Chris Hughton is a man on the edge staring into the abyss. Saturday’s humiliating 7-0 thrashing by Manchester City highlighted everything that is wrong at Carrow Road and pushed Hughton closer to the sack. Norwich spent heavily during the summer with the hopes of building on last year’s impressive eleventh place but all has not worked out quite as planned. Languishing in the relegation zone, Norwich come into November needed a change which unfortunately could result in the removal of Hughton. The popular coach has been up against it this season but couldn’t all of this have been avoided?
Having shipped 20 goals in the first 10 games of the new season, resulting in only 8 points, questions must be asked about the Norwich defence and what has changed from last season. But instead the focus has been reserved for the misfiring front line, who between them has scored only 6 goals in the same number of matches. Having spent a majority of the summer transfer budget recruiting three strikers – Gary Hooper from Celtic, Johann Elmander from Galatasaray and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon, the hope was that the trio would remove the goal scoring burden from Grant Holt’s shoulders and fire Norwich up the table. But the trio has not started as brightly as hoped and as a result Norwich have slipped down the table to 18th place, putting Hughton’s position in doubt. However blame should not lie with the new strike team nor be attributed to the departure of Grant Holt but instead should be pushed towards Hughton and his over reliance on a failing formation. So far this year, Hughton has stuck heavily with a 4-1-4-1 formation with a lone striker up front and an anchoring midfielder protecting the back line. This is more defensive than last season’s 4-4-2 formation with one of the front pair (usually Wes Hoolahan) dropping in behind Holt in an attacking midfielder style role. The change in formation not only disrupts the flow on the team and limits the amount of chances the team can create in the last third but also sends a message to the back four that the manager feels they need extra protection from an anchoring midfielder than before. This in itself is strange as it’s the same defence that helped Norwich to a comfortable mid table finish last season. In fact they have strengthened with the addition of accomplished Swedish internationalist, Martin Olsson. So why Hughton is less confident in his team than last season is any one’s guess. Added into this, by pulling back your players into your own half, you invite the pressure from opposition attacks which if as robust and powerful as Manchester City’s, will result in a heavy punishment. By changing the tactics and formation, Norwich could transform their season and climbs steadily back up the table.
Looking back, there are precedents to back up a claim that a switch to a 4-4-2 formation will work. The last time Norwich played this formation was in the 1-0 loss to Aston Villa. Now whilst defeat was the outcome of the game that day, the stats paint a different picture with Norwich matching Villa toe to toe on all fronts from possession to shots on target and pass complete. A single goal in the 30th minute from Libor Kozák, who had just come on as a substitute for Christian Benteke two minutes earlier, was unfortunate and against the run of play. Norwich did create a host of chances that day and if it wasn’t for poor finishing from Elmander and Van Wolfswinkel as well as a couple of great saves from Brad Guzan, Norwich could have walked away with a much different result. A month before the Villa clash, Norwich took on a confident Southampton using the same formation and triumphed that day with a single goal from Nathan Redmond. On that day Norwich were by far the better side, creating more chances and allowing their strikers the chance to play. Even going back as far as last season to the last game of the campaign when Norwich beat Manchester City 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium, Norwich played the 4-4-2 formation and won. It’s the system that favours Norwich the best and the one that the team appears most comfortable playing so why Hughton insists in continuing his crusade with the defensive 4-1-4-1 is anyone’s guess.
Added into this, by playing two strikers Norwich appears to have more of a goal threat (as crazy as that may sound). Yes Van Wolfswinkel has not yet set the heather alight with his goals but adapting from playing in Portugal to playing in England takes time, something he has not yet been afforded. As a lone striker, the Dutchman struggles as he is team marked and given less time to control the ball and turn, something he was given more of in Lisbon. Johan Elmander should be able to adapt more quickly having played in the Premiership before for Bolton, but at 32 he is not as pacey as he was in the past. But the one player who could be Norwich’s savior is not being used. At 25, Gary Hooper arrived at Norwich in the best form of his life. Having spent three seasons at Celtic, scoring 90 goals in 105 games in all competitions, he is the natural goal scorer Norwich needs but is being unused. Granted he was sidelined with an injury at the start of the season but he is back now and raring to go, but Hughton’s reliance on his current formation is restricting the chances for Hooper to shine. This is a guy who not only scored regularly in the Scottish League (not as credible to many as it seems) but also in the Champions League where Hooper often pulled Celtic out of a variety of sticky situations. Hughton knows what Hooper can do and has seen it first had during Norwich’s 3-2 win over Watford in the League Cup (Hooper hit a brace) but he now needs to give Hooper a starting run in the team to get the best out of him. Combining Hooper and Van Wolfswinkel, and having Elmander on the bench as a support player is an option that many Premiership managers would kill for so why isn’t Hughton exploiting it?
Having played a majority of the larger teams (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and City) already, the next two months see Norwich play a selection of winnable games against fellow strugglers Crystal Palace, Fulham and Sunderland as well as trips to West Brom and Swansea, both of who have started this season much slower than last year. Hughton will know that he has limited time to turn things around before the Norwich board has enough and wields the axe. With the January transfer window fast approaching, history has shown us that a majority of teams looking to make the change in management do this in advance of the window to allow the new manager time to restructure the team so Hughton has to act fast. Changing the tactics back to a 4-4-2 formation may be the best way to improve results and get the goals flowing again. It’s this move that will give his new strike trio the chance to show what they can do and reestablish Norwich as a force to be reckoned with within the Premiership.