Norwich City blew away all comers in 2018/19, winning the EFL Championship with a brand of football that some have described as ‘continental’ in comparison to the rest of the league. While Leeds United were masters of ball retention under Marco Bielsa, and Aston Villa showed flashes of inspiration on the counter-attack, Norwich were arguably the only team to combine both virtues with disquieting consistency.
Superlative fitness was also a huge asset to the Canaries in 2018/19, and can only be so again in the looming Premier League campaign, ahead of which Norwich are amongst the frontrunners in the relegation betting markets.
Perhaps putting some in mind of the club’s fondly-remembered period under Mike Walker in the 1990s, Daniel Farke has unquestionably transformed the club. These days, the Carrow Road faithful witnesses very cultured players, such as defensive wingers like Max Aarons, Onel Hernandez and Jamal Lewis, overlapping and making stealthy runs to provide service for the Canaries frontmen.
There is plenty of steel in the middle of course, and Premier League veteran captain Grant Hanley was instrumental in his own way throughout last season.
Tim Krul also knows what it takes to survive in the big time, having previously occupied goalmouths being peppered by the likes of Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero. However, beyond ageing midfield stalwart Alexander Tettey, the current Norwich squad is somewhat thin in Premier League pedigree.
Building from the back
Starting with a defence that can mix the dynamic with the astute, Norwich’s status quo is the envy of most teams outside the Promised Land. Yet, how Farke chooses to play the market in the coming weeks will potentially echo for generations.
The wing-backs currently in place will just about suffice, but a prime central defender alongside Hanley is sorely needed to stem the flow of teams like Liverpool from the off.
Links to Burnley’s Ben Gibson have cropped up in recent days, and he certainly fits the profile of an affordable target for a newly-promoted team in the top flight. Despite making just one appearance for the Clarets due to injury, following a £15m move from Middlesbrough, his preceding performances for the Teesside outfit demonstrated a good all-round sense of defensive play.
Both he and Hanley can read and tackle in equal measure, and his determination following injury – complementing with Hanley’s composure and leadership qualities – could add much to a Norwich defence that is largely unprepared for the Premier League’s wrath.
Midfield Magic a Necessary Investment?
As in politics, it will be in the middle of the battleground that the fight to survive will be won or lost.
At least one high-profile addition will be needed, and with Hannover’s Marvin Bakalorz reportedly staying in Germany, Farke’s attention has allegedly turned to Benfica midfielder Filip Krovinović. As the bridge between midfield play and the final attack, he will be a huge part of whether the Canaries survive or dive.
Coming from Benfica will certainly be a culture shock for the Croat, with the Primeira Liga still much-monopolised by the Eagles and their main title rivals Porto. The fact that he has made just 17 first team appearances for the current champions of Portugal also provides doubt about his ability to shoulder huge amounts of pressure.
Only a decent midfield strike rate of one in seven, which was attained during his two-year stint with Rio Ave, provides much in the way of justification for Farke to pursue Krovinović’s signature with greater vengeance. Naturally though, Farke’s task demands a degree of financial restraint, lest he plunge Norwich into fiscal uncertainty in the event of expensive signings failing to deliver.
Farke has also proven that he can pick and deploy his number tens well, albeit at a lower level in the English pyramid, and there is every possibility that he sees in Krovinović what the layman does not.
Patient Protocol in Picking Pukki Partner
Finishing as the Championship’s top scorer in 2018/19, main striker Teemu Pukki certainly looks like a bargain that is ready for the step up to the Premier League. Ironically, he has been linked with a move to Benfica, but nothing more has been forthcoming. Nelson Oliveira has also done well, shouldering his status as the squad’s most valuable player with utmost professionalism.
Strikers, naturally, represent the biggest gamble of all for a team in Norwich’s position. Buy wisely, and there is a potential match made in heaven, where even a default system with a lone striker can keep both of the main men happy.
However, the worst-case scenario is to buy an expensive flop, and there are many standout examples in Premier League history.
Despite being so instrumental throughout 2018/19, Pukki undoubtedly knows his own limits, and cannot fail to accept that he will have some hugely chastening off-days in the season to come. On days such as those, a striker with not only a dead eye for goal, but an infectious character is also sorely needed.
It is in the final third that a player with real Premier League experience is absolutely crucial, and even if they are slightly past their prime or lacking sharpness, players with that profile can prove priceless. Available for free this summer, Danny Welbeck has been linked to a raft of European top-flight clubs, with Everton and Newcastle considered the likeliest candidates to take his signature, alongside Rangers and Galatasaray.
Norwich have not yet been explicitly linked to him, but while many would consider him yesterday’s man, his hunger for success remains firmly in-situ.
Speaking of the final club in that list of Welbeck’s potential destinations, links between Galatasaray’s Mbaye Diagne and Norwich have cooled significantly. While his reported £15m price tag has been a major bar to this move going ahead, there is the distraction of the ongoing African Cup of Nations to consider as a factor.
Ten goals in 12 outings for Galatasaray is certainly impressive, and Farke’s innate win-at-all-costs mentality may yet breathe new life into any potential pursuit. Unlikely, but not yet ‘impossible’, seems to be the best way to describe what is, undeniably, an intriguing component of the oft-overworked rumour mill at present.