Alex Ward returns with his view on the ‘ugly’ draw at Reading, and looks ahead to some ‘winnable’ fixtures…
Nobody promised it would be pretty. For the neutrals, Saturday`s match was an dull match with few openings and was – at best – a gritty affair.
Nonetheless, this clash was a big one – a six-pointer between two would-be relegation rivals.
A lot was at stake. For Reading, another week in the mire; for Norwich, a sudden jolt backwards.
Unlike my fellow away game traveller, I was petrified at what a loss could do here and was starkly aware of how easy it could happen. Reading had netted eight times in their last two home games, against Arsenal and Fulham to boot.
But Norwich stayed strong, holding the likes of Jobi McAnuff, Jimmy Kébé, and Pavel Pogrebnyak at bay in what was their third clean sheet in their last four games – their fourth overall.
Four clean sheets. More than last season`s tally merely eleven games in. Only Stoke have more.
Better still, Saturday`s game was the first away clean sheet since that fateful May fixture at Fratton Park when Norwich sealed their long-awaited return to the top tier.
It is clear that Hughton`s decision to build from the back is paying dividends. An almost unimaginable prospect under Lambert, the Canaries` defence has morphed into a well-drilled, well-oiled unit.
Certainly, as the spine of Ruddy, Bassong, Tettery/Johnson, Hoolahan and Holt takes its shape, so too has Hughton`s reign.
Whilst the omission of Howson is harsh considering his undoubted talent, Hughton is right to stick with the current set up. If it ain`t broken, don`t fix it.
Even the much-maligned Michael Turner seems to have hit stride, despite clamorous calls for his exit after some frankly awful performances early on.
So, unbeaten in four, two home wins and two away draws with a cheeky cup run to cap it off. Nobody can deny that Norwich are making a decent fist of avoiding the unthinkable after a shocking start to the season.
But worryingly, the Reading game epitomised a perennial problem with Hughton`s Norwich that could be its eventual undoing – an inability to find the net. It seems that the very same predictability that has put City`s defensive woes to rest has spread to the attacking corps.
Ever since pre-season this has caused issues. Countless times, city`s offensive capabilities have come up short in decidedly winnable games – QPR, West Ham, Aston Villa and even Tottenham.
Whilst the cavalier approach that characterised the Lambert years left Norwich`s defence in tatters on a routine basis, it reaped the rewards up top. Nowadays, Norwich are almost the polar opposite.
The loss of a lively James Vaughan, Harry Kane`s spell with the physio, and the mercurial nature of Steve Morison, Anthony Pilkington and others are partly to blame for Norwich`s current impotence.
But much of the goal drought stems from the system itself. Former wingbacks now sit deep. Holt, at times, becomes isolated.
The key for Hughton lies in striking the balance; perfecting the trade-off between defensive cohesiveness and attacking flair.
Next for the Yellows come Manchester United at home and Everton away. Two bonus games, essentially.
Whilst it would be nice to get results here, the real crunch comes in the string of games that follow: Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Swansea (A) and Wigan (H) – all eminently winnable fixtures.
This patch will be the most testing to date for Hughton`s boys. If they emulate their recent form, the Christmas period will be doubly as festive. If they slump back into their previous ways, they may find themselves back in the relegation quagmire.
Stage one is complete: the defence is built.
Now, the goals must come.