Excitement and positivity are the usual overriding emotions felt by supporters of a club just promoted to the Premier League. However, when the star player of the club is promptly sold and the release of the fixture list throws up the toughest of starts, it can be difficult to maintain such optimism. And this is what happened with Norwich City in 2021/22.
The combination of not signing players for the positions needed most; adapting to a new formation; difficult first fixtures; a disrupted pre-season, and a Covid-impacted winter led to poor runs of results, a lack of confidence and individual errors.
Following a very successful 2020/21 Championship campaign, effectively running away with the league notching 97 points, there was belief for a more promising return to the Premier League than the disastrous 2019/20 season where the side bowed out losing ten games in a row during ‘Project Restart’.
From a promotion season there are always the natural hopes and hypotheses that the club will have a productive and prosperous transfer window before kicking on, with a positive season of Premier League football.
The anticipation and excitement of getting promoted to the Premier League from any fan in pre-season is palpable. Key through the summer is to bring in new players for the league above, whilst still keeping the players who helped get you there.
But for Norwich the latter part did not entirely happen. Yes, Teemu Pukki who has been so vital for the club remained, as well as Grant Hanley and Max Aarons who had very good Championship seasons. Furthermore, the loans of Ben Gibson and Dimitris Giannoulis, players who made strong contributions, were made into permanent signings.
However, the sale of the 2020/21 EFL Championship (and Norwich) Player of the Season Emi Buendia, together with the return to Tottenham Hotspur of the hugely influential loanee Oliver Skipp, were severe obstacles that Norwich failed to rectify and, ultimately, had major effects on the season.
A little over a month after the season ended, Norwich sold Buendia to Aston Villa for a club-record sale fee of around £31 million with the potential of that figure rising by a further £5 million.
To some, Buendia leaving the club was inevitable and there was surprise he had even remained at Norwich for the Championship season; for others it felt as though the club were allowing one of the finest players in Norwich’s recent history to leave too cheaply and to the first club who came knocking.
Opinions on this aside, the reality was that the club’s most talented player had been sold and a replacement was paramount given how influential Buendia was in Norwich’s goal involvements.
Not only this, but Buendia was crucial for Daniel Farke. Of Buendia’s 113 Premier and Championship league games for Norwich the win percentage with him in the lineup stood at 52%.
By contrast, they won only 2 of the 17 matches missed in that time by the Argentinian, with a win rate of 12% – only emphasising how crucial a replacement was for Norwich if they were to buck that trend.
Norwich’s transfer woes and inconsistent recruitment have been well documented and are evident to see. A real issue was the question over whether Spurs would allow for Skipp to be loaned out again.
He had been pivotal in Norwich’s success in winning the Championship title and was just the player the club needed for the forthcoming season – a holding defensive midfielder screening the back four, breaking up attacks and picking the ball up to offload it to the midfielder next to him or the man in front, Buendia.
The delay over the signing of a much needed defensive midfielder ran into the start of the season, and saw Norwich play Billy Gilmour out of position in that spot.
It wasn’t until the final days of the summer transfer window that Mathias Normann was signed and, despite the club stating that this had been a transfer they’d been wanting to make for a long time, he was not a ‘Skipp replacement’ and so left Norwich going into the season without a true defensive midfielder.
With hindsight it is easy to heavily criticise Norwich’s transfer window. However, the loan signings of Gilmour and Brandon Williams looked as though shrewd business had been made.
Gilmour was coming off the back of highly praised performances from the Euros and just a couple seasons earlier, Williams had found himself a regular in the Manchester United starting lineup.
Ozan Kabak had spent a season on loan at Liverpool, albeit mixed performances in a side losing more games than recently accustomed, and Milot Rashica had been on the radar of top-flight clubs.
However, the failure to sign physical and truly athletic players left Norwich weak in the middle of the park, easy to overrun and knock off the ball on regular occasions, with the side constantly looking far more tired than their opposition players. The lack of an effective creative midfielder and a true defensive midfielder would come to haunt the club.
Norwich were linked with a flurry of players from the top flights around Europe in the summer including, to name a few, Jeremiah St. Juste, Sebastiaan Bornauw, Kristoffer Ajer and William Saliba.
It has been reported, though not confirmed by the club, that a fee was agreed for the signing of Robert Andrich only for wage demands to prove too much – though Norwich would later bring in Normann on loan and, according to the same report, end up paying very similar money to what Andrich had requested.
While the club did spend a fair sum on a range of players, more than ever before, they were perhaps just not the players needed most.
So, the pre-season, where many of Norwich’s friendlies were cancelled due to Covid issues, never really got under way and the club were left still trying to piece together the squad right to the end of August.
Now, Norwich were not the only side who struggled pre-season regarding fixtures being cancelled and players testing positive for Covid, nor were they the only team who had an awful start to the season.
However, from the off there were also underlying issues with a formation change that didn’t really fit with Farke’s preferred playing style of controlling possession and being quick to press and attack.
The switch to 4-3-3 seems to have occurred as Farke, having set up the team in a 4-2-3-1 in his first Premier League campaign, wanted this to change due to the lack of success garnered at the top level and the side being very susceptible on the counter and easy to play through.
While the 4-2-3-1 had served the team very well in two Championship seasons it had proved harder to make effective in the top flight, where they were not able to retain the ball as much.
Additionally, perhaps the 4-3-3 also fitted better with those players who were signed. This formation meant that the side had to line up with wingers down both flanks, a change in system as Farke favoured having more traditional ‘10s’ on either side whose role was to constantly drift behind Pukki and look to pick up the ball from the midfield – completing neat passes and always on the lookout for the Finn moving into space, instead of hugging the touchline and aiming to beat the full back over and over again.
Whatever the reasons were for this change to a formation Farke’s Norwich had never played in before, the results were far from flattering. The shift to a 4-3-3 left Pukki largely isolated on his own upfront and, though best deployed as a lone striker, the lack of a creative midfielder behind him only made his job far more difficult and meant he would have to effectively finish every chance that came to him.
In fairness to Pukki, he has done very well in a system that doesn’t suit his style of play so well – constant pressures, somehow finding spaces and being Norwich’s leading goalscorer by a country mile.
The Canaries’ first win came in November away to Brentford who, in the season prior, had finished 10 points behind Norwich. But, at the time of meeting Brentford were 7 points ahead and they would stretch that difference to around 20 points by the season’s end.
Jubilation at winning that first Premier League game of the season didn’t last long though as, to the surprise of many, winning a game was immediately followed with the sacking of Farke.
The shock was understandable given the timing, however, a look at Farke’s Premier League record and the season stats up to his sacking are not so favourable. Sure, not all of the blame should be on his shoulders for the abysmal start to the season but the coach takes that responsibility.
In the international break that followed the Brentford game, Norwich scoured their managerial options before settling upon the recently sacked Aston Villa manager Dean Smith and his assistant Craig Shakespeare.
Rumoured on the shortlist for the job was Kjetil Knutsen of FK Bodø/Glimt and he was probably the candidate with the closest style of play to Farke and might have allowed for an easier transition.
It was reported that he wanted to remain until the end of the Norwegian Eliteserien season in December before moving, whereas Norwich would want his immediate services.
The other heavily linked manager was Frank Lampard, though this could very well have just been media talk and pushed by Lampard’s representatives. The club maintains that once Smith was available he became the number one candidate.
So, Smith took the helm and saw an immediate impact. Victory over Southampton and then draws with both Wolves and Newcastle (which could easily have been wins if Norwich had taken their chances) helped the new man to settle in and for Norwich to be fighting for survival.
What followed next perhaps best sums up Norwich’s season – a lack of rhythm and players lacking confidence. A truly torrid December with a squad plagued by Covid led to 5 defeats out of 5, and one match being rearranged because of Covid cases.
Norwich attempted for further matches in this period to be moved to later dates due to so many of the squad having Covid. However, requests were denied. Instead, Norwich fielded players out of position and had partially filled benches with academy players.
Despite a month filled with doom and gloom and no inspiration, that coveted 17th spot was still very much in reach. And it became even more so after a switch in formation to a 4-4-2 that created back-to-back victories over Everton and Watford.
Really, there was a lack of control in the midfield with this set up, but the addition of Adam Idah up top helped Pukki out enormously and created so many more challenges for the oppositions’ defence.
For those two matches there was a sense of fight, energy and genuine pride running through the team that fed through to the fans and created a vociferous atmosphere filled with hope and, for the first time since the start of the season, unity.
That spirit carried on through to the FA Cup fourth round in a dogged victory over Wolves and stretched to a 1-1 draw at home to Crystal Palace. Although the Palace game can be seen as a turning point in which nothing but bad news followed.
Idah, having his most effective spell, was forced to come off during the match and was then ruled out for the season with a knee injury – joining his fellow Irishman, the highly rated Andrew Omobamidele, on the sidelines for the remainder of the campaign.
He had been a shining light in the January period and for him to then be out for the entire season was a huge blow for both him and the team.
So a lack of rhythm continued and despite such positive results that the victory at Watford saw Norwich outside of the bottom 3 for the first time in 55 Premier League gameweeks, it was a quick return to a lack of confidence and inspiration.
The two games after Palace were defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool and it was as if all of the rhythm and belief gained from the month prior was wiped with these two fixtures back-to-back. A different run of fixtures may have allowed belief to grow.
This was not the case though and what followed was Norwich knowing they had to pick up wins in key games – chiefly, at home to Brentford and away to Leeds United. Defeats occurred in both with individual errors against Brentford and a last-minute goal from Leeds.
Ultimately the atmosphere soured after the Brentford fixture and though safety was absolutely still achievable, performances lacked hope and tenacity – there was no effective system and the worst had to be feared.
A win against Burnley – which saw Sean Dyche become another victim of the correlation between Norwich winning and managers getting the sack – was not enough and relegation was confirmed with defeat at Aston Villa.
When looking towards the immediate future, on the face of it the current squad should be in a good shape ahead of the Championship next season, with many of the current players having been part of the title-winning side last season.
Furthermore, the emergence of youth players during this season can be a sign of what’s to come and Christos Tzolis, the club’s record transfer signing who has been, at best a peripheral figure, could well come alive in that league.
Chances for youth players such as Omobamidele and Jon Rowe to assert themselves in the starting eleven will be available. In addition, there is obvious need for creativity in midfield and signing a defensive midfielder is essential.
The opportunity to target more physical and athletic players should also be of priority as this would lay the groundwork for Norwich if promoted back to the top flight, rather than ending up panicking about signing players when the season is already underway.
Controversies off the pitch and general pessimism after such a disastrous season are creating challenging times, but things that can be rectified if those at the top of the club create a clear plan and clear communications with the supporters.
With the way in which the Premier League is ever-changing, Norwich’s highly praised self-funding model makes it difficult to be competitive in the top division and outside investment would be welcomed by many supporters.
However, as Norwich always have the necessary structures in place to deal with Premier League relegation, it would appear the obstacle will be whether Smith can get the side playing a style of football that leads to promotion.
For the Championship level, there is definitely quality in the players who can be deployed, and it is a question of whether he can quickly change what has become an expectation of losing and get the most out of his players in the fiercely competitive Championship.
By: Tom Shelton / @tomshelton11
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Giddens – PA Images