New-look empires at Norwich City and Swansea City continue to thrive
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It’s not so much the renewing of an old rivalry – more the recommencing of a recent one.
The paths of Cities Norwich and Swansea have been inextricably entwined over the last few years. Proud clubs with fiercely loyal support, both out on a limb as far as geography classes go.
And to paraphrase something Sir Alex Ferguson said of Norwich last season, both building their own empires. Sort of.
The description fits the Canaries and their Norfolk monopoly perfectly – but for the Swans, it’s not so much the substantiated elements of packed stands, results and community influence they have built.
Theirs is more a philosophy. An artisan approach to the national game that has left many a pundit swooning over possession statistics, crafted goals and a new way to take on the Premier League establishment – almost as if people outside England, or inside for that matter, had never seen the likes of such football before.
The clash of empire and philosophy bubbled away as the two battled for promotion from the Championship two seasons ago, rising to new heights last term as Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers did things their way.
The end results were starkly successful – the two finished side by side, separated by goal difference in mid-table security. So much so, both managers decided they had outgrown their clubs.
Yet history proves philosophies and empires survive many a leader – and the fact Norwich and Swansea head into this weekend five and four points respectively above the clubs their old bosses fled to, offers fresh evidence.
Away from early wobbles, Chris Hughton has seen a remodelled Norwich grow into a gnarly, efficient Premier League outfit from the hyperactive worker bees playing out of their skin every minute of every match; one that took six points off Swansea last season.
But it’s not just the Norwich empire that has matured. Revered as a footballer, Michael Laudrup is proving an astute appointment as a manager in south Wales.
Plucked out of Spain after an indifferent start to his dugout career, summer recruits from La Liga and an injection of direction and pace into the Swans’ relentless keep-ball has taken them to seventh in the table and successive wins – over flying West Brom and at the home of one likely inspiration, Arsenal.
With both the Swans and Canaries on three wins and three draws from their last six matches, the renewing of acquaintances for both clubs could not have been better timed.
“There are the same challenges at both clubs and I can probably only speak for us and the challenge, but I think any team in their second, third and fourth season in this division it’s still all about putting down a marker and trying to get some of the consistencies that are going to keep you there the following season and the one after that,” said Hughton.
“I suppose Swansea would be in that group of teams. What they have done very well is the philosophy they have, the playing philosophy, they have recruited very well in that period of time, with Brendan and even those before him going on to the new manager.
“They are playing an exciting brand of football and particularly in the games we’ve watched of late, they have thoroughly deserved to win and I would say probably at this moment they are playing as well as anybody in this division. They were in a very good place to start with and somebody of Michael’s experience and quality has managed to, at this moment, take them up that little step.”
It’s the recruits that are standing out. While Pablo Hernandez is likely to be missing through injury, his compatriot Miguel Pérez Cuesta – Michu to you and I – already has 10 goals this season after his summer arrival from Rayo Vallecano for a barmy £2m. He was the highest scoring midfielder in La Liga last season, so no one should be surprised at his form. Only the price tag.
“In bringing in Michael, who knows the Spanish league fairly well, he has been able to bring in players that have very much hit the ground running and he has brought them into a good set-up and a good team, hence they have flourished,” added Hughton.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but at the moment he has brought in very good players into a good structure and good philosophy.
“There are numerous players that have come to England at any stage that haven’t done so well – possibly the same players coming in at another time or whatever wouldn’t have done so well. Certainly at this moment they all look real good purchases, in particular Michu who has scored the goals and Hernandez, who they spent more money on (£5.5m). And also Ki Sung-Yueng, another player they brought in who we knew about and most know about it.
“Ki, we knew he was a good player (at Celtic) but I presume the way they were able to get him was the valuation they were able to meet. As with most players you are always aware of whether there is an opportunity, but it’s meeting the price range. They spent quite big money in the summer for Swansea’s standards, but they’ve all done very well.”
Past Norwich managers have turned away from foreign recruits. Whether the Premier League offers an easier environment to take them on than the likes of League One is a point for discussion. But given City’s XI at times last season was a self-contained UK affair, Norwich’s emphasis under Hughton appears to have changed.
“It’s easier for foreign players to settle now because there are more foreign players playing here, so for anybody that comes in they have something in common,” said Hughton.
“The more susceptible clubs are used to working that little bit harder with arrangements and making sure the players settle in OK and giving them a bit more time too, and the market is generally cheaper abroad – but I don’t think it’s particularly easier to bring them in.”
Those are thoughts to help with January. For now, Hughton only has eyes on his Norwich empire stopping Swansea’s philosophy in action.
“Ultimately we want to go there and get a result and it’s for us to determine the best way to get that,” said Hughton. “If we are soaking up too much pressure for too much of the game, then we will make life very difficult for ourselves.
“We have to make sure we are going there with a threat ourselves. We are on the back of two away games and both we have finished very strongly. Both we deserved to get something from. So we must not have a fear of going there, even with the form they are in and the quality in possession they have.”