Norwich also recovering after slow start - Interview
Friday, 21st Sep 2018 09:42 by Clive Whittingham
Two for the price of one this week as we preview Norwich’s visit on Saturday with Connor Southwell from MyFootballWriter and Jon Punt from Along Came Norwich.
Norwich seem to have gone into a bit of a steady decline since Premier League relegation - is that fair and why is it happening?
CS: That’s a fair comment. Norwich have found it difficult upon their return to the Championship. Initially, they attempted to replicate the journey undertaken by Burnley and stick with their manager in Alex Neil in hope of retaining consistency to build again. Neil had lost the dressing room prior to the season beginning and spent money on the likes of Alex Pritchard whilst keeping hold of a lot of key protagonists in Robbie Brady, Jonny Howson and Timm Klose. They put a lot of faith in Neil and backed him to get the squad straight back up.
Worth noting Norwich appointed ex-Wolves tyrant Jez Moxey as CEO. Moxey was only at the club six months in a destructive spell that included in-house interviews, a refusal to meet fan groups and insisting the aim was ‘promotion, promotion, promotion’ Ultimately that faith quickly evaporated, and Norwich languished in the middle region of the table by the time he was dismissed. Quite remarkable considering they were top in October.
After Neil’s dismissal, it was about exploring an altogether different approach, one which was so reliant upon an omnipotent CEO and manager overseeing all football decisions. In came Stuart Webber from Huddersfield as sporting director, who is responsible for overseeing the sporting side of the business whilst MD Steve Stone oversees the business and corporate side. Ultimately, it was designed to freshen up Norwich City and prepare for the brutality of parachute payments disappearing. Norwich were on the brink of financial crisis, but are now saved, so to an extent, from that point of view, this restructure has been successful.
JP: I think it’s fair to use the term steady decline, sadly that’s evidenced by the numbers. Where it’s gone wrong is difficult to pinpoint. The more ‘pitchforky’ of our supporters would point to the current ownership model. The fact Delia and Michael just aren’t in a financial position to pump millions into the club endlessly is often a source of fierce debate. But then we know money won’t just buy you the league. It will help, but there are more examples of where wealthy owners have created chaos than there are real success stories.
The real source of the issue probably lies in our failed Premier League gamble. Under Alex Neil in the January window we looked like we had a fair chance of staying in the league and bolstered the squad with big money signings to secure our status. Unfortunately for us, those signings consisted of Matt Jarvis (after a previous loan spell), Steven Naismith and Timm Klose. The latter two players came with sizeable fees and even more sizeable wages. It’s crippled us since, and has meant we’ve had to sell our best and brightest to just break even. Fortunately it seems we’re now coming to the end of those contractual cycles, which should mean City can financially stand on their own two feet without multiple sales each summer.
How would you assess Daniel Farke's first season in English football?
CS: Difficult. He was expected to bring a German efficiency and philosophy that would be easily identifiable when Norwich took to the pitch. This philosophy centres around a pragmatic, possession-based core whereby statistics and dominating through numbers is critical. Essentially, Farke believes that if you, say, have a series of shots and keep doing that, eventually you’ll score. It’s a logical pragmatism that, theoretically, should replicate into success on the pitch.
Instead, Norwich lack personality and spontaneity as a result. Every phase of play seems choreographed, so there is little off-the-cuff football from Norwich which has been restrictive. Farke learnt pretty quickly that operating with purely technical players simply won’t work in this division and it requires steel at times. A 4-0 drubbing at The Den last season saw Alex Tettey reinstated from the cold and Grant Hanley purchased. Most supporters are demanding improvement and progression from the unentertaining lateral football seen for the majority of last season. Fair to say they are still waiting, and the mood is beginning to turn.
JP: That’s a tricky one. On one hand, Farke had to deal with the likes of Jonny Howson, Alex Pritchard, Jacob Murphy and Graham Dorrans all departing without really being adequately replaced. His hand was weakened to an extent that it wouldn’t be fair to compare him to his predecessor. On the other, the implementation of his brand of football has taken time, and arguably didn’t really create much excitement last term. The play was too lateral, lacked tempo and relied heavily on the talents of James Maddison. Luckily Mr Maddison was ridiculously talented and got us out of jail on a number of occasions. The jury is definitely out, but given the aforementioned departures, wholesale changes from top to bottom and City having to continually cut their cloth, he probably achieved around a par score. It’s just that as fans our expectations are usually loftier than the reality of the situation.
What went on over the summer? Some big money departures, how have they been replaced? How's the money been spent?
CS: Supporters were prepared for the exit of James Maddison. That was inevitable considering the way he waltzed around with ease at this level, it’s no surprise to any Norwich supporter that he’s shining in the Premier League. Josh Murphy’s departure was surprising. Cardiff came in with an offer that was extremely high considering Murphy’s ability. Any bid in excess of £10m is going to be considered in their current financial situation, but it wasn’t money they planned for and allowed them to revisit the squad.
Essentially, last season was Norwich’s last with parachute payments. Their income dropped from £28m to £8m, creating a hole of about £20m to fill, hence why Norwich haven’t reinvested that money because it’s ensured the stability of the club long term. That particular issue has now been resolved.
You can’t replace Maddison with the level of money Norwich have at present. Norwich’s current recruitment policy is to avoid the inflated prices in the UK and seek cheaper alternatives with the same quality for half the price. They also enjoy signing players who have lost their way in their careers, see Tim Krul, Jordan Rhodes, Mo Leitner and Tom Trybull. The positive of this idea is you get players who possess unbelievable quality. On the contrary, their consistency is questionable and Norwich have certainly witnessed that to date.
The fact Norwich became the first ever Championship side to field a side without an English player graphically illustrates this. The downside is the bedding in period they have to endure which can slow progress. It’s a double-edged sword really.
JP: Maddison and Murphy have moved on for huge fees, exceeding my expectations in terms of the amount of zeros on the cheques we’ve cashed. Our Sporting Director Stuart Webber seems able to extract decent money for our talent, which has been a necessity. The last of the big contracts are coming to an end and the books are balanced, at least for now. So hopefully regular sales are a thing of the past.
In terms of replacements, it’s been more about creating a better balanced squad. That has meant the arrival of Teemu Pukki and Jordan Rhodes to bolster our frontline and both have been in the goals so far. City have also had to replace the departing loanee Angus Gunn and have opted for the experienced Tim Krul. His start has been shaky, but it looks like his confidence is gradually returning now the Dutchman is back to playing regular football.
Only one league win in the first month, but six points this week. Not the best start. Any concerns? What do you put it down to?
CS: (Written prior to two victories this week) Plenty of concerns among supporters, for sure. I think it’s something like five wins from 23 games under Farke. The cracks from the supporters are beginning to show, there was a call for patience but now, without witnessing seismic progression in a year, frustration is beginning to be aimed at the head coach. Even internally, there are questions being asked. Farke has a big September ahead of him should he aspire to keep his job, games against yourselves, Reading and Wigan seem huge for his short-term future. Dare I say it, Norwich probably warrant more than the five points suggest. Farke has struggled to discover equilibrium since his arrival, when Norwich look potent offensively they struggle defensively and vice versa. Norwich look devoid of confidence with every loss in all honesty, their pass success percentage has decreased in every fixture.
JP: (Written after them) If you’d have asked a couple of games ago, panic stations were starting to set it around Carrow Road. Football is a results based business, points are valuable currency and Farke just wasn’t finding ways to win games when performances were generally ok. A tonking against Leeds aside, we’ve been actually been pretty decent and have started to show signs of becoming a greater attacking threat than the one we posed last season. Wins against Boro and Reading have been achieved with a new found balance to the side, something City have struggled with for some time. If that continues then we can start to look upwards.
How are the fans with the board and the manager currently?
CS: Regarding Farke, the mood is changing with every fixture. He’s undoubtedly improved players and added zeros to the prices of players departing, which was what Norwich needed last season, but regarding the construction of a team, huge question marks remain. Presented as the protagonist to change the fortunes of a club in decline, Farke has merely accelerated that process. Norwich’s form and level of performance needs to increase, or they run the risk of being sucked into a relegation scrap. His contract expires at the end of the season, so there is that element to it too.
Ah, the seemingly never-ending debate regarding ownership…
Norwich are unique in the sense they attempt to be a self-sustaining model, so the owners don’t pump in the money because they don’t have that available to them. Norwich basically have what they make, which is why there was trouble after the conclusion of the parachute payments. However, Norwich is debt-free at present after the sale of Maddison. Although that will be for a short-term period. They very much must sell to buy and have now begun to place a huge emphasis on their academy as a tool of sourcing talent to sell on, Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons are the living examples of this. Nobody wants to buy Norwich City at present, so they are forced to deal with the hand they are dealt. Although criticism will continue to arrive at the door of majority shareholders Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones for as long as they don’t actively seek external investment.
JP: The fanbase is fairly split on the board, not because they don’t appreciate what Delia and Michael did for the club, but because the kind of money now being thrown around means we can’t compete, at least in financial terms. So we’ve done things differently. We’re placing an emphasis on bringing academy products through, complemented by imports from the continent, which offers a bit more value. The recruitment itself has been astute, but we’re no longer a bigger fish in the Championship pond and supporters’ mindsets are having to adjust accordingly.
Popular opinion was starting to turn against Farke given our indifferent start, but it’s amazing what a couple of decent consecutive wins can do for people. Suddenly we’re only two points off the top six and people can start to be optimistic. That said, we’re still only ever a couple of results away from toys being thrown from collective prams. I’d hazard a guess that it’s the same up and down the country.
Is there a bit of a danger that you're trying to replicate what Huddersfield did with Wagner, but Wagner was/is just an exceptional manager and Farke isn't?
CS: From the outside, it’s an obvious comparison considering the methodology Norwich have opted to use since their success under Wagner and Webber. Although it feels more sustainable here, Norwich are attempting to develop a profitable youth system, exploring a niche market which will prove successful and low risk in regard to recruitment and they philosophy of both coaches are lightyears apart. Whilst Farke may not be the answer, and on the current evidence, it’s difficult to say he is, then that Head Coach role is dispensable. Essentially, this is Stuart Webber’s project ad Daniel Farke is merely the driver. Webber has been an impressive figure and undertaken a lot of successful work since his appointment. Progressing the academy, constantly backing talent and cutting the cloth accordingly, Webber’s job has been nothing short of miraculous from a financial point of view. Norwich now need to see the fruits of their labour on the pitch however, because Barry from Dereham who has a season ticket isn’t fussed about new academy buildings or cut wages, he wants results.
JP: Farke’s still is very different to Wagner’s, so I don’t think we’re attempting to replicate Huddersfield completely. However, Stuart Webber clearly likes a German coach. The club were quite clear this was a project which would take a minimum of 3 to 4 transfer windows, and now is the time for them to be judged.
Stand out players and weak links in the team?
CS: Stand out players have been hard to come by in honesty. To pinpoint a couple, probably Onel Hernandez and Teemu Pukki have been the standouts thus far. Hernandez is a winger who has pace in abundance and can change any game with a moment of quality. Pukki is an intelligent footballer. A lot of his work is locating space off the ball, but he also packs a punch in front of goal. He arrived from Brondby on a free transfer with negative reports from Celtic supporters from his stint in Glasgow, but he’s excelled thus far. There isn’t an obvious spot of weakness, but bypass Alex Tettey and Norwich are stretched in midfield.
JP: The injured Onel Hernandez was our danger man, but a hernia problem will see him miss out for Saturday. Teemu Pukki is in ridiculous form this season though, and looks lively around the box whenever he receives the ball. Shut him down and we’ll struggle. As for weak links, it’s not so much individuals as our squad is fairly deep, but more the fact we can’t create consistency or perform for a full 90 minutes.
Short, medium and long term aims for the club?
CS: Short term, progression. An improvement on last seasons 14th placed finish is vital, or supporters are going to start voting with their feet. Midterm, mounting a promotion challenge. Developing a squad that has the capability and style to mount a go at the playoffs or promotion. Long term, sustaining themselves as a Premier League outfit, something they have struggled to do. That’s the plan the club have outlined, now it’s time for delivery.
JP: The aspiration for now has to be a tangible improvement on last season’s fourteenth place. How far we can go will depend on momentum, confidence and a bit of luck. Some will expect top 6 this term, but that is perhaps a bit fanciful unless things go in our favour. What we all want to see is incremental progression, which takes us back to the Premier League within the next three seasons. That’s me being hyper reasonable though.
The Twitter/Instagram @cjsouthwell1902, @puntino @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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