At around 5pm on Saturday, Norwich City might have accomplished a feat four times in a decade that Liverpool and Manchester United have each only done four times in their history. Admittedly, getting promoted to the top flight so often is only necessitated because they have been relegated three times in between. But if Norwich beat Derby and both Brentford and a hideously out-of-form Swansea fail to win, what has long been expected will become certain. They will be back.
It is set to be their most dominant promotion and yet, perhaps because it feels the most predictable, the one that may get the least fanfare outside Norfolk. In 2010/11, Norwich were the team fresh out of League One, the club who had appointed Paul Lambert after his Colchester side thrashed them 7-1 and who sailed through the second tier at the first time of asking. In 2014/15, they parachuted in the worryingly young and largely unknown Alex Neil mid-season when they were floundering outside the top six and went on to win the play-offs. In 2018/19, they had endured an undistinguished debut season under Daniel Farke, sold James Maddison and went up as champions with what felt a version of 2. Bundesliga Moneyball.
And now? The Championship has been obscured this year, rarely granted a slot that does not clash with a Premier League game. It feels a diminished, declining division, damaged by a financial crunch which has meant fewer have been able to spend. In turn, that has handed an advantage to the relegated teams, who possess a cadre of Premier League players and who could each return to the top flight at the first time of asking. A comparison of the play-off sides now with the class of 2018/19 – Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds featuring the flair of Pablo Hernandez, Frank Lampard’s Derby with the promise of Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, West Bromwich Albion with the goals of Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle, Matt Phillips and, for half a season, Harvey Barnes, and Dean Smith’s Aston Villa with the quality of Jack Grealish, Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings – could suggest each was substantially better than the teams who occupy those positions now.
Factor in the Championship’s low number of goals – Swansea are fourth with 45, eight teams average fewer than one per game and the chances are that no one will get 80 – and the commensurate lower levels of excitement and it is scarcely a vintage season in the second tier. And yet Norwich are shaping up as one of its greatest sides of the 21st century. They are on course for exactly 100 points. They have peaked under the pressure of the run-in, taking 32 points from a possible 36. Their away record is substantially better than anyone else’s. Their 7-0 thrashing of Huddersfield on Tuesday was the performance of a team who are too good for this level.
In FourFourTwo’s annual poll of the top 50 Football League players, Norwich have the men in 13th, 11th, 3rd and 2nd; it is only Ivan Toney’s outlier of a campaign keeping Emi Buendia, the classiest player outside the Premier League, from top spot and currently denying Teemu Pukki its Golden Boot. The fact Buendia has 50 percent more assists than anyone else could lead some in Norfolk to call for a recount.
Congratulations, lads! 👊Four #NCFC players have been named in the @EFL's Top 50 players by @FourFourTwo ⭐️April 7, 2021
If Norwich’s is a triumph of the finest football in the division, it is also one of long-term planning augmented by short-term moves. They came down with a meagre points tally (21) and yet in an enviable position, with five players who could produce a windfall. It felt that, whoever stayed and went, Norwich were guaranteed the best of both worlds. Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis left and brought in the best part of £40 million; Todd Cantwell, Max Aarons and Buendia remained and are assets in a promotion push. Factor in Tim Krul and Pukki and they had a calibre of player denied to Championship peers who were unable to buy big. They rectified one of the problems in both their Premier League campaign and their last promotion season: adding Ben Gibson and pairing him with Grant Hanley gave them a tighter defence and, while the on-loan Burnley centre-back is now injured, they have 10 clean sheets in their last 16 games. A reputation for improving young players and as purveyors of progressive football renders it easier for them to borrow talents such as the influential midfielder Oliver Skipp.
They may have been too cautious in the transfer market last season, but director of football Stuart Webber’s acumen has given them a squad with both quality and quantity: that Jordan Hugill, Onel Hernandez and Kieran Dowell all have either six or seven league starts means their second-string attack is better than most sides’ first. Both Norwich and Webber have found a formula that works well in the second tier and players who can excel in it. Next season will determine if they can crack the Premier League. Their season has been stripped of the surprise factor their predecessors enjoyed and deprived of a narrative about the unlikely lads by the way promotion always looked a probability. But it will be an achievement nonetheless.
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THREE LIONS SQUAD FourFourTwo writers pick who they'd take this summer
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