It’s easy to read too much into pre-season games. Perhaps especially this time: in football even more than in geography, it’s a long way from Luton to Liverpool.
And yet – for those us getting a first look at the 2019-20 Canaries, it’s not unreasonable to look for some pointers. The equivalent visit to Luton a year ago certainly gave us some: the attacking strategy around through balls to Teemu Pukki, the renaissance of Marco Stiepermann as a central midfielder, the emergence of a certain Max Aarons.
And so it was on Saturday.
In a nutshell, there was much to be encouraged by. If we’re to succeed in the Premier League, we’ll need to be even better than last year at retaining the ball and making purposeful use of it.
Our starting XI on Saturday, albeit probably a bit different from the one envisaged for Anfield, produced enough slick football to have Luton chasing shadows. Being 3-0 up after 20 minutes, and 4-1 at half-time, didn’t flatter us. The number of “unforced errors” was minimal.
Luton start their league programme a week before we do. Allowances have to be made for the division gap, of course, but we looked closer to being ready.
Most encouraging was the quick and fluid interplay, both through the middle and wide to Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis. At the heart of it was the day’s star, Patrick Roberts. Quick of brain and feet, he’ll put many fans in mind of Wes; for me, he looked more like a young David Silva. The lad’s a player.
Josip Drmic had an outstanding first half, before fading somewhat in the second. I’d still expect us to start with Pukki, but Drmic showed us we now have a genuine alternative.
Kenny McLean (now clearly sober), Marco Stiepermann and Tom Trybull laid strong claim to their shirts for the league start – as did Todd Cantwell. With Moritz Leitner only making a late appearance, and Buendia and Vrancic coming into contention, Daniel Farke will have some food for thought.
Aarons and Lewis reminded us of their quality and represented a constant threat going forward. On the downside, Luton did get behind us a few times, especially down our right. If Luton could do that, you can’t help worrying about Liverpool; the midfielders will have to offer a bit more support.
Before an overall observation on the squad, one more individual to pick out: it’s good to see Timm Klose back. Last time we were in the top flight, our chance of survival was dealt a big blow by his injury at Palace. He looked a proper Premier League defender at the time, and I suspect he will again this year.
As everyone knows, over the past two years we’ve had to make (and have made) a big surplus in transfer dealings; in that respect, we’re unique in the Premier League we’re joining.
Yet, I don’t think anyone would dispute that we now have a better, deeper and hungrier squad than for some time. Partly through shrewd acquisitions and partly through developing our own youngsters, we’re putting some decent options at Daniel Farke’s disposal.
That was underlined by Saturday’s subs and unused players. Sam Byram and Philip Heise are solid back-ups for our young full-backs; Onel Hernandez and Moritz Leitner aren’t bad players to bring on. And Farke’s dilemma is no longer “who’ll be my playmaker?”, but “how do I deal with the two outstanding ones I’ve got?”
Here’s the bottom line of Stuart Webber’s dealings. We don’t have more players than two years ago, or last summer. But we have a lot more players in genuine first-team contention. That’ll serve us well in the season ahead.
So, Luton was once more an interesting excursion. The less said about the ground itself, the better (suffice to say I’ll stop complaining for a while about legroom at Carrow Road). But everything else was good, from sitting with Mick Dennis of this parish and his wife Sarah, to the friendliness of the ethnic community where I perfectly safely left my car.
I wasn’t surprised to hear the pleasure in Daniel Farke’s post-match comments. His players are giving him some selection dilemmas and headaches. And he’ll be delighted.