Norwich City are back, promoted as Champions of the Championship for the second time in three seasons to return to the Premier League for the 2021/22 season. Talk of ‘trusting the process’ has been heard numerous times in recent weeks – The Canaries stuck with the same formula that had already earned them promotion in 2018/19; same manager, same principles, same players (mostly).
The dual pursuit of success and self-sufficiency instilled by Sporting Director Stuart Webber came at a sporting cost last season in their Premier League relegation, but having sent Daniel Farke “to war without a gun” in 2019/20 – the highest figure Norwich spent in the summer of 2019 was £750,000 - Farke certainly had the benefit of a full range of weapons in 2020/21. The squad had been refreshed with depth and quality but, more importantly, Norwich retained their best performers from the previous two seasons to lead the charge back to the top flight.
Of the eleven most-used players this season, four were in the eleven most-used in 18/19 (Emiliano Buendía, Tim Krul, Teemu Pukki, Max Aarons) and only three were summer signings: Oli Skipp, Ben Gibson and Jakob Lungi Sørensen. Grant Hanley, Todd Cantwell, Kenny McLean and Mario Vrančić were all less-prominent parts of the 18/19 group but were this time around well ingrained in Farke’s playing style and much more prominent members of the squad.
There’s little doubt that Norwich have been better this time than when they won the league two years ago. The 2020/21 iteration felt more complete as a side, almost entirely down to performing much better defensively than in 2018/19. They scored 18 fewer goals in this campaign, but they conceded 21 fewer across the 46 games as well, nearly half-a-goal-a-game drop-off on their last Championship season.
The improvement at the back can be put down to a few different factors, most of them more refined performances from individuals in executing the gameplan as the underlying numbers remained similar: in 2018/19 Norwich conceded 53 (non-penalty) goals from 47.2 expected goals, in 2020/21 it was 33 conceded from 45.7 expected goals.
But there was more balance to the side now. Kenny McLean and Oli Skipp anchored the midfield and kept the middle of the park on lock to allow the attacking talents to dovetail in advanced areas of the pitch without fear of being hit in transition. Skipp had a particularly stellar season on loan from Spurs, receiving immense credit for his positional sense and tidiness in the midfield and often covering for Max Aarons’ raids down the right wing by preventing the opposition from transitioning down that flank if possession was lost.
If the ball did reach dangerous areas, Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson were almost always there to clean up – Hanley made the most interceptions and the most clearances (both adjusted for possession) of all centre backs in the Championship - and Tim Krul also had a much better season in goal too. After conceding 52 goals from 49 post-shot expected goals in 2018/19, which takes into account the placement of the shot to judge the probability of the goalkeeper making a save, he fared far better in 2020/21 to save Norwich roughly seven goals, conceding 22 goals from 29.2 post-shot expected goals. His Shot Stopping % of 7% - the measure of goals saved above average, as a percentage of shots faced by the goalkeeper – ranked the highest of all Championship goalkeepers this season.
Norwich finished the season with the second-best defensive record and the second-best attacking record, combining for the best goal difference overall. Their attacking game and approach in possession drew the most attention and praise, in-part because of the ease on the eye and in-part because of the elite talent, especially so at Championship level, they had executing it.
The Canaries had more of the ball than any other side in the second tier this season but also moved it into the areas that matter more than anyone else: entering the final third more than any other team, completing the most passes within 20m of goal (Deep Completions), and completing the most passes within the opposition penalty area.
Their short passing and combination play resulted in some wonderful football being played at times, Cantwell and Buendía in particular regularly producing technical quality way above Championship level when tucking into central areas from the left and right flank respectively.
That technique and invention compounded with the intelligent movement of Teemu Pukki resulted in a regular supply line of through balls splitting the opponents' defence. Rarely did a game go by without Norwich getting in behind the opposition, completing 105 through balls for an average of 2.3 per game. For context, the teams with the third and fourth-most through balls in the Championship, Brentford and Bournemouth, completed 108 defence-splitting passes combined.
Of the players to complete the most through balls in the league, three were from Norwich, with Buendía and Vrančić making the top two and Cantwell rounding out the top five just below Harvey Elliott and Callum O’Hare.
Buendía's starting position on the right flank is on teamsheet only. In reality, it's Aarons who'll keep the width when Norwich are in the attacking phase with Buendía tucking into central areas - where he can cause more damage with a greater sight of goal. It's clearly observable when looking at his through balls, only two of which were played from an area wide of the penalty area, the rest coming from a more narrow starting position.
It's also notable how many of those threaded passes were played from deeper areas. These were not typically passes that broke the opposition's deep block, often they were quick and laser-like passes in transition where Buendía and particularly Pukki’s skillsets thrived. After winning the ball in their defensive third, if Norwich could get the ball to Buendía lurking intently in the space between the opposition midfield and defence then it would spell trouble for their opponents, with Pukki playing on the shoulder and poised to make a perfectly timed run in behind.
Buendía’s influence on this Norwich team and the Championship itself was so great that there have been discussions in recent weeks as to whether this has been the greatest individual season ever witnessed in England’s second tier. The quality shown in the final third has been closer to that seen in the Champions League than the Championship, with the Argentine finishing the season on 14 non-penalty goals and 14 assists, backed up by accruing the most xG assisted in the league (13.2) from the most key passes (120).
His influence in the final third bears out in how often Norwich were able to get him on the ball in those areas, with Buendía completing 760 final third passes across the season (19.4 per 90 minutes) and 82 open-play passes into the penalty area (2.1 per 90 minutes). Both were league best numbers, as was the fact that just 8% of his passes in the final third went backwards, a league-best figure amongst Championship attacking midfielders and wingers and a number that illustrates his ability to keep the attack moving towards goal.
That he’s one of the league’s most active defenders is just the cherry on top. The truth is, Buendía very likely would’ve won the Player Of The Season award for his attacking play alone, but his contribution on the defensive end only adds to the mesmeric nature of his performances.
His determination and work rate has landed him disciplinary trouble at times, picking up 2nd yellows for a red card on two occasions this season, but his discipline out-of-possession has been a key part of Norwich’s success, providing support to Oli Skipp and Max Aarons in defending the right flank. Adjusted for possession, given Norwich had more of the ball than any other side this season, Buendía recorded the most pressures of any player in the Championship in 2020/21.
Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without another exemplary season leading the line from Teemu Pukki, playing the role of 20+ goal striker yet again. Pukki’s role in the team remained the same as it always has – lead the press and provide a nuisance when the team's out of possession, make devilish runs and finish lethally when the team's in possession. Following on from earlier, 1-in-5 of Pukki’s shots came after a through ball.
One of the most archetypal forwards in the league, both in role and in attributes, Pukki was behind only Adam Armstrong for the percentage of total touches that are a shot, with 5% of his touches being a shot on goal. The Fin eventually finished third in the goalscoring charts, both with & without penalties, but his expected numbers were ahead of Ivan Toney and Armstrong – Pukki finished with 27.3 expected goals + expected goals assisted, the most in the Championship this season. Deserved champions, the common consensus is that Norwich are much better prepared than last time to attempt Premier League survival next season. A period of uncertainty around whether they can keep their best stars in yet another transfer window will surely ensue, but one thing we can be certain of – the process will remain the same.