A lot has happened in the world of Norwich City since I last posted something about this current season. From winning two games in a row and climbing out of the relegation zone, and reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup, the Canaries go into Friday night’s game against Southampton back at the bottom of the table after expected defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool, as other results went against them.
With thirteen games left, there’s still everything to play for. Norwich may be five points adrift and stuck with a woeful goal difference courtesy of being generally rubbish at both ends of the pitch this season, but this appears to be the one season where a great escape could realistically be on. With at least six or seven teams still in danger of going down, a couple of wins and Norwich will be out of the relegation zone again (provided other results go their way), and could incredibly be in the Premier League again this season.
And there are certainly reasons to be positive. Despite defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool, there were still plenty of encouraging signs. The team has generally looked much better since Dean Smith has come in as manager, and, as alluded to previously, anyone can seemingly beat anyone this season.
So where does that leave the team, and us as fans? We’re still bottom of the table, after all. In this post I’ll be diving into three reasons to stay positive about Norwich’s survival chances, and three brutally realistic reasons why we may have to start accepting another season back in the Championship next season. Obviously I hope Deano’s barmy army have what it takes to stay up, specifically at the expense of the filthy aristocratic, human-rights abusing scum-piles that currently occupy the north-east of England, but that may well end up being a pipe dream.
For now, let’s explore the reasons to stay positive, and the reasons to be more cautious, and see which side we come down on.
Pessimistic: The teams around us are putting results together
Norwich go into Friday night’s game at Southampton with the teams around them suddenly looking like world-beaters. Burnley have started making their traditional climb away from the bottom three, firstly claiming a stunning 3-0 win away at Brighton before a shock 1-0 victory over Tottenham on Wednesday. Newcastle’s January business has been paying early dividends, which has seen them win three games in a row over Leeds, Everton, and Aston Villa. Everton seem to be playing much better football under Frank Lampard, and their squad is surely too good for the Championship. All three aforementioned teams also have games in hand over Norwich; Newcastle with one, Burnley and Everton with two respectively.
With the gap at the bottom so narrow and relegation rivals beginning to pick up form, there really isn’t any margin for error from Norwich’s point of view. Any dropped points from winnable games, while those around them begin to claw their way out of trouble, could prove too costly for Norwich. There has long been an emphasis this season on relying on those around us to keep dropping points, but if that stops, as it appears to be, then it really is time to start picking up wins.
Optimistic: There are plenty of winnable games left to play
Fortunately for City, their run of fixtures from now until the end of the season brings a lot of promise. Since I last posted, the team have produced excellent wins over Everton and Watford, and although the defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool were heavy, they were by no means disastrous. We even took the lead at Anfield! The draw against Crystal Palace was frustrating, as it felt like a game we should have won, but a point is a point, and it could yet prove to be a crucial one.
At this stage in the season, only seven points separate Norwich in 20th and Brentford in 14th. That means, realistically, at least six wins from now until the end of the season could easily see Norwich survive. And there are certainly six winnable games in there. The home games against Brentford, Burnley, and Newcastle all stick out as must-win games. There’s an away game at Wolves, who, despite currently sitting in seventh, were outplayed at Carrow Road and were beaten at Molineux by Norwich in the FA Cup at the start of the month. There’s an away game at a Leeds team very much in the relegation mixer, and who have just been hammered 6-0 by Liverpool. There’s a trip to an inconsistent Brighton side who also struggled at Carrow Road this season, and a home tie against West Ham who, on the right day, can be exploited. A home win over Tottenham on the final day may seem more optimistic, but if survival was at stake on the final day, beating a (currently) out-of-sorts team doesn’t seem out of the realms of possibility.
Meanwhile, Watford still have to travel to Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea, while also still having to face Leicester and Arsenal. Newcastle still have games against Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal. Burnley admittedly also have a kind run-in, but still have to face Leicester, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham. Leeds still have fixtures against Tottenham, Leicester, Wolves, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. And Brentford still have to play Leicester, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Manchester United.
All those teams still have winnable games to play, and they may well pull off a few shock results along the way, as Burnley did last night. But you get my point – Norwich’s run-in is a lot nicer than those around us, and six wins doesn’t seem out of the realms of possibility. But it does all start with a tough test at Southampton – and then we have to actually go and beat Brentford.
Pessimistic: Adam Idah out for the season
The sheer rollercoaster of emotions that Norwich fans have gone through over the past month or so can be pretty much summed up by the saga of Adam Idah. Left out in the cold for so long this season, he came in against West Ham and was the best player on the pitch. In the victories over Everton and Watford he was a shining light, scoring the second goal in the former and, generally, bossing the show both times with runs down the channel and hold-up play that had been missing all season. He was key to a new 4-4-2 formation cultivated by Deano that looked as though it could lift us out of the quagmire of the relegation battle.
Now, we sit here with Idah nursing an achilles injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. While it’s pretty surprising to see Idah, a fringe player for so long, having such an impact on the team, it’s still a massive blow that leaves Norwich looking short on numbers up front. Yes, there’s still some quality out on the wings, and Sargent can theoretically come in up front, but if he, Pukki, Rashica, or any other key forward players find themselves injured, it leaves Norwich incredibly fragile. For a team that’s only scored fifteen goals in the Premier League all season, that would be disastrous. It’s thrown the style that suited Norwich so well a bit out of whack, and now it leaves us wondering, for a team that has chopped and changed formations all season, what the solution is to survival.
Optimistic: Dean knows his first XI, and can set up to win any game
That being said, Deano has done wonders in getting his players used to his style of play, and they’ve adapted well to a 4-3-3 in recent weeks. And we’ve seen the depth and adaptability of the rest of the squad too. Angus Gunn has performed admirably since deputising for the injured Tim Krul. The midfield trio of Normann, McLean, and Gilmour played well together against Liverpool, while Pierre Lees-Melou and Jacob Sørensen have impressed when they’ve come in recently. The defence looks more stable, and Sargent and Rashica are now finally start to score goals.
Dean seems to know who to play and how to use them. His tactical formation change for the Liverpool game was working wonders until Jürgen Klopp made a tactical masterstroke of his own to turn the game around. Hanley and Gibson have started to play well together, Brandon Williams has been a small revelation, and Sam Byram is now pushing Max Aarons for a starting berth. Normann also played admirably on his first start since injury. Things now seem to be coming together, but whether this has come too late into the season is another question entirely.
There will always be questions as to whether not bringing any reinforcements in during the January transfer window was a mistake. But for now, as long as a solid front three, namely Rashica, Pukki, and Sargent, stay fit, with Normann hopefully staying fit as a midfield pivot, it may well give Norwich enough potential to stay up.
Pessimistic: Do we really deserve to stay up?
It took us eleven games to win a match this season. We’ve been out of the relegation zone at the end of a match-week once this season, and have spent sixteen of the 25 at the bottom of the table. We’ve scored the fewest goals and conceded the most out of any other team this season, and currently have a 38 goal difference. Defeats have included 50 losses to Arsenal and Manchester City and 7-0 to Chelsea. On two separate occasions this season we’ve lost six matches in a row. And the amount of lists we’re currently bottom of is almost endless.
The facts above speak for themselves: can any team, who have performed so poorly all season, really deserve to stay up?
Optimistic: If things go our way and we keep performing well, we absolutely do
At the end of the day, the three teams with the lowest points tally get relegated. If Norwich gather enough points from now until the end of the season, which as we’ve seen they are more than capable of doing on current evidence, then it means they were, over the course of the season, better than three other teams. They gathered more points, they will have earned their rightful place in the Premier League for another season. It really is as simple as that.
If key player stay fit, if they can find a way to win at least six of the final thirteen games and hope that teams around them do them a favour (with Kieran Tripper out for Newcastle that seems to be becoming a likely possibility), then it will be unquestionable that City deserve their spot in the Premier League. Maybe it will be because three teams will have been worse than us rather than us being noticeably better than three other teams. But at the end of the day, who cares?
What’s the verdict?
To be quite honest I’m not sure this has really answered any questions. It still remains that there are reasons to be optimistic about Norwich’s survival hopes and reasons to expect the worst. But for those of you reading who have written Norwich off already, hopefully this has gone some way to proving there’s life in the old horse yet. As I said, I think anyone currently from 14th to 20th could realistically go down at the end of the season, so there’s no reason why Norwich can’t stay up if they find the points from somewhere.
I’m going to end on a note that is sandwiched somewhere between the two worldviews. If Norwich are in the Championship again next season, there are still reasons to be positive. If Deano and Shakey stay in charge, we’ve got a management team capable of rebuilding the squad and mounting a promotion push. Whether the team will need a year or two of stability before making that push is another question, but at least the team will be in safe hands. The players who will probably leave, such as Williams, Normann, and Rashica, will either generate a healthy profit, or will have left at the end of their loan deal, meaning no money was lost (other than on wages). And it’s a chance to start anew, a fresh plan to bring in some of the promising talent in the youth ranks such as Jonathan Rowe and Tom Dickson-Peters, while giving Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele a proper chance to flourish.
Whatever way you look at it, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Canaries. Hopefully, anyway.