Following on from a hugely successful Championship-winning season, Norwich City had important signings that had to be made to not only compete in the Premier League, but massively improve from previous transfer failings in the 2019/20 relegation season. Important positions were not filled and ultimately led to another season of disappointment.
The players signed may have arrived with excitement and anticipation, but expectations were not met and few of them were ready to play for a club in a real relegation battle.
Not being ready for Premier League football and needing time to settle in was an excuse used occasionally by the club – but when you’re trying to avoid another failure of a season then players have to be bought in already ready for the challenge.
Milot Rashica’s record-signing arrival seemingly appeared out of nowhere and this real surprise helped to create a sense of excitement around the Kosovan international.
Joining Norwich from a relegated Werder Bremen, the focus of analysis on his performances was mostly concentrated on the season prior when his goal contributions pushed Bremen into the relegation play-offs and kept them in the Bundesliga.
Looking at the season just gone and, very early on, there was a buzz when he picked up the ball as he willingly took on defenders with real skill, pace and directness. However, this was a buzz that soon flattened out with there being little end product. A dangerous outlet no doubt, but providing little and so not threatening the opposition’s defence on a major scale.
Notable performances were few and far, though this can be said for most of the squad. A corner headed in by Andrew Omobamidele against Leeds United and a delightfully whipped cross that had the same outcome from a Josh Sargent header away to Watford, were his only assists of the season. His only goal was registered away to Liverpool, thanks to a generous deflection.
Rashica may actually prove to be one of the signings who ultimately have the best chance of being established in the Premier League, as he did show real signs of decent quality, even if his goal contributions would appear to go against that.
Joining Rashica from Werder Bremen, the signing of Josh Sargent was met with initial uncertainty. Billed as a player who would be coming in as a striker to compete against Teemu Pukki for a starting spot, a quick look at his stats raised questions about whether he was of the needed quality.
There was a hesitation around the American and the fans wanted him to prove the assumptions wrong, however this sympathy quickly evaporated after missing a quite literal open goal in a draw against Brighton and Hove Albion in October.
From this point onwards, Sargent could never quite get the rub of the green. He was deployed all across the front three and his work rate picked up attention, helping Norwich to their first home win of the season against Southampton when he was subbed on at half-time.
In January came a sort of scorpion kick, wonder goal away to Watford as well as a header bulleted into the opposite corner. However, just like the squad, this momentum wasn’t sustained and he missed a large chunk of the end of the season due to injury.
So, Sargent did not take to the Premier League. Chances of relative ease were squandered and for all the tireless running, very little was achieved.
Of all the players signed in a whirlwind of a transfer window, there was perhaps the least expectation on Lees-Melou. Coming from OGC Nice as a fairly conventional central midfielder, it was never exactly clear what Lees-Melou was going to add to the side.
Athleticism and physicality were of the highest need for Norwich’s midfield – players with bite and tenacity – and the Frenchman didn’t exactly have a reputation for either of those things.
It would be fair to say that a ‘6/10’ mark based on a performance rating, was the most common, with him never doing anything particularly wrong, or at least no worse than anyone else, but also providing very little. One memorable moment was when he was shrugged off by Jean-Philippe Mateta at home to Crystal Palace with so much ease before the Eagles got themselves a penalty which Wilfried Zaha squandered.
Lees-Melou didn’t fare as badly as the other signings, but it would be difficult to see him playing in the Premier League in the future. Not due to his commitment but more because of not being up to the pace and physicality demanded in that league or appearing involved enough.
Christos Tzolis entered as a ‘wonderkid’ type of signing. Links to Barcelona were prominent during his very early career after defeating La Masia and then impressing at youth tournaments with quite simply astounding numbers.
His speed and sharp runs allowed for him to develop quickly and play for PAOK as a winger or just behind the main striker, and these were factors that led to Tzolis becoming Norwich’s joint record signing alongside Rashica.
In the build-up to the first game of the season at home Liverpool, clips did the rounds of Tzolis taking on Kostas Tsimikas – who would be starting for Liverpool with Andy Robertson being injured – during Greek Super League games and leaving the left back helpless.
However, Tzolis, to the disappointment of the fans, did not make it off the bench and so the anticipation around this match-up was never met. A theme that repeated itself throughout the entirety of the season. Tzolis had a campaign of real frustration and never found a rhythm with game time being very limited.
Club officials have been reported as saying that he was never bought for an immediate impact, but to develop over time – and that’s what Norwich didn’t need. Players needed to be acquired who could be quickly slotted in and Tzolis appeared far from ever being in that category.
It can be difficult to critique Tzolis’ season due to such minimal action, however, the flurry of cameos mostly saw him stick to one of the wings whilst not involving himself in the game. Looking towards the future, he could absolutely play again in the top division once he has had significant playing time.
Much expectation and promise arrived with the loan signing of Billy Gilmour. This was on the back of an impressive Euros – a highly praised Man of the Match performance against England at Wembley Stadium – and his general talent being well known since moving to Chelsea for an initial fee of around £500,000 as a 15-year-old.
A palpitable excitement was created around the club to have a player of such potential and ability who would be able to control the midfield and pick out inch-perfect passes for attacks to be built on.
Unfortunately these high expectations led to Gilmour being somewhat of a scapegoat at times. His performances were not as hoped, and because of such expectations, criticism was loud. Notable individual highlights were hard to come by and it became difficult to see what he added to the side.
Weakness in the middle of the park and giving the ball away were common sights. Daniel Farke perhaps noticed this relatively early on, constantly resigning the Scot to the bench, however, with Dean Smith’s arrival, he made it clear that he couldn’t believe such a talent wasn’t a regular feature.
And this was reflected in Gilmour’s playing time with him going on to be a frequent starter, hardly missing a game. Although it has also been reported, but not confirmed, that a structure was in place whereby the more he played, the lower the loan fee would be. Ultimately, Gilmour would have fared better for a club that had an actual defensive midfielder and who were not going to be in a relegation scrap.
Just like for most players, he will look more comfortable in a squad of better quality, but Norwich should have realised that a player like Gilmour was not what was needed to secure survival and provide grit. Whether he turns out to be another clog in the Chelsea loan system, or breaks away like Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori, remains to be seen.
A very late summer signing, Normann was announced as the much needed defensive midfielder – a position that had been left empty since Oli Skipp returned to parent club Tottenham Hotspur. According to officials at the club, this had been a signing that had been worked on for several months, however the lateness of the actual signing can definitely be criticised.
Norwich began the season against the toughest of opponents without a defensive midfielder and so people were playing in positions unnatural and uncomfortable for them. There appears to have been such a focus on waiting to see what Spurs were to do with Skipp that this left Norwich sidetracked from actually acquiring a player to just sit in front of the back four.
The first half of the season saw Norwich fans take to the Norwegian, mostly because he actually looked as if he could compete in the Premier League.
However, an injury at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers ruled him out for all of December and January and upon his return, he represented a Norwich side lacking fight, looking weak and not being of the necessary top-flight standard.
There was an option to buy for £11 million if Norwich survived but, based on his second half of the season, even if that was achieved fans would be wondering if that could be better spent.
A season marred with injury affecting the second half of the season, Normann never reproduced the earlier performances that Norwich fans had fallen in love with. It’s not as if this shouldn’t have been known, though, when looking at his career record.
Williams was an interesting loan move because Norwich had just made the loan signing of Dimitris Giannoulis permanent and so to bring in another left back who would absolutely be wanting regular game time, given his age and his previous record as a starter for Manchester United, was a surprise.
The Man United loanee fared better than the other signings as errors were less common. A fairly consistent performer, Williams should be a nice target for Premier League sides around the relegation places and just above, should he not be part of Erik ten Hag’s plans, due to the commitment, resilience and bite he provides which are key elements for an entire squad to have when fighting for safety.
Driving through the heart of the Everton starting eleven in a rare Carrow Road win highlighted his drive and determination with all of the emotions being displayed in the celebrations.
Perhaps Williams can be seen as the one signing who showed the most ‘passion’ – mostly due to flying into tackles and showing desire that seemed missing across the squad. He managed to endear himself to the majority of fans and showed that there is still potential to develop into a starting full back for a team higher up in the top division.
He was far from the worst Norwich summer signing and looked like a player who, despite still being raw around the edges, was ready for a relegation battle.
Ben Gibson and Dimitris Giannoulis
These two defenders were both brought in as loan signings in the Championship with agreements to buy if promotion was secured. The likelihood was that if Norwich were promoted (and they were) then they would have played significant enough roles to command their respective fees of around £8 million for Ben Gibson and roughly £6 million for Dimitris Giannoulis.
Contrasting to the title-winning season, Gibson’s Premier League campaign was below par. Early in the campaign it was unfair to put all the blame on one person for defeats, however, when the season reached its end, his performances at home to Brentford and away to Man United stood out as poor.
He failed to defensively deliver in moments when games were to be won and lost, for example the matches noted above and away to Leeds United when Norwich conceded late on. Here, he was beaten to a header by the 5’9” Joe Gelhardt, notably smaller than him – he flicked the ball onto Raphinha who rounded Tim Krul before squaring it to the unmarked Gelhardt to hammer the ball home.
And then Giannoulis – a season of ups and downs where he was second fiddle to Williams. When his chances arrived he proved himself to be no better than Williams but of similar ability, that is attacking fairly well but too weak defensively and leaving space in behind.
Norwich had signed a man previously in demand amongst more prominent European clubs and, whilst being of top draw in the Championship – looking too good almost – he seemed to not be trusted by the management staff in the top tier and this perhaps translated into a lack of confidence that was visible in his performances.
For Ozan Kabak, this appeared as a signing with intent. Yes, he was part of a Liverpool side who were losing more games than accustomed too and displayed some errors, however it was to be interesting to see how much his game had developed and what sort of qualities he could bring to Norwich.
Ultimately, he only showed glimpses of his full capabilities. Action was limited due to injuries and he was another who just never really got going. Making his debut in a September home defeat to Watford highlighted just how off the pace he was, and this never changed.
The odd charge from defence to attack showed his aims of trying to get the side to attack more, but it was his lack of pace, slow turns and often not being match fit that led to the signing being a failure.
Strolling off after around half an hour at home to Manchester United created confusion in the crowd and it was hard to look favourably on him afterwards. In short, a disappointment because of similarly high expectations and potential.
More so a signing for the future, Gunn’s appearances were limited to covering for Krul when the Dutchman was injured or ill and then a handful of matches at the very end of the season, possibly just to keep his sharpness up.
When brought in to play in the back end of December and then also January, the calibre of goals conceded were not always of the highest level. Left exposed by the defence at times, goals were almost inevitable whoever the keeper was. However, letting in soft goals only piled on the misery for the team at the bottom.
In fairness though, this can be accredited to a lack of general playing time which was particularly apparent against Arsenal at home and Crystal Palace away in December, his first games of the season and when the squad was struck with Covid.
Later performances did inspire more confidence, but he remained a regular on the bench with Krul’s return. However, a few errors from Krul later in the season did begin to raise the question of whether, or when, Gunn may take over as first choice.
So, Gunn followed the theme of players bought not being ready for an instant impact, but perhaps more suited to top-end Championship football and who can develop for the future.
By: Tom Shelton / @tomshelton11
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Caparros – UEFA