Will a more balanced Norwich City fare better in Premier League return?
Background image: Amdamsky, CC BY-SA 4.0
Daniel Farke’s Norwich City introduced themselves to the Premier League in atypical fashion when they returned to the top flight in 2018/19 following a three-year spell in the Championship.
Most promoted clubs dip their toes in the water. Concerned with survival in their first campaign, they tend to supplement their roster with solid yeoman types who are difficult to play against even though you’d forgotten they were still around. The theory is to make it through that first campaign, consolidate your status, then make inroads up the table in the coming years.
Farke and Norwich did not follow this plan. They dove into the deep end from the off, seeing no reason to alter their artful, adventurous style.
Initially, it paid dividends. The season began with an open, entertaining 4-1 away defeat to Liverpool in which the score seemed to flatter the Reds. Next came victory, 3-2 over Newcastle in Norwich’s home debut. Another thriller against Chelsea at Carrow Road ended with the visitors claiming the better number in the 3-2 result. The enterprising newcomers suffered a damp squib against West Ham in which they failed to score for the first time that season. They rebounded in spectacular fashion, however, stunning champions Manchester City in yet another 3-2 finish.
In large part, their early success was down to line leader Teemu Pukki’s unexpected effectiveness. The Finn couldn’t establish himself at either of his previous big clubs, Schalke or Celtic, but scored six goals and two assists in Norwich’s opening five matches, including a hat trick at the Toon’s expense.
Outsiders noticed the squad’s vulnerability in their own third but supporters shouted down the criticism, loving how their lads took the game to opponents. Young starlets Todd Cantwell and Emi Buendia thrilled as they fed the ball into ‘old man’ Pukki.
Critics weren’t wrong, however. Over the next seven matches, Norwich were outscored 16-2 by opponents. Their sole point during that excruciating stretch came in the first of their sparsely spaced five clean sheets that term. That isn’t to say the nil-nil draw with Bournemouth was a defensive masterclass. On the day, the result was more about two creative sides, neither of which could get out of their own way.
Pukki's form was notably absent during the cumulative massacre. It would return against Everton, though, when he set up one strike in the 2-0 victory that ended Norwich’s slide. He followed that up with goals against Arsenal, Southampton and Leicester in three of the next four matches. Then he went walk about again for another month before popping up to contribute the only goal in the return match with Bournemouth and follow up with the Canaries’ solitary strike in a 2-1 defeat to Tottenham. Although he remained in the squad, featuring in all but the season’s penultimate match, that was his last league goal for Norwich. It was Match Day 24.
When your primary scorer runs that hot and cold, it isn’t a good idea to throw caution to the wind, especially when your top defender and captain, Grant Hanley is unavailable with a groin strain for 14 games in the season’s first half and then with a hamstring problem in the campaign’s final nine. Pun intended, he was sorely missed. In his 23 games absent, Norwich capitulated 50 times, or 2.17 per 90. With him in the squad for 15 contests, they only yielded 25 goals or 1.67 per 90.
Despite his most important players at both ends proving linvisible in one fashion or another for extended periods, Farke insisted Norwich was committed to an open style and would not compromise their philosophy just to remain in the Premier League. They lost their final ten matches without scoring a single goal. West Ham sealed their doom with three games to go.
All told, Norwich shipped 75 goals while scoring only 26. Match planning for the Green and Yellow was simple. Knowing that the Canaries would keep coming like lambs to slaughter, opponents had only to sit back and wait to hit them on the counter.
Life back in the Championship proved much more enjoyable for the Canaries. It was also instructive. Rather than attack second tier foes like Kamikaze bombers, Norwich settled down significantly.
The comparison between their two title seasons tells the tale.
In the simplest terms, Norwich scored 18 fewer goals while bossing the Championship in 2020/21 than they managed in 2018/19 [75 v 93]
Yet, they also conceded 21 fewer [36 v 57].
The net effect bumped their goal difference up by three [36 -> 39] which in turn did likewise to their total points [94 -> 97].
Less actually turned out to be more.
The key to Norwich’s improved goal difference wasn’t tempering their attack, however.
The Canaries actually attempted slightly more shots in their return to the Championship than they had in their previous campaign in England’s second tier.. Their 720 attempts in 2021 outdid their 697 in 2018/19 by 23, or half a shot per 90.
You can argue how important the minor uptick is but it’s undeniable that you’d anticipate a bigger bang for the extra buck. Norwich didn’t provide it.
In ‘20/21, they put only 239 shots on target compared to 252 in ‘18/19. In other words, they made the goalkeeper work 0.25 fewer times per 90 despite unleashing 0.50 more volleys in his general direction.
The question is how does poorer aim translate into greater efficiency?
The answer lies in the adage Norwich disproved in 2018/19 and again in the Premier League the following season.
It’s said that goals win matches but defending wins titles. The Canaries lit up the Championship two seasons ago, winning a ton of matches. Yet, they all but sold out keeper Tim Krul, leaving him to pick the ball from his goal 75 times in 46 matches. Such woeful defending typically costs you titles.
Certainly, Norwich was made to pay in the top flight when they continued to attack and leave their poor Dutchman alone with a gloved finger in the dyke as wave after wave of Premier League attackers burst through.
At last, it was evident even to Daniel Farke that football, unlike bowling, was not a one-way sport. A balance needed to be struck between attack and defence.
If Norwich were wilder in sight of goal, they calmed considerably with the opponent in possession. They didn't tackle nearly as aggressively, committing 493 fouls in 2020/21, 47 fewer than the 540 in 2018/19. They won fewer tackles as well, 419 v 499.
So riddle me this. How does making the referee keep his whistle in his pocket at least one time per 90, which in turn causes you to win the ball away from opponents two times fewer in the same span, make your squad better defenders?
Perhaps the secret lies in the fact many tackles are attempted because the defender is scrambling desperately to recover after being caught out.
[As a side note, this is also the reason, as much as crossing ability, that Gareth Southgate prefers Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and even Reece James to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has made a name for himself with timely interventions. None of the four may possess the Manchester United right-back’s tackling nous, but you don’t find them out of position nearly as often]
Back on topic, however, Norwich committed fewer men to the attack while winning their second title in three years.
On the one hand, this made it easier for opponents to deal with Canaries incursions. They pressured Pukki, Buendia, Caldwell et al into taking more difficult shots. Mayhap Norwich foes even benefitted from fewer bodies in the box to make the easy tap-in when a save was spilled or a shot rang off the woodwork.
If that was the case, neither the players in yellow and green nor their manager gave a toss if it meant that they held their shape when the ball began moving in the other direction.
Will that more balanced approach serve Norwich well in their Premier League return? It’s difficult to say. It certainly hasn’t helped Fulham who pulled back hard on the reins under Scott Parker when they had a second crack at the top flight this season.
On the other hand, Farke’s transformation hasn’t exactly been Jeklyll and Hyde. He didn’t become Tony Pulis by any stretch. He still believes in the powers of Pukki, who notched 26 goals and four assists in ‘20/21. The German has faith that Emi Buendia can, if not match his 15 goals and 17 assists in the Championship this term, at least come close against Premier League defenders in the next. Todd Cantwell has already proved himself at the top level but Farke must be excited about Kieran Dowell’s six goals after coming over from Everton for £2 million.
Norwich aren’t going to curl up into a ball in 2021/22 but they will be a touch more pragmatic. Only time will tell if that touch is golden.