Norwich City: 2019-20 Season Preview
Norwich are back in the Premier League. The team overcame a shaky start to last season to power on and secure promotion as the eventual champions of the Championship, five points clear of their nearest challengers.
Daniel Farke’s side practiced a swashbuckling style of play that saw their matches average more goals (3.26) than those of any other promoted side over the last 10 years. In that time, only the dominant Bournemouth side of 2014-15 scored more than their 93 goals, while only five promoted teams conceded more than their 57.
In terms of underlying numbers, Norwich married the league’s joint-best attack (1.47 expected goals (xG) per match) to its third-best defence (0.94 xG conceded) for the second best xG difference (0.53 per match) in the division. As I discussed in my piece following their promotion in May, solid shot volume and quality in attack was matched to a defence that gave up a fair number of shots but of low average quality -- only those conceded by Sheffield United were less dangerous.
Norwich were an assertive team, equally capable of creating chances from quick turnovers in possession as they were in constructing more considered moves from deep. Without the ball, they pressed fairly aggressively in a mid-to-low block amongst spells of higher pressure. With plenty of movement and neat combination play, they produced some lovely football.
The question is how well that approach is likely to transfer to the Premier League, particularly as they have not invested heavily in reinforcements. Almost as soon as promotion was sealed, sporting director Stuart Webber started to play down expectations of a summer spending spree. He views the huge television rights windfall that comes with Premier League participation as an opportunity to rebalance the books of a club who have been reliant on player sales for much of their revenue in recent years. He was never going to repeat Fulham’s ultimately fruitless £100-million outlay of last summer.
Instead, much of Webber’s work has focused on tying down the stars of the promotion campaign. Ben Godfrey, Emiliano Buendia, Kenny McLean, Marco Stiepermann, Onel Hernandez, Teemu Pukki, Tim Krul, Timm Klose, Todd Cantwell and 2018-19 EFL Young Player of the Year Max Aarons have all signed new deals this summer. Keeping Aarons, Buendia, Godfrey and Jamal Lewis (who signed a new deal last October) gives Norwich a core of young talent with plenty of upside.
But there have been a few incomings. The most expensive new arrival, at least in terms of the fee, is the reported £2.7 million paid for the season-long loan of Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann. He has been brought in as competition for last season’s number one Tim Krul, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he becomes first choice at some point over the course of the campaign. Krul ranked just 18th of 37 amongst all goalkeepers who made at least 10 starts in the Championship last season in terms of our shot-stopping ratings, and conceded 3.44 more goals than the average goalkeeper could have been expected to; Fahrmann, in contrast, ranked eighth of 22 in the Bundesliga by that same measure, and conceded 1.70 fewer goals than expected.
Of course, there is more to the work of a goalkeeper than simply stopping shots. Yet while Fahrmann may not necessarily be able to match the intangibles that Krul provides -- “...he’s helped in our dressing room in terms of being a leader and culture,” Webber explained earlier this year. “He is the guy that leads the culture in that dressing room, among others” -- in terms of what happens out on the pitch, he would seem to be a solid stylistic fit.
Germany has been a popular source of talent for Webber since his appointment in the summer of 2017 -- in addition to head coach Farke, he has made 12 signings from German teams in that time -- and Fahrmann is joined by another new arrival from the Bundesliga in the form of the Swiss forward Josip Drmic. A free transfer signing from Borussia Monchengladbach, whatever promise was once there has since been consumed by injuries. Over the last three seasons, he hasn’t even seen 1000 minutes of league action.
It is a similar case with the full-back Sam Byram, brought in from West Ham for a nominal fee. The 24-year-old has produced mildly promising output, particularly defensively, when he’s made the pitch, but that hasn’t happened often. He made just six appearances on loan at Nottingham Forest last season, missing seven months of the campaign following knee surgery.
Norwich are clearly shopping in cheap markets, seeking to draw more from players who have struggled to convert various degrees of promise into reality. In that context, their most intriguing signing is arguably that of Patrick Roberts, on loan from Manchester City. The 22-year-old spent last year at Girona in La Liga, where he did a lot of dribbling... and not much else.
Roberts didn’t shoot, set up chances, progress the ball into the final third or move it into the box. He also missed a third of the season through injury — a familiar scenario from his previous two-year loan at Celtic. Maybe Farke can work his magic and unlock some of the potential that once had Roberts pegged as an up-and-coming star. Initial impressions in pre-season have certainly been positive. But if nothing else he at least provides like-for-like competition for Hernandez, the team’s leader in dribbles last season (2.25 per 90).
Norwich are yet to add to their options in central midfield, an area of the pitch in which they lacked a bit of dynamism last season. They were, at times, too easy to play through in transition, and against better quality opponents, those situations will more often be turned into good shooting opportunities. Perhaps they will do some more work later in the window as new possibilities arise, but the squad as it stands is largely likely to be the one with which they begin the campaign.
Webber has cited the Bournemouth team of 2014-15 as one who were able to successfully adapt to the Premier League by keeping the nucleus of their promotion side together, and that is how Norwich will approach their third promotion to the top flight this decade. They lasted three seasons between 2011 and 2014, peaking at 11th in 2012-13, but just one season last time they made it up for the 2015-16 campaign. If they are to survive this time around, they will require their young players to take a step forward, some of the older members of their squad with limited or no previous top-flight experience to perform above expectations, and for at least a couple of their somewhat risky set of signings to work out for them.
Over the last five seasons, sides who have come up from the Championship have on average scored 40.23% less and conceded 47.04% more goals on a per match basis in their first season in the Premier League than they did during their promotion campaign. Accepting that average does, of course, ignore a number of contributing factors, including the degree to which those teams strengthened upon promotion, it provides a solid baseline for what to expect. On that basis, Norwich would be looking at a final goal difference of somewhere around -21; last season that would have put them in the cluster of teams just above the bottom three.
They will certainly not be afforded an opportunity to settle in slowly, as their opener away to Liverpool is followed by encounters with Chelsea and Manchester City in two of their next four matches. But they if can find their feet thereafter they will have a solid chance of avoiding an immediate return to the Championship. Norwich have got this far by doing things their own way. They trusted in their process even through Farke’s disappointing first season. Promotion was the first reward; perhaps Premier League survival will be the next.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association