys have documented the struggle of a round peg in a square hole. Last season Roy Hodgson managed to guide his Fulham team to the final of the Europa League, where they were beaten in extra time by Athletico Madrid. It documented the contrasting fortunes of the club to that when he took over in a relegation battle. Last season proved that his man-management skills were second to none, as he brought out the best in Bobby Zamora, a player who has been lacking in confidence since his regretful move to Tottenham, and managed to resurrect the floundering career of Damien Duff. He also proved that he had an eye for a bargain by signing the gigantic Brede Hangeland, and was rewarded fittingly last season, by being announced as manager of the year. His luck however changed after he took the Liverpool job. He signed players that on paper were befitting of the club, but have been disastrous on the field, and the players have rarely looked interested this season. After several shocking results, culminating in a heartless 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, Hodgson parted company with the club, leaving it in a worse position than when he took charge. After his disappointing 6 months or so in the job, is it possible to say that Hodgson does not thrive under pressure, and that he needs a smaller stage on which to perform comfortably.

It is also amazing to see that he has gone from the most respected coach in England to Alan Green’s scapegoat. Surely the horror shows that have been witnessed by Liverpool fans this season cannot all be his fault, he might pick the team, but the players have to do all of the work on the pitch. I am often interested as to just how much a manager can do whilst his team are on the pitch; if you watch Alex Ferguson during a game, he spends 60% of the match sitting on the bench chewing, 20% complaining about the officials and then 20% barking out instructions. The only possible solution could have been that Hodgson lost the dressing room, and that the players had lost their enthusiasm for the game under his stewardship. All in all it was a sad end to a reign that had much promise.

The other Roy: Keane has just been relieved from a fitful spell in charge of Ipswich Town. Keane made the step from player to manager seamlessly as he took Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to the summit of the division, returning to the promised land at the first attempt. When he replaced Jim Magilton in the Portman Road hotseat, he was provided a sizeable fund to build a squad capable of recreating his triumph with Sunderland. For whatever reason however, Keane never truly found his feet at Ipswich, and the team never really responded to his tactics. He was an immensely well-respected footballer, but it appears that now as a manager he is unapproachable for his players, and is perhaps too volatile a man to be in charge of a football club. Towards the end of his Ipswich reign, he began to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses: blaming the geographical location of Ipswich for the reluctance of players signing for the club! It just never clicked for him in Suffolk, and its hard to see where he will go from here; maybe it would be better for him to drop down a division to guide a smaller side upwards, and for him to hone his managerial skills before pushing on again.

Who’d be a manager eh?

Well that was unexpected…

What a year 2010 was for Norwich City as a club. They managed to return to the second tier of English football at the first attempt, and then to seamlessly compete for promotion upon their return. Statistically they were the most successful team in the football league during the calendar year: taking 89 points from their 46 games, recording the most away wins, and also scoring the most goals. They have entered into a new year, in similar fashion to the way that they began 2010, with 4 points from their 2 fixtures. They have managed to greatly alter their fortunes in a period of the season that has seen them infamously struggle in the past, and this season has seen them go from strength to strength, including a brief occupation of second place.

They are currently on a run of a single defeat in eleven games, and have beaten the league leaders QPR comprehensively along the way. Perhaps this intensive part of the season is not where promotion is lost and won, but it does lay the foundations for a good season if the results are positive. After 25 games gone Norwich City are occupying the lofty position of third in the Championship, only on goal difference from Cardiff in second. I am not going to get ahead of myself, and jump to any hasty conclusions, but it has been a season of great progress, and they are there on merit. The season is just over half way through, and I suppose that the question to ask is how, according to the quite frankly wooden pundit, Leroy Rosenior, the ‘overachievers’ are doing so well?

Paul Lambert has recruited a team of young, hungry talented footballers, mixed with a smattering of more experienced older heads, all on a shoestring budget. They are a close knit group, and this togetherness can be seen throughout their time on the pitch.  A large number of the first eleven have previously had little experience at this level, and they are eager to prove that they can cut it. Talisman captain, Grant Holt had before this campaign, played a handful of games with Blackpool at this level with very little result, and has looked hungry to show that he is up to the task. He has of course taken the division by storm and has six goals in his last seven games. Of the starting midfield four, only Wes Hoolahan has played significant games at this level, and he is looking a lot more accomplished and consistent than on his last Championship jaunt, finding good goalscoring form in recent weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the back four all have experience at this level and higher, and despite the lack of clean sheets this season (QPR was their first in ten games), they have been outstanding, and have helped to build a solid foundation for the team to move forward. In recent weeks the injuries have been mounting, and against QPR, they were without seven first-teamers, leading to Lambert describing the victory as ‘miraculous’ because of such a depleted line-up. I am more inclined to say that it was a case of Andrew Crofts marking the Hoops heartbeat; Taarabt out of the game, leaving the league leaders unable to make their mark on the match, but both make sense.

In the six games that Norwich have lost this season, they have only been truly outplayed on one occasion: against Doncaster Rovers away. Their performances alone should have at least warranted a point from the home defeats to Hull and Portsmouth, and were unfortunate to lose away to Cardiff and at home to Crystal Palace, and the opening day defeat to Watford can be put down to nerves and the lack of success under the Sky Sports spotlight. This strength and consistency that has been shown throughout the first half of the season has documented that this is a team without fear, and one that does not go out looking for a draw; they have the belief that they can garner three points in every game. This belief must be due a considerable amount to Paul Lambert, and his man-management skills. He is rapidly becoming the best manager that the club have ever had, and currently has the best win percentage in the history of the club: winning 58% of his 77 games thus far. He also has retained the amazing statistic that his team are yet to lose two consecutive games during his tenure at the club, and it shows what great ‘bouncebackability’ he has instilled in his squad. Not only has he restored the confidence of the club, but he is also making sure to keep the players and fans feet on the ground. After being lightly interrogated about the team’s chances of promotion in recent weeks, he has always harked back to his original aim for the season: to retain Championship status. He has however stated that if the team can do this, then they will push on to finish in the highest position that they possibly can.

The Championship division this season has been the most open that I can ever remember, and unlike last season there isn’t a Newcastle or West Brom running away with the automatic promotion places. This can only be good news for a fearless Norwich side. They have taken 4 points off of QPR, without conceding a goal, and have the chance to gain revenge from out-of-form Cardiff in their next league game a week on Saturday. As these teams stutter there is every chance that there could be a side that quietly sneaks into the automatic promotion picture, and if the boys in yellow continue their good form, manage to keep their current squad intact, and add to it and of course retain Lambert, then there is no reason why it cannot be them.