Never know when they’re beaten.
Everything that made Norwich City champions. Everything that has been missing over the course of this season.
Trying to fathom what’s happened remains a challenge after such success and we’re going to hear plenty of musings; everyone will have their own version of what has contributed to this season’s relegation:
- The fault lies with particular players or their absence.
- Some players have sealed deals elsewhere and no longer care.
- The never-ending list of injuries to our defence.
- The lack of summer transfers and extensive contract extensions for unproven Premier League players, though many believed they could transition smoothly.
- The unexpected postponement to the season.
- We were ahead of schedule and staying up would have been a bonus.
- We should have gone for broke – though club ownership and financial safety has had a whole new meaning given the past months.
Luck will have a great deal to do with this season and always will in football, and there’s a great possibility we used up our luck last season: players having the best season of their lives, a reliable conveyer belt of players stepping up following injuries which should have killed our season, last minute goals to keep belief and an away form, which made a young, inexperienced team fearless.
Of course, there have been defeats where the opposition knew they’d gotten away with one, but you must be able to win ugly and choose wisely when quality isn’t benefitting you – after all, not every Premier League team plays “pretty football” all the time – some simply succeed for their ability to grind out results.
And whilst being unlucky is a factor, whether that’s injuries, hitting the woodwork or VAR decisions, City have quite simply underperformed where many had high hopes and ultimately lost their spark. And a Project Restart filled with an inkling of hope for a miracle turned into a woeful farewell with little fight when it was most needed.
No longer do we have that extra something that made City’s promotion so special to our past and maybe it feels like some sort of fall from grace; a shock to go from six defeats all season (three of which came after August) to 25 defeats. From picking up 45 points on the road to just six. There was a sadness in seeing a team that brought so much joy in an unexpected season and incredible quality, which deserved to be seen on the big stage, fail to thrive.
Though no-one expected a season like that of Sheffield United, few expected this season and the addition of behind-closed-doors matches hindered a team that’s reliant on its fans.
We’ve gone from scoring 93 goals and being a free-scoring and free-flowing, to a team struggling to find the back of the net – scoring just five league goals since New Year’s Day.
For City, defending is not a new problem. It was always a risk this season. While Sheffield United conceded 41 goals last season, City conceded 57 (Birmingham City conceded 58 and finished 17th). But Daniel Farke’s side were able to make up for this deficit – essentially their best form of defence was to attack, and in fact City only failed to score in three games last season. Compare that to this season’s 17. It’s a strategy that fails to succeed when a team become the architects of their own downfall.
Much debate will be around whether Teemu Pukki was a “one hit wonder” and the beginning of the season a fluke. His last registered shot on target was against Wolves in February (ten games ago). Only 14.3% of his shots have resulted in goals (11 in 79 shots), and although his shooting accuracy this season has slightly increased to 43%, crucially, since the turn of the year, this has been 26.9% (between August to January 1, it was 50.9% – of course there were more games during that period).
Pukki’s average shots per game has also reduced. Notably, only three games during August and January 1 did Pukki fail to register more than a single shot all game. Since New Year, this has more than doubled, with three games with no shots.
But he has often been left isolated, feeding off scraps, with his almost signature move being stopped in its tracks by opponents intercepting any through balls that would release the striker. And while Farke has attempted to change to two strikers or revert to the Championship team which helped in securing the Golden Boot, shots are looking far from convincing and he’s unwillingly become the picture of a striker low in confidence.
Goals from elsewhere have also been a concern – including City’s struggle to benefit from dead ball situations. It is nothing new – 13 goals came from set-pieces last season, Timm Klose with the most.
With a handful of defenders injured over the season, it might have been understandable but more concerningly, little was altered to cater for this – short corners and training ground routines are often a rarity.
Any replication of that Kenny McLean header against Man City looked unlikely, with corners often lacking precision. Of the 64 corners, 19 set pieces and 15 direct freekicks awarded, only three goals have come as the result – all corners.
The concern is with the amount they get and fail to make use of. Against Everton (H), Norwich had six corners. Against Villa (A) eight. Against Sheffield United (H) and Southampton (H) nine. Against Watford (H), City were awarded 10, and against Newcastle (A) 12.
Of course, what many will be wary of and wanting to focus on first will be the 17 goals conceded from set pieces, 12 of which were from corners, with little done to address this and fix an obvious vulnerability. All too often, pundits point to mismatched like that of Jamal Lewis vs Watford’s Craig Dawson before the inevitable.
Though it might not be the ‘City way’ to rely on them, one of those corners can meet a head or a foot, reach the back of the net and a whole different story might unravel. In the 2018/19 season, 246 were scored from set pieces, with most Premier League clubs continuing to find ways to trick opponents.
A goal from a set piece can sometimes feel like a freebie chance on goal, and can be the decider when nothing is happening for either side. And this is when the name Mario Vrancic pops up on the socials.
Much of City’s identity last was borne of this “never say die” attitude and that feeling of going behind not being the end of the world because the fight would continue until that final whistle was blown. In fact, on 12 occasions when they conceded first, they earned at least a draw.
Coincidentally, on nine of those occasions, Vrancic came off the bench to help City come from behind to get at least a point, with three of his goals and two of his assists coming as a substitute.
But, concerningly, in the 22 games City have conceded first this season, they have failed to pick up a single point – only in cup games did fans have some respite and a reminder of last season. Not just that, but the reaction after conceding has changed drastically – no longer does it matter that there’s five minutes added time to earn a draw. That’s a worry when City are most prone to conceding in 46-60 minutes and 76-90 minutes.
Having featured 36 times last season, Vrancic has started just six this season. His record as a substitute is not much better, usually coming on for pointless minutes when players are resigned to the game’s fate. Before Watford, he had played 445 minutes, his appearances from the bench totalling 135 minutes. Just 45 of those minutes came before the six substitutions rule came into effect.
Perhaps what many have hinted at is his ability to pick out long range passes and be unnerved at the thought of shooting from distance – the Bosnian scored seven of his 10 goals last season outside of the box.
While City have had 160 shots from outside of the box this season, many have gone AWOL or minus the power necessary to hit the desired target, with only two goals coming from outside of the box – one courtesy of the Bosnian. Even against West Ham – a game where he did not see much of the ball and which was an overall bad-day-at-the-office for the team – he still had the most chances on goal with his more positive approach to shooting.
Against Watford, Vrancic recorded the most passes in the entire game, 70% of his passes were forward and he had the most passes targeting the final third, with a pass success of 84%, and the most accurate passes of any player on the pitch.
He has also gained some decent stats through his defensive work. In the last game before lockdown, versus Sheffield United, he made four tackles: the most tackles in the game, all successful, as a 65th minute substitute. And against Watford, all four of his tackles were successful – joint highest of the City squad with Lewis.
Vrancic’s specialities have been more than missed, especially when considering the absence of Moritz Leitner, a player who many had hopes for in providing calm and picking out passes as a deep-lying playmaker. And while people will speculate about off-pitch issues, little was seen of the German after Villa in October, with the explanation, “we wish we could name more substitutes”. But when lockdown opened this door, he remained seated on the sidelines before injury scuppered an already miserable campaign.
As for Onel Hernandez, many of Vrancic’s deliveries were aimed his way against Watford and you can rely on the Cuban to inject pace in an attack whether starting or from the bench. But when it comes to the crucial moment in the box, he has often been caught dithering and holding onto the ball too long before releasing the shot or pass. With just one goal and two assists to his name, it’s tough to think we’ve seen all he can offer to the Premier League given his ability.
And whilst Emi Buendia has been praised by pundits for creating chances – his seven assists have lined him up for a move elsewhere – questions might be raised as to why it had taken so long to net his first Premier League goal after scoring nine last season. Worth noting too is that he’s had no assists since New Year’s Day and before Watford, his last shot on target was against Bournemouth in January. He also went on an 11-game streak of no-shots-on-target over the first half of the season.
Both Buendia and Hernandez have also seen their shooting accuracy drop since last season – Buendia from 35.2% to 27.5% (22.9% before Watford) and Hernandez by from 36% to 22.2% while Cantwell has seen an increase of 20%.
Of course, Buendia’s absence from a starting XI will always evoke questions from fans and pundits but a lack of shooting prowess and the inconsistency when taking corners and freekicks is an enigma that Farke is yet to solve.
Sitting in a relegation battle facing the inevitable means many asking the “what’s he got on Farke” question. Kenny McLean is in that category – especially when Vrancic and Leitner might look more appealing in defensive midfield – but to answer that is not only to point out his love for aerial duels (177 to be precise) which is 50% more than Ben Godfrey in second (90), he also has the second most interceptions and the fourth highest amount of clearances.
McLean also has had 30 shots, the fourth most in the side, with a shooting accuracy of 33.3%. He has clearly not just been taking in the scenery of the Premier League and perhaps provided at least some consistency in support of a young defence but has been scapegoated for not being Vrancic. Statistically he was the third best ‘shooter’ in the squad before Watford.
Of course, for Farke, statistics tell only part of the story. But, like them or not, they say plenty. And they’ve been missing the things City needed: goals and those scrappy victories from dire games, winning by a simple 1-0 – something they managed to accomplish last season when needed.
And while there’s no one pinpoint explanation for the trigger to this season, much expectation has been met with disappointment and the idea of other players sharing the goal tally between themselves simply hasn’t transpired – attack as the best form of defence simply had no chance.
Statistics raise questions over the absence of certain players and inclusion of others or how some have simply underperformed and lost confidence. They show a failure to address weaknesses early on and yet be surprised when nothing has changed. And they present each fan with a list of ifs and buts.
They show a team who excelled in a competitive Championship division, finishing top of the class and having every right to perform on the big stage, missing the mark with a mix of polar-opposite performances over the course of the season, and ultimately losing everything which made them unbeatable last season.
They show a team that has shown fight and hints of quality against the top sides in the league on the odd occasion, but who have failed all too often to get the business done against those in the lower third of the league. A team who thrive on the ‘playing football with your friend’s’ tag but too often became the example of “boys vs men”. A team who faced their fate in front empty stadia in eery silence after a painful, joyless, and dispiriting restart – in stark contrast to evening against Blackburn last April
But just as it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of young players, they will have learnt plenty from the experience.
With an return to the Championship confirmed, the work will begin to rediscover and fire up that free-flowing, free-scoring, fearless, confident side we saw last year – or rather, we’ve been missing since Man City – and keep it.
A league where to succeed you must win ugly and find a way through. Where being “proud of the lads” must equate to points rather than waiting for them to come and never seeing them.
The big question is who will be around to be a part of that fight – although hints suggest it’s more of the players’ decision rather than the club’s.
Thanks to Chris Sadler for granting MFW permission to use his image for the header pic. Appreciated Chris.