The real test of whether Norwich City can survive in the top flight begins at Carrow Road tomorrow.
Before we come back and expand on that, a brief detour to Watford – the club closest to where I live, though not to my heart.
My Watford-supporting friends assure me I’m safe to write this column. I won’t, as last year, have to tear it up and start again because The Hornets have changed their manager.
Between gritted teeth, I have to admit: though chopping and changing managers rarely succeeds, Watford seem to have it down to a fine art.
The biggest illustration is last December, when they sacked a reigning Manager of the Month to bring in Xisco Munoz. His record for the rest of the season was W19, D3, L5: 60 points from 27 games, equivalent to 100 points for a full season.
No wonder he’s safe (for now).
During the summer window, Watford was positively tranquil compared to Norwich. One major signing is midfielder Imran Louza (for £9million from Nantes), replacing Will Hughes who’s moved across the Thames to Palace.
Their most important piece of business, surely, was keeping winger Ismaila Sarr – a player who’s caused problems to many teams in addition to City. (Over to you, Brandon Williams.)
This game and the next few, though, are really about Norwich City.
Our destiny won’t be determined by how we fare against Liverpool, Man City, Leicester and Arsenal. It will hinge on how we do against Watford, Burnley, Southampton, Palace and the like.
Saturday isn’t a must-win game – no game in September could possibly be called that. But it will be a test, not least a physical one.
Watford have ‘doubled’ us in both of the past two seasons, just as Burnley (who we visit in a couple of weeks) doubled us last time in the Prem. Both out-muscled us.
That point is part of the reason for my headline and opening sentence. As Stuart Webber acknowledged in the summer, we needed to beef up if we’re to compete effectively this time.
The signings of Tzolis, Sargent, Rashica and Gilmour are exciting but don’t achieve the need for extra muscle and aggression. If we hadn’t secured a strong defensive midfielder and a powerful central defender, it would have been hard to feel optimistic about our chances.
The final days of the window, though, saw us tick both boxes with Mathias Normann and Ozan Kabak.
Their late arrival in Norwich precluded any sensible introduction of them at Arsenal but Daniel Farke will have been delighted to have a proper week to prepare for Watford. Given those two players’ qualities and the reasons we signed them, it will be a surprise if we don’t see their debuts on Saturday.
They’ll be pivotal, surely, to our chances – not just on Saturday, but from here to May.
Normann’s arrival should allow Billy Gilmour – who also couldn’t start against Arsenal because of his international exertions – to play further forward. We’ll appreciate his creativity in that position as we continue to try and fill a Buendia-shaped hole.
The greater defensive solidity I expect to see as Kabak and Normann settle into the team should generally give our attackers more scope to express themselves. I’m expecting the talented Milot Rashica to be increasingly effective.
Some guarded optimism, then, about our prospects going forward. It may not all click straightaway, but I’m looking for a significant haul of points from the next ten games.
The immediate uncertainties and unknowns make me reluctant to predict Saturday’s outcome. But I will anyway, of course – it can’t be any worse than my usual track record of forecasts.
City to break the recent Watford hoodoo, then. Norwich 2 Watford 1.
Colin M says
There’s every chance Saturday’s team could have an almost completely different look about it, with only Max surviving from the ‘established’ x1 of last term. Unlikely, yes but a possibility. Part of me hopes for this as we can then present a new challenge to our opposition, Watford would be the perfect acid test as you suggest Stewart.
The previous squad was not good enough, we know that. Farke is too good to fall into the same trap twice, we may fall into a different one of course but I’m right behind the new lads, it could just be fun watching this season develop in the opposite direction from our previous P L campaign. A slow start followed by a strong finish would be so welcome.
It’s only mid-September but much optimism remains.
Bernard Owen says
Kabak and Obomomidele to start at centre back, now there’s a thought.
Err, tranquil? Watford have a new front line and a new midfield:
In: King, Dennis, Fletcher, Baah, Kucka, Tufan, Louza, Sissoko, Etebo, Rose.
Out: Deeney, Gray, Success, Perica, Chalobah, Quina, Hughes, Navarro, Zinckernagel, Dele-Bashiru, Sanchez, Lazaar.
Alex B says
In an article yesterday many people suggested team selection and a few completely missed Gilmour saying we don’t have the right players to get the best out of him and others saying his inclusion weakens other areas of the team.
Many clubs according to the papers were after this young man I dread to think city joined this list because everyone else wanted him but some of the comments in the last weeks seem to drift that way.
Hughes, Deeney, Gray all with lots of premiership experience and know how, are we seeing not only the changing of the old guard but possible style as well but they gained experience by recruiting Rose and Sissoco into their ranks from Spurs both like to attack opposition teams.
Will we see any changing of cities guard and I might suggest that neither Gibson or Dimitrios hasn’t had much game time both could be very unhappy sitting on a bench cheering on the team all season and hoping injuries give them a chance to shine
Midfield Mike says
Personally, I think City got Gilmour after watching the England Scotland game because they were failing to get any other transfer targets at all. Our club, they play a calm game, and local media and fans generally take what they say as god’s honest truth. But they are savvy. I don’t believe City wanted to wait until AFTER the Euros to do business because then our targets would be on the radar to everyone else and after a good Euros, prices would have been driven up. I’m afraid, for me, Gilmour was a bit of a panic (I don’t wish to sound sensationalist about it) because no other players had been signed up. He’s a great game changer to have on our side, he is a player that can facilitate formation changes from the bench, but not from the start.
In the summer pre-season we setup with a 3 man backline and you don’t do that if you intend to get a guy like Gilmour and build around him…. the only formation then becomes 3-5-2 and of course, Tzolis, Rashica, Cantwell, Dowell…. all these players LIKELY drop out with that system, so we wouldn’t have bought them for millions.
I’ve just listened to DF passionately defending Pukki. Please DF, it isn’t the fans getting on his back, it is YOUR system rendering him utterly ineffective. As we are told Sarjent will be unfit, I would setup as follows:
Tzolis Pukki Cantwell
Williams McLean Normann Aarons
Kabak Hanley Andy O
with Gilmour (in 3-4-1-2), Rashica and Gibson all interchangeable and Sarjent to come on in the second half.
Stewart Lewis says
Thanks, Mike. My understanding is that the deal for Gilmour to come to Norwich – agreed between Farke and Tuchel who know each other well from Dortmund days – was agreed well before that England-Scotland game.
David Bowers says
I’ve never really bought into this idea of ‘the season starts here’. They were always going to be hard games, but we shouldn’t consider them an extended pre-season.
The last time we survived in the PL with Hughton we took points (including Wins) off Manchester United, Man City, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Everton. All top 7 teams.
Under Lambert we took points off Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal (all top 7 teams).
Even under Alex Neil’s relegation season we took points off of Liverpool, Arsenal, Man U, and Man City.
Why are we so negative about our own team?
We need 10 wins and 10 draws (or a similar combination to reach approx. 40pts). We’re not getting to 40pts without taking points off the top teams. So far we’ve played nearly a quarter of our matches against (probable) top 10 teams and achieved zero points. We can and must do better.
Stewart Lewis says
Dave: my main point was that the two most crucial signings to make us competitive – Normann and Kabak – were sealed at the end of the window, so it’s only now that they’re available with any preparation time. The set-up we clearly want, with Normann’s presence allowing Gilmour to take a more creative role, will be possible for the first time tomorrow.
It’s generally less than 40 points required for survival. With the now-complete squad, I’ll be surprised if we don’t take a few points from the top teams. But could we survive without taking any? Absolutely.
Midfield Mike says
Hi Stewart, interesting that you said “the system we want is Normann to hopefully free up Gilmour to create”. The fallout would be either 3-5-2 or continued 4-3-3, because of the need for another central midfielder. Unless you might be thinking of 3-4-1-2? That’s very exciting but leaves only 2 real goalscorers in the entire 11 and to choose only 2 from Pukki, Sarjent, Idah, Cantwell, Tzolis, Rashica and Dowell seems like a waste.
I think to play 4-3-3 against Watford’s two banks of 4, in 4-1-4-1, is a risk. Our fullbacks might not be able to get forward against Watford and our 3 midfielders will be stretched with the natural width Watford have, leaving Gilmour with a physical responsibility and a need for him to sit deeper, mitigating the point of Normann allowing more freedom for Billy.
HOWEVER, Watford are there for the taking, period. This should be the easiest game of the season for us, at home to a team that has had big changes in the summer, and in my opinion is a shadow of the team last season. They aren’t a push over but they are not yet organised, are re-building with new players, just like us, so this is the big chance to get the first win. Although I would have baulked at 4-3-3 against the Hornets from 6 months ago, it might well be the time to play them and 4-3-3 maybe viable. It should be a cracking game. But if we don’t get a win, DF really needs to look at himself in the mirror with his tactics rather than talk about fans being involved 100% of the time, and not 95%.
Pukki isn’t getting grief from fans, his lack of opportunities is what is causing frustration, and that is not down to the Finn but is a consequence of the system.
But above all else, this should be an open, crazy game of attacking football. 4-0 to Norwich, if DF sets up to attack attack attack!
Inside Right says
The season started at the same time as everybody else and to write off the first few games as many have is something that is beyond me. Traditionally – or at least at home – Norwich City took points off the big clubs to why this season should be any different.
Much depends on who plays tomorrow. If it is mere tinkering, then expect the consequences. However, if some of the latest signings can make a difference – that is after all what they’ve been brought in to do – then hopefully we can get 3 points on the board and move on.
As an aside, I was alarmed by Farke’s defence of Pukki on the basis that he could have left the club after relegation. That is no reason to keep Pukki or anyone else in the side. Loyalty was a thing of the past in football and all Farke should be interested in is getting results and nothing more.
Alex B says
I agree that the season started with the first game and those saying any game is a free hit haven’t a clue.
We must try and see every game as a possibility to get points on the board we haven’t the resources to play catch up.
So far city haven’t been cut adrift with a few having a bad start but will the clubs we expect to be in and around us come the end of the season consider that playing any of the top 6 are free hits, no that’s 36 points written off before a ball has been kicked that is a poor strategy