After Suffering a Record Sixth Relegation, How Can Norwich City Pull Themselves Back Into the Premier League?
Learning from mistakes is not something Norwich City have always been able to do in recent years. The evidence for this is clear – last season the club only managed to better their 2019/20 Premier League campaign by just a single point.
Many factors were the cause for such a poor return but what is important now is the rebuilding process and how to put despair behind and look towards a brighter future.
So, the list for the summer is long – Norwich must identify with a clear playing style that incorporates both attacking and defensive aspects; recruit the players capable of gaining promotion and then staying there; be open to external investment, and improve the atmosphere between key staff members and fans. The mindset, set in from the top, about accepting Premier League struggle must also be changed.
Since the sacking of Daniel Farke and the arrival of Dean Smith, there has been a lack of a distinct playing style and this needs to be addressed during the rebuilding process.
The 2021/22 season is officially over, and it’s now time to reflect on each team’s campaign, what went wrong, what went right, and what needs to be the plan of action going forward this summer.
Here’s a thread of BTL’s “post-mortems”:
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) May 30, 2022
Excusing factors include several players getting injured, Covid interruptions and the players at hand not necessarily suiting Smith’s preferred style of football. However, with those now not being available excuses, this upcoming season should see Smith adopt a clear style and the likelihood will be him choosing a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation with an attacking mindset.
A major part of the Norwich rebuilding operation is to quickly rid themselves of a losing mentality, too easily accepting defeats in the Premier League. This change of mindset is essential if the club is to compete for an immediate return to the top flight.
On the pitch, Norwich’s full backs have been key in recent years and they could again be vital in helping the club rebuild. This is due to Smith’s previously managed sides all containing attacking full backs who look to get into areas to supply crosses. Whether Max Aarons stays at the club for another season remains to be seen, however, attack minded full backs should continue to be a fixture in the side.
In recent seasons the team’s full backs have not been encouraged to cross the ball and instead play high up the pitch and drive forward into areas of space before cutting back and looking to pass the ball around the edge of the box – contrasting Smith’s preferences. Which approach Smith takes with the full backs could dictate who Norwich look to purchase in the transfer window.
Smith’s teams in the Championship have been known for being high scoring, but also high conceding. The same can be said of Norwich’s two recent Championship promotion seasons. So, combining the records of manager and club, it looks hard to see how this will change.
Whilst the club must clearly develop defensively for future seasons, it is doubtful this will happen with Smith at the helm. Teams who were promoted alongside them may not have scored as many, but conceded far fewer and so found the transition from second tier to top tier easier with their tighter defences.
Norwich must recognise and learn from this so they can rebuild now and develop their back line so it is more ready for the Premier League if they can get there. It should be noted that much of Norwich’s defensive woe has come from a lack of defensive midfield protection and so it is vital that this area is addressed as part of the rebuild.
So Dean Smith has to identify a playing style that continues the theme of performing spectacularly in the Championship but also develops Norwich and prepares them for any future Premier League campaign by creating a tighter defence.
Unfortunately, this may not be so straightforward as when Smith led Aston Villa to promotion in 2018/19, the side had the worst goals against record out of all of the teams promoted. Therefore, a tall challenge awaits, but the Canaries must rebuild their playing style by improving in defensive areas.
Furthermore, the style of play will have to be more aggressive, have more tenacity and be less passive. This requires targeting the right men in the transfer window that can help rebuild a Norwich side that is currently weak in tackles and looked daunted by the Premier League.
Much has been made of Norwich’s Premier League recruitment and rightly so as it has been well off the mark. Whilst easy to focus on success stories like Emi Buendia – picking him up for an initial fee of around £1.5 million and making roughly £30 million profit on him – Teemu Pukki on a free and then the sales of Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis, the failures are also clear to see.
Three record signings were made in the last summer window: Josh Sargent, Christos Tzolis and Milot Rashica. Their seasons were disappointments and contributions were minimal. For these three players the immediate future of the Championship would offer a new challenge for them to develop their game and become integral parts in Smith’s side.
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Though Tzolis is rumoured to be leaving the club, on a loan or permanent deal, it would be great for Norwich to integrate him into next season’s side and for him to regain confidence, live up to his potential and compete in the Premier League.
Ultimately, one of the issues of last summer’s signings was that the players signed were not ready for the challenge of being in a relegation battle in the top division.
Therefore, Norwich have to learn from this and included in the rebuilding process is targeting players whose current style of game contains physicality and athleticism that would allow for a smooth transition to the Premier League – should they make it back – and top flight football not coming as so much of a shock.
Players are needed across midfield, including a creative midfielder who could link up with Pukki and for him to re-find the connection he had with Buendia and also crucially a defensive midfielder to sit in front of the back line. The absence of a quality holding midfielder is a major reason why so many goals have been conceded.
If Norwich had remained in the Premier League, Huddersfield Town’s Lewis O’Brien would have been a fantastic pickup, though it looks more than likely he will be heading to the Premier League this summer.
To name realistic signings for the upcoming season can be difficult as Norwich will more than likely explore the loan market of young Premier League players and a current limited budget narrows targets down.
However, there are many Championship players who have become free agents this summer and targeting a couple of these, for example the Blackburn Rovers duo of Joe Rothwell and Darragh Lenihan, would see solid second tier players be taken away from potential promotion rivals and add further Championship experience.
Another player who could join on a free transfer would be Millwall’s Jed Wallace who is yet to sign a new contract. Interest in Wallace already appears to be high so any action would need to be made relatively sharpish.
What Wallace could give Norwich would be high energy in the final third as well as being able to take men on with pace and the ability to clinically finish with both feet.
This summer’s recruitment ideally needs to achieve two things, to quickly build a squad that can hit the Championship season running but also sow the seeds of a team strong enough to compete better in the Premier League if they should succeed. It will be a difficult balancing act, to combine Championship grit with Premier League-ready strength.
Thoughts of longer-term rebuilding inevitably open up the topics of ownership and investment. Norwich’s self-funded model has garnered much respect and is highly lauded for its financial responsibility.
It is fairly uncommon for this style of ownership to be so dominant in the second tier and even manage to play in the corporate-filled Premier League where only the richest survive.
However, what’s also been made apparent is how restrictive this model is. It means that Norwich have to sell their prized possessions before attempting to sign additional players. This tends to have the most impact in the Premier League and so leads to losing out on wanted players to relegation rivals and so effectively left to buy players unwanted elsewhere.
As such, more risks are then having to be taken in transfer windows, and so when failures occur they are more apparent. Going forwards, and with how football in general is changing, for Norwich to successfully rebuild then a change in their model of ownership looks very necessary. And of interest is that for the first time in just under 15 years, there does seem to be the genuine possibility of external investment.
Current owners Delia Smith and husband Michael Wynn-Jones have been in their position for 25 years and, on many occasions, have made clear their desire to neither sell the club nor actively look for that needed investment. So for talks to, supposedly, be advanced between the club and Mark Attanasio, owner of the Major League Baseball team the Milwaukee Brewers, comes as a surprise.
Attanasio and six other figures connected to him and the Brewers were present for Norwich’s final thrashing of the season at home to Tottenham Hotspur.
Even if this particular avenue does not materialise there would surely be other interest in one of the few league clubs to be debt-free, with much potential to expand and at the heart of a wide catchment area as the only league club in the county of Norfolk.
Should investment come, then an injection of cash would be warmly welcomed by a majority of Norwich supporters and maybe allow them to sign their desired players when they are also wanted by rivals. This would be important for Norwich’s rebuilding process as overall aims could be altered, with a changed mindset of becoming less accepting of Premier League defeat.
And if this doesn’t go through? Then Norwich must keep alert to investment offers that would allow for them to move away from being a supposed ‘yo-yo’ club because, as fun as it can be to regularly win in one league, stability in the Premier League has to be the target. Therefore, external investment is something the club should be open to if they really want to develop into a competitive top flight side.
A typical connotation is for a soured atmosphere to be present amongst relegated sides. For Norwich, it feels as if the worsened atmosphere is between the fans and the board (and sporting director Stuart Webber) rather than with the current squad.
Sure, the relations with the players are far from the best they’ve ever been, however, with the majority of this squad being part of the Championship title-winning side one year ago, there’s an expectation, reliance even, that these players will lead the club back to the Premier League as they have proven they can do so before.
The relationship between Webber and the fans appears poor, mainly due to comments he made at the start of the season that haven’t been delivered upon and recent interviews with a national newspaper and the Club where he managed to distance himself from the supporters more.
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Ultimately, fans of every football club can be fickle and this atmosphere will turn positive once more if players who excite the fans are signed and the club is performing well – the same as would happen anywhere.
There is damage to repair though and, even if he doesn’t believe so, it is vital that Stuart Webber finds a way to connect with the fans again to prevent a declining relationship to worsen even more. It’s these simple things that re-connect fans with the club and allow for a rebuilding process to be accepted and encouraged through passionate support.
By: Tom Shelton / @tomshelton11
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Giddens – PA Images