Alan Irvine tasted defeat for the first time since taking over as temporary Norwich City boss on Saturday afternoon as his side lost 2-0 at Villa Park. A Jonathan Kodjia brace, aided hugely by some woeful Norwich defending, consigned City to their 11th away defeat of the season and all but put an end to any lingering play-off hopes that some supporters still held. So, other than the confirmation that Alan Irvine has not managed to magically install a backbone into the City squad overnight, what did he, and we, learn from the defeat?
1. Our plans going forward must revolve around Alex Pritchard
If there were any City fans out there who still doubted the talents of Alex Pritchard prior to yesterday’s game then, today, they should be no more. Think peak Wes Hoolahan but with added pace and directness and that gives you a fair representation of the 23-year-old’s performance yesterday. One of the major explanations for Alex Neil so often overlooking the midfielder earlier in the season was supposedly due to his tendency to get bullied and outmuscled against more physical opposition away from home. This belief was largely based on his no-show’s away at Brighton and Barnsley (both games in which not one City player turned up) and resulted in Neil overlooking Pritchard for the majority of the away games that followed. If ever there was a performance to prove just how wrong Neil was, however, then yesterday’s was it. Steve Bruce’s sides are notoriously physical yet this did not deter Pritchard from being at the heart of everything good that City produced going forward. What the ex-Spurs man lacks in height and strength he more than more than makes up for with his trickery and vision and, alongside Kodjia and Albert Adomah, he was the best player on the park yesterday. Many players will leave over the summer but City’s new manager must do everything to ensure that Pritchard is not one of them. Rather, he should be the player that we revolve all of next season’s plans around. He is that good.
2. Ryan Bennett needs to be first out of the summer exit door
In contrast to Pritchard, one player who must be allowed to leave is Ryan Bennett. Whilst not solely culpable, he played a huge hand in the defensive errors that resulted in both of Villa’s goals yesterday – defensive errors that he has been committing on a weekly basis for the past five years. For a tall and well-built man he is not good in the air, nor is he strong, whilst his distribution is woeful and his decision-making even worse. His failure to deal with Sam Johnstone’s goal-kick, allowing Kodjia to run onto the ball and slot past Michael McGovern to score Villa’s second was defending more befitting of Sunday League football. I would not be sad to see any of our defenders leave – Timm Klose, Russell Martin and Sebastien Bassong have all shown their deficiencies this season but, for me, Ryan Bennett is the worst by some distance. Thankfully for us, his contract is due to expire in June and as a result we will not be left with the unenviable task of having to find someone who will take him off our hands. If, however, he is given an extension, then I will despair.
3. The season is over: play the youth
Myself, and the majority of Norwich fans, are beginning to sound like a broken record but until our wishes are met then we are going to continue. When Graham Dorrans came off injured at half-time on Saturday Alan Irvine was given the perfect opportunity to give us exactly what we have all been wanting: a glimpse of James Maddison in a City shirt. With Howson starting the game in a more advanced position, he could slip back into his usual central midfield role, allowing Maddison to fill the vacated forward role. By this point in the game, Pritchard had already proven that physicality was not required to trouble Villa and thus there should have been no fear that Maddison would have been too lightweight. In a predictable move more befitting of Alex Neil, however, Steven Naismith was brought on. Unsurprisingly, the Scot had very little impact aside from a couple of neat touches and, as such, another opportunity to give Maddison some much needed minutes was wasted.
Another player who City fans have been calling for to be given an opportunity is Ben Godfrey and with Ivo Pinto’s red card leaving him suspended for Wednesday night’s trip to Huddersfield, there is potentially a vacancy left open for the 19-year-old. Out of our alternative right-back options, Steven Whittaker is currently occupied at left-back, whilst Russell Martin has been preferred as a centre-back throughout the season. Godfrey was deployed at right-back during his first senior start for the club in the EFL Cup defeat at Leeds and so is no stranger to the position. Of course, what we all know will happen is that Martin will be moved across to right-back whilst Timm Klose will come back in at the centre of defence, but there is no harm in hoping.