Premier League profile 2015/16: Norwich City
Just one year ago, Alex Neil was preparing to manage in Scotland’s top-flight, but now the young Scottish coach faces by far the toughest challenge of his career on or off the field – trying to keep Norwich City in the Premier League.
It is a battle both he and the Canaries could easily lose, as Coral make the East Anglian outfit 5/4 second-favourites behind remodelled Watford to be relegated.
What Norwich do have among their ranks are plenty of players with Premier League experience and of the dogfight, which is something fellow promoted sides Bournemouth and the Hornets lack by comparison.
Neil, a relative managerial novice to some of the coaches he will be directly competing with down at the bottom, such as Dick Advocaat (Sunderland) and Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City), plus others he can only dream of beating like Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, has had a low key transfer window.
Opting against the en masse recruitment policy of Watford, which wrecks any consistency with what went before, shows real wisdom from a manager that surprised everyone when he steered the Canaries through the Championship play-offs. This includes an impressive 2-0 Wembley final win over Mourinho protege Aitor Karanka and Middlesbrough (see highlights above).
Instead, Neil has followed fellow bright young thing and Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe, who is similarly about to experience English top-flight football for the first time, in exploring certain avenues, pursuing some and opting against others.
Argentine attacker Joaquin Larrivey was strongly linked with Norwich but, just like the Cherries and Dimitar Berbatov, the expensive addition – be that in transfer or wages – of a player that would look too lightweight or lazy and lacking the stomach for a survival scrap was avoided.
Clever judgment from Canaries coach Neil has continued in identifying what he was missing last season; an orthodox left winger and a right back to force the best out of Steven Whittaker through creating competition. Norwich now have both.
Republic of Ireland left-footer Robbie Brady cost a reported £7m, as relegated Hull City drove a hard bargain -knowing teams that either passed them by, or who would be promotion rivals, would try to poach their talented players.
This is money well spent, as the Manchester United academy product can operate anywhere down his natural side of the pitch. As brilliant as Canaries box-to-box midfielder Bradley Johnson was nominally operating off the left flank, his bursts from this berth will be entirely too predictable at Premier League level.
Moving Johnson back into the centre accommodates Brady, who could also play behind him at left back, but keeping the 15-goal man and player of last season relatively free of defensive duties is essential.
Liverpool and ex-England Under-21 international Andre Wisdom, meanwhile, found the defensive rigours Tony Pulis instilled into West Bromwich Albion too stern and fell out of favour during a loan spell there.
He can once again press his claims for regular Premier League football after temporarily exiting Anfield, however, by challenging Rangers old boy Steven Whittaker.
Norwich need captain Russell Martin in the heart of defence, as his partnership with hot-and-cold Sebastien Bassong, capped by Cameroon, looks the best pairing open to Neil. Spanish trio Carlos Cuellar, Javier Garrido and Ignasi Miquel have all been released, and will frankly not be missed.
Sweden international Martin Olsson completes the likely back four in front of John Ruddy, who has Jake Kean, signed on a free from the aforementioned left back’s former club Blackburn Rovers, as understudy now. Harry Toffolo should be Olsson’s understudy after an impressive loan spell at Swindon Town.
The Carrow Road midfield has also been beefed up, again to create competition for places, with the permanent capture of on-loan Graham Dorrans (for £3m from West Brom) and Youssouf Mulumbu – a teammate from The Hawthorns on a free. Alexander Tettey will be taking the latter on for the dubious honour that is the anchorman role.
Gary O’Neil, Johnson, another Leeds United old boy in Jonny Howson and Irish playmaker Wes Hoolahan complete engine room options which have not changed much since the Canaries’ previous Premier League stint that lasted three seasons. Tony Andreu, manager Neil’s favourite from Hamilton, looks to be on the fringes at best.
Nathan Redmond, so impressive in the play-off final victory over Middlesbrough, must continue to perform consistently from the right flank, else he is a liability to the team.
It will take an ensemble effort up top from him and fellow forwards Lewis Grabban, Gary Hooper and Cameron Jerome, plus returning duo Kyle Lafferty and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, to steer Norwich to safety.
What Neil must avoid is the tactical naivety and predictable cautiousness of predecessors Neil Adams and Chris Hughton. Everyone faces a pretty lengthy trip to Norfolk to clash with the Canaries, so strong home form is paramount to their survival hopes, and this may explain why Norwich are odds-on at 4/7 to stay up.