Reputation can be a big motivator in football. “The bigger they come, the harder they fall” has galvanised many a David to a heroic cup upset against one of the games Goliath’s.
Most teams establish a reputation in one or more ways. Millwall are known for their intimidating atmosphere and direct, physical tactics and are usually most successful when their team lives up to that philosophy. West Ham pride themselves on playing a passing game, and more than a few managers have failed to hang on to the hearts of Hammers supporters (and ultimately their jobs) when they move to a more direct style, with the relatively successful, but ultimately eternally-unloved Sam Allardyce being a prime example.
Breaking away from a club’s established reputation can sometimes be a good thing though. Before Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal they were a stout defensive unit built upon a reputation of 1-0 wins and efficient, unambitious play, instilled by George Graham and it had been sufficient to result in a title win and reestablishing Arsenal amongst the game’s elite. Wenger did the unthinkable though, and changed the entire philosophy of the club, modernising them off the field, and becoming one of the most revered footballing sides in the world.
It’s noticeable that Wenger’s most successful period at the club came in the early years though, when he retained the Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams, Bould, Keown defence that Graham had established as the best in the country, and married them up with his exciting attacking talents like Viera, Pires and Henry. Since the loss of those old-school defenders, Arsenal have struggled, for all their attacking flair, to maintain a title challenge because of their defence.
Norwich’s reputation is multi-faceted. We are known as a nice club, always welcoming to opposition fans and club officials, which is a good thing, and testament to the work of Delia and Michael, moulding the club in their image over time.
Problems have occurred when that reputation for niceness has extended onto the pitch. The “Along-Came-Norwich” reputation for breaking a team’s run of consecutive games without a win, gifting points and goals to the needy, the charity that keeps on giving.
In terms of style, the pass-and-move aesthetics of the Bond, Brown, Stringer and Walker eras have left us with the tag of a footballing side that, not unlike a provincial version of Arsenal, is good to watch but at times can be brittle defensively.
Our most successful period of recent times however, was when David McNally and Paul Lambert stripped away some of our “Norwich-ness” and made us a more pragmatic club and team. McNally’s first act as CEO was to do the most un-Norwich thing possible, and sack a club legend in reaction to a bad result in the first game of the season. He then went a step further and ripped away the manager of a division rival. A big fish bullying a little fish when they unexpectedly meet in the same pond. How ruthless! How rude! How much it was needed.
On the pitch, whilst we were never unattractive in footballing terms, the football was pragmatic. Gone was the passing for passing’s sake. Instead we had Holt and Martin biting at defenders ankles, with the former in particular, happy to embrace all the dark-arts of the striker’s trade from “winning” free-kicks at key moments and in key-areas, to manhandling defenders, to subtly conversing with referees and applying a little pressure in his role as captain. Lambert too, was no stranger to using psychology, delighting in winding up Colchester in particular, and antagonising many a division rival with his comments. For many fans, this was exactly what was needed, and a key ingredient in why the period was so successful. We were no longer too nice. We were prepared to get dirty. To scrap for every yard, on and off the pitch.
When Stuart Webber arrived at the club we were all yearning for change. We had an ageing squad, many of whom had bumbled around the first team squad for years, picking up paychecks that they didn’t deserve. Webber quickly jettisoned those that he could, causing the odd ripple of dismay when favourites such as John Ruddy were let go. Replacing them with cheap foreign imports and loans also caused a certain amount of consternation, with memories of the disastrous continental recruitment of Hamilton and the loan policy of Roeder in particular, still fresh in some minds.
Daniel Farke arrived with a strong footballing philosophy, built upon a formidable defensive record at Borussia Dortmund II. At Norwich, he initially attempted to instill his preferred 4-1-4-1 or 3-5-1-1 formations, placing an emphasis on ball-retention and building play up from the back. Defeats to Sunderland, Aston Villa and most damningly, the 4-0 thumping at Millwall highlighted the short-comings of the philosophy in the unrefined cauldron of the English Championship however. All the time on the ball in the world can’t compete with Steve Morison barging over your defenders at will. Farke tried to change too much, too soon.
Refreshingly realistic, he has gone back to basics, and the nice-Norwich that make pretty passing patterns before folding at the back has been superseded by a defensive unit that stubbornly sticks together, shielded by two ferocious and committed defensive midfielders. That he has been able to effect such change so immediately is great testament to the abilities of Farke and his coaching team, and also speaks volumes as to Farke’s willingness to adapt his philosophy as a coach.
Whilst establishing a possession-based identity for Norwich City is surely the long-term goal, he has temporarily sacrificed that ambition in order to make us competitive in the short-term. It takes a lot of strength to make a call like that and for me it’s the most impressive aspect of his time at Carrow Road thus far. I also get the sense that Farke is embracing the change and learning from it, refining his blueprint as he develops his knowledge of the country and its football. He appears to be a fast-learner.
We’re also annoying other clubs again, which I think we all agree, is a good thing. Parking the bus after scoring a goal is a tactic that has frustrated nice teams like Norwich for many years. To be able to be that team is a welcome change. Arriving late on the pitch after half-time is a minor needling of the opposition that is currently working but which may not have a long shelf-life once referees cotton-on to it. James Maddison’s long walk to the touchline at Bramall Lane was reminiscent of Holt in his prime in terms of the winding-up factor.
And the more the likes of Wilder and Monk blub in their post-defeat press-conferences the more it establishes us as a team that’s unpleasant to play against. An impressive transformation in such a short space of time.
Whilst externally we are becoming horrible, internally, the opposite seems to apply. The disconnect between the players and supporters that has existed to varying extents since the days of Lambert has receded greatly. We’re embracing “All-the-Germans” as a job lot, and it’s not hurting that Zimmermann, Trybull and Stiepermann are all in fantastic form, and that Farke and his coaches are clearly getting their message across.
You look around the team and we have so many personalities now that the fans are embracing. Pinto is beloved for his buccaneering full-back play (and his good looks and social media savvy also sway a certain section of our support), but on the field he’s emerged as a leader and it was a smart move by Farke to appoint him captain. He appears to be one who grows with the role, unlike a Shackell or Bassong, who appeared to struggle with the responsibility.
Klose and Tettey are big, smiley personalities and have always been popular. Wes a legend. Trybull, the quiet, efficient midfielder, is establishing a cult following. Gunn and Murphy are “Two of our own”. Oliviera, the brooding, enigmatic finisher up front, provides the aggressive, competitive edge that we all love.
With the pragmatic rebranding of our footballing philosophy turning us into “the nasty team” of the Championship, balanced by the increasing love-in with our players, the Yin-Yang of our club appears temporarily balanced once more.
How we maintain this on the pitch as Farke tries to delicately tip those scales towards more attacking play in a bid to get more goals will be the next challenge. Off the pitch, he’s earned himself more brownie points in the bank from the supporters and thus more time to experiment and implement his ideas. We now know he can make effective changes when he needs to and isn’t afraid to do so, so if he does get tactically creative and it doesn’t work, he won’t be married to any one idea and stick to it regardless, which was the downfall of Hughton and Neil.
Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke are the architects of the club’s future. We didn’t expect everything to go perfectly straight away, but their ability to adapt to challenges has been hugely impressive. Let’s keep embracing the change, on and off the pitch.