With the Championship trophy sitting pride of place on the Carrow Road mantelpiece, Stuart Webber has embarked upon another challenging offseason, reshaping Daniel Farke’s squad once more.
Unlike previous years, he actually has something of a “war chest” this time, mainly thanks to the club-record sale of Emi Buendia, albeit some of this has already been reinvested in Milot Rashica as a replacement. This presents Webber with a very different type of challenge.
It’s one thing to be scouring previously uncharted scouting backwaters and relying on your analytics department to throw up unknown gems that are worth a punt, but battling at the top table for players who may feel they have other Premier League options is another thing entirely. How successful Webber proves in this endeavour will ultimately decide Norwich’s fate.
The previous emphasis on intelligent gambles appears currently to be parked only at the door of the Under-23’s squad, and as far as the first team goes it’s only those that can realistically hit the ground running that are under consideration. There has been a more British-based influence in the recruitment, and those that have signed or been linked have mainly been from clubs in England or Scotland, where their ability to adapt to our style of football has already been tested.
Rashica is the obvious exception to that. A young Kosovan with no experience of the English game per se. But equally, this is an international footballer with experience of playing in European competitions, and who already has a body of work that saw him linked with some of the giants of the game. There is a risk element, as with any overseas signing, of not settling into the country or the style of football. However, with the quality Rashica has, for the price he was available for, Webber has judged this as too good an opportunity to turn down, which is as good an endorsement as you can get. The risk of such a large portion of the transfer budget on a player like this is huge, and ultimately it will write a chapter in the book of Webber’s legacy either way.
For me, the most interesting part about this summer’s squad development has been the outgoings, however. Webber has spoken in-depth about the need to raise the quality but trim the quantity, and has embarked on that mission with gusto in recent weeks.
Tettey, Vrancic, Stiepermann, Leitner and Drmic have all moved on, combined with the sale of Buendia and the loan return of Ollie Skipp, none of which were overly surprising, but the emphasis on replacements has been solidly around a centre back and a defensive midfielder with Kristoffer Ajer and Phillip Billing being the names in the frame at the moment.
However, between them, they would likely swallow up the remainder of the transfer budget, as would any potential alternatives if City are determined to attract quality proven options, which leaves us really thin in certain areas, if the summer plays out as is most likely at this stage.
Obviously, there may well be changes to that outlook. I think we’d all be shocked if we made it to the end of August and a massive club or two hadn’t at least tested the water with a bid for Cantwell or Aarons. The financial firepower that would come with selling either of those on top of what funds we already have would alter Stuart Webber’s options dramatically to what they are at this stage.
However, in the here and now there are several positions that look a little threadbare, which can be seen as a cause for concern. (Part of this concern has been abated by the arrival of Pierre Lees-Melou from Nice).
Partly this is due to a wish to have a highly competitive tight-knit squad all battling for minutes. But partly, leaving a few gaps in the squad creates opportunity. Opportunity for a player to lay down a marker that they can do a job in a number of roles based on the fact that they are an all-round capable footballer.
Part of the interest in Billing is that he can play in defensive midfield, or in the number 10 role, and if you think that it hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind that at 6’6 he could also do a Tettey-style emergency job at centre-back or even a “lump it into the mixer for the last five minutes” striker if the game situation requires, you’d undoubtedly be wrong.
Equally, with Giannoulis cemented at left-back, and Sam McCallum being loaned out to the Championship again, the only cover is likely to be Sam Byram, which is a massive risk given his injury history. But then you think of the job that Lungi Sorensen did last season and whilst you wouldn’t necessarily want to see him starting against the best wingers in the world, his ability to play multiple positions increases his presence in the squad and in Daniel Farke’s wish to have multi-faceted options.
What having a smaller squad also does in terms of creating opportunities is that it allows the fabled “pathway to the first team” that the club has prided itself upon in recent years when bringing in young players.
Interestingly we’ve yet to see anybody who has been signed to the development squad with a view to progressing into the first team squad one day, really make that step up, at least since Ben Godfrey did it a few seasons back. Given the level of investment in the Under-23’s squad over the past few seasons, and the work that Neil Adams has put into getting these lads loan minutes to try and impress, this will be one area we will be looking to improve on.
The lads that have taken advantage of the opportunity of the pathway have so far tended to be those we have picked up a lot earlier in the Academy recruitment process. Aarons and Lewis joined the club as youngsters and progressed through the various age groups before stepping straight into the first team. Both very notably took advantage of pre-seasons where through injury or other players leaving, there was a gap in their position and even though they weren’t immediately expected to be options beyond being a body to cover some minutes in friendlies, they played so well and took their opportunities with such gusto that they became genuine first-team options.
Cantwell’s path was slightly different in that he actually had a loan away to help him kick on, but again he returned from that loan, impressed in pre-season as a first-team option, and by the following summer he was a starter.
If we look at the current squad, we’ve got two players now on very similar projected pathways in Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele. Both young Irish internationals have come through various academy grades, and neither have been away on loan, with their maturity and ability seeing Daniel Farke have the confidence to push them straight into first-team contention.
Idah, from his brief first team cameos, has yet to fully convince that he can be the man to pick up Teemu Pukki’s mantle, but Farke has a lot of trust in his ability, and it is clear that at this stage he is very much the number two option in the striking pecking order, which is part of the reason why Jordan Hugill is expected to move on this summer. For the 20-year-old to have earned such trust shows how the squad is evolving and moving our very best young players through the ranks.
Sebastian Soto was surprisingly moved on this summer, having arrived with some fanfare as a soon-to-be American international with a tremendous record at junior level, and with the club having to go through a lot of red tape in January to allow him to be available for the latter half of the season. That he was not tried out in the first team and jettisoned to Porto for a potential permanent move speaks as much to how highly the hierarchy rate Idah, as it does to Farke not liking the look of Soto when Porto clearly do. With Idah in situ, there was no pathway for Soto, so off he went. Which leaves a path for the next young striker.
Omobamidele is a similar story. Not much was expected from him at the start of last season, albeit he was already a well-respected member of the U23’s, and few could have predicted he would have ended up a first-team starter. But he got his chance due to our now traditional yearly centre back injury crisis and took it with aplomb. This year, despite having Hanley and Zimmermann, with Gibson joining on a permanent deal, and the pursuit of Ajer, it looks unlikely Omobamidele will be going anywhere, and if anything, his development may have actually edged him ahead of Zimmermann at this time.
In the same way that Idah saw off Soto, Omobamidele’s emergence has led to the departure of Akin Famewo. Famewo arrived at Carrow Road from the same Luton youth set up that gave us Aarons and Lewis, and was actually the one that came with most expectation of kicking on. His ability to operate in that rarest of positions as a left-sided centre back, coupled with an admirable level of comfort on the ball saw him draw many admirers and he was expected to be the next talent off the conveyor belt into the first team. Timm Klose was particularly effusive in his praise for Famewo’s potential when he left for Basle.
However, despite some impressive performances on loan for St Mirren in the SPL and Charlton in League One, a series of injury niggles prevented him from getting the game time he would have wanted. It’s a sign of the esteem Omobamidele is held in that a player of the pedigree of Famewo has effectively been allowed to leave this week, but again, Omobamidele was in the right place at the right time to take his opportunity, and Famewo has been let go to leave that pathway open for the next youngster to have a crack.
One area where there is a gap in the squad is currently in the number 10 role. Only Kieron Dowell is a specialist there currently. Whilst Cantwell, Rashica, Lees-Milou or even McLean could be expected to do a job there, they are busy with their own roles in an already small squad. The fact that we have let Stiepermann and Vrancic walk leaves us vulnerable to not having adequate cover in the attacking midfield areas.
However, you then look at the development squad, and players like Regan Riley, Tony Springett and Flynn Clarke, and you can see lads that are highly rated who may get chances to get minutes in pre-season in those attacking midfield areas.
If they take their chances whilst squad places are up for grabs, they may have a chance of progressing as Aarons, Lewis and Omobamidele did. Those three all did so at Championship level, and to do so at Premier League level would be an even greater ask. But you get the feeling that Farke would not be afraid to reward those who step through the door marked “Opportunity”.
Watching the squad evolve has been fascinating this summer as Stuart Webber has cleared the decks. Watching to see which young players are given chances to impress in pre-season, especially given how many injury niggles there are in the current squad, could be even more so.