Analyzing Norwich’s 2023/24 Season So Far

Midway through a second season in the Championship, and little has changed for Norwich City. Mid-table mediocrity has set in despite a pool of players possessing undeniable talent and ability. Apathy looms amongst a fanbase that are largely waiting for the end of the season due to a board that lacks decisiveness.


There are hopes that newly appointed sporting director, Ben Knapper, will return the identity long attached to the club – promotion of youth players and an attacking, free flowing style of football – however, patience is already wearing thin due to a season that has so far been inadequate and continues two-and-a-half years of decline. 


This present 2023/24 season has seen very little of these identity tags. A summer transfer window focused on bringing in players with experience who could drag Norwich to promotion. And this seemed a relatively good idea, as, at the conclusion of the 2022/23 season fans demanded a refresh that included purchasing players with more traditional and tougher qualities, something that there had been a lack of in a league notable for its fortitude.


Therefore, the free signings of Ashley Barnes, Shane Duffy and Jack Stacey, to name a few, appeared to be in line with this strategy. Previous transfer windows had seen the arrivals of relatively more obscure and youthful players who were supposedly ready for the first team. Here was something different: acquiring players of solid experience who were either firmly in or heading towards the twilight of their careers.


Teemu Pukki’s Five Years at Norwich


And this was a strategy backed by Head Coach, David Wagner and former sporting director, Stuart Webber despite it being announced that, though handing in his notice in March, Webber would be remaining at the club for another year. A stagnant and departing presence being allowed to have control over the future of the club he was leaving only highlights the amateurish approach around Norwich City.


It soon became clear, however, that Norwich were going too far in either direction, with just two players of the ten that were signed being between the ages of 20-28. Added to this was the departure of players in this age bracket, for example, Max Aarons, Milot Rashica, Kieran Dowell and Christos Tzolis.


The replacement of players such as these included the deadline day additions of Danny Baath, who arrived immediately after the departure of Andrew Omobamidele to Nottingham Forest, and Hwang Ui-jo on a season long loan from Forest. Although word filtered down from the club that these were players on a well thought out list, they were evidently players of very different skill sets of those that they were meant to be replacing and so gave the impression that they were more panic signings than targeted acquisitions.


Despite this, a flurry of youth players were picked up, seemingly very good youth players should the so far successful season of the under-21s be anything to go by. However, these are players not yet ready for first team football, meaning that they will not be replacing the more senior players who are set to depart the club at the end of this 2023/24 season and the following 2024/25 season.


The Rise of Andrew Omobamidele


This means, once more, that Norwich will be heading into the summer transfer window in need of a refresh and having to address issues that were ignored in the summer of 2023. Considerable noise has been made surrounding the club’s link to Brazilian side Coritiba and the access to their South American scouting network, but, unfortunately, this led to just one South American signing – Pedro Lima from Palmeiras on a season-long loan to the under-21 team.


He has impressed there, but with Wagner’s reluctance to promote youth players, it’s unlikely he will be given a first team appearance and will instead be seen as part of Norwich’s aim to showcase the club as acting as a stepping stone into European football for talented South American footballers. All in all, it was a transfer window that was intended to have short term success which could then lead to discussions surrounding the long term.


Despite an abnormal transfer window, the season started brightly and led to August being a month of unexpected highs. A last minute winner at home to Hull on the opening weekend of the season was followed by an entertaining 4-4 draw away to recently relegated and promotion favourites Southampton.


This high-scoring, and admittedly high-conceding, football was welcomed after a pre-season where the emphasis had been on becoming defensively resolute. To round the month off, four games followed and so did four victories. Academy graduate Jonathan Rowe was a revelation – scoring four league goals in a row in four matches.


Jonathan Rowe – Delia’s New Delight


A clear style had been adopted, whilst in deep build up play the style would be a 4-2-4 box formation, with the strikers dropping deep and wingers high and wide, it evolved into more of 3-1-5-1 when progressing up the pitch, with Kenny McLean often dropping between both centre-backs. (For more on Norwich’s tactical play, find @NCFC_Analysis1 on X/Twitter.)


However, as quickly as hopes had been raised and excitement contagious, it just as quickly fell apart. During the 4-0 victory away to Huddersfield Town, Sargent sustained damaged ankle ligaments due to goalkeeper Lee Nicholls’ inept efforts to prevent the USA talisman from scoring. Though the game was comfortably won, the loss of Sargent precipitated the loss of tactical style and attacking threat. 


What followed was a rotated side to defeat Bristol City in the second round of the League Cup before the disastrous return to league football that began away to Rotherham United. Replacing Sargent was Adam Idah, who, despite never being given a consistent run of games, continues to possess talent. Unfortunately for Idah, Wagner saw no reason to change formation nor tactical style and expected him to slot into the role left by Sargent.


The two strikers are different players and attempting to fit Idah into Sargent’s role was simply naive. The same could be said when substituting on players such as Liam Gibbs and Tony Springett into positions that they are not used to and expecting them to compete at a level they are not at. Whilst this highlights the lack of any sort of depth and inadequacies made in the summer transfer window, it also began to make evident Wagner’s complete reliance on one formation and one style of play.


Gabriel Sara: Norwich’s Brazilian Talent


And it is that stubbornness that saw Norwich drift away from being a threatening attacking side. An unconvincing victory at home to Stoke City allowed for positivity to remain afloat and even the 2-0 defeat that followed at home to Leicester City was met with little negativity. However, this was to change.


With both Sargent and Barnes out injured, Wagner drafted in Idah and Hwang Ui-jo, a deadline day loan signing from Nottingham Forest to address the sudden lack of forward depth, for the away trip to Plymouth Argyle – a 12-hour round trip. Whilst Norwich stuck firm to their style, Plymouth adapted to the formation that saw them achieve success in League One the season prior.


When combining this formation with a style of football that is of high-tempo, high-pressing and undeniably fearless, Norwich were quickly disassembled and thrown aside in humiliating fashion in the form of a 6-2 defeat, after being 4-0 down by half-time. Whilst Wagner made necessary changes at the break that led to the two goals being scored by Idah, here was a side that had been well and truly figured out.


Perhaps most disappointing was that the experience brought in during the summer was meant to prevent these sorts of performances and collapses from happening, especially against newly promoted sides. Wagner had to act to prevent this result from having damaging lasting effects, but the issue with such heavy defeats is that small doubts about a coach and the style of play naturally become inflated and a sense of waiting for it to happen again takes hold.


Adam Idah: Norwich’s Promising Irish Attacker Now a Premier League Goal-Scorer


The following league game would have helped this out somewhat too, a 2-1 home victory against an inform Birmingham City side. But what followed was unforgivable. Five defeats out of six and an atmosphere of uncertainty breezed through the stages of fury until apathy was reached. These were performances of a low quality where an attacking style of football so prevalent early on in the season was completely absent.


Perhaps the turning point of most Norwich supporters can be found after being defeated at home by Leeds United 3-2, despite leading 2-0 at half-time. Much chatter shrouded the match due to it being the first return of Daniel Farke to Carrow Road since he was dismissed in 2021. A place where he achieved great successes and, even though he oversaw a Premier League relegation, cemented his status as a club legend, perhaps aided by the harsh nature by which he was dismissed.


Although, as is typical amongst most fanbases, even when the time is right for a popular and great manager to be sacked, if what follows is somehow worse or a continuation of what that manager created before their sacking, then they are looked back on more fondly because of how powerful nostalgia is in football.


Though Norwich went into the break leading 2-0, there was an atmosphere of dread. Part of this can be attributed to the Championship winning seasons under Farke that saw Norwich win many games late on after trailing by one or two goals. And the fears became reality as Leeds convincingly won the game, looking more like a top flight side in the second half. After the final whistle had been blown, all four sides of Carrow Road applauded Farke, thanking him for his time at the club which he had not been allowed to receive due to the abrupt sacking two years prior. 


The Rise and Fall of Parma


For Wagner, this defeat, and the manner by which it happened, was the ultimate turning point. Norwich supporters had witnessed a former manager take apart their own team in a convincing manner. They had seen what they used to have, what they used to do to other teams but were now on the receiving end of. Not just this, but as well as being susceptible to heavy defeats like the one at Plymouth, they were now susceptible to giving up hard fought leads.


This period of gloom culminated in a 3-1 home defeat to ten-man Blackburn Rovers. Indignation that a manager reluctant to adapt to different styles or play attacking football led to very loud calls for his sacking. However, these calls fell on deaf ears. Perhaps because what followed was five victories out of eight and an unexpected draw away to rivals Ipswich Town. But, whilst results were then impressive, performances were not. This was a period marked mostly by low possession football and significantly fewer passes and shots than the opposition as part of an aim to become more defensively resolute.


And throughout this period lingered a sour atmosphere that had ventured far past apathy. Towards the end of November, in the middle of this period of positive results, was an AGM whereby the ownership came across as being content with mediocrity and as outwardly favouring certain personnel. At a time of dissatisfaction, this was an opportunity to listen to supporters and help quell concerns. Instead, the board opted to label fans who disagreed with them as ‘whingers’ and spoke romantically of the days now past instead of devising a plan for the uncertain future.


A chasm between supporters and ownership opened up to a new level that is unlikely to be solved until the departure of the old guard that is Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones and the full arrival of now joint majority shareholder, Mark Attanasio. The mere replacement of the current ownership for Attanasio will bring a freshness and sharp business and analytically focused mind to a stale boardroom that has created a very cosy atmosphere. 


The Football Passion and Politics of Casablanca


Despite this passivity, there have been bright points. Gabriel Sara and Jonathan Rowe have been amongst the best performing players in the Championship despite having their talents limited by negative tactics. Sara is so often the Norwich player who will grab the game by the scruff of the neck and turn it around. He’s a positive thinking player who leads the way regarding chances created in the league with 74, all despite being played as a deep-lying playmaker.


When in his element, he aims to spearhead high-tempo football by moving the ball on quickly and providing a multitude of chances. Rowe offers an electricity that is nowhere else to be seen in the side, with his goal and assist statistics showing that he is more than deserving of his England under-21 spot.


Importantly, he can turn games for Norwich, as seen with two goals away to Ipswich and an assist at home to Southampton in a draw on New Year’s Day where Norwich deployed a 5-4-1 formation and ended the game with 25% possession. Both are sure to be in the Premier League soon, Norwich only hope that it will be in the summer of 2024 rather than the January. 


Livorno: A City with a Proud History but an Uncertain Football Future


The most important piece of business conducted in this upcoming January transfer window should be the replacement of David Wagner with a coach more in line with the football philosophy outlined by Ben Knapper on his arrival. There have been many opportunities provided where this could have happened, but none have taken place.


The Canaries possess players of great attacking ability, players who can bring an identity long lost back to the club. And such players are played in their favoured positions under a style of football that aims to get the best out of their talents, there is no reason why Norwich shouldn’t be aiming for the final playoff spots. However, this will not happen if the current board continues to delay the inevitable.


Norwich are at the end of a cycle, in regards to ownership, management, and to a certain extent, playing squad. The sooner this is realised, the sooner a complete refresh can take place whereby excitement and positivity return.


By: Thomas Shelton / @tomshelton11

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Walton – PA Images