The Signings Norwich City Should Have Made in Summer 2021

It was something of a relief when Norwich City’s trip to Leicester was called off just before the UK welcomed in 2022. The squad has been decimated with injuries and COVID-19 cases, meaning that a potential cricket score would have come out of the King Power. That might seem like an exaggeration, but after this festive period, the game’s postponement was best for all involved.

Following a previous postponement for the trip to West Ham on December 18th, Norwich’s festive fixture record has been nothing short of abysmal. Yes, there have still been a lot of absences to contend with, but the performances have been truly woeful. There was the previous lackluster 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, followed by a 5-0 demolition at the hands of Arsenal, where the Canaries looked woefully out of their depth, and things recently culminated in a 3-0 away defeat to fellow injury-hit outfit Crystal Palace. It was something of a relief when Norwich City’s trip to Leicester was called off just before the UK welcomed in 2022. The squad has been decimated with injuries and COVID-19 cases, meaning that a potential cricket score would have come out of the King Power. That might seem like an exaggeration, but after this festive period, the game’s postponement was best for all involved. The Canaries do technically have a 100% winning record in 2022, having unconvincingly scraped past Charlton Athletic in the third round of the FA Cup, but it’s still a game not many were looking forward to, and has left few convinced of a turnaround despite victory over the League One team.

Only a few weeks ago the team were holding their own against Manchester United – that feels like a million years ago now.

The fans have become increasingly frustrated (and rightly so) with the performances. They haven’t pointed the finger at new manager Dean Smith, who is clearly trying to make something work out of the very little he has been given. They’ve instead resorted to chanting “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” at the majority of the team, telling Billy Gilmour to “f*ck off back to Chelsea,” and aiming their displeasure at sporting director Stuart Webber.

It’s pretty clear, from this evidence at least, where most fans feel the club has gone wrong this season: the recruitment. Webber infamously stated before the season started that the club had provided then-manager Daniel Farke with the ammunition needed to mount a serious survival challenge this season. Roughly £60million was forked out on 11 transfers (numbers almost unheard of by Norwich City standards), and there was a wave of general optimism around fans that things could go well this season. Despite the losses of Oliver Skipp and Emi Buendía, the squad looked better than it did during the 2019-20 season, Norwich’s last spell in the top flight. At least that’s how it looked on paper.

I myself wrote a whole article saying that it had been a very good transfer window for Norwich. It was by no means perfect, but the recruitment looked promising and seemed to reflect a strong degree of intent that Norwich meant business this season. As has become blindingly apparent, the recruitment has been a rather tragic tale. It’s clear that, for certain signings, they were brought in without knowing how to get the best out of them, to play in a system that doesn’t suit them. Some that arrived with promise and potential have fizzled out into underwhelming duds. In the case of Josh Sargent, some of them seemingly don’t even know how to play football.

As things stand, it’s not looking good for the Canaries. The only saving grace they have right now is that there’s still half the season to go and they aren’t totally cut adrift at the bottom of the league due to those around them also being quite bad. But with 42 goals conceded and a measly 8 scored, it’s a pretty high standard of terrible. And there was me in my last post saying they should try and keep the goals conceded down to about 50 before the end of the season. Lol.

Now that we’re in a new year and the January transfer window is open, the natural thing to do would be to look into the market and see what signings could come in and save the day – who could shore up the defence, replace Mathias Normann as he recovers from injury, and for all that’s good and holy find someone who can score goals. However, given that Norwich have already spent a hefty amount over the summer, that doesn’t appear to be much of an option, unless a big sale is made to bring funds in. It seems to be more a case of Dean finding a winning combination of what he has to work with, and hoping for the best.

So I won’t be looking at any players Norwich should be signing this window – because they probably won’t sign any. I was also hoping to do an analysis of the last five Premier League games, but since there have only been three and fans have spent enough time already tiring over how bad the performances were, so this post is more for a bit of fun/reflection on what might have been, just for a bit of a change. Today, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the signings that Norwich should have made in the summer. We’ll remind ourselves what the squad looked like, what the situation with certain players was, who should have stayed, who should have left, and who really should have come in. I’m well aware that this is made easier by the benefit of hindsight, and the fact that some of these signings have been truly woeful, but it’s just a hypothetical experiment to let us ponder an alternate universe where things aren’t quite so bad.

So first of all, let’s cast our minds back to the heady days of May 2021, when Norwich City had just claimed their records points total en route to coasting to the Championship title, returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Here’s a reminder of what the squad and starting XI looked like, managed by the mighty Daniel Farke;

2020/21 Squad

Goalkeepers
Tim Krul
Ørjan Nyland
Michael McGovern
Aston Oxborough
Defenders
Max Aarons
Sam Byram
Bali Mumba

Ben Gibson
Grant Hanley
Christoph Zimmermann
Andrew Omobamidele

Dimitris Giannoulis
Xavi Quintillà
Midfielders
Oliver Skipp
Jacob Sørensen

Kenny McLean
Lukas Rupp
Alex Tettey

Kieran Dowell
Mario Vrančić
Marco Stiepermann
Forwards
Emi Buendía
Onel Hernández

Todd Cantwell
Przemysław Płacheta
Josh Martin

Teemu Pukki
Jordan Hugill
Adam Idah

Regular XI

Ah, what a team. Who remembers the days when we had a manager who knew their best starting XI, a team that played free-flowing, attacking football, a defence that was in equal parts rock-solid at the back and an added threat going forwards, with creativity, determination, flair, grit, and drive all in abundance. Believe it or not, that was only about seven months ago. Who could’ve seen this coming?

Anyway, naturally in preparing for a Premier League season, sales have to be made. The dead rubber, the loan moves away, and in the case of Norwich, the sale of a star player to fund this business in the first place. Those leaving the club were;

Who’s Going?

  • Nyland was only ever brought in as short-term cover and was always going to leave at the end of his contract.
  • Oxborough realistically doesn’t have a future at the club.
  • Quintillà didn’t play enough games to make his loan move permanent.
  • Skipp had too good of a season to return and is currently doing bits back at Spurs.
  • Tettey said from the start this would be his last season at Carrow Road, and is now retired.
  • Vrančić was always going to leave at the end of his contract, unfortunate as it may be.
  • Stiepermann had fallen way down the pecking order and always seemed likely to go.
  • Buendía was the star man of the team, but the money needed to come from somewhere. I still feel the club could have gotten more for him from a different team, though.
  • Hernández is a good footballer with a great personality, but not sure about what he could bring in the Premier League.
  • Martin is a prodigious talent who could do with a loan away.
  • Hugill was a decent back-up but not sure if he could cut it in the Premier League, given his struggles at West Brom this season.

All in all, the sales were quite good business. Shifting on some of the fringe players, giving some of the younger players more experience out on loan, and some cash coming in, even if it comes at the cost of the star man.

Who’s Left?

Goalkeepers
Tim Krul
Michael McGovern
Defenders
Max Aarons
Sam Byram
Bali Mumba

Ben Gibson
Grant Hanley
Christoph Zimmermann
Andrew Omobamidele

Dimitris Giannoulis
Midfielders
Jacob Sørensen

Lukas Rupp
Kenny McLean

Kieran Dowell
Forwards
Todd Cantwell
Przemysław Płacheta

Teemu Pukki
Adam Idah

In a wonderful example of logic, the board and Stuart Webber realised that these players needed replacing/upgrading/whatever you want to call it. With a budget of around £50-60million to spend, let’s remind ourselves of where that cash went.

2021/22 Transfers In

  • GK – Angus Gunn (£5mil)
  • CB – Ben Gibson (£8mil, permanent)
  • CB – Ozan Kabak (Loan)
  • LB – Dimitris Giannoulis (£6mil, permanent)
  • LB – Brandon Williams (Loan)
  • CM – Mathias Normann (Loan)
  • CM – Pierre Lees-Melou (£3.5mil)
  • CM – Billy Gilmour (Loan)
  • RM – Milot Rashica (£10mil)
  • LM – Christos Tzolis (£10mil)
  • ST – Josh Sargent (£8.5mil)

The New Squad

Goalkeepers
Tim Krul
Angus Gunn
Michael McGovern
Defenders
Max Aarons
Sam Byram
Bali Mumba

Ben Gibson
Grant Hanley
Ozan Kabak
Christoph Zimmermann
Andrew Omobamidele

Dimitris Giannoulis
Brandon Williams
Midfielders
Mathias Normann
Jacob Sørensen

Lukas Rupp
Billy Gilmour
Pierre Lees-Melou
Kenny McLean

Kieran Dowell
Forwards
Milot Rashica

Todd Cantwell
Christos Tzolis
Przemysław Płacheta

Teemu Pukki
Josh Sargent
Adam Idah

On paper, not a bad-looking team. A statement of intent, ambitious signings with a lot of promise, more obvious depth than there was two seasons ago. In practice, it’s all been a bit of a mess. No cohesion, no obvious game plan, underwhelming signings, and it isn’t clear where half of the team fitted into Daniel Farke’s style of play.

Who Isn’t/Wasn’t Needed?

  • Mumba was a slightly strange signing to begin with, and should have left most likely on loan, like he now has for Peterborough. Williams could cover at LB and also at RB until Byram is fit, and Sørensen played admirably at LB last season.
  • Kabak is a good player, but he isn’t the type of CB Norwich need right now – someone with less flair, who is stronger in the tackle, and ideally left-footed
  • Gilmour and Lees-Melou don’t fit in with the type of football Norwich want to play, and have left the team with an abundance of CMs when a CAM is the most position with the least cover/ability.
  • Tzolis I’m sure is a talent, but again, was he needed?
  • The less said about Josh Sargent the better.

That’s an extra £22mil that could have been saved, plus the wages of 3 other players. But some of the signings still should have been made;

  • A back-up GK was urgently needed, and Gunn is a good choice with a prior association with the club.
  • Williams has previous PL experience, is a promising talent, and can cover on both flanks.
  • Normann is the defensive cover needed to replace Skipp.
  • Rashica isn’t a direct replacement for Buendía, but offers a different attacking option if the occasion calls for it.

That leaves, in my opinion, five positions that would have needed filling without the aforementioned actual signings. Those are; a centre-back, a central midfielder, an attacking midfielder, a right midfielder, and a back-up striker. With an extra £22mil in the bank, who should have come in?

CB – Georgiy Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow, £8mil)

Ozan Kabak hasn’t been a bad signing as such, but he isn’t the type of centre-back Norwich need this season. A lack of physicality and speed in the centre-back position has often become apparent so far, and Spartak Moscow stalwart Georgiy Dzhikiya provides both in abundance. An experienced international with Russia, Dzhikiya is tall, agile, aggressive, and reads the game well. He would also offer another left-footed option. It would probably take him a few games to settle into the Premier League, especially with the schedule Norwich were dealt at the start of the season. But I think he would slot in nicely next to Grant Hanley, adding a bit more pace and energy to the captain’s left.

If the club weren’t to sign Dzhikiya, then I think a move for Liverpool’s Nathaniel Phillips would be on the cards. A tall, commanding figure who has proven he cut the Colman’s mustard at a high level, the only issue is his lack of agility, which would essentially mean swapping one slow centre-back for another. His physicality would be much needed, though.

CM – Tomáš Holeš (Slavia Prague, £6.5mil)

Coming off the back of a highly successful UEFA Euro 2020 campaign with the Czech Republic, which included a player-of-the-match display against the Netherlands in the last 16, it’s surprising that Tomáš Holeš didn’t get himself a move away from Slavia Prague over the summer.

A late bloomer who only earned his first senior international cap in 2020, Holeš is a versatile all-round midfielder who can also play across the back four, providing extra cover in case of injuries. If he were to sign and start next to Mathias Normann in the midfield pivot, it would allow Normann to do the dirty work while Holeš would provide space for him to operate in, drive forward and start an attack, and also drop back to help break up play. All that for someone currently marked at £6.3million by Transfermarkt. It’s a midfield issue that has plagued Norwich all season, with Billy Gilmour expected to fill this role, when he’s still a developing talent who hasn’t been asked to play this position before. Not only is this Holeš’ natural game, but he’s a much more experienced head anyway.

He may not have Premier League experience and it may take him time to settle, as with Dzhikiya, but this should be a fix that would show a marked improvement to Norwich’s midfield struggles.

CAM – Harry Wilson (Liverpool, Loan with Option to Buy)

The lack of an attacking midfielder has been a key issue for Norwich so far this season, and is one of the reasons the team have only registered eight goals so far this season. It seems unclear where the creativity is expected to come from. Kieran Dowell is the only recognised player in his position, and hasn’t had enough game time (in the right position) to justify a regular starting berth. There’s been a sort of expectation that Gilmour and Cantwell can just play there naturally, but this too hasn’t worked out.

Dowell is a more than capable squad player on his day, but the club needed an established CAM to slot into the starting XI from the start of the season. One option would have been Matheus Pereira, a star man for West Bromwich Albion in 2020/21 who would surely have wanted to stay in the Premier League following the Baggies’ relegation. However, following 6 goals and 11 assists, the Brazilian decided to up ship to Al-Hilal in a move that Pereira himself admitted was financially motivated, most likely pricing Norwich out of any potential move.

With this in mind, Harry Wilson seems to fit the bill pretty well. A gifted midfielder perennially loaned out by Liverpool, the Reds finally let the 24-year-old go over the summer, with Wilson joining Championship side Fulham for £8.5million. He already looks too good for the Championship, with 6 goals and 7 assists from 20 games this season. This adds to the 7 goals and 12 assists he wracked up for Cardiff in the same division last season, and the fact he’s a regular for the Welsh national team as well. Wilson is creative, clearly has end product, and can play anywhere across an attacking three. Although he left Liverpool permanently over the summer, I don’t think it would have been unfeasible for Norwich to launch a loan move for the Welshman, with an option to buy for around £8.5million come the season’s end. To me, he would fit seamlessly into the number 10 role, providing the creativity that Norwich have sorely lacked this season.

RM – Ianis Hagi (Rangers, £6.5mil)

Either side of Wilson we would have Todd Cantwell on the left, and our next new signing Ianis Hagi on the right.

It goes without saying that replacing Emi Buendía after the season he had was a near-impossible job. Rashica has shown glimpses of brilliance this season, but he doesn’t have the numbers to back up his performances, and is also a totally different type of player to Buendía anyway. If Norwich wanted to play the same type of football that won them 97 points and the second division title last season, then they needed to bring in a like-for-like replacement. At least, as close to one as they can.

I’m not saying he’d come in and have the same impact Buendía had on the team, but Hagi appears a pretty ideal replacement. Starring in a title-winning Rangers team last season, the Romanian tallied up the most assists out of anyone in the SPL with eleven. Along with six goals and a string of impressive performances for the national team (culminating in a wonderful solo goal against Germany), Hagi may not be the finished product, but he fits the Norwich system to a tee. Rashica would be a more than capable winger if Norwich wanted to change to a more direct style, as would Płacheta on the opposite flank. But Hagi is two-footed, elegant, has a keen eye for a pass, and under the right management he would be a more than welcome addition to the team. Pukki has really missed the ability to latch on to a clever through ball this season, but with the trio of Hagi, Wilson and Cantwell in behind him, on paper it would go a long way to solving the issue of creativity and getting the Finn truly firing.

ST – Kieffer Moore (Cardiff, £5mil)

Although the previous two alternative signings were suggested with Pukki in mind, the issue still remains where the goals come from in his absence. Adam Idah is still a developing talent, but still doesn’t have a Premier League goal to his name. And the less said about the actual back-up signing Josh Sargent the better.

I’ve long maintained that Norwich needed to sign a big man up top over the summer. Not necessarily to start, but to give them an alternative attacking outlet if they were chasing the game and needed to change something. Pukki is a clinical finisher, but a physical presence he is not, and in the Premier League the lack of this kind of player can cost a team dearly.

To my mind, Kieffer Moore is the man for the job. The scorer of 20 goals for Cardiff last season, and a standout for Wales at the Euros over the summer, the striker stands at 6ft 5in tall, and would no doubt contribute somewhere between five and ten goals if used properly. Imposing, clinical, and with a surprising amount of technical ability, Norwich fans would have to forget about his prior connection to Ipswich, although no goals in 11 substitute appearances (including one against the Canaries) hardly make him a bonafide hero at Portman Road. Moore turned 29 over the summer, and off the back of such an impressive 2020/21 season, the lure of a season in the Premier League would surely be tantalizing for the Welshman, as would his pretty cheap fee for the club in question. It seemed a logical move for all involved, and it’s a pity this one was never realistically touted, because I think this would add an exciting new dimension to the Canaries’ attack.

How Would the Squad Look?

1. GK Tim Krul
2. RB Max Aarons
3. RB Sam Byram
4. CB Ben Gibson
5. CB Grant Hanley
6. CB Christoph Zimmermann
7. CM Lukas Rupp
8. CAM Harry Wilson
9. ST Kieffer Moore
10. CAM Kieran Dowell
11. LM Przemysław Płacheta
14. LM Todd Cantwell
15. CB Georgiy Dzhikiya
16. CDM Mathias Normann
17. RM Milot Rashica
19. CDM Jacob Sørensen
20. CM Tomáš Holeš
21. LB Brandon Williams
22. ST Teemu Pukki
23. CM Kenny McLean
24. RM Ianis Hagi
28. GK Angus Gunn
30. LB Dimitris Giannoulis
33. GK Michael McGovern
35. ST Adam Idah
44. CB Andrew Omobamidele

So what do we have?

Obviously this is a hypothetical matter based on the wonders of hindsight. It’s easy to look back and say what should have been done to avoid Norwich’s struggles this season, or at least stop things from getting as bad as they have.

On paper, this is a team that has a strong chance of avoiding relegation. They may not, given that a first season back in the Premier League probably warrants ambitions of 17th place and anything above, but I think this team would have had a lot going for it this season.

You have the same back 5 that only let in 36 goals across the Championship last season, with an experienced goalkeeper who contributed 17 clean sheets. Three of the back 4 have Premier League experience, as does the on-loan Brandon Williams. Giannoulis will have something to prove, but will be helped by the strength and agility of Dzhikiya (when he plays) next to him.

There’s a small overhaul in midfield, with Normann being tasked with breaking up the play and doing the dirty work while his partner Holeš drives forward to connect the midfield to the forward line. A tough-tackling, driven, aggressive double-pivot. McLean, Rupp, and Sørensen provide experienced faces from last season via the bench.

The attacking three already look a marked improvement from the incoherent shambles we’ve seen this season. The lack of a true no.10 has been critical, a void filled by Harry Wilson, who has the ability to cause chaos with Cantwell and Hagi either side of him. Rashica and Płacheta offer an alternative outlet from the wings if needed, and Dowell’s end-of-2020/21 season form sees him a reliable back-up from the bench. The versatility of this group should significantly help with rotation as well.

Finally, Pukki retains his place up front, but this time with actual, capable service coming from behind him that allows him to play his way. And with a towering, imposing target man in the guise of Kieffer Moore, who scored 20 goals last season and impressed at Euro 2020, the team have an excellent option to bring on when required.

There would be no radical formation changes, merely a necessary tweaking to the formula that made the majority of this group play so well last season. There’ll be no umm-ing and ahh-ing over what Billy Gilmour’s best position is, whether Christos Tzolis should be starting every week, what Pierre Lees-Melou’s actual purpose is, and most importantly, we won’t have been subjected to sitting through Josh Sargent attempting to play football every week.

There’s no guarantee that this team would work. There’s not even the guarantee of these signings even happening in the first place. There’d be further still the usual factors of injuries, COVID-19, fixture congestion, mentality, etc., etc. But the sense of familiarity, the usual attacking flow, the actual firepower Stuart Webber said Daniel Farke would have to work with – in some way, shape, and form, it’s all there. A relatively solid back four, a dynamic midfield double-pivot, and creativity in abundance up top. And best of all, should survival happen, there’s a more than solid basis to build upon for another season of top-flight football.

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