A Pandora’s Box. That’s our squad.
Players tactically incompatible with others. Strength missing where strength is needed. Pace absent where it is expected. Players too good to drop, or better than their peers, but played out of position. A squad built for 4-2-3-1 which is no longer played. Some summer recruitment that has raised more questions than answers.
Ultimately, when Dean Smith speaks to Stuart Webber, there may be some uncomfortable truths spoken about this squad. However, as long as we stay in touch with those above us, we have a chance of survival.
S&S have now seen every player except Zimbo and will know what they need in January. In this article, I’ll offer my opinion on what I expect.
Dean Smith is making publicly encouraging statements, occasionally name-dropping to inspire some confidence in certain players but I suspect he already knows their qualities and limitations.
The buzzword going forward should be ‘effectiveness’, well before anyone considers pure talent. S&S won’t care for individual brilliance if there is a forfeit across the rest of the pitch. They won’t be shoe-horning in attacking talent if there is a defensive consequence.
Let’s take Teemu Pukki who (factually) misses more than he scores. It doesn’t matter because in this squad, he is effective. Grant Hanley is error-prone, but as a fast accelerating athlete, who is extremely strong and who is a leader. His effectiveness in defence is unquestionable.
Max Aarons cannot loft a cross and scores very few, he is beaten in the air but he is effective. Kenny McLean has less ability on the ball, but his running stamina makes him more effective than any other midfield player. Not as talented as Mathias Normann, but over a season he will play 40 games of 90 minutes. Effectiveness.
Continuing to name names, Pierre Lees-Melou may possibly be off-loaded, which sometimes happens when both parties know the standard of this league is beyond a player. City have to look at long-term viability in central midfield, players appropriate to either the Championship or the Premier League. We know Normann won’t stay if we are relegated, and aside from PLM, that presently leaves only McLean, Lukas Rupp and Jacob Sorensen..
The brilliant Normann is the only complete Premier League midfielder that we have but he is also only the bare minimum standard. This is a team game and without the right players around him, even Normann has limits.
I also wonder if the club will consider pennies to the pound for Todd Cantwell. Don’t misunderstand me about Todd, he is a brilliant player and I do not imply he will be sold on the cheap because of issues, I simply mean that S&S now fully understands this Pandora’s box. City cannot afford to offload Milot Rashica or Christos Tzolis because they were record transfers and on brand new contracts, yet they occupy a similar role to Todd (and Dowell and Placheta and Onel).
All of these players could be hard to offload because they are unproven in these leagues and I would love Todd to stay and thrive under S&S, but the only way that I see it happening tactically is with a variation of a front three, which consequently means only a midfield two and a plethora of players being dropped and others in sub-optimal positions. Todd is hard to incorporate into a relegation-threatened team.
Goal scoring is the glaring deficiency in our squad. Can we afford a lone striker that is better than Pukki so we can play our attacking midfielders? Of course not.
Can we afford Emi Buendia when we’ve already spent so much to replace him? Of course not.
Can Norwich afford a midfielder that scores 10-15 goals per season from midfield? Of course not. Even if we did, would we then have a defensive anchor to underpin such a player? Nope. There are lots of pieces missing in this puzzle. The obvious choice is to play a second striker within our budget.
S&S will be fully aware that we need to include a second striker from January, someone, perhaps, like Kenian Davis, but the moment such a plan goes into action, there is an imposition on the remaining outfield players and base formation, which is where we would struggle to include Cantwell.
With two strikers, a midfield three becomes a midfield pair unless you play 3-5-2 and forgo every single attacking midfielder, including Rashica, for example. With a midfield pair, Normann and McLean become a default partnership because they are literally the only players with running stamina and strength, which is a pre-requisite in the role. Not ideal but I suspect Dean Smith knows.
Consider our left flank: Brandon Williams can barely stand on his left foot let alone kick with it, Rashica always cuts back to cross with his right foot when he’s played on the left, Dimitri Gianoullis is not the best defender, and Sorenson is a central midfielder without the pace and acceleration to play as a left fullback at this level.
Also, Cantwell isn’t a left-winger, he’s a #10, Dowell neither defends well enough nor has pace, Placheta isn’t to standard and Tzolis is not yet ready, although he clearly has raw ability. So, along the left flank, S&S have five or six players and none of whom is a round peg for a round hole.
All those transfers in the summer and no left-sided combinations for this standard but I suspect Dean Smith now knows.
On the right, Bali Mumba, Sam Byram and Max Aarons all play where Williams should rightfully be playing, and that kid loves to get forward and brings a tenacity otherwise absent from the squad. Yet Aarons is critical to the functioning of the team. Except for Rashica, who presently plays on the left, there is nobody that is arguably suited to a right-sided attacking role.
Can you imagine how effective Williams playing behind Aarons would be? Yes, pushing Aarons into an attacking role on the right flank whilst retaining his defensive instinct as well as the tenacity of Williams too? Nobody would get anywhere near us down the right. Couple those two with Hanley and Normann on the right side of defence and midfield, and that looks hard to beat and will create chances.
As a result, we could make the right side 100% effective instead of making do, without spending a penny.
On the left, things are more complicated. McLean, yeap, Rashica cutting inside to shoot or an in-swinging cross towards the back post? Possibly. But a fullback and left-footed centre-back with acceleration and turning pace, and the brute strength needed? Gianoullis and Gibson are still contentious to me but those two positions are easier to fill than the other, expensive considerations across the squad.
My point is we currently need to spend money on both flanks but with some lateral thinking, the spending could be confined to rejigging only the left side, which would be a more affordable proposition.
S&S are operating in a damage limitation exercise until January. The tactical improvements so far are about shape and organisation but I suspect it won’t be long before Pukki is isolated, Williams is turned inside out and Gibson is left on the floor. They are using a squad engineered for a different style of football and that is not sustainable.
Thanks to Pandora’s Box, the January window won’t necessarily be glamorous but I 100 percent believe in S&S and I think at the end of January we will see a very different squad. In my view, there will be a few significant changes but just maybe not where people expect them to be.