Norwich City travel to Aston Villa this weekend in desperate search of a win to keep their slim play-off hopes alive. The City board’s search for a new manager is yet to draw to its conclusion and, as a result, stand-in boss Alan Irvine will be taking charge of his third game since Alex Neil’s departure. The trip to Villa Park, however, will represent a vastly different, and more difficult, test in comparison to his opening two games. Whilst home games against Blackburn and Barnsley represented a fairly hospitable start for Irvine, facing a recently rejuvenated Villa side away from home will give City fans a far more accurate perception of whether we have improved since Neil’s departure. Under Neil, the outcome of Saturday would have been wholly predictable: a no-show and yet another away drubbing. It is down to Irvine to try and prove himself more capable than his predecessor in navigating tricky away trips and, in attempting to do so, he has some tough decisions to make:
1. Who replaces Wes Hoolahan?
The majestic little Irishman hobbled off after just 30 minutes during the victory over Barnsley two weeks ago and Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neil has since suggested that the injury could leave him sidelined for the rest of the season. Whether this diagnosis is accurate remains to be confirmed by Irvine but it can be assumed that, at the very least, he will be out of Saturday’s game. This raises the question: who will replace him? Of course, the obvious route would be to give the nod to Steven Naismith, with the Scot being the man who was chosen to replace Wes against Barnsley, and will likely be seen as the ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’ option required for a tricky away trip. Irvine’s first two team selections have mirrored this ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’ mentality – he has largely stuck with the same group of players that Alex Neil persisted with for so long. Nonetheless, if he has the courage to show that he is not risk-averse then there are other, potentially more exciting options. One option would be to go with a slight change in tactic by playing two out-and-out wingers, by bringing in either Yanic Wildschut or Josh Murphy to play down the left flank, with Alex Pritchard retaining his position centrally and Jacob Murphy out wide-right. If Irvine wishes to play a counter-attacking game then the pace either of these two offer on the break would complement such a style perfectly.
2. Two up front?
Of course, an alternative option would be to conduct a change in formation: adopting 4-4-2 and in doing so replace Wes with Nelson Oliveira. This would certainly be a bold move by Irvine – and his cautious tendency renders it very unlikely – but it could be fruitful. Prior to his injury, Oliveira had quickly established himself as City’s star striker and his ability to create chances out of nothing – as he demonstrated within his match-winning strike in the 1-0 victory over Villa in December – quickly emerged as a priceless tool in our armoury. Having finally been given a sustained opportunity by Alex Neil, the Portuguese found the net 8 times in 11 starts. Preventing Oliveira from an immediate return back into the first eleven, however, has been the recent form of Cameron Jerome. Oliveira’s injury gave Jerome another opportunity to impress and he has grabbed it with both hands, going on a similar run of form to Oliveira by scoring 8 goals in his last 12 outings. So, with two strikers proving themselves capable of finding the net this season, what do we do? Play them both, obviously.
3. Time for Wildschut?
I have already briefly mentioned the possibility of Wildschut as a replacement for Wes but, regardless of who he comes in for, I feel that Saturday could be the perfect game for him. When Neil signed the ex-Wigan man in January, he made a point of referring to his physical attributes – his pace, strength and height – as being one of the major one of the major reasons he brought him in. Neil repeatedly said that we were too weak and fragile away from home (we still are, by the way) and that the likes of Wildschut would help us become a more physical, and less easy to beat, side. A Steve Bruce side on their own turf is bound to be the epitome of ‘physicality’ and, with this in mind, Wildschut would perhaps be a far better option than the decidedly lightweight Jacob Murphy. Furthermore, Wildschut impressed, and scored, in his last start during the 1-1 draw at Bristol City – finally showing glimpses of the player that we parted with £7m for.