This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Going to war without a gun rarely yields success, but that was what Norwich City sporting director Stuart Webber said the club had done, when he reflected on 2019/20’s demoralising relegation from the Premier League. A 10-match losing streak to end the season left Norwich stuck on 21 points, the top flight’s seventh-worst performance since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981.
The previous summer, Webber had been keen to avoid pandering to agents and making rash financial commitments with the treasure chest acquired from a Championship title win, opting instead to uphold the model that brought it. At the top level, however, that frugal approach meant the Canaries were short on experience, leadership and proven quality, while Daniel Farke’s expansive style left them soft-centred.
The campaign provided a steep learning curve, yet Webber kept faith in Farke and the German repaid him by delivering another second-tier title, this time with conservative tweaks. While Norwich remained enjoyable to watch, they were defensively sturdier than in 2018/19, conceding 21 fewer goals.
Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson (pictured below) formed an excellent centre-back pairing, but even more important was a tightened midfield. Farke blended Kenny McLean’s consistent dynamism with the relentless tenacity of 20-year-old loanee Oli Skipp; a similar template in 2021/22 should make the team harder to penetrate.
Greater creative responsibility will be placed on Todd Cantwell, especially as Emi Buendia has moved on. Cantwell will drift inside to initiate slick passing sequences, making Norwich stronger off the ball while maintaining their prime possession principle.
His movement makes the left-back crucial – and in PAOK’s Dimitris Giannoulis, Farke landed a good one. That Norwich could attract a defender with Europa League experience implies they can shop in a higher market while remaining prudent – and the coffers were boosted further when Aston Villa snapped up Buendia for a fee that could top £40m after add-ons.
His departure, and others, necessitate a busier summer than the one in 2019 if Norwich are to stand a chance – even more so now the fixture list presents a hugely demanding start. But Norwich have learned their lesson, while evolving stylistically. Having also re-signed popular local lad Angus Gunn (son of City legend Bryan) and loaned Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour, they go into battle with much more in their armoury.
The five-point plan
1 Replace Buendia
In 2019/20, the Argentine was statistically the Premier League’s second-most creative player, after one Kevin De Bruyne. Since then, Buendia has increased his goal threat, perfected his through-balls and added strong challenges, making him seem almost irreplaceable. Norwich’s recruitment has excelled before, however, and it must excel again. Attacking midfielder Pierre Lees-Melou, who scored four and assisted two for Nice last term, has big boots to fill.
2 Add midfield steel
The Canaries spent years searching for a younger, more mobile equivalent to Alex Tettey and finally found one in Skipp, a key man in the 2020/21 title win. Lukas Rupp and Jacob Sorensen could claim to deserve more midfield opportunities but, with the Premier League being so unforgiving, Farke must retain or – more likely – replace the tremendous Tottenham tackler.
Who else? 🇫🇮Teemu Pukki draws Norwich level in emphatic style! 😍 What a finish.Watch live on Sky Sports Football 📺 pic.twitter.com/zzQiBquEKcMarch 14, 2021
3 Don't burn out Pukki
Selfless graft, clever link-up play and well-timed runs in behind define Teemu Pukki’s game, but the Finland regular has to be kept fresh. Jordan Hugill is a good Championship striker but not Premier League quality, while Adam Idah is untested. Norwich must avoid overworking Pukki by adding a frontman suitable for Farke’s system, particularly if Milot Rashica – a versatile attacker signed from relegated Werder Bremen – is needed on the wing.
4 Tighten up at set-pieces
Having leaked 16 set-piece goals in the Premier League, Norwich halved that number in the Championship last term and should defend their penalty area better this time around. Five of the players brought in since the relegation stand at 6ft or taller, and a more prominent role for the commanding Hanley suggests the Canaries will be bullied no more.
5 Be ruthless
Not a single player who started any Championship matches during 2018/19 subsequently departed Carrow Road. Though Norwich did well to retain key men in 2019, they kept players who weren’t up to Premier League standard. With a clearer idea of the requirements, now is the time for calculated action.
FFT verdict: 18th
Gilmour’s loan arrival offers hope, but Farke’s Canaries may lack the killer instinct to survive.
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