If you’re reading this you’re already enough of a part of the online #NCFC community to have found the MFW site, and so more than likely you’ll be at least regularly aware of the ongoing message boards and Twitter hashtags around #NCFC.
While there is good fun, humour and comradeship to be found amongst City supporters online, there is also enough nonsense, bile and spite to keep a team of mental health specialists busy for an entire career.
The current schizoid fracture in the world of Canaries fans is over the state of the squad. Apparently, the perceived wisdom is that you either have to be a blinkered puppet of the club or a pant-wetting panicker regarding what you make of Norwich’s progress this summer. Alternatively, you could regard yourself as a true fan and supporter by preaching patience, or be a short-memoried underminer of the gospel of St Stuart.
Ultimately, a lot of it relies on perception, and nearly all of it is total b*llocks, as with virtually everything online.
We are at a crunch point of pre-season in terms of the squad building. I won’t add further to the very eloquent points Gary made in his piece, suffice to say the Covid call-offs haven’t helped us one bit.
We knew in May that our newly-minted Championship champions would need to be reinforced if we were to make a better stab at staying in the Premier League than they did last time. Since then we’ve lost Emi Buendia and Oliver Skipp, our two most successful ball-winners, and in Buendia and Mario Vrancic, two of our three biggest creators of chances last season. If Todd Cantwell leaves as well for the hat-trick, we certainly won’t be as good as we were last season, let alone improved to meet the Premier League challenge, unless we make some seriously impressive additions.
But we have made signings. Angus Gunn solved any worries we had with goalkeeping depth in one fell swoop. Billy Gilmour will be a major player for us this season and may well be a key figure in replacing some of the chance creation we have lost, even if he doesn’t quite match Skipp or Buendia’s ball-winning. Milot Rashica is a pace option with some positional flexibility that looks to be an upgrade over Hernandez/Placheta rather than a direct replacement for Emi. And Pierre Lees-Melou has already made a great impression in friendlies for his technically astute and physically imposing style. It has been far from doom and gloom for the majority of the summer.
However, in any walk of life or business, if you give someone a big project over a period of ten weeks, you monitor how they’re doing. Obviously, the real analysis of their performance won’t come until the end of the project, but you’d be keeping up to date with the successes and failures, and you’d be looking for signs that the project is at least on track.
Stuart Webber has a lot of credit in the bank with Norwich supporters, and he’s built two teams that have blitzed the Championship. He also had a really poor summer transfer window the last time we were in the Premier League when he had to deal with recruiting a higher level of player to the football club. As admired as he is, his track record isn’t spotless. I think a certain amount of concerned oversight is probably appropriate.
So in terms of his ten-week project to get Norwich ready for the Premier League, he started reasonably well. Gunn was an easy tick in the box of “just what we needed” and sorted out one question mark for a position within the squad immediately. By week four or five, Rashica, Lees-Melou and Gilmour had been added, and we certainly felt like we’d brought in some value and quality.
Fast forward to week eight of the 10-week project and with no further additions, and we have to question whether this project is going to get completed on time.
As pleasing as the new signings were, it would be folly to suggest that any had properly filled any of the holes we had in the squad. Rashica is not expected to create chances like Emi, but to help finish them, so we are still short of that playmaker. Gilmour and Lees-Melou can both play in the double six position but are not going to shield the defence like Skipp or Tettey did and are more likely upgrades on McLean and Vrancic.
We still have holes at left-back, central defence, defensive midfield, creative midfield/number ten, winger and striker to fill. We may now also need to replace Cantwell.
Those highlighting that we have made the second most signings in the league so far are, by counting Under-23 additions that are unlikely to feature in the first-team squad this year, really only fooling themselves.
And while there is time before Liverpool, and certainly before the window closes to add the players we need, it becomes more difficult by the day.
Firstly prices go up. As much as we would want a premium for Todd because we have little time to replace him, we’d need that premium because we’d then have to go and buy another club’s star player and they’d want more money to do the same with another gem further down the footballing pyramid and so on and so on.
Secondly, from a purely logistical point of view, we could go out and sign the most promising three or four continental superstars next week and they wouldn’t be ready for Liverpool. That’s primarily because of the time they’d need to quarantine for when coming into the country, and also because very few players are capable of dropping straight into Farkeball on day one. Even Emi needed a month or two to learn the system.
Despite the screeches of the Twitterati, nobody is calling for Webber’s head, or ruling him out of completing his recruitment project before the window closes. However, the reality is that we’re not going to be in a good place by the time we meet Liverpool.
A simple headcount amongst the squad will show that we’re not going to be overly blessed with bench options for that game and while it’s not quite severe enough for the likes of Dan Adshead and Jonathan Tomkinson to have to step up, there will be fringe senior squad players that we kind of hoped wouldn’t be that close to the first team who will be there.
While we’re not quite writing off the first three games of a 38-game season, we are giving ourselves a massive hill to climb.
We also need to be aware that new players require time to settle, both on and off the field. For every Teemu Pukki that hits the ground running, there are Vrancic’s that need time to adjust. And there are also Marcel Franke’s and Patrick Roberts’s that can’t adjust.
Fair play to those preaching patience and faith, I genuinely hope you turn out to be right. And while I don’t think it’s at panic stations yet, we are looking increasingly adrift of where the squad needs to be going into the season.
I’m confident that Tim Krul will be good in goal. I’m confident that IF they can stay fit Ben Gibson and Grant Hanley will be adequate. I’m confident that Max will be better equipped than last time if he’s still here, and I’m confident that Teemu will still score goals if he’s not run into the ground and is given decent service.
Beyond that, I think everything is a question mark.
Do we have a midfield player that can stop the opposition running straight at the middle of our defence, and a player that can cover if he gets injured?
Do we have someone who can replace the goals and assists of Emi Buendia?
Do we have a number ten to compete with, and provide cover for, Kieran Dowell whose injury record isn’t spotless?
Do we have PL ready cover for Giannoulis, Hanley or Gibson, who have spent all pre-season injured?
The answer to all of those is currently a resounding no. As it is to the questions of whether we are better prepared than we were for our last PL campaign, or than we were at the end of last season.
I’m sure Stuart Webber is working hard. And he may be about to drag several impressive rabbits out of hats. Nobody should throw in the towel just yet.
But I think a healthy concern at this stage is probably more of a logical step than blind faith.