Opposition View – Norwich City

Daniel Brigham of The Little Yellow Bird answers our questions ahead of Saturday’s long trip to Carrow Road.

How’s your season been so far?
After a good start to the season with a couple of big wins over Sunderland and Bournemouth and good points at Upton Park and Anfield Norwich have hit a bit of a sticky patch. In fact it’s worse than sticky: no wins in 6 games in the league, including a 6-2 hammering at bottom club Newcastle (which didn’t really tell the story of the match, but was still demoralising). Last week we played really well in the League Cup against Everton only to be knocked out on penalties and then a few days later lost cruelly at Man City, with a very late winner a few minutes after we’d equalised. We played really well in both games, but it’s hard to tell what psychological damage such narrow defeats will have had on the players.

What are your expectations for this season?
Most Norwich fans said at the start of the season that if we didn’t sign a quality centre-back we’d struggle, and that’s how it’s panned out. We play really good football, but with such a leaky defence there’s too much emphasis on us having to score every game – we’ve yet to keep a clean sheet. I think we’ll be in a relegation battle all season, and whether we get relegated may depend on whether Sam Allardyce and Remi Garde can turn Sunderland and Aston Villa around. However, unlike under Chris Hughton when we were relegated playing dull, dull football at least it’s fun watching Norwich this season.

Who have been your star performers thus far and who needs to up their game?
Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond have been our stand-out players so far. They don’t always start at the same time, especially away from home, but they’re both in real purple patches. Redmond has been transformed under Neil and is a real threat now and has added goals to his game – something that had been missing for too long. A few weeks ago Hoolahan had the most assists in Europe, and he’s finally got a manager who trusts him to play his natural game at No.10.

Our entire defence has to up their game. While our full-backs are somewhat less culpable because they’re tasked with playing so high up the pitch, our centre-backs Seb Bassong and especially Russell Martin have struggled. We conceded almost 50 goals in the Championship last season, and that hasn’t been addressed. Martin was pushed out to right-back recently with Ryan Bennett partnering Bassong, and we’ve looked a little stronger at the back, but we really need reinforcements in January. Goalkeeper John Ruddy is also in serious danger of being dropped for the weekend after costing us a number of points this season – including last Saturday against Man City.

Were you happy with the business you did over the summer?
As mentioned, not signing a centre-back (through no lack of trying) has really haunted us. However, Robbie Brady has been outstanding for us – he’s up there with Hoolahan and Redmond as our best players so far. He’s mostly played at left-back but is more effective on the left wing, and last week did a great job as a right wing-back in a 3-5-2 at Man City. Matt Jarvis was a late loan signing and has provided a direct threat on the left, while Youssouf Mulumbu, who has only just recovered from a serious injury, looked exactly what we needed in the holding midfield role in his first two starts against Everton and Man City.

We also signed striker Dieumerci Mbokani, and he’s had a good start for us. Powerful, quick and smart on the ball, you can see why he’s scored plenty of goals for some good sides such as Dynamo Kyiv (who he’s on loan from), Anderlecht and Dynamo Liege. He was ill last week so missed the Man City game, but expect him to start on Saturday.

Since our last meeting you’ve changed your manager, what are your thoughts on the job Alex Neil has done so far?
Neil has been a revelation. Very few people had heard of him when he was appointed last January, when we were languishing outside the play-offs. But he got us playing attacking possession football and we won 17 of our 25 league games under him, as he quickly turned us into the division’s in-form side.

As previously mentioned he’s worked wonders with Redmond and Hoolahan, and has eyes of a man who could kill – the players don’t mess with him. He’s also adapting quickly to the challenge of the Premier League – let’s not forget he was Hamilton manager less than a year ago – and his decision to change the system against Man City showed plenty of nous. There have been a few grumblings about his position after our poor run of results, but in my eyes he’s one of the best young managers out there.

You haven’t won since the start of September so how big is Saturday’s game for you?
It’s the biggest game of the season for us so far. We’ve got Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Man United in five of our next six games (!), so we really do need to get three points against Swansea. I’m reasonably confident though – we’ve done well against teams who like to play football.

What do you make of Swansea and which players if any do you fear?
I’m a big fan of Garry Monk – really impressive guy (if a little chippy occasionally!) who appears to leave absolutely no stone unturned in preparing for matches. He seems to have added a bit of steel to Swansea without losing any of the attacking football, which is an impressive balancing act.

Ayew and Sigurdsson are classy footballers, and probably the two I worry about the most. As a neutral it’s such a shame what’s happened with Michu, as he’s genuinely one of the best players I’ve ever seen at Carrow Road. Gomis looks a very hot-and-cold striker, so I’m hoping he’s in the middle of a cold patch!

Predict the score and where both teams will finish…
I’m going 2-1 Norwich. We always do well in pressure games under Neil, and despite our poor run of results we played with a lot of confidence against Everton and Man City.

I think Swansea might struggle a bit for goals this season, but fully expect them to be around mid-table. If Norwich don’t sign a quality centre-back in January I fear relegation – but it’s going to be an arse-nipper all the way to the end.