With the season done and dusted and a week past, football fans are looking back and debating how the season panned out for their side. Fans of Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff will been judging the season that went painfully wrong and whether relegation could have been prevented. Here is a look the main attributes to their downfall.
Lack of goals and breach-able back lines
Beyond all of the stats that surround football nowadays, the most important at the end of the day is ‘did you score more than your opponents?’ For all 3 relegated teams, they desperately struggled to find the back of the net when it mattered and often when they fell behind in a match the result was practically sealed with a comeback unlikely.
Most high profile for their poor seasons are the players that cost their respective clubs are large fee, and in this record breaking fees. Ricky van Wolfswinkel cost £8.5 million from Sporting Lisbon and the signing was deemed an impressive, particularly when the Dutchman scored on his debut against Everton. Everything went downhill soon after that though with van Wolfswinkel’s difficulty to adapt to the physical game in England resulting in a lack of presence up front and only 30 shots (9 on target) throughout his 1,319 minutes on the pitch. With Gary Hooper’s form tailing off in the second half of the season – only 1 goal in 18 matches in 2014 after scoring 5 goals in 14 matches beforehand – and Johan Elmander, almost predictable after his time at Bolton, failing until March in the league without adding to that total afterwards, Norwich were heavily relying on their defence. John Ruddy managed produce sterling performances time and time again, with 12 clean sheets over the course of the season showing Norwich had it in them to be defensively solid, but the collapse after conceding and atrocious positioning meant it was in vain. Overall their performances in the attacking half (28 goals scored – the third worst total ever in the Premier League) and the defensive third (62 conceded) cost them their Premier League status.
Fulham score a respectable 40 goals, more than 3 teams that survived the drop, but conceded such huge volume of goals (85 – the worst in the Premier League) that the total of goals scored needed to match a team in the top half to have any remote of staying in the league. The poor state of their defence was summed up when away to Stoke and needing points to stop a resurgent Sunderland from making a gap, Fulham conceded 4 goals and were ultimately relegated. In January, in hope of scoring the needed goal rate and replacing Berbatov who was uninterested in a relegation battle, the West London side broke their record fee, like Norwich, and brought in Kostas Mitroglou for £10 million. The Greek international only featured 3 times however and made only 1 start with his fitness called into question. In the end, Steve Sidwell topped their goal scoring charts for Fulham with 8 goals while a rarely used Darren Bent scored the 2nd most with 6.
Cardiff’s difficult to score goals in the important stages at the tail end of the season was not a surprise for fans with only 2 recognised centre forwards – Bellamy has been played out wide in the last few years – on the books at the Welsh club. These two strikers included Frazier Campbell, who despite getting a decent return of 9 goals was a risk to rely on due to his previous injury problems, and Kenwyne Jones, who has never been prolific at this level. This meant goals were desperately needed from midfield and while Jordan Mutch stepped up with 7 goals there wasn’t a flurry of goals coming from his teammates in midfield. Defensively, Cardiff were fairly solid under MacKay managing to get a good partnership between Steven Caulker –incidentally their third top goal scorer with 5 – and Ben Turner, while David Marshall was imperious in goal for the Blue Birds and without him the season could have been much, much worse. The defence became more penetrable under Solsjaer though and Cardiff shipped the second most goals in the Premier League (74).
To change or not to change
The main theme throughout the league this year has been club’s sacking their manager, which all 3 relegated teams done but under incredibly contrasting situations.
Norwich, unlike their counterparts kept loyal to Chris Hughton; although a phone-in on Monday saw a selection of board members say that the only reason Hughton was kept due to no better choices and the former Newcastle manager having a favourable home record that in predicted terms look to keep Norwich safe – they did admit he would have been sacked at the end of the season anyway. After a defeat to West Brom left them in a very precautious position Chris Hughton was sacked with 5 fixtures remaining with 4 against big teams, their fate was actively sealed already after sleepwalking into relegation since Christmas. Neil Adams came in and small improvements were noticeable, but the former Norwich winger was unable to implement anything properly.
Cardiff’s situation has been reported on all season with Vincent Tan proving that just because an owner has a lot of money doesn’t mean it won’t end in tears. With ludicrous statements coming out throughout the season and rumours rife from the early stages that MacKay was on the verge of getting the boot, it ultimately happened despite universal objection from the fans. The sacking of Malky MacKay resulted in the appointment of another inexperienced manager in Ole Gunnar Solsjaer – whose style of play differ from the man he replaced -, but he had no relationship with the players and for a newly promoted team the spirit at the club is important for them to stay in the league. Solsjaer bringing in new players in January could have helped Cardiff, but with the former Manchester United player acquiring a range of players it never really clicked and the Welsh side ultimately suffered.
Fulham’s season was a bizarre one with the changes to the coaching staff happening nearly monthly. Martin Jol was replaced predictably by Rene Meulensteen who was appointed as his number 2 to assist him, but the real motive of the chairman was obvious. With a transfer window under his belt and no evident changes to the points per game total, both managers had a total of 10 points from 13 games, Meulensteen was then sacked for Felix Magath, who known for his preference for hard working players with a high fitness level, managed to improve performances but failed to keep Fulham. If the appointment of Magath had been made earlier when his coaching style and methods had got across to the players Fulham might have been safe; in the end, the club’s panic at the thought of relegation did nothing to aid their cause.
Home comforts not enough
Whether challenging at the top or bottom of the table, it is always said that your home form is important if you are to fulfil the aspirations set out at the beginning of the season. However for both Norwich and Cardiff, who both had a decent home record, their reliance on their home fixtures was so great due to their poor away form they needed to produce similar outcomes at their respective grounds as the clubs near the top of the table.
Looking at Norwich’s home defensive record backs this up; the Norfolk club only conceded 18 goals at Carrow Road – the same amount as Liverpool – including a run at the turn of the year of 5 consecutive clean sheets at home when Manchester City and Tottenham visited. The 7 defeats at home equalled the amount Manchester United had lost at Old Trafford this season, but draws against teams around them – Cardiff included – cost them dearly. Away from the performances from dour to absolutely appalling with the heavy defeat at the Eithad (7-0) a particular low point of the season. The set-up of settling for a draw rarely worked and the most baffling moment of the season was when on top against West Ham at Upton Park, Hughton took his goal scorer (Hooper) and most threating player (Redmond) off the pitch and the attacking threat evaporated.
Cardiff obtained 20 of their 30 points this season at home and fans had resigned to away matches resulting in defeat. 13 defeats on the road, the same as Fulham and one fewer than Norwich, included a 4-0 defeat to Sunderland in a do-or-die match in the final weeks of the season.
The small light in a pit of darkness
Despite all 3 clubs having rather dreadful seasons and fans constantly piled with misery, there have been some bright spots for all 3 clubs – both on and off the pitch.
Fulham started the season with an aging squad and was unsurprisingly struggling to keep with a high tempo of play that is often seen in the Premier League – a forward line of Bent, Berbatov and Taarabt was never going to often support to an overwhelmed midfield. After Magath came into the club though, the inclusion of young players that had come through the Fulham academy began to rise. The involvement in the FA Youth Cup Final shows the potential that resides in the Fulham academy, while also players who had been shipped out on loan returned to the club to be given a chance in the first team. These players included the likes of Dan Burn and Cauley Woodrow, while highly rated prospects Moussa Dembele and Patrick Roberts were involved around the squad, could be big players for Fulham in the Championship next season where they’ll get consistent run of game time, whilst also being capable of firing Fulham back into the Premier League.
The standout senior player for Fulham however was Steve Sidwell, who looks likely to stay in the Premier League with his contract set to expire in the coming months. Often just seen as energy in the middle of the park, this was the season it was extremely important with Fulham’s problems previously noted. He topped the charts in nearly every area for Fulham from a defensive view, attempting and winning the most tackles (121 to 93), as well as ground duels (355 to 185) and aerial duels (123 to 63). The former Reading and Chelsea midfielder also broke his goal tally for the season with 7 goals in 35 matches – the same amount he had achieved in 56 appearances for Fulham beforehand.
The majority of Cardiff City fans have started to react (finally) to the change of kit colour and many near the end of the season were donning their old blue replica shirts with the hope of challenging the decisions made by Vincent Tan off the pitch. On the pitch, there were standout performances by David Marshall, Jordan Mutch and Steven Caulker who without Cardiff would have been relegated much earlier and the challenge now is to keep them next season.
Steven Caulker made 326 clearances throughout the season and was collasal when it came to dealing with crosses – both in his box and the opponents – with 144 aerial duels won. David Marshall was a one man in the majority of Cardiff’s matches making 153 saves, some that any goalkeeper in the world would be proud to make. The surprising performer for Cardiff was Jordan Mutch, whose box to box abilities meant he played a big part defending – Mutch won the most ground duels for Cardiff with 127 – and in the attacking half where he scored 7 goals and created the most chances from open play (22 – 4 resulted in goals).
Like Fulham, Norwich have a decent crop of youngsters coming through the academy and managed to win the FA Cup Youth Final last season under Neil Adams. Only one of those featured in the league this season, Josh Murphy, while another young player Jamir Loza made his debut on the last day of the season. With others like Jacob Murphy, Josh’s twin brother, Cameron McGeehan, Harry Toffolo and Carlton Morris also hoping to be a part next season – all could perform if their introduction is handled properly – things look slightly rosier for Norwich fans.
On a senior level, the Canaries didn’t have much to shout about. Martin Olsson had a decent and consistent debut season at the club – doing a good impression of Ashley Cole in the process with 5 shots cleared off the line – and was the only one who could claim he performed all the way throughout the season. Robert Snodgrass grabbed the headlines and be seen as Norwich’s best player, but until February the Scottish international didn’t perform to the levels that he is capable of – a crossing style of cutting inside frustrated as well, slowing the Norwich’s attacking play sometimes to standstill and effecting the accuracy of his crosses (23%). Snodgrass still managed to create more chances than any of his teammates though (67 – only 2 resulted in goals) and his work rate saw him attempt and win the most ground duel for Norwich (380 to 159).