Norwich's dream season nearing ultimate goal - Interview
Friday, 5th Apr 2019 08:44 by Clive Whittingham
A Norwich promotion nobody saw coming is born from sound club structure, scouting, recruitment and the relationship between manager and sporting director, according to City fans Connor Southwell and Andrew Lawn. Sigh.
Dream season for you guys, and nobody really saw it coming, what have been the key factors behind the success?
AL: It has been a complete fairy-tale ride. Every possible ingredient is there; zero expectations, a team stocked full of homegrown players and costing less in total than Leeds spent on just Patrick Bamford, dazzling attacking football, numerous comebacks and last-minute winners and then to top it all off, Ipswich are plummeting out of the league under the watchful gaze of a fallen former City-hero, taking with them a run of more than a decade of failing to beat us. Honestly, it has been great.
The key to it all has been trust and resilience. We appointed Stuart Webber as Sporting Director from Huddersfield on the eve of their unexpected promotion and immediately he set about recreating that here. Farke was brought in with a remit to cut costs and develop youngsters. Initially this was very bumpy. Performances were far from dazzling and at times we were dour. However, Webber trusted Farke and Farke trusted his young team. Over the summer we lost our 2 ‘star names’ in James Madison and Josh Murphy for a combined £20m+ but rather than make us worse, it seemed to free Farke up to stock the team with even more young technicians, who were able to play the style he wanted.
CS: In terms of context, nobody foresaw this arising in NR1, particularly given the backdrop of last season and the sale of critical protagonist’s previous summer. All of the Canary Nation were bracing themselves for the worst, well aware of the importance of those sales from a financial perspective. Norwich is a glowing example of the benefits of installing a cohesive working structure away from the conventionally vertical method of operations and onto one which is more inclusive. Led by sporting director Stuart Webber and head coach Daniel Farke, the emphasis has shifted away from a ‘manager driven ethos’ that changes every time that person is replaced and onto a club driven one. Boil it all down, and you witness a club getting the fundamentals right.
Recruiting in ponds where others refuse to with high reward, reference Emi Buendia, Teemu Pukki to name but two, having the bravery not only to play their academy prospects but to have someone with the guts to allow them to play with expression is unique in this country. Then apply a refusal to revert away from a philosophy which was scrutinised and torn apart by those occupying the terraces, and you understand how impressive this surge has been. The narrative of Norwich City is one told through hard work, employing intellectual people and allowing them to assert their methods but also retaining the faith and ignoring the noise. A clear recruitment policy, a youth development system that encourages opportunities and also playing an inclusive style of play is the recipe.
Your good run started around the time of the 1-0 win at Loftus Road which, in all honesty, looked a poor game between two mediocre sides. Over the season though you’ve started scoring, and at times conceding, goals for fun so how and why has the style and team evolved over the course of the campaign?
AL: Early season the signs weren’t great and despite some encouraging performances, or bits of performance, we were languishing towards the bottom when the first international break came around. But then it clicked, Farke’s style suddenly became apparent, almost overnight and we went from lethargic to swashbuckling. We are also hugely resilient, there have been a number of times this season we could have folded, such as being 3-0 down to Forest with ten minutes to go, but this team doesn’t give up and we keep going right to the final whistle (3-3 that day), which has resulted in a number of last-minute goals. Results followed, the improvement in performance and we currently sit on a run of seven wins in a row and only one loss in 14.
CS: I remember it well; it was perhaps the first game where the two full backs asserted themselves on, to be honest. You can earmark a few games and ask the question of how did this happen? But it did so because they’ve evolved, tweaked and grown in confidence to the point that they look relatively unstoppable. At times, they’ve played some mesmerising passages of play that would make Pep Guardiola smile, but other games have required them to be gritty and resilient. That is what makes Norwich promotion contenders.
Talk, quite rightly, will go onto the way they’ve played and the quality of their offensive foursome but actually, that resolve and possessing the ability to win ugly is just as crucial. They have the best away record in the EFL. You don’t do that through luck. At points, it has been about outscoring opponents, others about stopping the opponent scoring and some moments outplaying opponents but they’ve controlled proceedings with excellence on most of those occasions. This is a multifaceted side, one who can combine the aesthetic elements with the ugly side and grind results out if they need to.
For those that haven’t seen you play, what shape/system and style can we expect this weekend?
AL: The team has been unchanged for those 7 wins and is basically 4231, with Tim Krul in goal, 3 homegrown youngsters a signing from the German 4th-tier in Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey, Cristoph Zimmermann and Jamal Lewis complete the back 4. They are screened by Tom Trybull and Kenny McClean (with potentially our best two players in Moritz Leitner and Mario Vrancic only warming the bench). In front of them our front four is pretty fluid, with Marco Steipermann, Emi Buendia and Onel Hernandez, buzzing around to supply top-scorer Teemu Pukki (a free transfer from Brondby).
CS: Expect good football, dependant on what your definition of that is. Full backs push on, the attacking players operate pockets, and the midfielders pass through the lines to dislodge opponents’ defensive structure. Rarely will you witness a long ball without purpose nor see a cross. Norwich is about playing football through the thirds and out from the back. They have no qualms with keeping the ball for extensive periods.
Lewis is less forward thinking because of Onel Hernandez’ position resembles that of a more conventional winger who wants to retain width and beat his man. The midfield duo of Tom Trybull and Kenny McLean are beginning to excel. Trybull is your ball winning, rhythm setting midfielder while McLean supports attacks and acts more like a ball playing creator.
Then you arrive at your front two, Marco Stiepermann and Teemu Pukki. Stiepermann, operating at left-back last season, was the subject of criticism but also claimed that he ‘didn’t look like a professional footballer’. He is one of the most revolutionary aspects of this Norwich side from a tactical sense; he doesn’t resemble your traditional, archetypal number ten. He’s over 6ft, lanky but ridiculously active. His physicality allows Norwich to deploy Pukki as a lone striker as Steipermann compensates for the lack of physicality the Finn possesses.
That’s downplaying his technical ability in the sense of how he links Norwich’s ineffective possession to the line of suppliers to enable chance creation. Pukki himself is an intelligent forward. His movement admittedly, but the way he instinctively knows when to drop in and get involved and when to push on and allow the space to be occupied by Buendia, Stipermann, McLean or Hernandez. And he scores goals aplenty. Some will call it sophisticated, but it's cohesive and a joy to consume. Norwich City has never played such aesthetically pleasing football. Not in my lifetime at least.
Presumably all hail Daniel Farke? Again, I didn’t think much to him to start with. He getting linked with other jobs yet?
AL: Absolutely, but it would remiss not to again highlight the impact of Stuart Webber in all of this. Farke is the head coach but this is very much a team effort, both on and off the pitch. Under Webber we have moved away from what you might call the Sir Alex Ferguson model of having one man overseeing every aspect of the club and moved into having a team of decision makers, all with their own areas of expertise. That all said Farke deserves lots of plaudits. He has been consistent in the style he has tried to impose and brilliant in his communication both to his players and the fans as to what we’re doing. The consistency in message has been reflected in the ability of players to come straight into the side and pick up where their injured colleagues have left off, without any drop-off in overall performance levels, in many cases they have even gone up. Every player and every staff member seems to know exactly what their job is and what is expected of them and together they have hauled us to the brink of the Premier League.
CS: Absolutely. Farke is undoubtedly the man grabbing the attention of punters in Norfolk and those watching externally. His stewardship hasn’t been plain sailing, he has had to address concerns after several away drubbings and tedious home encounters but throughout has possessed the same maturity, composure and beliefs throughout his tenure. If you compared a clip of a post-match interview from that terrible 4-0 defeat at the Den to beating Leeds 3-1, there is no real difference. He’s constructed a method of playing that few predicted would be possible in the rigours of the Championship but also extracted the best out of players labelled as failures by other clubs. Combine that with his bravery in installing young players and how he’s developed them, and you get a head coach who will be sought after. Farke’s endeared himself with supporters, not merely because of the success or the style but because he’s revived a club that was on its knees and restored the fun factor in attending football. The DNA of the club is visible for all to consume, he’s leading them into an era of potential prosperity.
A man overlooked will be Stuart Webber. Externally, it was easy to raise an eyebrow when he left Huddersfield Town to join Norwich City. Webber has had to make tough choices but has been pragmatic and ruthless in his work. Furthermore, the manner of which he’s opened the channels of communication has been tremendous. That communication has been so excellent that I got an exclusive opportunity to sit face to face with him for 1hr30 and quiz him on anything I wanted. Quite remarkable for a fan site writer to do. He’s reenergised the football club, Colney and is creating a relatable team that looks set for the Premier League in only his second full season for the second time. His stock is undoubtedly rising, and he’s shown his ability against a backdrop of financial insecurity, he’s a wonderful operator who will be adored by supporters for ‘saving’ Norwich City.
Links have surfaced for both men, but not with any intensity. Farke has just signed a new deal, and Webber seems intent on ensuring Norwich are Premier League operators before he departs. It’s an exciting period with two approachable, intelligent and ruthless operators at the helm.
Player of the season candidates?
AL: Such is that emphasis on team, there has been discussion on the social medias about whether this season we should eschew a single Player of the Season award and instead recognise the entire squad, for their collective efforts. It really has been that sort of season. That all said, Temmu Pukki deserves to be acknowledged for both his goals and his workrate which pulls teams about, creating space for others. One of those others is Emi Buendia, a £1.5m signing from Getafe, who it is no exaggeration to say is probably worth north of 10x times that already. At the back Tim Krul has been an ever-present colossus, whose experience has been vital, and then in front of him we have our captain Cristoph Zimmermann who has exemplified the never-say-die spirit of the side and looks like he’s played Championship football since birth, despite arriving from the 4th tier of German football on a free. Alongside him, Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis have both had outstanding seasons, despite it being both of their debut full-seasons.
CS: You could honestly make a case for all of them. It’s been that sort of season. Teemu Pukki is the obvious candidate, his output (goals and assists) have been unbelievable considering he was a free transfer from Denmark. Max Aarons, at only 19, looks like a Premier League player in all but name. Someone I believe will one day don the Three Lions of England consistently. He looks like a seasoned operator with over 300 appearances to his name, is keeping Ivo Pinto and Felix Passlack out of the squad while already being linked with Tottenham and Manchester City. Christoph Zimmermann another name worthy of being mentioned, he epitomises everything about Norwich City’s approach since Webber and Farke grabbed the reins. He’s a Germanic warrior who has shades of John Terry in stature and defensive style. He was an unfancied German fourth tier centre back who is now captain at Norwich City. They’d be my top three, although the order seems difficult to predict.
Any weak links in the team?
AL: Not really, but if there is one it is defending set-pieces, where we can be a little lacking. If we do concede though, we tend to just go up the other end and score again.
CS: The fundamentals of this Norwich squad is solid that newly formed midfield combination of Tom Trybull and Kenny McLean is yet to develop to a point whereby the pair are dictating games similarly to other partnerships in the midfield. If QPR can win the battle of the central midfield and exploit the space between the full backs, then they’ll have a good chance of creating from wide positions and potential scoring from delivery into the box. Defensively, they’ll have to be resilient but also possess the confidence to come and attack the game. Norwich will pick you apart if you deploy a low block and attempt to damage limitation. Where they do struggle is, against teams who use the press intensely. Although teams who have done that have fallen away later in games. They’ll need luck.
I’m sure you don’t want to tempt fate, but if you do see the promotion through what would be needed to stay in the Prem? How would you want to see Norwich tackle it, because there is a temptation to spend the money but then there’s always that chance you do a Fulham/QPR… Burnley went up, spent nothing, came back, invested in infrastructure, went back and stayed there…
AL: I think we would do ok, because we have a plan and we have an identity that we wouldn’t abandon in the way Fulham did. Obviously we are not going to be challenging for anywhere above the top end of the lower half but there are certainly worse teams than us in the top-flight at the moment. We would bring in re-enforcements undoubtedly, but this is a young team, who would relish the step up, rather than be fazed by it.
CS: They certainly possess the structure to survive. It certainly wouldn’t be a replication of Fulham’s scattergun recruitment policy. The core of the group would be retained and spending big money wouldn’t be an option. To succeed, they’ll need to bottle that defensive prowess and resilience while maintaining that ability to attack with freedom and power. If they can maintain the high level of recruitment and continue to improve those currently in the squad, then, really, only 4-5 additions would be required to keep their Premier League status. It will be a culture shock, like wearing a tuxedo at a dinner party and being expected to stay at the top table with bigger clubs. It feels like there is the potential for longevity with the current regime. Although we all know how quickly things can unravel in the Premier League. It’s about getting a bit of luck as well.
Personally, putting on my supporters’ hat for a moment, I’d like to see them attack it with energy and purpose. If they are competitive, then to an extent you can forgive what else happens. Norwich has done it before, gone down and came straight back without a coherent plan and that’s why they find themselves in the current position where they had to rebuild. If there was a plan to rebuild and go again, that isn’t always the worst concept but it’s risky. I certainly wouldn’t want it favoured by the club.
The Twitter @Andrew_Lawn, @alongcomenodge, @cjsouthwell1902, @NorwichCityMFW
Pictures – Action Images
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