“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
This was Mike Tyson’s brutal but beautifully observed critique of his potential challengers while he was in his menacing mid-eighties pomp.
Considering how Norwich City was repeatedly left nursing a bloodied nose when toe to toe with some of the Premier League heavyweights (and, to be honest, lightweights) last season, it’s an apt quote when considering the Canaries’ Championship chances this time around.
Just as the self-styled baddest man on the planet plans to pull on his gloves on again, City are preparing to go through another 46 gruelling Championship rounds.
Looking back on 2018/19’s league table you would think we won the title with one hand tied behind our back. Daniel Farke’s men were surprise flat-track bullies – the possession-based, back-to-front, one-touch, press-destroying football was just too hot for everyone.
That’s not to say that they didn’t get caught with a few blows. While the likes of Leeds and West Bromwich Albion landed early shots that stung but didn’t hurt, it was Sheffield United that traded the most blows – but the Blades didn’t have the strength to stop City ending as champions.
With Pukki on fire, Steipi unstoppable, Buendia on a differing planet to all around him, Lewis and Aarons running free, Zimbo immense, and Krul a rock, Norwich rumbled forward with ever-increasing momentum towards the Premier League. There was little deviation from a tactical formula that left teams wondering what had hit them – Millwall and Nottingham Forest were both left shaken by the Canaries’ seemingly unbreakable will to win.
However, even the best-laid plans can be left in tatters by short, sharp violent shocks.
City sauntered into the Premier League with the same formation and pretty much the same personnel that had stunned the Championship. And why change it? Manchester City were humbled and Newcastle brutally dismantled on balmy summer afternoons at Carrow Road. We had a plan and a philosophy, and we weren’t going to toss it away just because we were coming up against teams that were seen as Premier League mainstays.
However, by the time we reached the final third of the season things were completely different. It wasn’t just the empty stadiums, extra subs and drinks breaks in the summer sun that made this feel like it was a separate competition to the one we had watched pre-Covid19 – it was City’s total lack of cohesion, fight and unity.
Before the curtain temporarily came down on the season in March, the Canaries had overcome some poor results and looked like they were getting to grips with the top division. Fighting hard, looking compact, and competing. Fast forward to Project Restart (vomit) and there was little or no fight left in the yellow and green corner. Some savage blows were landed by all comers and it seemed a number of players were happy to throw the towel in when the going got tough.
Watching from the periphery was Daniel Farke. Pensive. Thoughtful. And finding it difficult to find a way of countering his opponents’ guile or physicality. All too often City failed to land a glove on any of its opponents. The German appeared to stubbornly hold on to a singular tactical plan and formation as his team took punches to the mouth. Repeatedly. Regrettably.
While West Ham delivered the eventual, and inevitable, knock-out blow, it was the defeat at Vicarage Road that saw Norwich hit the canvas hard. Watford were the latest in a long line of teams that saw City either dominate possession and/or take the lead, but still have enough in the tank to come back and take either one or all three points.
Norwich’s demise can be blamed on many things, but the failure to deploy a noticeable, tactical alternative to the 4-2-3-1 formation, make substitutions, and depart from the patient, possession-based philosophy even when only a few minutes from defeat is a real discussion point.
Farke has bemoaned a lack of understanding around his tactical changes, with many being far too subtle or technical for the fan in the stands (or at home watching on TV for the foreseeable) to see clearly. (I believe a young writer late of this parish was recently given a verbal jab by the German for questioning his tactics, so I’ll raise my guard for the rest of this article.)
However, it seemed clear to me that when City were looking to claw back deficits we didn’t show enough urgency or the muscle, but instead an unwillingness to forego playing across our own defensive line in favour of a more direct path to goal.
A lot of this can come down to injuries – you can’t win a game of poker without having a hand that contains the high-scoring cards. And, in many cases, while the opposition held four aces, Farke could only counter with Mr Bun the Baker.
The number of defensive casualties City sustained last season was ridiculous – it would have seen many other teams with greater resources brought to their knees.
The result of this was that Norwich’s transfer strategy, which could well become the Oxford English Dictionary’s new definition of ‘conservative’, looked utterly balmy. While crying out for a new centre back at the start of the season, City signed a defensive midfielder in Ibrahim Amadou who was billed as being able to perform in both positions – in reality, he did neither very well at all.
In January, with the opening of a new transfer window and the opportunity to bolster defensive ranks and add firepower, we brought in more versatile midfielders. I won’t comment on Duda as he has now left the club, but we are still unclear on where Lukas Rupp’s best position might be.
This meant Farke had little room to manoeuvre and couldn’t enjoy tactical freedom. He had to make do and mend. Tweak and refine. Look to keep as much consistency as possible while players dropped out of contention because of injuries or suspensions – usually at the worst possible times.
This season offers an opportunity to change this and add another tactical dimension to the team by using the transfer window wisely. No one is asking for the coffers to be emptied, but investing in players that give Farke options. Perhaps allowing him to change the shape of the side as required during matches, the way it attacks opponents, and, if needed, reduce the number of passes needed to reach the opponent’s final third.
Using social media as a barometer of opinion is a dangerous science, but the mention of Jordan Hugill as being the transfer target to provide tactical flexibility appeared to bring some City fans out in hives. Despite 13 goals in 39 appearances for a very ordinary QPR side, it seemed that a pitch-fork wielding mobs could well set up flaming roadblocks on the A47 and A11 in order to stop him arriving in Norfolk.
The thought of having a man who could operate as the fulcrum of an attack, disrupt to two large Championship centre-backs, or take pressure off Pukki or Idah as hired muscle, seemed to cut little ice with some.
It seemed that HMS Piss the League would sail very nicely, thank you, without the need of this overpriced journeyman and West Ham reject. One sensed a pervading feeling that City would be flat-track bullies once again in 2020/21 – and it was fuelled further by the 6-0 friendly win over League One MK Dons (much to the chagrin of our esteemed editor Gary).
As it’s transpired, Mr Hugill IS now on board.
And with that in mind, it’s worth considering both Watford, who beat us home and away, and AFC Bournemouth finished above City last season. It’s likely they will be many people’s favourites, ahead of Norwich, to finish in the top two Championship places. It’s a little too simple to think that will be the case, but imagine if it comes down to a game against the Pozzo family’s playthings for the final promotion place.
It’s time for you to be the boss.
With 25 minutes left, we’re losing 1-0 to Watford in the run-in to the end of the season and we haven’t fashioned a chance for over 15 minutes. We’re playing one man up front, trying to play from the back, and the confident Hornets are swarming to press our possession football. With the bench made up of our current personnel, where do you turn to make things different?
Do you tweak and pop Idah or Drmic up top with Pukki, or do you go with a more direct Plan B and the introduction of a seasoned, muscular Championship striker to add aggression, urgency and guile to the attack?
There’s no right or wrong answer here and I’m not advocating one tactical approach above another. The point I’m trying to make is that in this scenario you have options – so often last season Farke didn’t. He couldn’t use his substitutions to add a physical presence in attack, which would, in turn, allow him to play a longer ball from front to back, or get two wingers ripping down the wings and playing balls to a willing recipient in the box.
The Head Coach’s hands were tied due to the personnel he had to work with.
So while the signing of Hugill may be a bone of contention, I’m hoping we show the desire to conjure a Grant Holt (and it appears our ’new’ shirt harks back to his era) in this transfer window. We need street-wise nous, a burning hunger to win, and physicality to the mix, which Webber has admitted was lacking last season.
Over the last 35 years of watching City, players such as Kevin Drinkell, Ashley Ward, Iwan Roberts, Peter Crouch, Dean Ashton, and Holty offered the Canaries muscle, desire and a real goalscoring threat upfront – they were far from being blunt, bludgeoning weapons. These boys could play a bit.
While the 2020/21 season appears to offer one of the weakest Championships for some time in terms of the teams competing, it’s worth remembering we’ve been handed opportunities like this before.
There can be no complacency. This will be a long, tough season and it will be a fight to go up, not a cruise. We need to be prepared for the hard hits that threaten to stop you us in our tracks. To change style. To wrong foot a keen opponent, whether plucky underdog or title contender.
As Mike Tyson himself will testify, heavy blows from the most unlikely of sources can leave you looking up from the canvas wondering where it all went wrong.