A video of Ben Knapper’s first day will surely be posted on the official channel soon, and we know what to expect.
Neil Adams will show him the wall containing the names of all those who have represented the club. Ben will nod approvingly and say something like, “Nice touch”. They’ll walk through the gym where two or three players will shake his hand before resuming whatever it was they were doing. Making TikToks or YouTube videos, if Onel is in.
Then in to meet the physios and a brief chat with an injured player (take your pick, but my money is on Josh) who will say, “Yeah it’s coming on nicely”. Finally down to Carrow Road to be photographed holding a City scarf, before the closing soundbite, “It’s a great club with a lot of potential and fantastic supporters”.
What people are more interested in, is what he does on Day Two and the upcoming weeks.
Stuart Webber arrived at a very different Colney, as part of a fundamental change to the operating model and complete overhaul of footballing operations. The narrative was carefully managed, with constant reference to ‘the project’ and the need to ‘pay for the sins of the past’, designed to buy patience and time.
Those commodities are now in shorter supply and have been replaced with greater expectation from a fanbase that now better understands the sporting director/head coach model.
Knapper joins us earlier than originally planned and without the prolonged handover with his predecessor, which many expect to signal swift and decisive action. The chance to remove Webber’s man and install his own head coach.
Sacrificing Wagner would be seen by many as a quick win, and long overdue, considering his record, but if he pulls the trigger it has to be part of a carefully crafted plan because Knapper has an advantage not afforded to his predecessor.
He has a predecessor.
There are lessons to learn. Mistakes to rectify and avoid repeating. Successes to emulate and build upon.
Perhaps the most important factor that led to City’s Championship titles was the development of the footballing blueprint. It began with Farke’s philosophy, defining how he wanted the team to play and the attributes needed in each playing position to make it work.
The performance team identified the players within the squad who were a natural fit for the system. The recruitment team was tasked with plugging the gaps and moving on the square pegs. The system was rolled out across each level and age group, with every team playing to the same principles, to create the succession and development plans.
It was meant to create continuity while also supporting the self-funding model.
The issue of course, was that Farke’s possession-based football didn’t deliver results in the Premier League. Not with the players he had at his disposal or those the club could afford. Aside from the glorious victory over Manchester City, Farkeball flopped against bigger, stronger, and better opposition.
The lack of a Plan B led to justifiable criticism but shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering that the whole operation was geared up to play a certain way.
The club tried to adapt the approach for its second crack at the Premier League. Milot Rashica, Christos Tzolis, and Josh Sargent were presumably brought in to provide pace and directness on the counter-attack – an admission that the team was unlikely to dominate possession in the top flight. However, Farke was unable to get a tune out of that squad.
That task was handed to Dean Smith – a man considered to be more flexible and savvy than the outgoing idealogue, and subsequently to David Wagner, whose preferred style is some way removed from Farke’s.
The net result is an unbalanced squad containing players who have been asked to play in a multitude of different systems, positions, and formations and a team that looks uncertain and lacking identity.
It would be interesting to go back in time to tell a young Kenny McLean and his agent that if he signs for City, he will end up as a makeshift centre-back.
But back to Knapper.
His first task is to decide what comes first, the system or the players.
He could dismiss Wagner and appoint a coach that he hopes will be flexible and astute enough to create a cohesive team from the players available.
It might work.
Paul Lambert devised the diamond formation to exploit his own diamond and allow Wes to sparkle. However, recent experience with Dean Smith suggests that you can’t build a Rolls-Royce from our collection of assorted spare parts.
Furthermore, it creates uncertainty over a recruitment strategy that has seemed increasingly disjointed.
“Here you go mate, I’ve bought you a defensive midfielder. We didn’t seem to have one. Can you bolt him into the team”?
While rolling the dice on a new head coach would pacify the restless natives, I’d like to see a return to Plan A.
Not necessarily Farke’s Plan A, but an approach that starts with a defined playing style and the head coach being given the players to exploit it.
It could even be Wagner’s system. Some would argue that his high counter-press would be more effective against better opposition than Farke’s tactics were. That’s not to say that Wagner should remain in post. After all, the model was meant to be resilient enough to account for changes in head coach without ripping up the blueprint.
The decline over the last couple of years means that we’re a long way from dreaming about a return to the top flight, but that has to remain the dream.
If we’re to stand any chance of realising that ambition, there has to be a masterplan beyond sacking the head coach.
As with the ‘Webberlution’, it would require patience and time, relying on the acceptance that it’s a project but also that there are ‘sins of the (more recent) past’ that will need to be paid for first.