It was respite for Chris Hughton. It was wretched for Mark Hughes. Norwich recorded a rare away win as Hughes conceded to a galling performance from his players, writes Richard Jolly.
STOKE // It was respite for Chris Hughton. It was wretched for Mark Hughes. This was a tale of two City managers, one seeking to rebuild a fraying relationship with the Norwich supporters and the other discovering his honeymoon period at Stoke has come to a swift end.
Had Hughes’s team won at Arsenal last Sunday, they could have gone top. Instead, disjoined and defeated as the Canaries recorded a rare away win, they find themselves 15th. Shorn of creativity, short of ideas and struggling with the basics of their game, Stoke were dismal.
Yet that should not detract from Norwich’s victory.
“They deserved it,” Hughes admitted. Efficient and organised, Norwich displayed the attributes commonly associated with Stoke. They began purposefully, led deservedly when Jonny Howson scored and defended doggedly. It amounted to a very professional performance and, for Hughton, a very timely one.
“Has there been a bit more additional pressure? Yes,” the manager said. “Before the game we were sitting fourth from bottom.”
Now they are level on points with Manchester United.
It renders it all the odder that a vocal minority of their fans would welcome Hughton’s departure, especially considering that Norwich overachieved to finish 11th last season. Typically calm and ever understated, Hughton said: “It comes with the territory.”
Yet while his £21 million (Dh124.5m) outlay in the summer transfer market has not produced free-flowing football, a theme of his managerial career has been the ability to procure points. This was invaluable – “a big result,” Hughton said – and while an uneventful game will soon fade from the memory, the manager’s decision to bolster his midfield rather than, as his detractors want, select a second striker, was justified.
Stoke were stifled and sterile. “We didn’t see that coming,” Hughes said. “That’s the disappointment and the mystery.”
The concern should be that they failed in every respect. Supposed strengths deserted them. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, a paragon of excellence last season, was unusually unconvincing. Norwich exploited his uncertainty, with Howson’s dipping drive beating him. Meanwhile, a sizeable defence tended to be impenetrable at dead-ball situations until they conceded three times at Arsenal.
Their strange susceptibility to set pieces almost brought another goal when a stretching Ryan Bennett reached Robert Snodgrass’s corner and volleyed against the bar. Meanwhile, an age-old weakness – a lack of goals, especially from the specialist strikers – remains. Hughes was unable to bring in a centre-forward in the summer and none of his out-and-out attackers has a league goal to his name this season.
Kenwyne Jones might have won a penalty when tugged back by Leroy Fer, an offence that, to Hughton’s surprise, the Dutchman admitted afterwards, but his drought was extended to 19 games. In his defence, his teammates created next to nothing. Even the half-time introduction of Jermaine Pennant and Stephen Ireland, which briefly offered hope of invention, proved a false dawn.
And so they seemed a side who had forgotten what they were good at in a quest to rebrand themselves. Hughes has attempted to implement a more pleasing style of play, but even the simplest of passes were misplaced. When Stoke then resorted to the sort of direct football they had been trying to eschew, they failed to display the urgency Tony Pulis’s side had showed. There was no bombardment of the Norwich defence, no fraught finale. The game merely petered out.
“We never really got up a head of steam,” said Hughes, who spent much of the match shaking his head in frustration. “It was an easy result for them, which is the galling thing.”