Josh Sargent Shining for David Wagner’s Norwich City

After a long period on the sidelines due to injury, Josh Sargent has made his return to the Norwich City side and seems to have picked up the form he had at the start of the season. Strong, powerful, and full of running, he has proven to be a handful for Championship defenders, scoring 10 goals from 13 league games – three goals before his injury in August, and the seven goals since his return on December 29. Now the focus is for him to remain fit and continue this impressive record in front of goal for a team targeting promotion to the Premier League through the playoffs.


Norwich fans have waited patiently for the United States international to find his groove. What they now have before them is a complete centre forward who has developed the ability to find pockets of space and work chances for the team and himself. Sargent’s prominent attributes have always been present during his time at Norwich, but now, with regular minutes, confidence and physical evolution, they are on clear display and indicate why he is in such fine form.


Upon his arrival, however, at the beginning of the 2021/22 Premier League campaign, much expectation was placed on him due to the price tag being a near record high, around £8 million. It perhaps added an unnecessary pressure on the young forward’s shoulders knowing that he was entering a team who had been relegated miserably two seasons prior. Added to this was that he would be a backup to the much-adored Teemu Pukki.


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Head coach Daniel Farke favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation, and, even when he altered to a 4-3-3 formation for the start of that season, it highlighted his preference to field sides with a sole striker. For Sargent, this meant that he was likely to be used as a substitute, either when the side were chasing the game or in a comfortable position, or be used out of position. Ultimately, these were both scenarios which wouldn’t allow the American to flourish nor be able to play with much freedom.


A further issue came with Farke’s general inflexibility to change both the formation and style of play. Despite the large turnover of players in the summer, with most of them ill-fitting to Farke’s usual style, the German was still focused on creating a style which allowed for Pukki to thrive. This was, ultimately, of very poor judgement, and made it even tougher for Sargent when he was substituted on and had to adapt to other players also trying to play different roles.


Only when deep into a tough period did Farke attempt to change formation and styles. This led to Sargent sometimes being thrown out on the wing and sometimes played alongside Pukki with two forwards up top – neither attacker benefitted from this. Sargent’s time under Farke’s management came to an end when the German was fired in November 2021.


For the American, it was crucial that the next manager who was appointed was adaptable and, even if he was to continue being played as second fiddle to Pukki, would be given the ability to play with freedom. Sargent himself commented negatively on Farke’s insistence on playing him as a winger. He admitted that he was more than happy to play wherever to aid the team, but he voiced obvious and understandable frustrations about being played continuously out of position. 


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Unfortunately, little was to change. Norwich appointed Dean Smith as head coach and, throughout the rest of the Premier League campaign, failed to fit him in his preferred position. Despite this, Sargent continued to show passion and desire and a will to adapt even if head coaches failed to accommodate him into his natural role.


A brace away to Watford in a 3-0 victory was the highpoint of his season and clearly highlighted where his strengths lie. An aerial presence and a constant nuisance in the box, he thrived off the crosses being whipped into the box and a more direct and high-tempo style. So it was a little surprising when Smith reverted back to a 4-3-3 formation for the remainder of the season.


Initially, relegation proved to not be too harsh on Sargent. With Pukki struggling to find form in a system where very few chances were created, Sargent was handed an opportunity to see if he could be the answer to Norwich’s goal scoring woes. He was allowed to play in the starting striker role and, for once, was given the freedom to play full ninety minute matches at a lower level – one that is traditionally fast paced and physical and perhaps necessary for his overall development. 


Perhaps the goal that best sums up Sargent as a forward is the goal that sealed a 2-0 victory at home to Millwall in August 2022. A Millwall long throw was cleared up to the halfway line. Alongside two Millwall defenders, Sargent began to chase the ball down. He used his body and physicality to get in between the opposing players and allow for Kieran Dowell to take the ball away down the left wing.


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Sargent shook off both Millwall players and made a darting run to set himself free. Dowell played the ball through to place Sargent in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He calmly slotted the ball into the net, getting his second goal of the game and securing victory for Norwich. The nature of the finishes in this game, and his general performance, suggested that this was a player who could flourish in such a physically demanding league. The nerves and doubts that had been evident when in front of goal months prior in the Premier League had disappeared.


It further illuminated the potential that could be realised if allowed a more regular role in the team. But, yet again, Smith stifled this as he was quickly back to tinkering with formations and playing players in a variety of positions. None more so than Sargent. Quite why Smith decided to stop playing Sargent in the role where he was able to find success is not known. And sure, he was getting appearances, but they were part of a frantic time.


Facing a downturn in form, Smith began to test out multiple formations, failing to settle on a best eleven, let alone a best formation. Some games would see Sargent start up top, others would see him take to the pitch out wide, and other times he started alongside Pukki in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation. This only further highlights the tumultuous nature of Smith’s time at Norwich, and his failure to allow the club, nor Sargent, time to find a groove.


And it was at this time that Sargent faced the largest moment of his career. A call up to represent the United States Men’s National Team at the 2022 World Cup. Though the past year had been difficult for him, the call-up was thoroughly deserved and a testament to a talent that was being misused. A start against both Wales and Iran, and a sub appearance against England, were moments to relish as he was pivotal in helping the nation qualify from the group stages.


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Unfortunately, he ended the tournament with an injury and was forced to miss the knockout game against the Netherlands, but this was a moment signifying how far he had come in his young career. Displayed on the global stage were what Norwich fans were only being given limited glimpses of – a high energy, high-pressing and physical forward giving everything he could whilst on the pitch.


On his return to Norwich, the atmosphere was more downbeat. Mediocrity and poor results led to Smith’s departure, before eventually being replaced by German head coach, David Wagner. Despite an initial upturn in form, Wagner, too, soon fell on the conundrum that neither of his predecessors had cracked – how to accommodate both Sargent and Pukki. And Wagner did not have the answer to it either. For the remainder of the 2022/23 Championship campaign, the American forward continued to play in a variety of positions as Norwich stumbled towards the end of the season in ordinary fashion. 


However, Sargent continued to show development and ended the season in the upper quartiles for shots on target in the league as well as passes intercepted, highlighting his pressing abilities.  Although, it was the summer transfer window of 2023 where the best thing for Sargent’s development at Norwich happened. Teemu Pukki departed, leaving the club after five remarkable years. For Wagner, he now had a choice whether to push Sargent into the role of regular starting striker, or look to the market for a Pukki replacement. He chose the former option. 


And so, for all the faults that David Wagner has, credit can be given to him for the way he has made Sargent a focal point of the team and allowed for Norwich to move on from the departure of Pukki. He has placed belief in him which has given the forward confidence. This was evident to see at the beginning of the season where he formed a fruitful, perhaps unexpected, partnership with Ashley Barnes.


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But it isn’t just the goals being scored, it’s his relentless pressing of opposition players and general off the ball work that has endeared himself to Norwich fans and made him an all-round centre forward. These traits have been evident throughout Sargent’s career, but when combined with confidence in front of goal and linking up with teammates on the attack, it presents him as possessing the attributes of an elite striker.


So it was highly frustrating that, just as he was finding both form and minutes, he was ruled out with damaged ankle ligaments for four months in a 4-0 away victory over Huddersfield Town in August 2023. It was an injury that came at the cost of his positivity and traits.


Heading into the game, Norwich were in rampant league form and Sargent was full of confidence. In the eleventh minute, he chased down a ball that had been played back to the opposition goalkeeper. Blocking the resulting clearance, and with the ball going high up in the air and towards the goal, the forward continued to chase after it to ensure the ball had crossed the line.


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In a last-ditch attempt, the keeper, who tried to salvage his error, attempted to prevent the ball from crossing the line, but failed to do so and clattered into the forward, landing on his ankle. The American was immediately substituted off and, in the days that followed, it was announced that he would be on the sidelines until the end of December.


Despite it being early on in the season, Sargent had already proven himself to be a pivotal piece. Though just four league games in, Norwich’s style and set up was very clear and had been suiting Sargent perfectly. With his absence, Wagner failed to adapt to a different style to allow other forwards, or the team as a whole, to flourish and the months that followed were marked by little creativity nor inspiration. 


For Sargent himself, there are, of course, areas of his game that can be tidied up. For example, holding the ball up and retaining the ball after a loose first touch, however his all round improvement has been noticeable and this has as much to do with being played in the correct position with regular minutes as it does with a player who is simply maturing and coming to terms with a different league. 


And this season has seen a real transformation. To take a look at his stats, where his lengthy absence must be accounted for when comparing with other players, Sargent can be found within the top ten in the league for shot on target percentage and within the top five for goals per shot. This is an impressive feat when considering his injury challenges and disrupted season.


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It is unfortunate that injuries seem to haunt Sargent at just the wrong time. Whether it be during the 2022 World Cup, or at the beginning of a new Championship season just as soon as he has found his groove and become a regular goalscorer. But each time he bounces back, with a mindset so strong, determined and positive that it’s hard to believe he has had so many setbacks.


The mission for Sargent will now be to remain fit and re-find the form he was in before the injury. To that end, he is already making progress. Seven goals since his return at the back end of December, he is displaying qualities often found in top level centre forwards. Physical, energetic, quick and clinical, he is an all-round athlete deserving of top flight football. For now, he will have two focuses. One being promotion with Norwich, the other being cementing himself as the starting striker for the United States Men’s National Team for their home 2026 World Cup.


By: Thomas Shelton / @tomshelton11

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