Norwich City are heading for the Premier League. They are sitting pretty at the top of the Championship, with a five-point lead over third-place Leeds United, and much of their progress owes to intelligent recruitment in the transfer market.
Several players have burst onto the scene at Carrow Road this season, but few have epitomised the success bred from the meticulous methods of the club more than Emi Buendía.
Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, he rose from a lowly background. Buendía emerged as a diminutive, creative player with the unwavering determination to achieve his goals, much like many aspiring South American footballers.
He began at Cadetes de San Martín and displayed technical skills beyond his years with the tactical intelligence to match. With the help of ex-Argentina international Juan Esnáider, he was recommended to Real Madrid, where the former striker played early on his career.
Buendía, aged just 11, left behind his parents and two brothers, Agustín and Joaquín, to pursue his dreams of developing at one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.
With his whole life ahead of him, it was a monumental decision for such a young boy to make, but there was no such hesitation from the player himself.
In an interview with Mar del Plata-based website 0223, Buendía reflected on his decision and said: “I’m a little crazy. I thought more about football than about the family at that time. I was living an incredible moment. I never doubted that.”
A new adventure awaited him, as he began what would be a disappointingly short-lived tenure at Real Madrid. Buendía was deemed surplus to the requirements of Los Blancos after little more than a year within their ranks.
However, an ever-developing player who is keen to learn, he still benefitted from his experiences at La Fábrica.
Real legend Raúl spoke to the club’s youngsters during Buendía’s short stay and the Argentine credits this discussion as what laid the foundations for his refined understanding of space and attacking positioning.
He told Dame Futbol: “Raúl came to give us a talk, as an example and symbol of the club. Especially the attackers; he spoke about the positions. That was very appreciated; it helped a lot.”
Buendía’s time at Real didn’t go to plan, but he remained in Spain and continued in Madrid, as Getafe CF jumped at the chance to add him to their academy in 2010.
The playmaker began to settle at his new club, working his way into their reserve side at just 17 years old.
It was in the following season, though, that Buendía began to catch the eye. He enjoyed an involved role and displayed maturity and confidence as he broke into the first team.
Cosmin Contra, who is now in charge of the Romanian national team, handed the youngster his senior debut in the 3-0 Copa del Rey win over Eibar in December 2014.
The 2014/15 season saw the playmaker earn himself international recognition, and a tug of war between Spain and his native Argentina ensued.
As a result of his citizenship in the country, Buendía was handed a debut for Spain’s Under-19 side but was swiftly snapped up by Argentina ahead of the Under-20 World Cup in 2015.
He had been listed as a standby option ahead of the Spanish side’s U19 European Championships campaign, but Argentina U20 manager Humberto Grondona convinced Buendía to switch allegiances.
The coach attended Getafe’s 1-1 draw against Villarreal at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez but was left disappointed, as the player appeared for only 11 minutes after coming on as a substitute.
This didn’t deter Grondona, however. He met with the youngster after the match, and the pair discussed the upcoming U20 World Cup over dinner in Majadahonda. The manager’s interest was clear, and Buendía agreed to link up with Argentina.
Although the national team flattered to deceive at the competition, Buendía played three matches and scored his first and only goal in international football so far, netting in the 3-2 defeat against Ghana’s Under-20s.
But just as the former Real youngster’s career appeared to be on an upwards trajectory, the 2015/16 season brought little success. Getafe succumbed to relegation from La Liga, and Buendía made only 15 appearances, scoring once.
Despite his evident ability and clear potential, he failed to make an impression with Azulones. What did prevail, however, was Buendía’s willingness to adapt, even if it meant sacrificing his positional preferences.
Amid an injury crisis, he was forced to fill in at right-back for Getafe. This came at an unfortunate time for the youngster, though, who was then tasked with marking Neymar in Barcelona’s 6-0 demolition of Fran Escribá’s side.
Buendía was expected to feature regularly for his team after their relegation, but an ankle injury married with frustrating inconsistency saw him play only 12 games in Segunda División.
Getafe bounced back at the first time of asking to secure promotion to La Liga. Their enigmatic Argentine creator, however, didn’t go up with them.
Buendía was loaned out to second-tier Cultural Leonesa last season, and the move would prove to be a blessing in disguise and a catalyst for his success.
After being afforded the chance to operate in something of a free role, the attacker performed exceptionally on the left and ended up scooping the club’s Player of the Season award for his exploits.
Buendía found the net on six occasions in the Segunda División and also contributed with a further 11 assists.
Rather surprisingly, though, no true race to secure his services ensued despite his displays for Cultural, until Norwich came calling with a £1.5 million deal arranged with Getafe.
The Canaries have earned themselves a reputation for being shrewd in the transfer market, with a strategy led by sporting director Stuart Webber helping to construct a Premier League-bound side.
His methods focus in on scouting footballers who play in Europe’s second tiers who are either underrated, undervalued or both, as long as they suit manager Daniel Farke’s possession-centric style of play.
Norwich’s approach has been typified by signings like Teemu Pukki, who had been released by Brøndby at the end of his contract. The Finnish striker now leads the way as the Championship’s top goalscorer with 24 goals, as well as nine assists.
Others such as Marco Stiepermann and Christoph Zimmermann have shone for the Canaries, but Buendía has been the clearest example of the Canaries unearthing a gem.
Norwich’s primary area of scouting appears to be in 2. Bundesliga, where most of their deals are for low prices, or in some cases, for free.
Webber explained to Reuters: “The leagues are similar – the second division and the Championship are the closest in comparison. There is a good chance [that] a German player will settle”.
What wasn’t expected, however, was that the club’s first recruit from Spain under the stewardship of Webber and Farke would be such a roaring success, lighting up the Championship with flair, tenacity and innovation in abundance.
Segunda División appears to be a somewhat untapped market, and this became clear to Norwich’s head of recruitment Kieran Scott, who found himself to be the only representative from England watching Buendía in action.
Scott told Reuters: “Emi came in statistically very high, he was scouted very well, he fitted the age band, we went to watch him live and he was a very quick ‘yes’. Why was no-one else watching? I don’t know. I was sat there thinking why I am the only person here in Leonesa? I just couldn’t work it out.”
Fast-forward to March, however, with Buendía regularly producing eye-catching displays on the right, Norwich’s supporters and staff alike will be thanking their lucky stars that they were the first to pounce on their South American magician.
The 22-year-old’s integration at Carrow Road was slower than anticipated, and it took former Borussia Dortmund II boss Farke until late October to play Buendía for a full 90 minutes in Norwich’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa.
On the right-hand side, he is a part of the Canaries’ inexpensive yet always impressive attacking quartet. Stiepermann operates behind Pukki, while Onel Hernández occupies the left-wing position on the opposite flank to Buendía.
The four work in tandem like a well-oiled machine, but the cogs within this mechanism were carefully placed together for little more than £5 million, and yet Norwich are steamrolling their way to the Championship title.
Buendía’s positional intelligence, perhaps aided by Raúl’s talk when he was just a boy, is of enormous benefit to his teammates. He has a strong relationship with the excellent Max Aarons and tucks into half-spaces to not only create central overloads, but to isolate the right-back and allow him the space to exploit on the wing.
Farke’s system affords his creative players the licence to rotate positionally, and this suits the Argentine. He drops deep often to carry the ball forward with his superb dribbling, or to play an early, penetrative pass to break the opposition’s defensive lines.
Buendía is adept at pulling defenders out of their positions, as evidenced by his spectacular goal against Hull City. The winger drifted infield to first create space, before playing a delightful flick to Pukki, who back-heeled the ball into his teammate’s path for him to coolly slot home.
His ability to pull wide defenders away from their positions has also aided Stiepermann and Aarons especially, as it allows them to make third-man runs into dangerous crossing positions after combinations on the wing.
Many who were unaware of Buendía’s style of play had overlooked this signing because of archaic stereotypes; there was something of an assumption that it would be a classic case of a diminutive flair player who would fail to adapt to the more dogged nature of Championship football following his mixed success in Spain.
However, Buendía has proven to be among the surprise packages of the season. He shields the ball well, draws an average of at least two fouls per game, and is press-resistant.
The former Argentina U20 international’s flexibility has been crucial for Norwich. Given their possession-based style, teams often sit back against them, meaning that breaking down low blocks is an essential skill for their creative players.
Thankfully for the Canaries, Buendía is particularly adept at doing so, either with delicate passes into pockets of space or by unleashing powerful shots at goal.
The latter was the case when Norwich welcomed Swansea City to Carrow Road. On a wet and windy day, in the midst of a rather dull, scrappy match, the 22-year-old got the supporters on their feet as he hammered home a thumping effort after shifting the ball from his right foot to his left, sealing a 1-0 win for his team.
For all of Buendía’s creative talents, what must not go unnoticed is his defensive contributions. He is crucial to the way that Farke’s team presses and aims to retrieve the ball high up the pitch.
He marks space intelligently and cuts off passing lanes for opposing ball carriers, making it hard for Norwich’s opponents to play out from the back. Buendía reads the game well and makes interceptions in dangerous areas, springing his side into life and enabling them to counter-attack despite the impetus that is placed upon possession.
With five yellow cards to his name, he is not a player who will be bullied or pushed aside; he is one who will not be a bystander, willing to play with the necessary aggression to drive his team through the more problematic fixtures.
Buendía has been excellent for Norwich, and the numbers go some way in reflecting that. In his maiden campaign on English soil, he has scored seven times in all competitions, contributing with 14 assists as well.
He has been involved in a goal every 125 minutes on average in the Championship this term, a superb return for a 22-year-old wide player.
When Buendía plays well, Norwich tend to follow suit. Such has been the influence of their £1.5m signing this season that the Canaries remain unbeaten in each of the 12 league matches that the playmaker has scored or assisted.
With the winger having notched up 10 goal contributions in his past 11 matches, this bodes rather well indeed for Farke and his side, as they lead the way to the Premier League.
It will be a truly intriguing test of Buendía’s credentials if, in the increasingly likely event, Norwich do press ahead and secure automatic promotion, given his prior shortcomings in the top flight of Spanish football.
The creative attacker has the skillset to succeed in the Premier League given his speciality in shielding the ball, resisting the press and taking up dangerous positions in the opponents’ half.
He’s likely to be called upon as a key source of creativity by Farke, who will be keen to put the young winger’s energy and tenacity in the final third to good use should he orchestrate his side’s return to the big time.
Buendía must display the quality he has throughout the season in Norwich’s final push for promotion, and the most exciting campaign of his career to date could await him, as the Premier League beckons.
Surely then, a call-up to the Argentina senior squad would not be too far away for the boy who departed his homeland at 11 years old to chase his lofty dreams, which now appear to be developing into reality.
By: Luke Osman