Norwich City 2021/22: Dean Smith’s First Five Games: What’s Happened, and What Happens Next?

From my own recent experiences, people move on very quickly. Even after a loving, long-term relationship, it doesn’t take much for feelings to change and new attachments to form quickly.

Daniel Farke will know this better than anyone. On November 6th he had just guided his Norwich City team to a first Premier League win of the season, a 2-1 triumph away at Brentford. A few hours after celebrating with his typical “oles” to the away fans, he was sacked. After four-and-a-half (mostly) glorious years in charge, Daniel Farke’s gelb-grüne armee was no more.

Come November 20th, Norwich had swiftly appointed recently-sacked Aston Villa manager Dean Smith as Farke’s replacement, and he had guided the Canaries to a 2-1 victory over Southampton at Carrow Road, with chants of “Deano! Deano!” ringing out from the four stands of the ground. Yup, sometimes in life people move on with unimaginable swiftness and cruelty.

Sorry Daniel, you know we still love you xox

Following on from that new-manager-bounce, it’s not all been smooth sailing for Norwich. The win over Southampton has so far been the only one of the Dean Smith era, with draws at home to Wolves and away at Newcastle coming just before a 3-0 loss at the hands of Tottenham and an unfortunate 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester United. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind experience, from euphoric highs to coming crashing back down to earth with a brutal sense of reality.

But what exactly is the picture at this stage? The most important factor in judging the early days of the Smith era is surely whether Norwich appear to be in a better position for Premier League survival than they were when Farke left. The answer to that is an emphatic yes. The team may still be stuck at the foot of the table by virtue of goal difference, but their points tally has literally doubled under Smith’s tenure. I went into these first four games thinking 7 points from 12 would be the benchmark for a successful survival bid (the United game was always going to be unpredictable). That hasn’t quite happened, but there are still reasons to be optimistic about this season. The question I’ll be aiming to answer here is: just how optimistic should we be?

I’m sure there have been plenty of deeper, more informative dives into this topic, and I won’t pretend as if I have all the facts, figures, and answers for everything being discussed here. But I will aim to analyse the five games from the perspective of the fan, the realist, the neutral, and everything in between to come to a (hopefully) informed judgement on whether “Deano” is the man able to carry us into Stuart Webber’s promised land of 17th place.

In words taken from the (original) Disney film Mulan, “let’s get down to business.”

Norwich 2-1 Southampton (20/11/2021)

Ah, that new manager feeling. It’s been a while since Carrow Road’s been rocking so much, both before and after a game of football. Smith was introduced to the canary faithful, Todd Cantwell was back in the starting XI, there was a wave of optimism around the ground that something special was going to happen.

That quickly evaporated after four minutes when Che Adams elegantly controlled the ball in the Norwich penalty area and slotted into the bottom corner to give Saints an early lead. It was an all-too-familiar feeling of “oh sh*t, here we go again.” But then the first signs of change quickly emerged. Not since a dead rubber game against Watford at the back end of the 2015/16 season had Norwich come from behind to earn a point in the Premier League, let alone a win. So when Max Aarons crossed for Teemu Pukki to nod in at the near post three minutes later, suddenly a new sense of resilience seemed to show itself.

At least it would have done had Southampton not spent the rest of the first half peppering the Norwich goal and somehow not finding a second for themselves. Krul pulled off an outstanding save from Adams, and Hanley and Gibson were having to throw themselves in front of everything after several moments of sloppiness that gifted openings to Southampton, which fortunately they couldn’t take. Cantwell in particular was guilty of giving the ball away more than once, seemingly trying to do too much with it when he had control of it when hoofing it clear would have avoided any danger. It’s understandable that we was lacking in match fitness and confidence after a long spell out in the wilderness, but things did change for the better when he came off at half-time.

After the interval, whatever Smith said to the players worked a treat. Cantwell was replaced by Josh Sargent on the right wing, and the formation was altered to a 4-1-4-1. This meant Mathias Normann could sit back more and break up play from deeper, Milot Rashica was given more freedom on the wing, and Billy Gilmour could operate more freely in the centre of midfield. Everything just seemed to click into place in the second half, with the Canaries looking more aggressive, physical, and carving more chances out for themselves. It all culminated in captain Grant Hanley heading in the winner on his birthday, and sealing a second successive Premier League victory with Southampton rarely threatening in the second half.

Happy Birthday Grant

My first immediate thought after the match was: if Daniel Farke was in charge here, the team wasn’t winning this game. Going 1-0 after four minutes would have mentally sunk the players and the scoreline could have gotten embarrassing. That’s no disrespect to Farke, I still love the guy to bits, but it’s pretty clear that’s what would have happened. The fact that Norwich didn’t pick up a single Premier League point from a losing position during the 49 games he was in charge speaks pretty significant volumes. It was a super display of character, grit and determination. Nothing vintage by any means, but when you’re rooted to the foot of the table any way to get a win will do.

Pretty much every player on the pitch did their bit. The two centre-backs weren’t 100% solid, but even in making mistakes they still recovered well. Max Aarons and Milot Rashica combined to delightful effect. Gilmour and Normann ran the midfield along with Kenny McLean. Brandon Williams put in a shift both in defence and attack, and Teemu Pukki notched up yet another goal. Even Josh Sargent got praise piled on him, which tells you all it needs to about this Norwich side under Smith compared to Farke. Admittedly, yes, Sargent was physical and tracked back, but that mostly came from him losing the ball in the first place. He still never looked like threatening the Southampton goal. But I digress.

Enjoy it while it lasts Dean, may be a while ’til the next one

It was a wonderful way to start the new era at Carrow Road. How long would this unprecedented winning streak continue?

Norwich City 0-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers (27/11/2021)

Well, that didn’t last long did it? Dean “o” Smith’s second game in charge saw an interesting, if underwhelming goalless draw against surprise highflyers Wolves. Not a bad result on paper, but one that could, and maybe should, have ended in victory.

I’m of the vaguely controversial opinion that Wolves’ position in the league flatters to deceive how good of a team they actually are. Don’t get me wrong, they have some brilliant players in their team, from Rúben Neves and João Moutinho in central midfield to Raúl Jiménez and Hwang Hee-chan up top. But their performances haven’t been all too convincing this season, and one of the reasons they find themselves as high up as they are is due to the inconsistencies of the teams around them. Overall they’re a solid side who are hard to break down, but struggle to create many chances for themselves away from home, a surprise given the wealth of talent they have at their disposal.

In some ways, their performance at Carrow Road came as little surprise. There weren’t many Wolves openings to speak of, apart from when Tim Krul had to bail out Grant Hanley after the skipper was caught dallying on the ball in his penalty area. Apart from that, if it weren’t for the exploits of José Sá in the Wolves goal, Norwich could easily have taken all three points. He made top-drawer saves from Max Aarons and Teemu Pukki (the latter of whom probably should have done better anyway), and substitute Lukas Rupp also missed a good chance late in the match. Josh Sargent also performed an air-shot, something rarely seen in Premier League football these days.

This basically tells you all you need to know

Despite the lack of cutting edge, there were plenty of positives to take from the game. Smith only made one change from the Southampton game, replacing the drained Cantwell with Sargent, suggesting he knows how he wants to set up his team to play. Norwich controlled possession, something we haven’t seen in the Premier League in years. Milot Rashica finally seemed to be being utilised to his full potential, and looked the Canaries’ most dangerous threat going forward. Chances were created, but the end product just eluded them. They also defended expertly when Wolves came on the attack, limiting them to only a few chances, none of which were clear-cut apart from the aforementioned Hanley error.

Before the match I assumed this would be the game where the ‘1’ came from out of the 7 points, so in some ways it wasn’t a surprise. But the final whistle yielded a paradox. On the one hand, an expected point was taken from an established top-half Premier League outfit, with a clean sheet to boot. On the other, it felt like all three should have been taken on the balance of play, and the failure to take chances has been an all-too-familiar factor in the team’s struggles this season.

But up next was the big one…

Newcastle United 1-1 Norwich City (30/11/2021)

A relegation six-pointer that was also a clash between the polar opposites of the Premier League spectrum. Norwich had lifted themselves into the lofty heights of 19th place, leaving the Saudi-funded Newcastle rock bottom without a win to their name all season. The self-funded farmers from East Anglia could go into this match with the confidence of overthrowing the state in a matter of humiliation, and of putting clear daylight between them and the Geordies.

Despite losing Normann and Rashica in the build-up to the game, as well as Cantwell being pinged by the NHS app (yup, nearly two years after this started this is still the reality in which we live), things couldn’t have started better for Norwich. With Pukki put clean through on goal, Ciaran Clark, a regular contender for the Premier League’s “Most Bang-Average Centre-Back” award, hauled down the flying Finn, being sent off after nine minutes for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. At that moment, every yellow and green fan was thinking this one was in the bag.

An image that promised so much and delivered so little, much like Marvel’s Eternals

Except… well, it wasn’t. Not a whole lot changed after that red card. Newcastle, now with Eddie Howe in the dugout, set up to contain the Norwich pressure, and the Canaries didn’t really seem to know what to do. The wide players were anonymous and Pukki wasn’t getting a lot of service. But there were still another 45 minutes to go, so what’s the worst that could happen?

Well, we nearly found out. With the introduction of Lees-Melou for Tzolis, Smith looked to play a narrower midfield and bring the wing-backs in more. But for the first half of the second half, Newcastle looked like the team playing with eleven men, culminating in Callum Wilson netting a penalty which, in all honesty, Krul probably should have done better with.

That seemed to spur Norwich on, and with the introduction of Giannoulis for Williams, they were able to stretch the game and challenge Newcastle’s back line like, you know, how they probably should have been for the entire game. After finally realising they were playing the Premier League’s bottom side with an extra man, Pukki did what only Pukki can, thumping in a left-footed volley from inside the box to bring the teams level, much akin to his goal against the Magpies back in August 2019. After scoring what will most likely win the club’s Goal of the Season award, given the absolute cesspit there is to pick from, Norwich had a chance to win it through Lees-Melou, but his low shot was pushed over the bar by the foot of Martin Dúbravka. It ended in a 1-1 draw, and I still don’t entirely know how to feel about it.

Really hope he shouted “BOOM” as he hit this

I went into the game thinking we could pick three points up from it, but St. James’ Park is always a tough place to go, especially now the club are ridden of Mike Ashley and have Eddie Howe in the dugout. So if you’d have said the game would be a 1-1 draw before the match, I, and a lot of Norwich fans, probably would have taken it.

However, given that Newcastle were down to ten men for the majority of the game and still managed to control parts of the game (despite City actually dominating possession for a change) and then get a point from it, is disappointing. Credit to Newcastle where it’s due, but in that situation you would expect more from Norwich, given the magnitude of what was at stake going into the game.

So that’s five points from nine, an unbeaten start, and points taken off the teams around us. Solid, but disappointing it wasn’t more. Especially going into the next run of games…

Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 Norwich City (05/12/2021)

The first test against a “big six” team, and things were made harder for Deano before the kick-off. Milot Rashica, who had just started to come into his own with a string of impressive performances, was ruled out for a month, joining star midfielder Mathias Normann on the sidelines. Then there was the dreaded return to the 5-3-2 formation, bringing back haunting memories from the last time it was used in the 7-0 defeat at Chelsea.

However, instead of just playing the formation in an attempt to not lose, this was at least a tactical play by Smith to negate the threat of Tottenham and try and match them at their own game, with the addition of Adam Idah up top to give Pukki a more physical partner to challenge the Tottenham back three. It was always going to be a stretch for Norwich to get anything more than a draw out of the match, and without two of his best players present, this was always going to be a tough ask for Smith.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be on the day, but the scoreline did flatter Tottenham. It wasn’t a 3-0 win. The difference was, as it often has been with Norwich this season, the taking of chances. City had three clear-cut chances and didn’t take any of them, which away at Tottenham will cost you points. Pukki had an early chance unmarked in the box, but sent it too close to Hugo Lloris. In the second half, the Finn shanked a cutback into the path of Idah, who spurned wide from inside the six-yard box. And how could we forget Josh Sargent doing things only Josh Sargent can, sweeping a cutback onto his standing leg before seeing the ball cleared away.

If at least one of those chances goes in, it’s a whole different game. Norwich didn’t even defend too badly either. They were punished for some momentary lapses for the second two goals, again an all-too-common theme from the last two stints in the Premier League. But it should be stated that Lucas Moura’s goal was good enough to win any game. A sublime goal from a player who has always been capable of producing magic moments, there was nothing any Norwich player could do to stop that from going in.

One of the few pics from this game with City players actually in it

So it may have been a 3-0 loss, but a defeat was always expected, and Norwich and Smith can take comfort from the fact they probably didn’t deserve to lose that heavily. Quick shout-out to Ollie Skipp in the Spurs midfield, showing what a classy player he’s become since returning to Tottenham from his Carrow Road loan spell.

Norwich City 0-1 Manchester United (11/12/2021)

So I wasn’t planning to put this game in here initially, but due to my talents in procrastination, and the fact that United are a team in transition under Ralf Rangnick, it seemed like a good idea to whack this on at the end of this post. And what an idea it was.

On top of the injuries to Rashica and Normann, Brandon Williams would be unavailable to play against his parent club. Then there was the news that Ben Gibson and Andrew Omobamidele would be unavailable for the match due to minor knocks, and that Christos Tzolis had tested positive for COVID-19. Cantwell was now out of isolation, but could only find his way onto the bench.

When the line-ups came through, it was clear City were being stretched to the limit. Hence why Przemysław Płacheta, a man who looked out of his depth in the Championship and who I’m amazed to still see at the football club, managed to get a start. But Deano must have seen something in the forgotten Pole, as he actually put in a decent showing! Even when Jacob Sørensen, another player out in the wilderness for much of this season, did an admirable job when he came on for Hanley to deputise at centre-back, alongside Ozan Kabak who has found himself fourth-choice for much of his loan spell.

So on the face of it, a 1-0 defeat to another “big six” team from a late penalty isn’t that bad when half the first team is out injured, right? Well, it wouldn’t be if Norwich hadn’t have played as well as they did. They created the better chances, but instead of shanking them off target as has been the case this season, they found David de Gea in inspired form, making outstanding saves from Pukki and twice from Kabak. Gilmour also saw a shot deflected just wide, and we were all reminded of Lukas Rupp’s shooting allergy, twice firing the ball into the path of Pukki when he should have just gone for goal himself. Shades of that one-v-one against Liverpool back in 2020 were sadly coming back to me.

As for the penalty – even if was a penalty, it was soft. Not deserving to give United the win, especially when Ronaldo, Fernandes and co. were totally underwhelming for much of the game. Even if they had a few players out, they still had the quality to play so much better than they did. It was a frustrating result in the sense that Norwich have lost three points and remain rooted to the foot of the table, when really they should have picked up three and moved up to 18th.

The kid in the bottom left has the right idea

It’s a tricky one to come away from and feel happy. On the one hand, it’s an encouraging result. If Norwich play this well when the whole team is fit, and come up against a goalkeeper who isn’t David de Gea, then there’s plenty of encouragement that they have enough in them to stay up. On the other hand, these results can be totally deflating – to play so well and come away with nothing could totally demoralize the squad. Let’s hope that, given the encouraging performances we’ve seen under Smith, it’s the former.

Oh, and on the list of “things Josh Sargent did that only Josh Sargent can do,” in this game he managed to stand on the ball to control it, and ended up falling over. He truly is an enigma.

So, where are we, and what is to be done?

On the whole, it’s a mixed bag. The performances are there, the points are getting there, there’s a lot of encouragement. The team looks transformed under Smith, but with injuries and the run of fixtures, it’s always going to be tough to get an immediate bounce out of a team that sits rock bottom of the league. But so far, things look positive. The defence also looks so much more solid than it did under Farke. More chances are being created, but it’s still a case of taking them. But if the United game is anything to go by, the goals will come when the opposition goalkeeper isn’t on steroids.

A tough run of fixtures ensues over the Christmas period. Starting on Tuesday with a home tie against Steven Gerrard’s rejuvenated Aston Villa side (the club Deano will be looking to get one over on), then follows a trip to high-flying West Ham, a home tie against in-form Arsenal, an away game at relegation rivals Crystal Palace, still finding their feet under Patrick Vieira, and culminating in a New Years’ visit to the King Power to play Leicester, who despite having an underwhelming campaign are still an outstanding team.

Out of those five games, I would suggest this is the least amount of points Norwich should expect to get from them;

  • Aston Villa (H): W, 3 points
  • West Ham (A): D, 1 point
  • Arsenal (H): D, 1 point
  • Crystal Palace (A): W, 3 points
  • Leicester (A): D, 1 point

If Norwich can secure 9 points from 15, I think that’s the minimum goal that will put them in a strong position to stay up. From now until the end of the season, at least another 8 wins will be needed for this to happen – but where they come from remains to be seen. I think there should also be a target to keep the goals conceded down to about 50 from now until the end of the season. Optimistic considering 32 have been shipped in the opening 16 games, but there are definite signs of improvement to suggest it’s not impossible. As long as the goals start finding their way in to pick up these wins, that’s what matters most. We don’t care how many sh*thouse 1-0 wins we pick up along the way, the important thing is that we get them.

Please help I can’t stand to see him like this

So, starting with the Villa clash on Tuesday, let’s just see where we go from here.

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