I’m already starting to think that it’s going to be a very long season for myself and all involved with Norwich City Football Club. As little as a month ago there was plenty of cause for optimism. An uncharacteristically busy transfer window with what looked to be several shrewd acquisitions meant it looked as though the Canaries were much more suited for life back in the top flight this time around, and would be able to prove the doubters wrong.
Despite a ridiculously tough start to the season, Norwich’s record after seven games is doing nothing to prove the doubters anything. A record of one win, six losses, eight goals scored and seventeen conceded does not make for good reading. The 6-0 victory over Bournemouth in the EFL Cup is the outstanding result, but a thrashing of a Championship side’s second-string team is a source of little pride at this point.
And yes, two games against Liverpool, as well as games against Manchester City, Leicester City, and Arsenal is not an ideal start for any team, let alone a newly-promoted one. But it’s been the last two games that have been a real cause for concern. A 1-3 defeat at home to fellow promoted side Watford, and another 0-3 defeat at home to Liverpool in the EFL Cup left a lot to be desired. Both were winnable games and, save for about a 10-minute spell at the end of both first halves, Norwich looked hopelessly lost. It’s early days still, but if things keep going on this path it’s a real cause for concern, especially for a team that have now lost 15 Premier League matches in a row.
This is just an observation of the last few games. I’m not here to declare any grand strategy on how Norwich should go forwards and what this means for the future, because I’m not a manager, a board member, or anyone of real importance in general. I’m just here to express opinions to you, the public, ask some questions, and just see where things go.
What is the style of play?
With most Premier League teams, it’s not hard to sum up their style of play in a few words. When you watch the top teams such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester City, Manchester United, etc., you can clearly see how they line up and what sort of football they’re going for. Lower down the table, Leeds United, West Ham, and of course the mighty Burnley all have clearly-defined playing styles. You can even say the same of the other two promoted sides, Watford and Brentford, hence why the latter already look so comfortable playing top-flight football.
Last season in the Championship, this was the case with Norwich. A 4-2-3-1 with a defined starting XI, Norwich were able to expertly break up play in the midfield, and use the creativity of the attacking three, especially Emi Buendia, to get Teemu Pukki in behind the defence to score. It worked time and time again, but Daniel Farke knew this wasn’t going to be sustainable in the much more physical Premier League, and so spent the summer working on a new 4-3-3 formation, looking to compensate for the loss of Buendia and to perfect a formation that could alternate between defensive and attacking football.
In theory, this does have its logic to it. In practice, it’s been a mess. Yes, the COVID-19 disruptions in pre-season have affected Farke’s ability to fully establish this formation on the pitch, and some new signings didn’t come in until the end of the window. However, lining up in a 4-3-3 is all well and good, but knowing what to do with it is another.
Watching Norwich play, it’s incredibly unclear what exactly is going on. This was compounded against Liverpool in the EFL Cup, where it wasn’t even clear what formation they were playing. They seem to switch between five different attacking methods over the course of a game, mostly with little effect. It seems to start with trying to get Pukki in behind, but with the physicality and quality of the Premier League, this has only worked once with his goal against Watford. Then it turns into getting the wingers in behind to cross to Pukki, which isn’t his style of play and naturally ends up fizzling out. Then it turns into intricate touches in the middle of the pitch and trying to get Pukki and the wingers in behind, but sadly Premier League defenders are too smart for his and can sus it out almost instantly. So this then turns into trying to get the full-backs into the action, but this either results in them getting caught out on the counter, or in getting a cross in to find no-one, since, again, this isn’t Pukki’s preferred style of play. So then the team finds themselves 3-0 down and just punting long balls forward, generously trying to claim they’re playing good through balls in behind. They’re not.
It’s been almost embarrassing to watch the last two games, because Norwich just haven’t looked like they know what they’re doing. With the players brought in, you would think Farke had a clear vision on how to use them and how to line them up, but this doesn’t show on the pitch. It’s a constant cycle of trying what seems to work best in the moment, before it inevitably fails. That, to me, is the main reason why Norwich have looked so toothless in attack so far. If they didn’t want to play to get Pukki in behind and to focus more on getting crosses into the box, they should have invested in a big man up top. Tzolis and Rashica have got buckets of pace, energy, and skill, but are currently being wasted in a team that can’t decide how it wants to use them.
If the 4-3-3 is going to work, or any formation for that matter, Farke needs to decide how Norwich are going to play, and decide how he can get the best out of the talent he has at his disposal.
What’s everyone’s role?
This leads us nicely into the next point, which concerns what everyone’s role is on the pitch. Again, this seems to fluctuate as the games go on, and it leaves the players looking lost, unfocused, and eventually ends up in punting long balls forwards with no end product.
The defence is set up well enough to begin with, but the full-backs provide the first key issue here. As the great philosophers The Clash once queried, should they stay or should they go? Aarons, Williams, and Giannoulis have all clearly been bought with the intention of using them as attacking full-backs. But when they get forwards they are rarely utilised, leaving gaping holes at the back for the opposition to exploit. They don’t seem to know whether they should stay or go, as if they stay they’ll be accused of not getting forwards enough, but if they go they won’t be used, or at least very rarely due to the aforementioned fluctuating play styles.
Then there’s the midfield, which is the most glaring issue in my opinion. The flat midfield three has, so far, looked devoid of purpose, steel, and creativity, all things they were meant to bring to the team. This may of course change with the addition of Mathias Normann in a holding role, but Farke doesn’t seem to know how he wants his midfield to line up, or what he wants them to do. The pairing of Skipp and McLean worked a treat last year, with Skipp breaking up the play and McLean’s aggression and drive encouraging the team forwards. The formation change has, if anything, highlighted the failure to replace Skipp. McLean cannot carry the team from holding midfield. Gilmour and Lees-Melou aren’t defensive players, and neither is Rupp, who is a utility man anyway. Again, this might change with the addition of Normann, but that leaves the quandary of what to do with Gilmour and Lees-Melou, or whether Farke plays McLean next to Normann to have a similar effect in the midfield as last season. Gilmour and Lees-Melou are clearly more suited to playing further up the pitch, and at the moment are being wasted in central positions they look out of place in, particularly Gilmour. I’m not suggesting reverting to the 4-2-3-1 is the definitive answer, but it’s clear that the constant fluctuation of the 4-3-3 is not getting the best out of some of the club’s most talented players. I mean, if Farke wanted to change formation to accommodate more room for defence, why invest so much in more creative players to then not utilise them properly?
I’m also not really sure what’s going on with the wingers. The club spent big on Milot Rashica and Christos Tzolis, and while both have shown glimpses of what they can do, they are again playing in a system where they don’t really seem sure of what to do.
I think a big issue with this is the expectation of Rashica being a like-for-like replacement of Emi Buendia. They even gave him the number 17 shirt, if it wasn’t already on the nose enough. But he’s not the same type of player. Buendia would create chances from wide, drop across the attacking three and set Pukki in behind, playing fully to his strengths. He isn’t a pacy winger designed to get in behind like Rashica is. It seems as though he’s caught in the middle of being expected to play the Buendia role and get in behind to provide chances and crosses, and is another victim of the team seemingly not knowing how they’re being set up to play. When he’s been on the ball he’s looked promising, but we clearly haven’t seen the best of him. The same can be said for Tzolis, who looks so exciting with the ball at his feet but again, is he meant to be getting in behind, going across the attacking three, playing off the striker, or something else? Is he meant to be putting crosses in for a striker who won’t be in the box? Is he just there for show even? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And what exactly is going on with Todd Cantwell? He’s been under Farke’s management for three full seasons now, and suddenly he doesn’t seem to know his best position after two solid seasons on the left of attacking midfield. So is he now playing on the left, right, or as a number 10? Nobody seems to know, and to mismanage the team’s most creative attacking outlet seems almost criminal, especially for a manager who has been at the club for so long.
As for Pukki, it’s anyone’s guess. He’s obviously most comfortable playing on the shoulder of the defence, but Norwich seem content to just play whatever they want and see what works. He also doesn’t have the pace of someone like Jamie Vardy to fully thrive in the Premier League. He isn’t a physical player, so it’s absurd that he should be expected to be on the end of crosses from wide, but if Tzolis and Rashica weren’t brought in to do that, what were they brought in to do? Because I don’t think Josh Sargent is the sort of player to that either, so what exactly was he brought in to do as well? There’s the further issue of all these attacking players not seeming to know what to do in the box, taking a million touches before losing the ball without shooting. Again, it seems ridiculous to accuse a manager who has worked with a player like Pukki for so long and got the best out of him already of not knowing how to use him. But when you see the little Finn drifting out to the wing with no support, getting bullied and surrounded by the big Premier League defenders, and looking almost lost when he gets into the penalty area, you do have to start questioning these things.
And if Farke did want a more physical style of play that focused on getting wingers in behind and getting crosses is, where is the big man up top?
Where’s the physicality?
I’ve alluded to it enough times already in this post, so I may as well come out and say that the lack of physicality in the Norwich squad is a glaring concern. I’ve also realised how much time I’ve spent on the first two points so I’ll be as terse as possible with these next two.
Looking at the Norwich and Watford teams lining up, it was striking how much bigger the Watford team was, even when City had the likes of Normann and McLean in the midfield. Troost-Ekong, Sissoko, Sarr and Dennis all towered over the squad, and it became clear it might be a long afternoon of mismatched bullying, which is exactly what it was. I’m not suggesting that the entire starting XI needs to have more strength and physical presence to it, but if they can’t physically match Watford, how do they expect to even have a chance of beating the bigger teams, or even teams such as Burnley or Leeds?
Again, Normann could be the difference in the midfield for City if he is used properly, but it’s too early to tell at this point. However, it’s noticeable that when Burnley have Jack Cork, Leeds have Kalvin Phillips, Leicester have Wilfried Ndidi, and West Ham have Declan Rice and Tomas Souček, who have all helped establish these teams in the Premier League and in some cases drive them up the table, Norwich haven’t got a proper enforcer to help them in the middle of the park. The hole left by Oliver Skipp from last season is still apparent, and given that he’s now clearly a part of Nuno’s plans at Tottenham while City flounder at the foot of the table, his presence is being all the more missed. Pukki’s lack of physicality has already been mentioned, but it’s a similar story in defence as well. All five centre-backs are big lads, but the league is full of bigger and quicker ones. Andrew Omobamidele honestly looks the most cut out for the Premier League, but it’s an awful lot to suggest that he’s the key to Norwich’s defensive issues at such a young age. The full-backs are also noticeably more attack-minded, and will need to defensively mature quickly to sure up the defence.
There is obviously a way of making Norwich play well and get results without a reliance on physicality. But the lack of it so far is glaring, which may mean further re-enforcement in January, and means there is an urgent need of making something work as quickly as possible, so that other teams don’t quickly make City a punching bag opponent.
Mistakes… So many mistakes
Even if the defence is to be bolstered and made to be more physical, there is still the obvious factor that it has been woeful so far this season, and the last two games have just seen mistakes come in abundance.
Again, some of these results have to be taken with a pinch of salt given the calibre of the opposition, but if there were to be any hope for City from the opening games, the scores should have been kept down. In the opening game against Liverpool, the defence looked tired and laborious by the end of the match. Against Manchester City, four of the five goals came down the left of the defence, with the other a result of the back line standing about calling for offside. Both Leicester goals also came down the left, as did Watford’s second goal with Brandon Williams seemingly a mile away. The less said about Watford’s third goal, and all three in the EFL Cup against Liverpool, the better.
Out of the three promoted teams, so far you wouldn’t guess that it was Norwich who won the division with 99 points, built on a solid defence, tough midfield, and ability to create chances and play creative football going forwards. The attack looks clueless, the midfield looks lost, and the defence looks unstable, with the majority of goals conceded coming from sloppy mistakes. They also don’t seem to know if they want to play out from the back, spread the play out wide, or just hoof it long.
All these things come together to paint a pretty damning picture of why Norwich are struggling so much at the start of this season, even with a tough fixture list. There doesn’t appear to be a clear identity, no clear starting XI, and no-one seems to know what to do or how to play to their best. And it’s not even clear where they can go from here. Farke needs to realise these mistakes and take action, because of course the fault does not lie solely at the feet of the players. I don’t know whether or not it seems drastic to say he should be sacked, but it can’t be avoided that the Canaries have lost 15 Premier League games in a row, and the nature of the performances so far this season has left much to the imagination. Farke has twice worked wonders in the Championship now, but yet another drop back to the second tier could become inevitable if things carry on the way they are. There is no right answer to this question, but he’s got to turn things around quickly.
And that about does it for today. I often try to be as optimistic as possible for Norwich, but the last couple of games have made it strikingly clear that it isn’t just the fixture list that’s been a problem. There’s a lack of cohesion, identity, physicality, and the team don’t seem set up to go and win games right now. Who knows what will happen in the future, but for now the signs are far from encouraging.