I’m not here to rubbish the pessimists about Norwich City’s prospects.
How could I be? The facts are stark: six played, six lost. Yes, we had the toughest starting fixtures imaginable – but we’ve also been beaten, convincingly, at home by Watford.
Whatever the strengths of our squad, they haven’t thus far played with a style or conviction that would give a rational person confidence about our survival.
We haven’t, as they say, got our act together.
A lot of City fans, therefore, seem to be nodding in sage agreement with Mark Lawrenson’s assessment that “They [City] have got absolutely no chance of staying up”.
Given the stats, this is no time for a Boris Johnson-style bluster that all’s well.
Perhaps, though, I may tentatively question the dismissal, after six games, of any possibility that we’ll finish outside the bottom three.
It’s a tough gig to be positive, of course, when even our editor Gary – by nature a model of balance and perspective – says “It’s hard to recall a time when City have been in the top flight and things have felt quite so grim”.
As Glenn Hoddle might say: I get it, I really do.
That said, I wonder if we should maybe consider two questions with as cool a head as we can muster. If the answers are no, then we’re in big trouble and the pessimists can hardly be questioned. But if there’s reasonable doubt…
- Is our squad stronger than two years ago?
- Is there reason to believe it may perform better in the months ahead than it has so far?
Even the pessimists acknowledge the depth we’ve added to the squad. We’ve lost the small stature but big presence of Emi, of course; more on that later.
In addition to making permanent the signings of Gibson and Giannoulis, though, we’ve added Gunn, Gilmour, Rashica, Tzolis, Lees-Melou, Williams, Sargent, Kabak and Normann – all genuine options for our starting XI.
The sheer number of signings presents a challenge, though – as does the fact that some key ones could only be secured late in the window, after the start of the season.
That challenge was illustrated by the Watford game. Six of our starters were signings from the just-closed window – including three making their first starts, two of whom Farke had only had with his group for a week.
There may be managers who could make that XI look like a well-oiled unit, but I think they’re few and far between. Other clubs – including Watford and Brentford – haven’t had to deal with that scale of change, exacerbated by a stop-start pre-season.
It’s an important and fair criticism – voiced eloquently by Gary and others – that our play in the first six games has lacked the kind of clear identity we’re used to. I wonder, though, whether fans are right to assume that the loss is long-term.
It surely has something to do with the influx of new players – and the one we’ve lost. I’m not au fait with the detail of Buendia’s leaving. What I do know is (i) we didn’t want to lose him, but (ii) we weren’t going to stand in the way of a player who was committed to taking an opportunity of a big career step, as he clearly was.
It’s no exaggeration to say our play last year was built around Emi. No other player’s departure could be said to disrupt our identity, but no one could dispute that his did. With no direct replacement open to us, we’re trying to find the best way to re-shape ourselves and recreate the fluency of last season.
We have options, far more than previously. But Farke must have cursed the Covid disruption to our pre-season, as well as the unavoidable lateness of key signings and the lack of non-Prem games for experimentation. His ideas have had to adjust, then jump straight from the training ground into high-pressure games. Not his preferred way.
The bad start has ratcheted up the pressure, of course. If I’m to suggest that Farke may get the group to gel and create an effective identity, I need to offer more than wishful thinking.
So I offer this thought: last time in the Prem, many in the game expressed the view that our football was good enough but our players weren’t. We largely kept the group that had won promotion, so the style was familiar and well-drilled but we didn’t have the savvy, physicality and quality to make it effective against top-flight opposition.
This time is different. We have more and better players, at the expense of continuity. We were always likely to look disjointed in early games. The question’s whether Daniel Farke can galvanise a team and bring fluency to it – and whether he can do it in time.
In the four years he’s been at Norwich, we’ve got to know Farke and his capabilities. He’s made mistakes, but he’s got more than one team to gel from modest ingredients. He’s a cool head, a good learner and a smart coach. That’s why we ran away with the Championship last year, and why we rejoiced at his contract extension in the summer.
Because of Farke’s capability, time together will make a significant difference to the performance of our team. The other thing that will bolster belief and confidence, of course, is the first win. However it feels right now, that win will come; let’s just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
A friend encouraged me to write a (relatively) positive piece here about City, in part because “you’ll give them a learned quote”. Well, not this time. Instead, I’ll turn to Mathias Normann this week:
“I believe in the boss’s project. I need to get used to the intensity and tempo of the Premier League; I’m getting there. We have quality players – I’m only looking forward to what’s coming because 100% we will turn this around together.”
I think he believes it. I think it’s possible.
With 96 points to play for, let’s not lose the faith just yet.