Sticking with Daniel Farke last summer,shrewd signings and players buying into the ideas of a collective spirit have lifted the Canaries into the top flight
It was soon after a 3-0 home defeat that people at Norwich started to think they were on the right track. The Canaries had won only one of their first five games, James Maddison and Josh Murphy had been sold in the summer and most of the arrivals were relative unknowns. After a disappointing 14th-place finish last season, the waning faith from the stands in the manager Daniel Farke was understandable.
But afterwards a few Norwich players commented that for the first 30 minutes or so of that game things clicked, and they realised they could play the sort of football that Farke had been talking about since his appointment the previous summer.
A few days later they impressively beat Cardiff in the Carabao Cup, then a draw in the East Anglia derby started a run of one defeat in 19 league games. They were in the top two by the start of November and have only spent a week outside it since. It has been quite a turnaround.
“No, not at all,” Farke says, when asked if he considered changing his approach last summer. “Even last season was a step in the right direction. We were realistic – me, [the sporting director] Stuart Webber, everyone – we knew we wouldn’t press a button and everything would work perfectly.”
While external expectations were low (the Guardian’s pre-season Championship preview did not even mention Norwich, and the fans’ verdict was ‘playoffs at best’), inside the club hopes were a little higher: few thought it would go this well, but they were quietly confident of finishing in the top six.
After a post-season debrief with key figures at the club, faith was kept in Farke despite dissenting voices from the outside. Webber was adamant that Farke wouldn’t go: promotion has vindicated both men and proves patience sometimes pays off. Webber, who joined from Huddersfield shortly before their promotion in 2017, has now repeated the trick of getting an unfancied club into the Premier League thanks to smart scouting and a coach from the Borussia Dortmund system.
They regarded last season as a solid start, something on which to build, but identified what needed to improve. “We were not over the moon last season but also not concerned at all,” says Farke. “We were pretty good in many statistics: we were in the top three in possession, passing accuracy, creating chances, but our problem was shot accuracy, and using big chances.” They have certainly managed that: last season they scored 49 times, a total they managed by mid-January this time, and could double it.
Last summer the task was not necessarily to bring together the best collection of individuals, but gather the right players. Those that did not fit with Farke’s playing needs were shipped out, as were those who were potentially disruptive, including one who wasn’t shy of telling people outside the club that Farke was out of his depth.
The sales of Maddison and Murphy for north of £30m lifted some financial pressure, but because they were replaced by those whose qualities suited Farke’s style more, have not been missed. Emi Buendía, Onel Hernández, Tom Trybull and the top scorer Teemu Pukki – identified through a combination of data, traditional scouting and Farke’s recommendations – were all inspired additions.
If there has been one indispensable player it’s Buendía: Norwich have not won a game without him on the pitch, as one of the buzzing, fluid three behind the striker, swapping positions at such pace that sometimes defences might as well try to mark strobe lighting. Buendía cost £1.5m from Getafe and, as an added bonus, spent last season on loan at Cultural Leonesa, a feeder club for Leeds.
Not far behind him is Pukki, the thick-set Finnish forward signed on a free transfer to little or no fanfare. The initial plan was for him to be a No 10 behind Jordan Rhodes. But he played as a lone striker against Middlesbrough in September, got the winner, and hasn’t stopped scoring since.
But the system is king, not for stubborn ideological reasons, but for the continuity of the side. Norwich’s big strength has been their success almost regardless of personnel, players previously thought to be key replaced without missing a beat.
“At the start of the season Grant Hanley had a big injury and everyone was unbelievably concerned,” says Farke. “Alex Tettey was thought of as crucial at the start of the season but he got injured then Tom Trybull stepped up. Moritz Leitner was labelled as the best midfielder but right now he has to wait. Mario Vrancic was the best player in January now he has to wait. Rhodes was the key man to score goals [at the start of the season] but right now he has to wait until I sub Pukki.”
It is perhaps that atmosphere that has allowed youth to flourish, with homegrown talents like Ben Godfrey, Jamal Lewis and in particular Max Aarons slotting in like seasoned veterans, but also facilitated their remarkable habit of scoring late in games.
A whopping 30 goals have come after the 75-minute mark, 33% of their total: the average for the league is 23.5%. Those goals have been worth 19 points, the difference between first and sixth place. On Boxing Day they trailed Nottingham Forest 3-1 after 90 minutes, but created six chances in injury-time and scored twice. Against Millwall in November they took the lead in the 79th minute, quickly conceded twice before Rhodes and Pukki scored in the 92nd and 97th minutes. They are relentless, in creating chances and pressing until the very last.
“I don’t like vanity in the dressing room,” says Farke. “Everyone accepts that the group and the team is bigger than the individual. I’ve worked a long time in football, and to have this atmosphere is outstanding and I can’t praise them enough. It’s a great joy to be able to work with this group of players.”
Who knows whether this approach will work in the Premier League. Webber has said they won’t make big signings so they will, at least in theory, avoid a Fulham-like mess. But Farke and Norwich have already achieved this against the odds, so you would not write them off.