*Edit: This was written a few days before the win at Brentford. As it turns out, yes, it very much is*
I think even the most optimistic of Norwich fans knew we were going to be in for a tough season. Especially when the fixture list was released, with those early defeats against the big teams caveated by the fact we still had upcoming games against Watford, Burnley, Brighton and Leeds where we could truly show our Premier League mettle.
But now after 10 games, 0 wins, 2 draws and 8 losses which have seen us score only 3 goals and let in 25, I think we’re past the point of making excuses. It’s not good enough. Sunday’s 2-1 home loss to fellow relegation rivals Leeds was yet another in a long line of performances devoid of creativity and sloppy goals conceded, with half the players either looking lost or disinterested.
A lot of people are probably comparing this season to our last run in the Premier League two years ago, and how Daniel Farke was able to keep the core of the team together in the Championship and how he did an admirable job in keeping our attacking style of play, getting the best out of the team, and ultimately guided us to the league title at a canter.
Unlike two seasons ago, this season was supposed to be about Premier League consolidation. Two years ago no-one, including Norwich City, expected us to be in the Premier League. But a barnstorming 2018-19 season with a never-say-die attitude, a tendency for leaving it to the last minute, and a philosophy of out-scoring the other team meant an unexpected return to the top flight.
Because of this, the squad did not receive a whole lot of investment. Sam Byram was the only permanent arrival in the summer of 2019, and even then he cost under £1million. The board were realistic, the squad was realistic, so were the players and fans. There was at least a 75% chance of relegation that season, and we didn’t want to put ourselves in a Fulham-type scenario of throwing about money we don’t have, only to find us unable to pay their wages in the Championship. So we went with youth and the squad that got us up, and we had some fun along the way. The end of the season, post Project Restart, was abysmal, but we still savoured the good times, playing the Farke way the whole time. There was identity.
2020/21 was about the squad maturing together in the Championship, so that should the team win promotion again, they would be better prepared for a run of staying there. Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis were the only departures, for sizeable profits, and the squad was tweaked with the loan signings of Oliver Skipp, Ben Gibson, and Dimitris Giannloulis, the latter two becoming permanent signings. They became, simply put, the best team in the Championship, and rightfully earned their immediate return, not shying away from Farke’s attacking philosophy and cultivating a much stronger defensive line. The thrilling 4-3 last minute wins of 2018/19 were gone, and replaced by solid 1-0 and 2-0 victories. They knew what they were doing, and were much better prepared for life back in the big time.
This is the central issue that needs highlighting here. Two years ago there was no expectation for Norwich to do well. This season, after eleven signings and a title-winning squad that amassed 97 points the previous year, there was all the expectation, at least from the club and fans’ perspective, on us to put up a fight. Even after the aforementioned tough fixtures, where we are now just isn’t good enough.
I’m always hesitant to point the finger at Farke, because he has worked wonders in getting us to the Premier League twice in the first place, especially with the limited resources he has had to work with. But this season he looks totally lost, and as a result the players do as well.
We started the season with a 4-3-3, a slight adaptation of the 4-2-3-1 that has served our attacking style so well. But there looked to be confusion going forwards, the midfield looked uncomfortable, and the defence struggled with the lack of cover. The switch to a 5-3-2 for Burnley and Brighton looked to be working well, and I think we were unfortunate not to win the latter of those two games. But that’s what you get when you set up to just put bodies behind the ball and hope you don’t concede. In midfield there’s an over-reliance on Matthias Normann to do everything, and while he’s easily been our standout player this season, it’s impossible for him to run the show on his own. Pukki and Sargent just look like they’ve been put up front together as a guess. They don’t get any service from a midfield that can’t create chances, and when they do they don’t take them. That Sargent miss against Brighton will haunt him, the manager, and the fans for years to come.
However, even after those two 0-0 draws, I thought we still had reason to be optimistic. In the Brighton game the players were actually getting stuck in, defended resolutely and created a few chances, which should have been taken. It seemed a good result to build upon, despite the next game being away at Chelsea. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
I was, of course, realistic about the fact we weren’t going to win the match against the team who I think will win the division this season, but if we set up and played the same way, I thought we could get a result. Even if we kept it to a 1- or 2-0 defeat, as long as we played well, I’d have taken it. However, 7-0 was just embarrassing. There was no energy, no creativity, no hope, it was a shambles from start to finish. Nothing about the performance suggested Norwich City are a Premier League team. In comparison, Brentford, who came up with us and are playing in the top flight for the first time since 1946, kept their game against Chelsea to a hard-fought 1-0 defeat, and have also drawn against Liverpool and beaten Arsenal. They look ready for a fight, and Norwich just don’t.
In the most recent game against Leeds, Farke made another formation change, and this seemed the most desperate one yet. Switching to a 3-4-3 could have worked, especially since a side such as Leeds who played without full-backs and conventional wingers, but there was so much confusion about the team Farke went with. Max Aarons started on the right and Rashica on the left, begging the question whether they were meant to be playing as full-backs or wingers. Dowell on the left of a front three was another confusing one, especially since he hasn’t had a look-in all season and also doesn’t play on the left wing. Even with Cantwell still AWOL, with Tzolis on the bench it was a confusing decision. It looked like a lot of guesswork, and that’s how it played out as well. It was another display of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticked, which as it turns out was nothing. It was pretty hopeless.
So where does this leave Norwich, and where does it leave Daniel Farke? As mentioned previously, this isn’t the same as two years ago. The board have stuck by him because there hasn’t been any expectation on him or the team, and when there has been it’s been in the Championship, a division which he clearly knows how to get results in.
But in the Premier League this season it’s been a big disappointment, to put it mildly. The board clearly wanted this team to succeed, given that Norwich spent the second-most money on new players out of any team in the Premier League. And given the excellent recruitment we’ve seen from Stuart Webber and co. over the past few years, you’d think there would have been a plan in place to get the best out of these players to consolidate the Canaries as a top-flight outfit. But if that were the case, we wouldn’t be seeing talent such as Milot Rachica, Christos Tzolis, or Billy Gilmour either stuck on the bench or out of position. There doesn’t seem to be any plan for how to utilise these players to their full potential, and at this point it’s slightly confusing why they were brought in for the money (and wages) they command if the manager won’t even play a formation that includes their positions.
Would it not have been in the plans to stick to the 4-2-3-1 that served us so well last year? To have Normann taking over the Skipp role with Gilmour or Lees-Melou alongside him? Or even to have Gilmour at CAM with Tzolis and Rachica either side of him, or Cantwell before he vanished off the face of the earth. And in defence, if we needed another experienced Gibson-type player to further shore up the defence, why did we invest in a ball-player like Kabak? Don’t get me wrong, he’s a talent, but is he what we actually wanted or needed?
I don’t want to sound the doomsday alarm here, but I think if we were going to invest in all these players, they needed the guidance of a manager who knows how to get the best out of them. The results firmly suggest that Daniel Farke is not that man. Maybe some blame lies with Stuart Webber and the board for bringing in the wrong players for the football he wanted to play. But managers at the elite level know how to adapt, and that clearly has not happened.
If Farke is still in a job by the time the Brentford game comes around, I think anything other than a win would realistically see him out the door. It would be a decision made with great reluctance, but Norwich just appear to be an ever-sinking ship under him in the Premier League right now. I believe he hasn’t won in 20 top-flight games stretching back to 2019/20? Tottenham have sacked their manager after a “poor start” and they’re currently in 9th. If Norwich are serious about being a Premier League outfit, I think the possibility should at least be being considered. If we don’t get a result against Brentford, if worst-case scenario we get totally outclassed by them, I think the result for Farke is inevitable.
It might also be premature to be thinking of replacements, but there are a lot of available managers who could still turn Norwich’s fortunes around. As unpopular as he might be, Steve Bruce had recently found himself out of a job, and while he might be looking at a break or retirement from management, a possible homecoming may serve him and the fans well. A star centre-back for City in the 1980s, his brand of football may not exactly be the most pleasing on the eye, but it’s saved countless teams from Premier League relegation, and at this point Norwich need something like that before we can get going with attacking football again. The same goes for someone like Big Sam Allardyce. It may not be pretty, but as a short-term solution it will do.
It may be that we pluck another unknown figure from the depths of somewhere like the 2.Bundesliga or Ligue 2, but I don’t think that would be a viable option without consolidating Premier League status first.
It doesn’t feel good discussing Farke’s future, because he’s the best manager the club has had since Paul Lambert. But right now nothing is working, and there don’t appear to be any signs that things are going to get better. If Norwich are serious about staying in the Premier League, as our investment suggests, then it looks inevitable that a change might be needed.
Sorry, Daniel. I love you, but prove me wrong.