Faced with the difficult task of surviving the Premier League with the same core of players who got them promoted last season, it initially looked like Norwich City had found a way to do it.
Two wins from the first five games isn’t a huge figure, but it included some genuinely eye-catching performances. Despite the scoreline, the Canaries showed genuine promise at Anfield, with one really good chance the only difference between the sides in terms of expected goals.
Of course, it’s the victory against Manchester City that got everyone talking. A 3-2 win against the champions while fielding an XI without a number of players nursing injuries isn’t supposed to happen. And while they had a hard time withstanding the sky blue onslaught in the last 20 minutes, they had already done enough good work to find themselves in a winning position, and kickstarted the narrative surrounding Man City’s defensive issues.
It’s good that Norwich fans have been able to hang on to that memory, because since then they've watched six defeats and one draw over seven games. The Canaries are now bottom of the table, four points from safety. It’s gone from exciting to very, very ugly in the blink of an eye. So what happened? Curiously, perhaps not what was expected. Across the first five fixtures, Norwich had an expected goal difference per game of -0.46, which has worsened to -0.52 since. A small decline, but those initial fixtures featured matches against Liverpool and Man City. A schedule-adjusted model would likely track Norwich as significantly worse after these games.
More curiously, Norwich have actually improved on the defensive side, though this was a very low bar to clear. They’ve gone from conceding an apocalyptically bad 19 shots per game to a merely very poor 15.71, and their increase in chance quality isn't enough to balance this out. They’re pressing higher and more aggressively, though it’s likely this was always the plan, just one that Norwich struggled to execute well.
Overall, their xG conceded is close to the worst in the league. It’s better than their actual goals conceded, having let in 27 (plus one penalty scored) from an xG of 20.99, but it’s very difficult to put a positive spin on this.
On the attacking end, the Canaries have again underperformed a touch, looking like a fairly middling Premier League team on this side of the ball.
Put the two together and you have a team that might not be the very worst in the Premier League, but one that is certainly part of that conversation, and finds itself already at a points disadvantage.
In attack, the biggest story is that Teemu Pukki’s goals have dried up. The temptation is to put this down to either a bad finishing run or an xG fall off, and the truth is both are involved. Pukki has generated 2.35 xG since mid-September without scoring a goal. But he’s also taking nearly a whole shot fewer per 90, and they’re of lesser quality than before. His touches inside the box have increased, but for whatever reason, he’s having a more difficult time turning those into good chances.
Emiliano Buendía is a slightly different case. Yes, his xG assisted, in particular, is down because he has been less of an attacking threat since mid-September. But his radar shows he's being tasked with more defensive work than before.
When looking at his passing sonars, it’s obvious a shift has taken place. In the more recent fixtures (right), he’s passing the ball in deeper areas more frequently, but still doing a good job of moving the ball forward. You might argue that this isn't what fans want him to be doing, but it doesn’t seem like the player is at fault.
As for Todd Cantwell, the other attacking player who generated excitement, his fall off is rather more predictable. A not insignificant part of his early good form came from a ludicrously unsustainable xG per shot, which has since dropped. Yet Cantwell remains a positive contributor and there shouldn’t be too many concerns about him coming down to Earth a bit.
On the defensive end, things are confusing. Norwich are, in theory, a side that wants to press and control the game in the opposition half. But you can’t do that if you can’t get the ball over the halfway line. Their defensive activity map depicts a team constantly forced to defend in their own half.
In fairness, they don’t do an awful job of keeping the ball out of their own box. Their 33 passes conceded inside the box is the 12th best in the league, rather better than their 18th best xG conceded. There are those who believe that Norwich’s defenders are not of the required ability for the Premier League, and while this is difficult to quantify, the degree to which teams seem to be able to turn situations in the box into good shots against the Canaries supports this.
Norwich might make a great case study showing the problems with playing possession football against generally superior opponents. A side like Man City are capable of penning teams into their own half as they work the ball into dangerous areas, with opponents often unable to counter because they just can’t get out. Norwich, on the other hand, attempt to play the same type of football, but have not been able to dictate their games in any meaningful way. Instead, what we see most frequently is the side in their own third, starting elaborate sequences to play out from the back. Norwich’s brightest moments have come from these passages of play, but if you’re constantly having to start play from your own third, you might start to question your methods.
The question is how much the club, from owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones to Director of Football Stuart Webber, are wedded to this approach. If they are, then there shouldn’t be much doubt that manager Daniel Farke stays in the job. The Canaries appear to be a properly drilled side who understand what they’re being asked to do but are finding they’re not able to to it at the Premier League level. Considering how little the club spent this summer, it’s entirely reasonable to believe they plan to accept relegation and rebuild the squad with their parachute payments. Farke has shown enough in his time at Carrow Road that he’s a more-than-reasonable choice to continue this project and attempt to bring the side back up next season in the Championship.
However, if the Norwich hierarchy believes that avoiding relegation is the first, second and only priority, a change might need to be made. Considering Farke’s decent work, it would need to be someone who brings a very different style to the pitch. If one takes the view that the Canaries’ centre backs are well short of being good enough, then the new approach would have the squad play in a way that gives the defenders much more protection. The obvious risk is that if they still go down, they’d effectively be building a new project from scratch in the Championship next season, so don’t be shocked if Farke hangs on even if results do not improve.
Stats of Interest
Which player outside of Liverpool and Manchester City has the best open play xG assisted per 90 minutes this season? Why, it’s Andriy Yarmolenko, who appears to have been hooked to the rejuvenation machine.
He is able to carve open teams to allow for some terrific chances from the right flank. Only one assist so far, but he could easily add to this in the coming weeks.
It was reported over the summer that Manchester City were recruiting a specialist set-piece coach, with former Brentford employee Nicholas Jover seemingly getting the job. On the attacking side, the impact is significant. Guardiola’s men have put up a higher xG per set piece than any other side in the Premier League. We’re dealing with a small sample size here, but something real might be happening.
Jamie Vardy started the season on fire in front of goal, with the man himself claiming he’s in the form of his life. Sorry to ruin your fun, Jamie, but not so fast. Vardy’s xG per 90 is actually down from last season (0.34 compared to 0.43) and has been boosted by an astonishing finishing run. He should enjoy it now, because it’s very rare to go on a run of scoring 10 non-penalty goals from 25 shots.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association