The most wondrous aspect of Norwich City’s romp to the Football League title last season was that it was a triumph for doing things the right way. Being smart beat money and muscle.
And so, for me, amid all the disappointments of yet another dismal demotion, one detail stands out as the bleakest: it looks as if the critics were right.
Off the pitch we didn’t spend enough, didn’t show enough ambition. On the pitch we were too fancy for the fight.
Except, none of those criticisms is true.
One statement which has been parroted by pundits, opponents and even by disaffected fans is that “Norwich only spent £750K” this season. That is sheer tosh.
I can’t tell you the actual figure, but I can set out some of the items on which the club spent.
£6.5m paid back investors in the Canaries Bond which financed the complete remodelling of the academy and training centre at Colney.
An as yet undisclosed sum, matching fans pound for pound, went towards the cost of the Community Sports Foundation’s new hub – The Nest, at Horsford – which will change lives in the county.
New, hugely improved contracts were given to 14 players: rewards for that glorious 2018-19 title win and guarantees that they cannot leave for peanuts this summer.
There were some transfer fees we know about. Sam Byram cost that £750K from West Ham (who bought him for £4m three years earlier), and Aidan Fitzpatrick, a Scottish midfielder, arrived from Partick for £350,000. Then, in January, left-back Sam McCallum was purchased from Coventry for £3.7m (and loaned back to Coventry, with whom he won the League One title).
In January there were two signings for which the fees remain undisclosed. Lucas Rupp was bought from the Bundesliga and highly rated Melvin Sitti (a 19-year-old midfielder) was signed from French second tier team Sochaux and loaned back to them.
The season’s so-called “free transfers” (which invariably involve a signing-on fee and always increase the wage bill) included Josep Drmic (an experienced full international from the Bundesliga), Archie Mair (a teenaged goalkeeper from Aberdeen), Charlie Gilmour (a defensive midfielder from Arsenal) and Rocky Bushiri, (a young Belgian centre-back from the Belgian top tier).
Players taken on loan (which invariably involves a fee) included goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann from the Bundesliga, Ibrahim Amadou (from La Liga) and Ondrej Duda (from the Bundesliga).
Oh, and Adam Idah and Josh Martin were promoted to the senior squad.
Of course, as is the case with every single football club in the entire world, not all of the new arrivals proved good fits. But two who looked decent – Fahrmann and Amadou – didn’t get the game time they wanted and moved on. And some of the arrivals are clearly earmarked for the future rather than the 19-20 season.
But doesn’t the forward planning (which includes the Colney rebuild) demonstrate ambition? Admittedly it’s ambition grounded in strategic thinking rather than sod-it-let’s-have-a-punt gung-ho, reckless aspiration, but it is clearly a desire and a determination to achieve.
Yet there is no denying the poverty of many of performances this season – and I don’t think the catalogue of casualties provides a credible alibi.
I was at Crawley for the Carabao Cup defeat in August when both Timm Klose and Christophe Zimmerman made their delayed starts to the season after injuries. Timm was badly crocked again after just 27 minutes – out for the season we were told. Christophe limped on until ten minutes into the second half and was patched up for the weekend game at West Ham, but was clogged by Sebastien Haller. Out for three months.
At one stage we had four centre-backs and two goalkeepers out – a cruel set of co-incidences which could not have been foreseen. But all clubs have injuries which disrupt their plans and test the resilience of their squads.
So what happened? Why weren’t the boys who swept aside opponents in 19-20 capable even of competing after such a short while in 20-21?
As Stewart Lewis wrote, I think a major culprit was confidence – it was absent when most we needed it. There are physiological as well as psychological reasons why, when footballers lack belief, they lack practically everything else too.
Confidence makes you want the ball and ‘show” for it, it endows your running with zip, it gives you certainty of touch as you receive the ball, it helps you hit crisp passes … and to produce endorphins which deaden pain and so keep you going when fatigued. Without confidence (and endorphins) you become risk-adverse, tentative and slower to respond mentally and physically.
There was no lack of passion (football’s most over-used word), despite what many claimed. Did Todd Cantwell and Klose look uncaring in defeat after the Brighton game?
No, it was belief that was missing – as Teemu Pukki demonstrated. During the surge to the Championship title, he was so certain of his ability that a goal looked likely each time he had the ball at his feet in or near the opposition penalty area. This season, the ball doesn’t stay at his feet often or long enough. His sure first touch has deserted him and his dead-eyed accuracy of shot left with it.
Without his goals last season, we wouldn’t have gone up. Without enough this season, we were doomed to fail.
There have definitely been other flaws too. Defending corners – or crosses generally – hasn’t got better, has it? I don’t believe that is because zonal marking is inherently poor (too many top teams rely on it for that to be the case). And, after being undone by near-post balls at Burnley in September, our defensive deployment was amended. But we are a long way short of what is required in any division, let alone the Premier League.
What is unique to the Premier League, though, is the alacrity with which any failing is exposed and exploited. And it has been painful beyond words to watch City picked off so readily by so many teams.
When Stuart Webber says, ‘We have all learned from this season’, that must be one of the things he is talking about: the ruthlessness with which a less-than-perfect pass or a slipshod moment in defence is punished.
The answer cannot be to just whack the ball forward though, because more often or not that just merely donates possession to the opposition. So we should not abandon Farkeball. But we have to get much better at it – and that probably requires a bigger pool of better quality players. Which is where all that forward-planning and ambition should come to fruition.
That is the hope to which I cling.
It might have been premature to declare the Webberlution a success in May 2019 – but only because it was still in progress. And it is still unfolding now. We can only know if last season’s fabulous stride forward was wasted once we learn how we respond to being knocked back again.
So we have to remain steadfast, even when the situation seems so full of peril.
We have a song about that.
A good read i after it is the confidence that has been missing rather then the Money i think this team full of cobfidence got have stayed up this year .also i noticed that with vranic and stieperman in the side pukki. had two chances at watford previous to that i cant remember the last one they know how he ticks unlike rupp and dudda
funn since january his goals dryed up when they started playing more often .i feel vranic is most gifted midfielder at the club shame hes not in team when fit more often .yes the club has done alot of investing this year and in the championship next year we,ll be a Lot stronger for it then previous times keep well
Daniel Adshead also cost a bit. And then the young midfielder from Motherwell. Plus another £3+m as add on for Buendia. The total spend must be more than £20m, probably close to £30m.
Jim Davies says
A good article, Mick, and I agree with much of what you say. How we didn’t even get a free kick when Haller cleaned out Zimmerman, I’ll never know, let alone a probable red card for Haller.
On the issue of confidence, I hate to say it, but Shearer did a good critique on Pukki mid-week. He showed how Pukki has stopped running in behind defenders, but instead is getting drawn towards the ball to collect a pass, and that has cut down his opportunities.
I’m still not a fan of zonal marking, however many other clubs use it. It allows players to get a running jump on static defenders, which gives them more height and more aggression, though I do think Dawson was over-aggressive in man-handling Lewis out of the way, and should have been penalised. Where was VAR when we needed it?
This will be a season remembered as LIVARPOOL winning a title when 19 other teams either didn’t want it or turn up, yes they have played some good football but everything has gone their way very few injuries, VAR decision and Refs 50/50 calls unlike city most if not every decision has gone against them.
Building up the infrastructure is all well and good but not strengthening the team on a promotion was lacking in foresight.
Pundits and their so called expert opinions are as changeable as a north sea gale and I don’t trust either, we will lose according to Danny Mills Cantwell, Godfrey, Aaron’s, Lewis, Emi, Pukki and Duda will go back to Germany with his tail between his legs for really underperforming since he arrived.
As for the defence we had promising defenders out on loan, Raggett, Faweo, Bushini any one could have been called back to reinforce a creaking backline but the mantra of development away from city was continued.
Has the old adage of good enough age doesn’t matter when in the premiership, yes 4/5 youth team have made the first team in 2018/19 but none this season so has some of the trust gone.
City at times needed an old fashioned CB that would go in hard and kick the ball out of the ground and Raggett has proved in his loans to do just that but no we send him to Portsmouth in league 1 if Farke doesn’t rate him why was he bought, if he wants him to learn to play his style of football he will not do that at Rotherham or Portsmouth so a decision on him needs to be made either take up the option or let him go for zilch.
Next season every championship club will be wanting cities head on a platter and will have watched every game from this season and will know our weaknesses so it will be a baptism of fire back.
Clearly confidence is a victim of losing games. Stands to reason. Only way to over come it is to raise the game and score a goal or two. It is also seen in the way Lewis and Aarons are not so aggressive in going forward, almost scared to make a forward pass.
I agree with Kelvin’s point on Vranric and Steipermen, I saw it a few times, in the opening spell, especially Stieperman, always looking for Pukki.
I am not a fan of zonal marking, but that is the way Farke wants to play, but the players appear to struggle with it, often times it has seen players like van Dijk having to be handled by Lewis. plus Lewis was over the other side of the box when Dawson used his considerable strength. On a side note, I feel Lewis again, was barged over by shoulder in the back that lead to Welbeck goal.
Hanley has played all his career as a traditional British defender and is not bad at that job, but struggles with zonal and playing out from the back. Injuries made a hell of difference for us, once you start to slip in this league it is an Everest of a job to claw back.
It is quite simple in my eyes, the squad contains some of the best championship quaility but not Premier League; that loss of confidence, injuries and a system that leaves acres of space when we attack
Being only ever a City follower, been here before and we will have bad times and good . now roll on the good again
You and I have been supporting NCFC for long enough to see this pattern being continually repeated; put together a good team, win promotion, don’t strengthen, get relegated, sell best players. I have no problem with the current set-up and believe we have the best coaching team we have had for a long time. However, it is disingenuous to suggest we are building for a better future when we have seen the cycle continually repeated. With this model we will always be a Championship club and given the nature of the Premiership maybe that’s not a bad place to be.
Tim Ball says
Lovely to hear from you again Mick.
Like you I have always felt the defensive injuries have cost us massively this season, everyone keeps praising Sheffield United for their performances this season.
Quite correctly, but as I keep banging on about Sheffield United have had next to no defensive injuries all season and have been able to field the same back 5 and Dean Henderson 90% of the games this season. I think they would be much lower in the table if they had had our problems of that I am sure.
Jim Davies rightly points out Mr Shearer’s spot on analysis of Teemu Pukki. Even Harry Kane has started to do it, again in a struggling team.
Confidence has been eroded and you can see it in comparison with the movement from last season to receive the ball markedly to this season.
Also the physicality of the league has caught us out, we just haven’t been strong enough, or quick enough for that matter with only 2-3 exceptions.
Finally our inability to beat the press in this league has been our downfall time and time again.
Mick I was wondering, because I really don’t know the answer and what is best for the club, do you think we can have a sustained period of Premier League success as a self funding club ? I would be very grateful for your opinion.
David Bowers says
“Being smart beat money and muscle.”
We started the season over 10M quid in the black. We ended it 38M in debt.
You think we didn’t leverage an unfair financial advantage?
It’s funny how it’s “being smart” to go 10M’s into debt when it suits your argument. But it’s “ sod-it-let’s-have-a-punt gung-ho, reckless aspiration” when it suits too.
Since 1902 says
I completely agree with the comment by Max above. Another failing I would point out is our stubborn insistence on signing small players who play against giants. Too often this has meant conceding from set pieces. We have been bullied too often by teams. At Watford it literally looked like boys v men at times. Why wasnt this addressed? The plan’ works until the production line stops. For every Godfrey or Maddison there are lots of players in League 1 now. We give our best players top level experience, we sell. How will we ever be ready if we get in the Prem again? Our best players get sold every year. As for Drmic don’t get me started…
Since 1902 says
I also meant to add. As a team we are brittle. Whether you call it confidence I don’t know but we lack leaders all over the field. Hanley and Krul yes but who else? We are are a nice, soft touch. Sheff U and the like will always push us about until this is addressed.
I’m not sure I agree with much of that Mick. You say that the criticisms of not spending enough money,not showing ambition and the football is too fancy for the premier league are not true !!!! Really well I think they are, we didn’t spend enough, what ambition was there to make a real go of staying in the premier league….none, signing players for the future is not ambition it’s a money making gamble to hopefully improve them and sell them on for a profit but doesn’t show real desire to stay in the league and compete.
As for the football well maybe too fancy is not the right phrase but it pretty much sums it up,pointless passing around at the back is all too easy to work out and play against for talented premier league teams and coachs
Zonal marking, yes some teams use it but the vast majority don’t and the ones that do probably have bigger and stronger defenders than our light weight bunch, it didn’t work that well in the championship why on earth would you keep using it with more or less the same personnal in the premier league
Malcolm Robertson says
Good analysis, Mick. No excuses, we haven’t been good enough, but we have been unfortunate with injuries. It still rankles that Haller didn’t get sent off for that terrible foul on Zimmermann, and then scores minutes later. Those three points they then got may have not made a material difference to our position, but could impact on Watford/Villa. We’ll be fine next season
Andrew T says
Many believe we only spent £750,000 and those will never accept it was more. Some think we did the same as we always do when we’re promoted, fortunately this time Webber made sure of doing differently. You can’t keep everyone happy, certainly not the majority who post here with their half glass empty rather than half full outlook. Roll on next season – so looking forward to it.