On Saturday afternoon, Chelsea return from Denmark to welcome Norwich City in Premier League action. Chelsea enter this match unbeaten in the Premier League this season, with their only two defeats of the season coming in the Community Shield against Manchester City to open the season and the UEFA Super Cup against Atletico Madrid.
By contrast, Norwich have struggled this season under new manager Chris Hughton and find themselves at the other end of the table, having amassed just 3 points from 6 matches. The departure of Paul Lambert to Aston Villa has been part of the problem. After all, he was the man that guided them into the Premier League to begin with. Others will argue that they simply suffer from second-season syndrome; the realisation that the players that got you promotion may not be up to keeping you in the Premier League.
However, I do not think that is entirely the case. I think Norwich’s problems are in their lack of identity under their new manager. Unfortunately, the league is ruthless and don’t always give you a chance to find one, especially when you’re battling to avoide relegation
From getting to see a few Norwich matches this season, this is not the same style that they played last season.
I do believe that Hughton is a good manager. I thought he did a quite admirable job at Newcastle, getting them promoted when it was clear that the direction of the club was flawed. In fact, I didn’t think the sacking came at the correct time, though hindsight has proved Alan Pardew to be a much better manager than I thought.
However, Hughton has a bit of a problem, similar to the one that Andre Villas-Boas inherited at Chelsea. He has inherited a dressing room of players that played for Lambert for a number of seasons, earned promotion together, and Hughton is the outsider coming in with change.
Hughton won’t be unfamiliar with the situation but taking over a club that feels that they’re too good to be relegated, but were, is a completely different proposition than trying to adapt to a culture of players that are already in the top flight and trying to stay there.
I’m not saying that there’s a player rebellion there, but Grant Holt already wanted to leave in the last transfer window when Lambert was there, and now Hughton’s inherited that problem. There must be others.
Norwich’s biggest problem under Hughton is a lack of identity as a team. I don’t think that they quite know who they are.
You knew exactly what you were getting tactically from Norwich last season. You were getting 4-4-2 with Holt and Steve Morison up front, and a host of players whose goal was to get them the ball in the box. You were also going to see a brand of football that was exciting because Norwich were committed to not just defend in their first season, but to attack, regardless of outcome.
It earned them safety with a rather comfortable point total, and it got Aston Villa to take notice and tap Paul Lambert to be the man to turn around their fortunes. However, this season, you don’t quite see that.
As I’ve watched them, I think part of their problem is that they get caught in two minds a lot of the time. While the players are so used to playing the ball in a specific way and attacking, Hughton’s style has been a lot more controlled, organized, and in a completely different shape. Rather than partner Holt and Morison, he’s opted for one or the other in favor of playing a more controlled, attractive football, rather than the swashbucklers that played last year.
And therein lies the problem. Because they still want to get forward and attack, defensive lapses are magnified when you aren’t sticking the ball in the net. Last season, their somewhat aggressive play yielded 52 goals, but people forget that they also shipped 66, the most of any mid-table team. When you consider that in attack, they aren’t sure exactly who they are and the defensive problems that have really existed this year and last, it might explain why they are where they are right now.
Grant Holt is still their main threat, but he’s not scoring. At all.
Last season, Grant Holt scored 15 goals in 36 matches in the league. This season, he’s scored just 1 in 6 and represents a quarter of Norwich’s total goals scored. There’s the biggest problem. Suffice it to say, I believe that Grant Holt is still a very good striker, but at the moment, he’s fluffing chances that last year, he would have put away in his sleep. However, no one else is scoring goals either, and because of their reliance on him and Morison to score, it’s hard to see where the goals come from anywhere else. Morison and Holt combined for 24 of their 52 goals last season in the Premier League.
Could Second-Season Syndrome have hit Norwich?
You really begin to wonder if this is an actual problem for Norwich. It stands to reason that many sides in their second season after promotion struggle simply because they still have a mixture of Championship-level players who the club is loyal to but may not be good enough for the Premier League, and experienced Premier League players. Normally, it leads to a mixed bag of results, wherein the team realizes that many in their squad may not be good enough to sustain life in the Premier League.
However, you wonder if that’s the case with Norwich because in Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner, they have two center backs who are still good Premier League players, but they’re still shipping goals for fun.
Logic would say that perhaps the attacking talent and midfielders, some of which had people wondering if they could play for England, may not be up to standard, or they’ve gone missing this season.
After the travails to Denmark, Roberto Di Matteo may finally have found his best 11 players.
I was going to give a massive explanation as to why Frank Lampard’s time may have come closer to being over for Chelsea after the performance against FC Nordsjaelland, but I have a pile of words already. I may save it for another time.
However, I do think that going forward, Di Matteo must continue to pair John Mikel Obi and Ramires in the midfield with Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata behind Fernando Torres. If the trip to Denmark showed anything, it’s that when you take out one of the above five players from the start, the side begins to lack that little bit of fluidity and unpredictability, and the pitch seems to get congested with people popping up in strange areas.
The positive to that is that I think we’ve found a Plan B to the Plan A and what substitutions can be made late in matches to shore up the defending, e.g. Ryan Bertrand to the left and Victor Moses to the right. However, I also think by asking Mata, Oscar, or Hazard to play static positions, it limits the overall potential of the squad. Suffice it to say, they all, including Torres, look happier when you have a stylistic play similar to that of Spain, with intelligent movement and reading of space and no static positions. When you don’t have that, they tend to look like they get in each other’s way.