Paddy Davitt: City and the eternal Premier League truth
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It was bad. We all know it was bad. From Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke to every frustrated Norwich City fan watching from afar.
After so much anticipation, so much renewed optimism ahead of Southampton’s behind closed doors visit to Carrow Road on Friday, the reality was cold, harsh and jarring.
Farke had a bad day at the office. So too his players. The set-up looked wrong, the personnel he entrusted failed to deliver and despite the head coach’s protestations to the contrary, the Saints looked fitter, sharper and able to play with an intensity beyond the Canaries.
But that is all with hindsight.
Farke had to pick his way through another debilitating round of injuries and the unprecedented fallout from Marco Stiepermann’s positive coronavirus test; not simply on the German and his family, but as Farke alluded to in the build up, the unsettling ripples across the rest of the squad.
That is all fair mitigation.
Whether it excuses the poor body of work served up on Friday depends on how much slack you are willing to give a group who worked wonders simply to reach the Premier League.
Last season was fairytale stuff. This is essentially Norwich in the Premier League era.
Fighting to stay up against the odds, and a pack stacked against them.
Facing more established clubs with deeper pockets and sustained access to broadcast billions. But let’s not even turn this back into an ownership debate. West Ham, Aston Villa and Bournemouth have lavished huge sums on their squads and face the same stark scrap over the run in.
Webber as candid as ever, told the Pink Un earlier this season he had failed Farke in the summer transfer window that preceded a Championship title win achieved in thrilling, free-flowing fashion.
City’s follow up work in January was no less patchy.
The hope the likes of Grant Hanley, Christoph Zimmermann and Timm Klose could then steer clear of injury failed to materialise.
To lose one for a sustained period would have been a blow to a squad where Farke needed to extract the absolute maximum. And then some.
To lose all three has proven debilitating.
Farke will look back when the dust settles and know he made mistakes at crucial times.
But fundamentally there is a lack of quality and a lack of depth at his disposal. The head coach himself is experiencing the Premier League for the first time in his career.
Take Alex Tettey and Tim Krul out of the equation and by and large the same applies to the rump of the playing squad.
Maybe with a fair wind and a clean bill of health, much like Sheffield United who followed them out of the Championship, momentum could have been sustained. But the manner of defeat to Southampton exposed the frailties and the fault lines in City’s depleted ranks.
In a parallel universe, Farke would have a conveyor belt of centre backs, or defensive midfielders who can also dictate the play, and vice versa.
Tom Trybull has come in for particular criticism following Friday after his double act alongside Kenny McLean failed to spark - leaving a backline packed with youth and Klose on the comeback trail exposed to Southampton’s raiding parties.
While similarly anaemic offerings from Todd Cantwell and Emi Buendia merely combined to deny Teemu Pukki and Josip Drmic the level of sustained service to test the visitors’ well-drilled defence.
Farke’s enduring ability to mask such deficiencies held the key to Norwich’s Premier League bid.
Where City have come from – and the scale of that ascent should never be forgotten however bad Friday’s performance ranked – the way they had to construct a team on astute overseas imports and fresh, young talent was never going to be enough to bridge the huge divide.
When Webber and Farke talked of 20th being City’s realistic station before the champagne had gone flat after promotion was sealed against Blackburn, they were being brutally honest.
You can be sure they backed themselves and their players to upset the odds again.
But to see the failings exposed, as much by City’s own limitations as Southampton’s vibrancy, is a brutal reminder.
Consider these quotes from Farke himself prior to the final game of the pre-lockdown era at Sheffield United, when he was discussing the potential impact of utlitising a Trybull or a Mario Vrancic over the run in.
“When you are able to dominate possession and dominate a game they can be top class players even on this level,” he said. “They feel a pass, they can make the game look comfortable with their vertical passes. They can be a genius on the pitch.
“They don’t even have to see the pass, they can feel it. They are blessed with this gift. But at this level you also have to defend and need physical strength in the middle of the park.
“Then it is not about control and you have to find the right balance. I want them on the pitch because the game we play looks more fluent. Against the ball though we have had some problems.
“I wouldn’t compare them but Pirlo or Xavi were world class without the ball but if you wanted them to defend then probably not the best. I would say the same with Tom or Mario.
“Without the ball you would go for a different player with a different profile.”
For Trybull and Vrancic, read any member of Farke’s current squad. Bar Krul, none has maintained a consistent seam of Premier League performance.
Of course it is the head coach’s job to improve those under his stewardship.
To that end look at how he has polished young gems or reinvigorated Tettey for large periods of this campaign. Or how he placed his faith in Krul after a rocky start to his Norwich career.
But this is the Premier League.
These are richest clubs in the world with some of the best players in the world. Farke is no miracle worker. To even be in the Premier League this season is a miraculous achievement.
Nights like Southampton should not water that down. Or for that matter excuse City’s sparse output.
But under Webber and Farke they remain a work in progress.