In February 2020, Norwich got a Premier League point. Four, to be precise, three of them on the last day of the month, courtesy of a Jamal Lewis goal and a clean sheet against Leicester. If it was long notable as the last time Carrow Road hosted a capacity crowd, that game retains a distinction Norwich must wish it had long shed.
Since then, they have claimed 97 points in the Championship, but none in the Premier League. Their top-flight record – played 15, lost 15 – was compounded by Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, a result with no bearing on the battle at the bottom but which exacerbated the sense that Norwich know all too well how this story ends: with a record sixth relegation from the Premier League.
The details were damning, whether conceding from a corner after four minutes or squandering their best chance to equalise when Christos Tzolis missed a penalty he was not supposed to take. It underlined the negative stereotypes about Norwich: too weak at one end, too wasteful at other, the team others find ‘nice’ opponents.
That only one of Norwich’s opening five league games, against Watford, felt winnable means they may only be three points down on logical projections: their remaining 33 fixtures contain a solitary meeting apiece with Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal. And yet both the defeat to the Hornets and the manner of it felt enough to induce feelings of despondency in Norfolk; a quicker, smarter, tougher team won.
Perhaps, with Everton, Burnley, Brighton, Leeds, Brentford, Southampton, Wolves and Newcastle among their next nine opponents, the immediate future provides a greater barometer than the recent past of whether this season amounts to more of the same. A different formation, 3-5-2, was trialled on Wednesday; Daniel Farke’s 4-2-3-1 has rarely worked in the top flight but one defeat to Liverpool does not automatically render the new shape similarly flawed. Many of the recent recruits have played far too few minutes for definitive judgments to be formed. Yet sometimes when a team acquires downward momentum, it cannot escape it.
But this was supposed to be different. Farke had the experience of 2019/20 and he ought to have learnt from it. He wasn’t going to war without a gun, to borrow director of football Stuart Webber’s phrase. He had the budget this time. He had about £50 million of signings, in Milot Rashica, Josh Sargent, Ben Gibson, Dimitris Giannoulis, Pierre Lees-Melou, Angus Gunn and Tzolis and a further £24 million of potential buys, in the loanees Ozan Kabak and Mathias Normann, plus the gifted Billy Gilmour. Gunn has started no league games, Kabak, Normann, Tzolis and Sargent one apiece.
None are automatically unsuccessful yet, but if Norwich are trialling models, the danger is that they are more suited to gaining promotion that resisting relegation. The cut-price Germans or Bundesliga B alumni, in Marco Stiepermann, Mario Vrancic, Tom Trybull, Moritz Leitner and Christoph Zimmermann, got Norwich up but could not keep them there or produce profits (Emi Buendia, Ben Godfrey, James Maddison and Lewis did).
Now, Norwich appear to be pursuing the £8 million policy: their summer buys have an average fee of around that, though Kabak and Normann would cost more. It is hard to escape the sense Norwich are looking to game the market, searching for the next Buendia-sized profit, seeing if they can turn £8 million into £30 million.
And while sustainability is admirable, so is survival. Individuals may yet excel but thus far the collective has looked too weak. If Farke and Webber have worked out the Championship, the test is if they can construct and coach a side capable of staying in the Premier League. And if not, if supporters’ patience will wear thin with life as a yo-yo club, when promotion brings a large cheque and a season of predictable misery. Because the boos that followed the Watford loss may bode badly.
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