Ahead of Southampton's Emirates FA Cup third-round trip to Carrow Road, we got the lowdown on Norwich from Paddy Davitt, the Canaries reporter at the Norwich Evening News.
How would you sum up Norwich’s season to this point?
Frustrating, in a word. Although when I asked Alex Neil to describe 2016 after the New Year’s Eve 0-0 draw at Brentford, he opted for more colourful language. Norwich beat Burton at home in late September to go top of the table during a run of seven wins from eight in all competitions. Neil was named manager-of-the-month, but a 4-3 defeat at Newcastle on September 28th, when City had led 3-2 as late as the 93rd minute at St James’ Park, sparked a massive decline. Norwich exited the EFL Cup on penalties at Leeds, after leading in extra-time against ten men, and a run of eight defeats in ten has seen them fall away from the promotion race and put Neil under serious pressure from a growing majority of supporters. Promotion was the stated aim from inside the club before a ball was kicked, after relegation last season, and that remains the case, but Neil and his squad have massively under-performed before they managed to pick up four points from six in the last two games.
What is the team’s style of play and system like this season?
Partly as a response to that prolonged downturn, Alex Neil went with a back three at Brentford and two front players. That marked a radical departure from a fairly structured 4-2-3-1 since he arrived at the club in January 2015. It was the first time he had deployed that system this season, but he reverted to his favoured approach for the 3-0 Championship win over Derby County on Monday. Irrespective of the system, Neil likes his teams to dominate the ball with technically-proficient midfielders and overlapping full-backs, and through that policy try to play the game in the opponent’s half.
Who have been the team’s standout players this season and in recent weeks?
At the start of the season, undoubtedly young wide midfielder Jacob Murphy, who is one of the club’s academy products and a key part of Norwich City’s first FA Youth Cup winning-squad in 30 years, back in 2013. This has been his breakthrough season after a series of Football League loans. The 21-year-old has scored seven in 25 appearances and signed a new longer-term deal just before Christmas. But with the transfer window now officially open he has already been touted with both Liverpool and Tottenham. Nelson Oliveira is the current talisman. Signed from Benfica last summer, the Portuguese international striker took his tally to seven goals in seven games with a hat-trick against Derby earlier this week.
How important is the FA Cup being viewed at Norwich this season?
Alex Neil has been fairly consistent in his approach to cup competitions since taking over at Carrow Road. When City were in the Premier League, cup progress was secondary to league survival and now they are back in the Championship, the same applies in the pursuit of promotion. Norwich, however, have one of the deepest squads in the second tier. Neil made five changes to his starting line-up for both the last two league games, and you can expect him to protect some of his key personnel for a return to league action the following week, whilst striving to build on recent positive results. Like most managers going into this weekend’s ties, it is a case of striking the right balance.
What sort of a game would you expect to see on Saturday?
Beating Derby after a terrible run should ease some of the pressure on the manager and his players. Before Norwich scored the opening goal against the Rams you could feel the anxiety and the tension building amongst the Carrow Road crowd. This weekend is a bit of release from the league slog and if Neil does give fringe players a first-team chance they will be eager to impress. Southampton will want to get back to winning ways as well, so I can see quite an open affair with two teams who like to attack.