Success on a shoestring: Why the rest of the Championship can learn from Daniel Farke and Norwich
If predictions are a mug’s game, the Championship will make fools of us all. There are any number of tales of clubs who have either clicked in or out of form and surged up or fallen back down the table. The relentlessness cycle of Saturday-Tuesday football allows momentum to play a greater role than might otherwise be expected. Just as you think you have the measure of the Championship, it pulls the rug from under your feet.
But whatever happens between Christmas and May, Daniel Farke has changed the mood at Norwich City. Having taken 60 points from their 46 league games in 2017/18, they have already amassed 43 in their first 21 matches of this campaign.
Norwich finished 15 points off the play-offs last season, the epitome of mid-table mediocrity. In September, mediocrity appeared to be the height of their ambitions: they had won one of their six league games and sat in 17th. The defence was fragile and the attack stuttering badly. No reasonable supporter wishes to be unnecessarily impatient, but plenty of season ticket holders believed that the Farke experiment was failing.
The German had followed David Wagner from Dortmund to England’s second tier, but he hadn't replicated his compatriot's success. Former Norwich striker Dean Ashton pleaded that Farke should get until end of the season before being sacked, but that didn’t look likely.
From that inauspicious beginning, Norwich have produced the outstanding run of form in the Football League: 38 points from a possible 45, and 25 from the last 27 on offer. Farke’s side now have a six-point cushion within the Championship’s automatic promotion places. Now supporters are dreaming of an unlikely promotion push, and Farke is the flavour of the month.
The key to Norwich’s success lies in their resilience. They have conceded the opening goal of the game in nine of their 21 league matches and yet have won four and drawn two of those. Farke’s side have taken 1.56 points per game having conceded first - no team in the division can beat that record.
Norwich are also the Championship’s kings of late goals. They have scored an astonishing 47% of their league goals in the last 20 minutes of matches, and have the best goal difference in the division from minute 70 onwards. They have been leading for a total of 428 minutes this season, which is an inferior record to 18th-placed Brentford. Norwich have 21 more league points.
This canary-coloured transformation is all the more impressive given the financial constraints under which Norwich are forced to operate. Since August 2016, they have sold six players for fees of £10m or more, a record unequalled in the Football League. Having been relegated from the Premier League for the second time in three seasons in 2016, the inability to bounce straight back has forced budgets to be slashed. Despite the clutch of high-profile sales, Norwich have not spent more than £3m on a player since 2016.
“Our situation this summer was that we were not able to spend millions of pounds for some quality players, so then you have to be smart and perhaps find some solutions on loan or with free transfers,” said Farke last month. The best example is former Celtic striker Teemu Pukki, signed on a free transfer from Danish side Brondby. Pukki has scored 12 league goals from just 30 shots.
Like Wagner at Huddersfield, Farke has also used his contacts in Germany to gain an advantage over Norwich’s peers. Since the start of last season, seven different players have arrived from German football’s first and second tiers. Four of the club's 11 most-used players are German.
Farke isn't the only one who deserves credit for Norwich improving while simultaneously slashing budgets, and nor is he the only one with links to Wagner. Sporting director Stuart Webber left his role at Huddersfield two months before Wagner celebrated promotion to the Premier League. Tasked with streamlining a club with plenty of fat to trim, Webber has played a pivotal role in Noriwch becoming better by being smarter.
But you can understand why Farke is the poster boy of such a transformation. At a time when high-profile managers are waging war with their superiors over an alleged lack of investment, Farke has coped with a squad being picked apart in the summer and somehow kept morale high and performance level higher.
At precisely the time when a season of struggle would have been excusable, Farke has taken Norwich in the opposite direction. If this is proof that the Championship is eternally impossible to predict, it's also emphatic evidence that carefree spending on transfer fees and wages isn't the only strategy to achieve promotion. Other clubs in the top six might do well to remember that.