Are Daniel Farke, Norwich City choosing art over ambition?
Background image: Zak Nelson 1995, CC BY-SA 4.0
The difference between art and popular culture is the former doesn’t cater to people’s expectations. Art upholds ideals in uncompromising fashion, challenging us to appreciate a truth for what it is. Pop culture is designed to meet people’s expectations. It makes compromises all the time and is quite happy to misrepresent the truth while challenging us to spend more money. Some fans consider top-flight football an art form when it’s merely pop culture.
There simply isn’t room for true artists in the beautiful game. Supremely gifted players such as Ronaldinho, Dimitar Berbatov, Mesut Ozil and Paul Pogba endure torment throughout their careers because they care more for the game’s art than its culture. Kierkegaard, the father of existentialist philosophy, suggested that the individual rather than the group is responsible for giving life meaning. Dinho, Berba, Ozil and Pogba are football’s existentialists.
Of course, another existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was a fan and understood the other side of the argument.
In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.
Winning is the compromise competitive football demands. A common path to victory is to block the opponent’s progress. Rather than playing artistic football that reveals one’s club for what it is, players are first and foremost expected to deny the opponent their identity. The team is everything. Subjugate yourself to it. Existentialists and true artists need not apply.
Don’t misunderstand. Supporters love a stunning bicycle kick, a mazy run or a deft Cruijff turn but do not express yourself at the cost of results. If the player isn’t showing the industry required to grind out a point or three, no matter how ugly, well, he should get on his bike and kick on down the road.
Film is the closest thing to art and football in pop culture. It’s a team effort. Actors and directors are often referred to as ‘true artists’ but they cannot be. Each must make compromises to the other’s artistic vision. They must meet each other’s expectations. The director must also deal with costume and set designers and when filming is complete, the editor. They all want to direct. Along the way, she must also answer to the producers. If one is lucky enough to be supported by producers interested in the film’s message rather than its box office and merchandising potential, something close to art is possible.
In football, the manager directs and answers to the board or the chairman. Almost exclusively, his mission is to deliver results enabling the club continues to sell tickets and merchandise. Then there is Norwich City.
Under Daniel Farke’s direction, the Canaries play artistic, entertaining football, apparently for its own sake. Teemu Pukki is a brilliant finisher with nine goals and three assists in 21 games. Emiliano Buendia connects with him brilliantly, providing seven assists from the right wing. Todd Cantwell is a pest on the left flank with six goals and two assists to his name.
The problem is, in Premier League terms, Norwich is a low-budget film. No one else in the cast claims more than one goal or assist to their name. Although their movement is intricate and fascinating, there isn’t enough star-power to subdue opponents and the club cannot afford more. As lovely as they are to watch, the East Anglians are inefficient at their ultimate purpose. Only four clubs scored fewer goals than Norwich’s 22 strikes in the first 21 league games. Worse, because Farke refuses to compromise the Canaries’ attacking style, they are exceedingly vulnerable at the back. Easily the Premier League’s worst defence, the German’s squad are three goals shy of conceding two per game on average.
Norwich try to play like Manchester City. They even claimed a famous victory over the Sky Blues early in the campaign. But they emulate the Mancunians while valued at just over a tenth of the champions’ £1.17 billion. They lack the resources to produce true competitive masterpieces.
After the recent draw against Tottenham, Farke talked about the belief in his squad, promising to fight for their survival until the end. He said nothing about whether the club would invest in the summer window. There are a few players who might help the club and could be acquired on the cheap.
For instance, Leicester City are steeped in defensive midfielders at the moment. Nampalys Mendy is surplus to Brendan Rodgers’ requirements and out of contract in July. Would it compromise Farke's philosophy to have a poor man’s N’Golo Kante winning balls in defensive midfield and sparking counterattacks? Maybe not but it might compromise the club's transfer budget.
Even if Delia Smith and Michael Wynne-Jones lack the resources to invest in the transfer market, as their summer activity [£747,000 for fullback Sam Byram and £2.7 million for second-choice keeper Ralf Fahrmann on loan] suggests, Farke is fortunate. Other clubs without resources, Cardiff City for example, would insist their manager back up the bus in a desperate bid to hold relegation outside the gates. They're more concerned about getting another massive television cheque than playing beautiful football.
After Javi Gracia and Quique Sanchez Flores failed to get Watford on the front foot, the Pozzo family hired Nigel Pearson to fortify the battlements. The man who famously rescued Leicester the season before they won the Premier League appears to be producing the desired effect. The Hornets remain second from bottom but won three of their last four to creep within two points of safety. Similarly, West Ham sacked Manuel Pellegrini when the Hammers dipped too near the drop, reappointing David Moyes who immediately inspired a 4-0 victory over Bournemouth.
Instead, with Delia Smith’s apparent support, Farke decided this is who Norwich are. He will not compromise their identity in exchange for Premier League survival and the money that entails. Some may find his ideals foolish, naïve, perhaps even offensive. On the other hand, those who appreciate a bit of artistry in their football might find it admirable that Norwich City refuses to sell its soul.