On 10 May 2023, Teemu Pukki pulled on a Norwich City shirt for the final time. He left behind him five years’ worth of countless memories, 88 goals and 29 assists in 209 appearances and two Championship titles. He has etched his name into Norwich folklore and will always be associated with this dramatic period in the club’s recent history.
Free transfers often arrive with little expectation, and so when that player fails to succeed, there is little surprise. Though the first part of this can be applied to Pukki, the second part could not be of more extreme contrast. Arriving at Norwich from Brøndby IF in the summer of 2018, Pukki’s career had been relatively unremarkable after failing to make an impact at both Sevilla and Celtic. However, since his arrival in 2018, he has played in the Premier League twice and reached double figures on both occasions, won a Premier League ‘Player of the Month’ award in his first month of top-flight football and has been part of some of the most memorable moments in modern Norwich history. Not bad for a free signing.
Not many could possibly have foreseen the season Norwich City went on to have in 2018/19. The sale of James Maddison in the summer of 2018, for around £20 million, to Leicester was emphasised as crucial to keeping the club financially secure, however, it also left Norwich with few other valuable assets and a squad that head coach Daniel Farke was yet to impose a style of play on. What followed was the most perfect transfer window, and that perhaps understates it.
Of those players signed, that included Emiliano Buendia and Tim Krul, little, if anything, was known about the arrival of forward Teemu Pukki on a free transfer. A quick read-up of his Wikipedia page led to concerned comments over whether he was of the ability to consistently score in the Championship. While a few wild optimists may have somehow predicted Norwich to achieve promotion to the Premier League, even fewer would have predicted Pukki to end up with 29 goals. Especially since he was initially deployed in the number ten role.
Whilst it took some time for Pukki to establish his position as the leading striker, it took him no time at all in adapting to a league often viewed as being physical, fast-paced and intense. 5 league goals in the first 10 league games was a ratio that propelled Norwich up the table and set the scene for the rest of the season. A flow had been found and his teammates knew what they needed to do to ensure that the Finn could continue to improve on his already impressive goal tally.
The season that played out allowed Pukki to write himself into Norwich folklore. He was part of a group that forged a bond with the fans, allowing them to once again feel connected with their club and in a celebratory mood. And there were no signs of this slowing down. The 2019/20 Premier League campaign kicked off with the talisman scoring on the opening day of the season in a defeat at Anfield.
Though not the ideal result, it was perhaps not unexpected given the opposition had recently lifted the Champions League trophy. Reassuring, however, was the style of the goal. Picking up right where he left off, Pukki latched onto a ball fed through by Buendia before sorting his feet out and striking it across Alisson. A goal of real quality.
Norwich approached that match against Liverpool playing the exact same style that had so comfortably won them the league. However, this failed to stop critics from branding Daniel Farke’s management as naive. But this was a style that got the very best out of Pukki and was critical for Norwich to score enough goals that season. And, in the short term, it paid off. In the first home game of the season, Pukki netted a hat-trick against Newcastle before picking up the Premier League Player of the Month award. Perhaps his most straightforward goal of the season was the third goal in a victory over Manchester City.
All in all, whilst this was a season interrupted by COVID and marked by the club’s relegation, Pukki had managed to score 11 goals in his first season of top-flight football, finally proving his quality to all of the clubs where he had failed to make the mark. Though promotion back was immediately achieved in Norwich’s 2020/21 Championship season, and saw Pukki at his very best, although not always taking every chance. Perhaps this is too critical because of the enormous number of chances Norwich were creating per game with a team assembled of players who had too much quality for the Championship. However, it pointed out Norwich’s reliance on Pukki to be the primary goalscorer.
Now, whilst dependency is expected of the leading striker at any club, more often than not there are other players who help chip in and take the pressure off the forward to be the only one who scores the goals. In the Premier League relegation season of 2021/22, Norwich scored only 23 goals of which the Finn scored 11. To be so dependent on one player can place enormous pressure on their shoulders and highlights just a small part of what a miserable season Norwich had that year. However, it is mightily impressive that Pukki scored this many goals in a team where chances were more scarce that season.
What is particularly impressive about him reaching double figures in 2021/22 is that these goals came after the club had sold his primary source of assists, Emi Buendia, a player proven to be absolutely on the same wavelength. Nobody since has come close to creating a connection anywhere near similar to the forward. Nor did anyone step up to relieve any of the pressure applied on Pukki regarding goal contributions.
Much has been made of that disastrous campaign, especially the bizarre decision to begin playing a style of football so ill-suited to Pukki’s natural game. Norwich began the season changing from their routine 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3 – one that hadn’t been used in a league game under Daniel Farke since his 2017 appointment. And, simply, it didn’t work.
Lining up like this kept Pukki as the lone frontman, however, it took away the player behind him who would pick the ball up from one of the two defensive midfielders and then look to slide a ball in between the defence, setting Pukki free (this had been Emi Buendia). The absence of such an attacking midfielder and the failure to score goals is fairly evident given the very few goals Norwich scored at the start of the season.
And this made Pukki’s job even more difficult, meaning that he really had to take every chance he was given because the number of chances being created from this formation was scant. However, it is a testament to Pukki that even without a much-needed number 10, he continued to prove a threat by carving out chances for himself whilst playing in the league’s lowest-scoring side.
It isn’t the easiest task to define the type of striker Pukki is due to the many different elements of his game, however he can always find himself in the 18-yard box when the team are on an attack. Out of his 88 goals for the club, just 3 of those have been from outside the box. For many, these stats might be enough to label him as a poacher, but there is so much more depth and skill to his game than this simple tag.
Ultimately, Pukki has an abundance of strengths, however, one especially sticks out – movement. Quite simply, Pukki’s movement off the ball is phenomenal. Floating across the opposition’s defence before finding a pocket of space to dart into, he has thrived off this during his time in East Anglia and a large chunk of his league goals have come as a result.
Also of note is just how hard he works off the ball. In that 2021/22 relegation season, Pukki applied more pressures on opposition players than any of his teammates, highlighting the other side of Pukki’s game. His high work rate and stamina have, mostly until this season, allowed Norwich to win the ball higher up the field and launch attacks on the opposition.
Another challenge came with a change in management at Norwich. Dean Smith’s tenancy was marked by little creative output in both the Premier League and Championship, with him failing to find a way that best suited Pukki’s style of play. David Wagner followed and continued this trend. Opting to play without a man behind Pukki and instead relying on long balls booted up the pitch with wingers to float balls into the box was a strategy that went against Pukki’s strengths. And so this sees Pukki leave Norwich on a rather sadder note, with there being a feeling that the past two managers have failed to properly utilise him.
Although, leaving on a free transfer – just as he had arrived – is perhaps fitting. His entrance sparked a new era for Norwich and his exit sees him leave behind a club attempting to start another new one. The only frustration about Pukki that Norwich fans will have is that he was not able to achieve 100 league goals for the club – that would have been the cherry on the cake.
The conviction of his strikes across the two English leagues demonstrates that he has been a top forward capable of playing regular Premier League football. His standing is enhanced further by his experience of playing international tournament football with Finland, as well as overtaking Jari Litmanen to become their all-time top goal scorer.
Teemu Pukki’s movement, positioning, pressing and finishing contributed enormously to creating a Norwich identity and success during his five years at the club. Now, the East Anglian side has to plan a future without him and that will not be easy. Quite simply, Norwich cannot replace what he has offered in the past five years, especially if sticking to the formation and tactics of the deflating 2022/23 season.
By: Thomas Shelton / @tomshelton11
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA – Getty Images