Analyzing David Wagner’s Time at Norwich

David Wagner was appointed as Norwich City head coach in January 2023 with the task of leading the side back to the Premier League. His arrival followed the sacking of Dean Smith, whose tenure ended with fan disgruntlement and a growing disconnect between supporters and the board.


Initially, results were promising and the style of play deployed was markedly different to the stuffiness of Smith’s. An attacking nature led to a 4-0 win away to Preston North End and a 4-2 victory away to Coventry City. The style was free flowing and, though the opposition were being given chances by way of the openness, Norwich were scoring enough goals per game to ensure victory.


Within his first month at the football club, Wagner had brought in a freshness and a sense of re-energisation that helped ease elements of supporter disconnection. Even the 3-0 home defeat to league leaders Burnley did not bring the general positive atmosphere down.



Wagner’s side, still getting used to the new style of play, were simply outclassed by a better side who had spent several months playing a particular way under Vincent Kompany. However, the months that followed saw replications of this performance against sides lower in the table, showing that it was less to do with adapting to Wagner’s ways and more that the style was too easily exposed in the high intensity Championship.


Notable weaknesses from Wagner’s first season – albeit a half season given his appointment in January – included an open defence that teams were playing through easily and the isolation of the central midfielder in attacking build-up play. Combined, this led to the opposition creating several chances per game, whilst Norwich failed to create any. In fact, Norwich managed to go the last five home matches of the 2022/23 season without scoring a goal.


Included in this drought was the 1-0 home defeat to already relegated Blackpool, Teemu Pukki’s final match for the club. A peculiar season was brought to a disappointing end and it was clear that, heading into the preseason, Wagner would have to address the defensive fragility and consider a different style to the one that had failed to work thus far. And, to an extent, the 2023 summer transfer window reflected that there would be a change.


Opting against the usual policy of signing younger players, the signings of Shane Duffy, Ashley Barnes, Danny Baath, Adam Forshaw and Jack Stacey, amongst others, brought with them Championship promotion experience. It was an unusual strategy given outgoing sporting director Stuart Webber’s prior reticence to transfer in senior players who will be on higher wages, but it’s the path that was taken. 



And, after an unbeaten preseason, the first month of the 2023/24 Championship season was one of success for Norwich. Furthermore, a style of play was emerging. In build-up play, one of the central midfielders would drop back into defence to form a back three as the full backs pushed up high and wide. The wingers inverted and created a box shape with Barnes and Josh Sargent further up the pitch, before Barnes would drop into a more central position allowing for Sargent to make runs in behind. 


This left Norwich sitting second in the table and having scored the most goals in the league; it was an almost perfect month and was looking like the summer signings had been shrewd. Particularly impressive was Barnes’ link up with Sargent. The pair were forming a confident duo, playing off and supporting each other and, most importantly, allowing for the entire Norwich side to play in the style Wagner dictated. 


However, injury to Josh Sargent can perhaps be seen as where the downfall began for Wagner. Away to Huddersfield, the American forward, so crucial to how Norwich were playing, damaged his ankle ligaments and was subsequently ruled out for four months. This would turn out to be catastrophic, not just for Sargent who had made such a positive and pivotal impact, but also for Wagner who would fail to adapt to any other style of play and saw Norwich regress.


The matches that followed Sargent’s injury were marked by an uncertainty of how to create chances without him as target man and defensive calamity at the other end. Wagner stubbornly stuck to his philosophy and continued to play the style that had previously been working. The issue was that Sargent had been the man making this style work and so it was now being deployed and filled in with players who did not suit these tactics. The head coach was clearly lacking fresh ideas and was failing to address this period of stodginess.



Ultimately, the 6-2 defeat away to newly promoted Plymouth Argyle was, for many supporters of the side, the point of no return for Wagner. Now that it was possible that this sort of crumbling could happen, how many times could it happen again? Here was a side lacking an identity and filled with senior players, outplayed and outpaced by a youthful Argyle team. Naturally, it would take an awful lot to convince supporters of any club that this was just a one-off performance.


And this was a challenge that became tougher as performances failed to improve and Norwich lost five of the next seven matches. Wagner asked fans for patience, but that can be a difficult request when a head coach deploys a negative style of play and quite evidently misuses very talented players. The enthusiasm felt under Wagner’s first month had dissipated by November and as Stuart Webber departed the club, there were calls for the man he had appointed for a second time to follow suit.


The board did not relent, however, and as new sporting director Ben Knapper arrived, so did an upturn in form. The reintroduction of Marcelino Núñez into the starting eleven was the freshness Wagner so desperately sought. Though not a defensive midfielder by trade, the Chilean managed to close the wide gap between midfield and defence and act as a solid base who would break up attacks before launching them.


As with Knapper’s arrival, and as with Núñez’s reintroduction, Josh Sargent’s return from injury gave Wagner and the side another much needed boost. With his top forward back, Wagner could now return to the style that had worked so well in August. A difference, however, was that Norwich were now more defensively secure.



Carrow Road also transformed into a fortress, a feat unimaginable a few months prior. Norwich were undefeated in their final 16 home matches, including a run of 8 straight victories. Much credit has to be given to Wagner for how he managed to regroup the squad and turn the form around so that the side were able to finish in a playoff position.


Although, it is also fair to criticise the approach taken away from home that led to just six victories on the road and finishing 19th in the away form table. The idea implemented was one of defending deep, before attempting to pick teams off by counter attacking.


The issue was that very few chances were created and that there was no need to play such a defensive style against many of the vulnerable sides. Furthermore, whether Norwich conceded after 10 minutes or 80, a quick transformation into an aggressive and attacking style was necessary and the players, understandably, could not adapt quickly enough to such a contrasting style.


It was this stubbornness once more that meant Wagner failed to convince supporters of his philosophy or that he would successfully lead Norwich to play-off glory. And this style was best exemplified in the final matches of the season and then the play-off defeat to Leeds United.



The home matches to Bristol City and Swansea City, both ending in draws, were uninspiring and the away sides, both playing with freedom, provided Norwich fans with a glimpse of confident and free-flowing football, something not seen at Carrow Road for a few years.


The final game of the season, away to Birmingham City, can be seen as Wagner instructing players to not injure themselves for the play-offs, however it was another turgid performance where the Canaries were outplayed and defeated by a side who ended up being relegated. Not ideal preparation for two enormous matches.


And so, because Wagner’s general negative style was even more evident when playing the sides relegated from the Premier League, Norwich supporters had little belief heading into the two matches against Leeds. Failing to capitalise and build up a much required lead in the first leg, so that Wagner could then have a buffer whilst deploying a park-the-bus style at Elland Road, Norwich headed into the second with the scores level.


It was vital that Norwich did not concede within the first twenty minutes so that they could begin to frustrate Leeds and create opportunities for counter attacks. But the opposite quickly unfolded. After twenty minutes, Norwich were 2-0 down. By the end of the evening, the scoreline was 4-0. Throughout the match, the Canaries were second to every ball. They failed to adapt to a way of playing that created chances and never put the Yorkshire side on the back foot. It was a humiliating defeat for David Wagner. 



Perhaps surprising is how swiftly Wagner was relieved of his duties, pointing to the thought that it had already been decided should Norwich fail to achieve promotion. And so Wagner’s time at the East Anglian side can be viewed as one where there were glimpses of hope and excitement but ultimately shrouded by pessimistic football that led to apathy amongst supporters.


The German’s successor has been announced as Johannes Hoff Thorup, now former head coach of Nordsjælland. He has promised a style of play that is possession-based with a clear positional structure that will attempt to see Norwich dominate both with and without the ball. After sixteen months of lacking an identity, these words will be welcomed as Norwich embark on a new era under Hoff Thorup, Knapper and new joint majority shareholder, Mark Attanasio. 


By: Thomas Shelton / @tomshelton11

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images