Expectations brutally mown down under the inflexible Nigel Pearson have started to flower again, the players performing with flair not fear. Ince has responded with a fusillade of goals, Bent has applied himself the lone striker role – statisticians have been quick to point out the incredible goal returns of these two players under McClaren – Johnson has grasped the opportunity to make the holding role his own and looks like a new man…
I could go on. All over the pitch, players who previously looked either hopelessly short of confidence or shot, are gradually rediscovering and in some cases redefining what they’re capable of – liberated as they are from Pearson’s mindless pressure to turn them into something they were not. For all that Mel Morris has made some strange and bad decisions in the last couple of years, sacking Pearson may well turn out to be his best.
Almost as soon as Pearson left and results began to turn around, eyes drifted away from the relegation zone and longingly back to where they should always have been resting – the top six. To make up the lost ground remains a difficult challenge and McClaren is dead right when he refuses to discuss anything but the next game – but in this case, the next game has huge symbolic value.
Norwich are currently sixth. One of the big guns, their parachute payments have allowed them to maintain a squad of internationals from their failed Premier League campaign. But Alex Neil, who won them promotion in 2015, is now under huge pressure to repeat the trick and a run of four successive league defeats, triggered by a farcical 5-0 drubbing at Brighton, has more than scared the horses.
It’s pretty easy to name the Derby side for Saturday – fitness allowing, you’d expect an unchanged eleven. Neil, on the other hand, made six changes for the defeat at QPR, including the goalkeeper. His plans were then ruined by Martin Olsson’s bizarre first-minute dismissal and so it is hard to know how he will respond. Does he go again with the team he thought could beat QPR, including the former Forest loanee Nélson Oliveira, or restore experienced pros like Cameron Jerome and Wes Hoolahan to the starting line-up?
There is perhaps an element of too many options to choose from for Neil – not that many other managers at this level would sympathise.
Norwich 2 Leeds 3 (5 November)
Brady (Jacob Murphy)
QPR 2 Norwich 1 (19 November)
Olsson (sent off)
Naismith (Josh Murphy)
Statistically, there are incredible similarities (infographic best viewed online) in the two clubs’ records on many measures. They have had exactly the same average possession, shots on target and shots conceded. Yet despite this eerie parity, the two clubs have had completely different seasons so far.
Norwich have one of the division’s worst defensive records – they have conceded an eyebrow-raising 20 goals in nine away matches, which is clearly not good enough for a supposed promotion contender – and they have not kept a clean sheet in the league since 16 August.
It’s also very interesting to note that seven of Norwich’s eight wins so far have come against the division’s current bottom seven sides – the other being a 1-0 home win against Bristol City in August.
Norwich v bottom seven
P 7 W 7 F 19 A 8 Pts 21 GD +11 PPG 3
Norwich v Championship from 17th upwards
P 10 W 1 D 3 L 5 F 10 A 21 Pts 8 GD -11 PPG 0.8
Norwich have been laudably ruthless against the relegation candidates, but against the better sides, they have routinely been found out – most infamously that 5-0 thrashing at Brighton, but also an embarrassing late collapse to lose 4-3 at Newcastle, a 3-0 loss at Birmingham and a late set piece sickener to lose at home to Leeds.
The Canaries have made up for the leaks at the back by scoring freely – albeit mostly against the division’s weakest teams – while the Rams are still recovering from their freakishly goal-free start to the campaign, although they have at least now scored more goals than Wigan and Ipswich.
Prior to Pearson’s departure, Derby were averaging more shots from outside the area (7.6) than from within it (6.4), a disastrous state of affairs, which shows the lack of creativity we endured during that barren spell. That has turned around considerably since McClaren’s return.
Defensively, on the other hand, Norwich have looked distinctly vulnerable, despite the fact that they have been by no means peppered with shots. Lax defending and a string of strange mistakes – not least goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s serious meltdown at the Amex – has been damaging to their season.
Back in the shape that suits them best, the Rams have started to remind everyone of how dangerous they can be. Certainly, they took advantage of Wolves’ and Rotherham’s frailties and if Norwich defend as sloppily as they have done in recent games, there’s every chance that Derby could produce a real statement result and call time on Neil’s reign at Carrow Road.
On the other hand, I can’t help but remember a certain game in McClaren’s last spell, when the form book and all rational thinking pointed to a Rams win leading to the end of Stuart Pearce at Forest. It didn’t work out that way.
For all of their current problems, Norwich still have plenty of attacking threats and could ask serious questions of Keogh and company. Much depends, literally, upon which Norwich side turns up – but regardless, with McClaren’s style coming up against porous opponents, a low-scoring, attritional affair feels unlikely. If Derby are a good enough side to haul themselves back into promotion contention despite giving everyone else such a head-start, then Saturday is the right time to prove it.