My original plan was to encapsulate my thoughts on the whole season in the post-Wednesday piece but by the time Atdhe Nuhiu had bullied home his second goal on the hour mark last Sunday,that idea had been knocked on the head.
An objective analysis in the direct aftermath of such a spineless effort would have been both impossible and probably unreadable, so, I’m sorry, you’re getting it today instead. As ever, some will think I’m being too harsh, others will accuse me of happy clapping, so I’m prepared for whatever comes my way 🙂
A year ago most of us were in the grip of a mixture of excitement and trepidation (trepicitement?) The club had – bravely it has to be said – taken a new, innovative path; one that in these parts had no precedent.
It was a leap of faith into the unknown and given what transpired under Alex Neil, whose overall approach was about as traditional as it gets, this new Germanic themed direction had a certain appeal. It did to me anyway and I can’t recall there being too many dissenting voices.
In some ways, we knew so little about Daniel Farke and his team it was hard to be too critical. His coaching CV, while still in its formative stages, was quietly impressive and at the time we were all dreaming of him taking us down the David Wagner/Huddersfield route. He still might.
Looking back, however, the clues that this was not going to be a march to the top six were there early doors. A massive turnover of staff, playing and non-playing, was always destined to create uncertainty, especially when, in terms of quality, those departing were generally of a higher pedigree than those arriving.
The theory of replacing a departing player with one who is not quite as good tends to head you in a certain direction… but, before anyone reminds me, not always.
Christoph Zimmermann, as it happened, was to be one of the season’s success stories but to be bringing in a German centre-back from their fourth tier was a salutary reminder of the markets in which we were shopping. Only a few seasons previous we were being linked with the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Kalidou Koulibaly.
Admittedly, neither of those big names were even close to coming to fruition – and one could argue that time spent trying to negotiate such deals was time wasted that could have been used to try and secure realistic targets – but for the sights to be shifted from internationals or international-in-waiting to the German regional divisions was seismic, however it’s spun.
Of course, our world has shifted 180 degrees since those heady days of Premier League cash and minus any alternative forms of funding (another piece for another day), last summer was the start of the club preparing itself for now – May 2018 – when the money tap gets turned off for the final time.
Zimmermann’s arrival – and I love the guy – was the epitome of this new era. The poster boy.
The influx of more Germans was inevitable – it was a market that Stuart Webber had already acquainted himself with and it would have been insane not to utilise Daniel Farke’s knowledge of his native leagues – although, to be fair, the rest had plied their trade at higher echelons than Zimmermann. But, compared to the existing squad members and those departing, this lot were as cheap as chips.
That only Marcel Franke from that group – which was subsequently joined by Mo Leitner, Onel Henandez and Dennis Sbreny – was a red buzzer signing was a result in itself (some will be screaming ‘Stiepermann’ at me but I’m reserving judgement on one who, for several games, did a sterling job in the unfamiliar position of left-back).
Of all the summer signings, the clear winner of the red buzzer award was Marley Watkins – ironically the one we all expected to hit the ground running given his experience and Championship pedigree. He was closely followed by another in that same category – James Husband, although I have a feeling that were it not for the emergence of Jamal Lewis, the ex-Boro man could have grown into the role.
Through necessity, we may yet find that out over the next twelve months.
One area where Webber did manage to bring in quality was through his clever use of loan players from teams playing at higher levels – a knack he used to good effect at Huddersfield. Angus Gunn and Harrison Reed both arrived on the premise that Norwich City would merely be a stepping stone on their development journey, and in both cases it was a triumph.
Both contributed wholeheartedly to the cause while getting game time and Championship experience. Win-win. Mo Leitner latterly came into that same category albeit, rather than to gain experience, his arrival was on the premise of resurrecting a career that promised much but had stalled.
Looking ahead for a second, key loan signings are sure to play a massive part over the next couple of seasons.
Having assembled a squad that was, in hindsight, probably not quite fit for purpose – an over-reliance on an emerging James Maddison became ever more obvious as the season unfolded – another area of contention was the style of play.
From the word go Webber and Farke made no secret of their desire for a possession-based game with City working the ball methodically and patiently through the thirds. Some baulked at it from the word go, but I was fully on board. Still am.
Where it fell down was largely around the pace with which the ball was shifted. Weaving pretty patterns is fine if there is a purpose to it, but to shift it from A to B and back to A and then repeat only works if ultimately it creates an overload or works an opening. Part of Farke’s learning curve was identifying how this style could be adapted to cope with the intensity and brutality of the Championship.
In those fraught opening weeks, when we shipped goals for fun at The Den and Villa Park, there was a distinct lack of appreciation of the quirks of the English second tier, not just in terms of style but also in terms of physicality.
Farke did learn however and defensive solidity coincided with Alex Tettey’s return to the fold and an acceptance of the need for a two-man defensive shield in front of the back-four (as it was then). Grant Hanley’s arrival too helped although, initially, his contributions were peripheral.
In addition ,however, to the well-intentioned but lacking-in-oomph tiki-taka style, was a lack of goals, borne for large swathes of the season of a lack of chances. There were signs as the season drew to a disappointing close that Farke had found a way of making us a little more potent but at no stage did we ever look full of goals.
Much has been made of the coach’s dearth of attacking choices and how he inherited his striking options rather than created them, but the problem runs deeper than just blaming Nelson Oliveira for being sulky and greedy (he’s both) or seeing Cameron Jerome as a willing runner who runs his guts out but can’t score for toffee.
In the same way CamJam has enjoyed a new lease of life at Derby, who incidentally don’t hesitate in slinging a blind cross into the box, I have a feeling that if /when Nelson departs we will again find ourselves looking on enviously, asking ‘why didn’t he do that for us?’
I’m not yet prepared to write off Sbreny – Mario Vrancic took six months to acclimatise after all – but the signs of him being the answer were fleeting, again not helped by the fact that being a striker in this set-up is a hellishly difficult ask.
I’d be interested to know what type of striker, or strikers, are on the shopping list and what sort of players Farke deployed up top at Borussia Dortmund II. I can’t decide if it needs to be a big lump, who will pin the centre-backs and offer a platform to play off, or one of the lightning quick, ‘darty’ variety.
Either way, along with the new faces – whoever they may be – needs to be a shift in the methodology of creating chances and a greater propensity to take them when they arrive (yes, every other team will be looking to do precisely that too).
The biggie, of course, is how to make these changes to the squad on fresh air alone. Whether the club will be in a position to raise enough cash to plug the financial black hole, let alone have any left over to help refresh the existing squad, is a moot point for now but with some big names mopping up some even bigger mounds of cash while contributing absolutely zilch to the cause it’s a bloody difficult task.
I don’t envy Steve Stone and Webber in having to juggle all of the above with the hand they have been dealt.
We do need new faces, however, not least in said striking department, but what we don’t need is a turnover of players on the scale of last summer. We’ve been through a revolution, this time round it needs to be evolution. To start again would mean overcoming the teething troubles all over again – and I’m not sure any of us have the stomach for that.
The returning Ben Godfrey and Carlton Morris should at least offer a freshness to the group, as will a fit-again Louis Thompson, and Aberdeen’s Kenny McLean arrives with an ever-burgeoning reputation, but still, there’s a feeling of stepping further into the unknown.
As I’ve said several times before, I’m hoping for the best but genuinely can’t decide if we’re on the brink of something disastrous or something awesome, or something in-between.
So, season 2017/18 had its moments, but for every high there were at least a couple of lows. For season 2018/19 to be an improvement that ratio needs to be reversed.