Earlier on in the season, when a previously goal-shy Liverpool tore Norwich a new one at Carrow Road, I mused whether Chris Hughton had made a mistake. I have a lot of time for him, as he seems like one of the few genuinely likeable people in football, but I wondered whether this was the wrong job at the wrong time.
Norwich’s first season back in the top flight was always going to be tough to follow. Paul Lambert did a fantastic job in transforming the side from Championship relegation candidates to a mid-table Premier League outfit in such a short space of time. The momentum that comes from such a rapid change built a feeling of euphoria amongst the players and the fans, allowing the team to continue to overachieve. However, that can only be relied on for so long and eventually dwindles, leading to what is better known as ‘Second Season Syndrome’.
Most observers will agree that Lambert got the absolute most out of his squad last season and I would expect he shares that opinion. That is why it was no surprise to see him jump ship to Aston Villa in the summer. Although Villa are currently struggling as well, there is seemingly more scope for improvement with the resources available, especially after the dire reign of Alex McLeish.
It’s almost lesson one in the managerial handbook – take the job which gives you the greatest opportunity to make a positive improvement. So while I understood Lambert’s decision, I worried for Hughton.
The departure of Lambert had clearly unsettled the club, while last year’s top scorer Grant Holt was pushing hard for a new contract and his future at the club was not guaranteed. Add in the expected effect of the aforementioned Second Season Syndrome and it seemed like the Canaries would be battling for their Premier League survival.
This wasn’t a reflection of the new manager at all, merely of the task that was placed in front of him. In fact, Hughton deserves a lot of credit for what he has achieved so far in management. Although Alan Pardew has done well since taking over, there is no doubt that Hughton’s dismissal from Newcastle was harsh. He’d done a fine job in stabilising the club after their relegation and, with next to no funds available, he oversaw their return to the top table. When he was dismissed in December of the following season, with Newcastle in a comfortable position, campaigners United for Newcastle staged a protest outside the ground. That should tell you all you need to know about what the fans thought of him.
His spell at Birmingham can again be deemed as relatively successful. Despite losing a whole host of first team players following their relegation, he steered them to the play-offs where they were unfortunate to lose 3-2 to Blackpool over the two legged semi-final.
Up until the October international break, I saw nothing to change my mind about Norwich’s likely plight this season. In truth, they were pretty terrible, with the 5-2 home defeat against Liverpool a particular low point. But since then, it has been all change with three successive 1-0 victories at Carrow Road over Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United and two away draws at fellow relegation candidates Aston Villa and Reading. A five game unbeaten run with only one goal conceded has propelled them into 13th place.
The most notable difference has been the team shape. The advantage Hughton had over the international break was that a large proportion of his squad remained with him, and credit must be given to both him and his coaching staff for the work done in that period. The switch to a 4-4-1-1 has reaped rewards, and the contrast between the team which got torn to shreds against Liverpool and Chelsea to the one since has been remarkable. The big gaps and individual errors have gone and they have proven incredibly difficult to break down.
Sebastian Bassong and Michael Turner have been paired together at the heart of the defence, clicking very quickly into a solid partnership. As I’ve mentioned on several occasions before, the value of partnerships in modern day football can sometimes be overlooked but they are vital. The two seem to complement each other well, with Turner attacking the ball and Bassong covering. With John Ruddy rediscovering his form from last year too, they have an excellent base to build on.
But most importantly, the team defends as a unit. Alexander Tettey and Bradley Johnson do an excellent job of screening their defence, while the wide players work so hard for their team without the ball. Arsenal created next to nothing in their defeat, whilst Manchester United failed to overpower them in their usual manner.
A lack of goals may be a little concern, with only four goals in the last five games, but Hughton will be willing to sacrifice that for now to gain that extra defensive stability. And with the increasingly impressive Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington in their ranks, not to mention Holt, they will always believe they can score goals.
The jubilation in the stands on Saturday when the final whistle blew was a joy to see. Chris Hughton deserves a hell of a lot of credit for giving that victory over Manchester United to the fans.