When Norwich beat Manchester City 3-2 last September, the Canaries released a piece of content that went viral. A video featuring clips of the team playing their way out from the back, under intense pressure, with sharp angled passes and dextrous movement was watched more than six million times. The caption read: “Beating the press by sticking to our philosophy.”
Since the restart Southampton and Arsenal have pressed Norwich’s backline into goal-conceding errors. Brighton have capitalised on misplaced passes to do the same. Simple goals from crosses, meanwhile – a weakness exploited by Sergio Agüero even on that summer’s evening in Carrow Road – have been plundered by Everton, Watford and, finally, West Ham.
Norwich have gone down ignominiously in the end, barely leaving an impression on a division where they couldn’t score goals and never looked like keeping them out. For the most part they looked as callow as Bambi on work experience at the Factory. Did Norwich fail to stick to their philosophy or was it shown to be fool’s gold?
There are extenuating factors. Before the Manchester City match Daniel Farke had reeled off a list of fresh injuries that ran to 10 players. The treatment room never cleared up, even after lockdown. Ultimately Farke will have gone a whole season without a full complement of central defendersand often the two that played were the two that were fit.
Struggling to put a team out after City, Norwich began a run that would tally just one win in the next 16 league matches. Confidence fell visibly from week to week and when form improved over Christmas, slender leads against Tottenham and Crystal Palace were lost under pressure at the last. The team could never recover their spirit and again, even after lockdown, there has been little sign of the energy and vibrancy with which they started the season.
But maybe they were just worked out. After beating Guardiola’s men, the Canaries travelled to Turf Moor. Chris Wood scored a near-post header from a corner within 10 minutes. Four minutes later he scored after the right-back Max Aarons coughed up possession in his own third. Palace successfully deployed the same tactics at Selhurst Park the following week and the word was out: press the full-backs, play for set pieces and Norwich are in trouble.
Those full-backs, Aarons and Jamal Lewis, are highly talented young players. But neither had played a minute of Premier League football before this season. Aarons had only 43 senior appearances full stop. Their numbers were reflective of a squad almost entirely without top-flight experience, and the amount they had to learn was another barrier they failed to clear.
Norwich chose not to bring in some seasoned heads, either last summer or in January. The sporting director Stuart Webber’s strategy for the club is built on giving young players regular first-team opportunities. It’s also self-funding, spending only what the club can afford, and after losses of £38m the previous season and new contracts for the team that won the Championship, there wasn’t much money to go around.
Webber brought in nine players for a total expenditure, including loan fees, of £4.5m. Of these, however, only Sam Byram can be considered a success and he was the only one to have played in the Premier League before. Three of the four loan signings had their contracts terminated early. The fourth, the playmaker Ondrej Duda, arrived from Hertha Berlin hailed by Farke as a £25m player. He has yet to score or assist a goal.
Watching from the stands, before and after lockdown, the squad’s wholesale loss of confidence seems the most telling factor. That’s the thing that most undermined the original plan, the “philosophy”. But it’s also true that without belief a lot of Norwich’s squad were exposed for what they were: bargain buys who were not the complete package. Arguably only the goalkeeper Tim Krul showed himself to be a reliable Premier League player. But he was a proven international whom Norwich were able to sign because, at that point, a knee injury had put a question mark over his career.
When the plan was to play the slick technical football that had sliced through the Championship the previous year, to take an ambitious rather than a pragmatic approach, to do so with such a squad came with a big downside risk. That risk was exposed and made real.
Now Webber will be asking himself what comes next. New players have already been signed; with one eye on the Championship, even in January. More height has been added, more pace. It seems certain that Farke will be given the chance next season to adapt a more resolute version of his team.
Norwich will now have to start again, however, in a division Farke calls the toughest in Europe. They will also have to throw off the trauma of a dreadful restart. They will have to either rebuild a squad stripped of its young talents, or keep motivated those they hold on to. Finally there is the fanbase where, for many, this season’s humblings have overwritten what went before. There are many challenges ahead but a common thread runs through the possible solutions. In any number of ways, Norwich have to toughen up.