The Alex Neil Difference
He's been a giant in terms of his impact on the club since becoming the new manager on the 9th Jan and winning an incredible 17 out of 25 matches. But what is it he's done? What has made him win so many matches and how has he got the results and performances out of what is in reality the same team that Neil Adams had at his disposal?
One of the key reasons for the upturn in form has obviously been the improvement in our defensive performances and the re-emergence of Sebastian Bassong. Bassong has been important but what else has Neil shown in his four months in charge? Here's a few of my thoughts...
1) In-game Management
Alex Neil has shown he's not afraid to make big decisions - even in his first game at Bournemouth with 10 men he wasn't afraid to start mixing it up, tweaking the formation to great affect. Another example is when we played Charlton away - a period of time when Jerome was playing second fiddle to Lewis Grabban (itself a master stroke). He brought Jerome on at just the right time, taking Redmond off in the process, with Jerome scoring the winner. A trick that was also repeated away at Blackburn with Wes and Jerome coming off the bench to turn the game around.
Having great players at your disposal if obviously part of it, but knowing when and how to get the best of out them is the key to achieving great things - and this is where Alex Neil has excelled and where Neil Adams was somewhat lacking.
2) Dropping the Right Players
Sometimes players just don't fit into the club or don't perform and Neil has shown that he's not one to mess about when making decisions. The debacle at home to Brentford quickly saw to both Turner and Cuellar, who were rarely seen again after that game. Also when Redmond was not delivering he was dropped and came back more fired up and productive than ever - something Paul Lambert was also very good at.
Neil also had seen enough of Kyle Lafferty in those early games to realise that he was not the right man for the team. He was not good enough as a main striker and was ineffectual as a left winger. What was he giving us? Neil saw this quickly and dealt with it by sending him on loan and never looked back.
3) Starting at a High Tempo (training)
Quite often under Neil Adams we would start badly and seem slow out of the blocks. Alex Neil's Norwich City were not allowed to play like that and always seemed to be on the front foot, pressing the opposition. When Wolves came to Carrow Road they were very much in form and have been since that game, scoring for fun, but we were on top of them from the first minute, with Alex Tettey their tormentor in chief.
The narrative from the players suggests that training is now at a much higher tempo and this prepares the players better. Was it all a bit too easy under Neil Adams perhaps?
4) Boundaries and Discipline
There were whispers that players were not particular respectful towards Neil Adams, especially towards the end of his reign. A well known journalist who is a Norwich fan suggested that players were on their phones during team talks or they were talking amongst themselves. A number of players have come forward recently (Redmond and Bassong amongst others) to say that Alex Neil's clear boundaries and rules were just what they needed. The difficulty is getting this discipline message across to players in this day and age of player power. Paulo di Canio was one manager who took discipline too far for example, but so far Neil has got this balance just right.
5) The Right Narrative
When I heard that during Neil Adams' time in charge the Reading players used his open criticism of them in the game at Carrow Road to motivate them for the return fixture, I thought then that we were perhaps a bit aloof and foolhardy - something which perhaps characterises Adams' time in charge. No such danger with Neil - he is always gracious to the opposition without building them up as Hughton used to (even Luton Town had 'great quality') and never criticises the players (Ruddy and Whittiker didn't get criticised when inwardly he might have been disappointed) - just the right balance seems to be struck and he shows maturity way beyond his years.
In terms of what happens next, I suspect that Neil will be having a wee chat to David McNally about his contract as it seems as opportune moment as any to utilise a strong negotiating position. The secret is out now and although still very inexperienced (he's 18 months away from getting his coaching qualifications) his stock is in the ascendancy much like Paul Lambert's was when he took us up two seasons in a row.
I just hope that both the club and the manager take more of a long term view this time. If things are going well, as I expect they will, then we should back the manager in the transfer market and grow the club by expanding the capacity of the City Stand. My motto is, if you're not moving forwards, you're going backwards and I suspect that the club will need to keep pace with Alex Neil if we are to retain him over the long term and put the club rightfully back in the higher echelons of the Premier League.
I have been critical of McNally in the past (mostly over the lack of action with Chris Hughton as manager) but credit where it is due. He has unearthed a gem of a manager and made the change at exactly the right time.
It's been a fantastic roller coaster ride of a season and Mondays game was my favourite moment as a supporter in a long time. Let's hope we can keep this up. Our medium term aim should now be to secure European football back to the club and to try and win a cup, whilst finishing comfortably clear of relegation.
The current setup and squad at the club gives us a great chance of achieving these great things!