Alex Neil is Great But He`s Still Learning
Let me make a couple of things clear first - I have a huge amount of respect for what Alex Neil has achieved in his first year at the club. I was pleased that the club had been decisive and decided our best hope of promotion was without Neil Adams (or maybe Adams decided to leave, who knows) at the helm, and the Alex Neil reign went as well as any of us could have hoped for - one of the most exciting times in recent memory to be a Norwich fan.
I love the fact he`s an attacking coach and plays every game to win, under Neil our full backs are allowed to push on, Wes usually plays and we always create chances. After watching a season and a half of 'anti football` under Hughton, Alex Neil is a breath of fresh air. I now enjoy going to football more than I have done since the Lambert era. I don`t really mind that when we are drawing 1-1 at Stoke, with 10 men that he makes attacking substitutions, even if they back fire - in fact I like his positive attitude.
However (here comes the rant) Neil seems to have one major failing, and it`s costing us points at the moment, and it`s very frustrating. Yes he`s learning about the strengths and weaknesses of his players - but for me, he just isn`t learning quickly enough.
He clearly rated Steven Whittaker when he came here and he was virtually ever present in the promotion run in. About a year ago he played him in midfield against Brentford, and although his options were limited for that game, we could all see that is was a bad decision, and it memorably backfired as he was directly responsible for 2 goals.
Now Whittaker was on OK right back in the Championship, but we all knew he wasn`t going to be quite good enough for the Premier League. Nearly all of us would have had Russell Martin at right back (steady and usually dependable despite a lack of pace for this level), or given Wisdom a try (defensively better than Whittaker but limited in an attacking sense), with Bassong plus another in central defence. For whatever reason we didn`t buy a central defender in the summer, and therefore the obvious choice was Ryan Bennett alongside Bassong. However for the first 10 games (save for the suspension after his sending off) of the season, Neil persisted with Whittaker until finally realising Martin and Bennett were a better bet vs West Brom at end October. The defence instantly looked much stronger and we were harder to beat.
Many of us could say something similar about Graham Dorrans - skilful and creative but somewhat of a risk at this level due to a lack of pace and lack of bite in defensive midfield (perhaps similar to David Fox maybe). Yet Dorrans was picked week after week in the early part of the season, before finally losing his place in the wake of the Newcastle disaster. He has appeared sporadically since, but generally (until his moment of insanity in the potteries) Gary O`Neil has been preferred as a safer bet.
Then there is the curious case of playing Russell Martin at centre back ahead of Ryan Bennett. I love Russ, I really do - he`s a proper hall of famer in my view and has been a stalwart over the previous 6 seasons. However we all know he`s not the quickest, and we all know he can be weak in the air. He was annihilated away at Middlesbrough last season and I honestly thought he would be unlikely to get many more chances in that position but Alex Neil does not seem to have realised what 99.99% of fans are convinced of; that Ryan Bennett is a better central defender than Russell Martin in the Premier League. In fact, save for the 3-0 reverse at Spurs and the O`Neil inspired collapse at Stoke, we have looked solid, capable of keeping clean sheets and competing with most teams at this level.
If Timm Klose wasn`t quite ready to start, then why split that partnership up? Why go back to a pairing that had looked vulnerable and likely to ship goals on a regular basis?
Whether it`s just a case of loyalty or whether he sees something else in these players, I don`t know. As someone (not so eloquently) pointed out to me yesterday on Twitter, I don`t see the players training every day and managing a football team is much more difficult than it seems. However as fans, it`s our right to have our say and point of view. And in my view, Alex Neil has been (at times) slow to pick things up. Slow to see that players` deficiencies could lead to vulnerabilities and points dropped.
Assuming we`ve seen the last of Russ at centre back, my next position of worry would be left back. Against the better teams, I have much more hope if we play Martin Olsson behind Robbie Brady on the left. Wes on the left leaves us exposed (just as Hucks on the left did, poor Adam Drury), and against the better teams we get picked off. Wes isn`t a winger, and I prefer Wes centrally (whether Steven Naismith`s signature means that`s now less likely, I don`t know), backed up by more defensively minded types, and I get the feeling Brady likes a more attacking role too. Olsson has done little wrong in my view and was happily bombing forward as well as mopping up against Man Utd before being dropped not long after. He wasn`t great at Spurs, but Spurs are one of the best we`ve played.
I know Alex Neil is learning, he`s young, he`s getting to know the players and he`s getting to know how to win games at this level. I just wish he would learn a bit faster!
PS I still think we`ll stay up, Alex Neil is too positive and too much of a winner to throw it away this time.