With preparations for a season in the top-flight well underway – the 5-1 win at Luton confirmed this – it’s time to consider where we set the bar for Daniel Farke’s squad of freshly-minted Champions.
A traditional approach for any promoted side is to target 17th and hope we overachieve and with the vast disparity in finances between ourselves and every other Premier League side, this would appear to be a sensible bar to set.
This is particularly realistic when you consider the outgoing transfer fees for the first-team are currently limited to less than a million pounds, which is a veritable drop in the ocean compared to Aston Villa’s £100m+ spree, or the likely final shopping bills for every other team.
That Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke have chosen to “do different” is a surprise to nobody. Since the Webberlution began, its hallmark has been individuality and originality. On and off the pitch creative solutions have been sought and found to a number of problems.
Choosing to go up from the Championship to the Premier League with what is, to all intents and purposes, the same squad, is something that even the most bombastic of Championship table-toppers have yet to attempt. Yet here we are. And barring the odd concern over potentially thin areas in the squad, everyone seems happy.
The financial positives are obvious. By keeping our powder relatively dry we have an incredible war chest available for January should we need it, or for next season, whatever division we may be in. But those are distant Plan Bs and not the expected scenario. The honest truth is we don’t think we need to spend to do well.
The momentum built up from last season is considerable. While we all enjoyed the triumphant celebrations at City Hall in May, I think most of us were savouring the moment, fully expecting that we were unlikely to see some of these players again.
It is the way of success in football that the players who get you promoted aren’t always deemed to have the experience and nous to cope at a higher level and need upgrading. Alternatively, those same players may be coveted by clubs higher up the footballing food chain and spirited away before they taste the PL fruits of last season’s labour with their promoted comrades.
However, with the lack of incoming activity and Webber’s ability to not only hold onto our stars but tie them down on long-term deals in bulk numbers, the team that starts at Anfield on day one has a good chance of being made up of eleven players that pulled on the yellow and green last season, which would be almost unprecedented for a promoted team in the last thirty years.
While the likes of the talkSPORT gobsh*tes, the less-cerebral pundits and that small percentage of fans always looking to accuse “the Cook” of embezzlement will be frothing at the mouth at the lack of eye-watering sums making their way out of the Carrow Road coffers, Webber, Farke, and the vast majority of City fans are sleeping easy. This isn’t a case of prudence over ambition. We simply think the squad as it gives us the best chance of success.
Last year we had an unfancied team with no stars in August that by the end of the season had swept all before them. And as good as Pukki, Aarons, Buendia et al were, we didn’t win the league on the back of one superstar.
We won it because we have a playing style that wins football matches.
We won the league because once the players had learned that system, they were often near-impossible to stop.
Those players are still here. They all know the system. They’ll hit the ground running together. And while the opposition are better individually and the managers generally more experienced, a team of good players who know what they’re doing and work hard together to a plan is bloody difficult to stop.
While Ralf Fahrmann, Sam Byram, Patrick Roberts and Josip Drmic will undoubtedly contribute along the way, there is no urgent requirement for them to be up-to-speed or to settle in Norfolk.
They are the icing on the cake if they fit in and make big contributions, but even if they don’t we still have a pretty great cake. We haven’t bet the farm this year on a Ricky Van Wolfswinkel coming to a new league, settling immediately into a team that wasn’t built for his skillset, and scoring the goals upon which our whole success would be based.
So how far can these boys take us?
Leicester briefly showed the possibilities for would-be Davids in this land of Goliaths. But while their side was assembled for much less than any other Premier League winner, they still exercised financial muscle considerably greater than Norwich have this summer.
The template is still relevant, however. Leicester won the title because they had a side that worked hard, and they had a style of football that worked for them, which all their players were comfortable with. They had no real stars, at least at the start of the season.
Leicester did the simple things well, and they won a lot of games late on because they had great stamina, teamwork and a desire not to only avoid defeat, but to try and gamble and win games. Sound like any team you may know?
Now I’m not saying City are about to win the Premier League. Deserved as their title was, Leicester were fortunate in many ways to have broken the ‘super-club’ hegemony. They maintained a relatively injury-free existence and their peak season also coincided with underwhelming rebuilding years for the likes of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Norwich cannot rely on any such rub of the green with injuries, and the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham in particular, are simply too strong to see them having an “off” year. However, beyond those teams, who do we have to fear?
Obviously, every team in the league can hurt you on their day. But few can do so consistently due to the level of competition.
We will get slapped around by a team in form on occasion. Whilst we hope to catch Liverpool cold on Friday week, if they perform at even 90 per cent they might roll us over and make us look silly, such is the talent at their disposal.
But not panicking and sticking to the plan are hallmarks of this Norwich City. One defeat won’t psychologically destroy this manager or team the way it did to Alex Neil and his side in the wake of the 6-2 loss to Newcastle last time we graced this league. We will keep doing us.
So, to predictions. As already stated, I think Tottenham, Liverpool and Man City are beyond us. Arsenal and Everton are in the second year of new regimes, should be better than last year and appear a jump ahead of our expectations too in all honesty.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man United and Frank Lampard’s Chelsea™ are faltering giants hoping that relatively inexperienced managers can build on their success as players. I don’t see either being overly successful and while both will be achievable scalps for smaller sides on a one-off basis, over the course of the season they should inevitably chalk up a good few points.
But those seven apart? Leicester and Wolves are steady and building in the right direction and I’d expect them to be comfortable. Then you’re down to a lot of other teams fighting to grind out sufficient points to avoid the drop zone.
Eddie Howe’s fairy-tale minnows™ are kept up admirably by little more than his expertise and the ability to pay large amounts for the right players to fit their system. They’re always a key injury or two away from being in big trouble. I fancy us to be better this season.
West Ham is a more club stable under Manuel Pellegrini than they have been for a long while, but they remain a work-in-progress and their fortunes will undoubtedly fluctuate over the course of the year. While getting shot of Arnautovic is a plus for team morale, Heller doesn’t have a reputation for being a walk in the park. All-in-all I’d rather put my money on Norwich than West Ham to finish higher.
Dean Smith is an impressive manager and has been great for Villa, who have backed him with an unbelievable amount of money this off-season. How soon the new players adapt will be key. While I certainly think they’ll have enough to avoid the drop, I don’t see them having the consistency and continuity that Norwich will.
Sheffield United have been frugal in comparison to everyone but Norwich and it will be interesting to see how Chris Wilder’s system suits the Premier League. I expect them to struggle but their team ethic and belief should be enough to keep them safe. For the second season in a row though, they’ll finish below City.
Newcastle is an absolute basket case because of the owner’s ongoing attempts to convince the Newcastle fans that he’s serious about selling the club while simultaneously preparing for another season of underfunded performance. Steve Bruce is vastly experienced and will get what he can out of them, but even Ray Charles can see the potential for things at St James’s’ to go ar*e over t*t. Norwich will finish higher, I have no doubt.
Southampton was at one point the model for Norwich’s own progression, but our aspirations are probably somewhat diverged from that now. While they have done well in bringing young players through, their managerial position has been more of a turnstile than would be desired for any club that is to be viewed as one-to-emulate.
The Saints have spent big on strikers and with an unproven young manager, they could be a surprise success but it’s a flip of the coin between that and a relegation battle. I think we’re more likely to be successful over the course of the season.
Graham Potter’s Brighton will be interesting to watch. His brand of football will be a refreshing change for fans used to watching Hughtonball. But as Daniel Farke will testify, it takes time to change and develop a style of play. While I believe they can achieve this given time, it won’t happen immediately and I see a battle at the bottom for the Seagulls.
The ongoing saga of Wilfred Zaha isn’t helping anyone at Crystal Palace prepare for the campaign. Woy has a history of keeping teams out of trouble and should be able to grind points out. But it will be a grind. I think Norwich will have more in the locker.
Javi Gracia has done incredible work at Watford producing great consistency from a team free of big names. Can he repeat the feat once more? Again, it’s a coin toss, but I’d certainly give them no more chance of success than Norwich, particularly as if he does get Watford going once more, there’s a big chance Gracia will be snatched up by a bigger club when a vacancy appears.
Burnley is well run and have a good manager that has delivered a hugely successful spell in the club’s recent history. But as always, they’re a small club punching above their weight and doing so game in, game out takes its toll after a while.
You get a sense of battle fatigue from Turf Moor and while you can’t rule out Sean Dyche’s ability to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, I see more reticence going into the campaign than is currently emanating from the no-fear environment of Carrow Road.
The top seven is definitely beyond us. But I’d set the bar at about tenth. As always, some teams will surprise. I see no reason why Norwich can’t and won’t be that team this year.