Christoph Zimmermann fills a hole - but why hasn't Norwich City's academy produced its own?
Norwich City's summer recruitment from elsewhere is in full flow - yet MICHAEL BAILEY wonders whether the Canaries' academy is falling short on helping out
There is a definite logic in Christoph Zimmermann’s arrival at Norwich City, and new head coach Daniel Farke summed it up himself.
“He’s an intelligent boy. When I give him tactical instruction he always gets used to it quickly and acts in the right way. He’s an intelligent guy, has strong leadership skills and is perfect for the group,” he said.
That is code to the rest of City’s squad for: This guy knows what I want and has the attitude to do it; now you follow suit.
Zimmermann will have to make the step-up from Germany’s fourth-tier to the Championship, much like Sean Raggett would’ve had to rise from non-league Lincoln – and in both cases, that is as back-up. As a defender to be called on when needed and keep the group’s spirit strong, rather than starting every game from August until May.
There’s no doubt Zimmermann’s signing also comes with a lot of positives, in terms of his familiarity with Farke and the qualities his reputation is leading us to expect.
But this is a Norwich City summer tight on finances and with a need to be, in sporting director Stuart Webber’s words, “creative”.
That in turn begs a question: When City were looking for someone fill a sizeable hole in their squad and offer a modicum of centre-back depth, why did they have to make a free signing from the German lower leagues when they spend more than £2m every year on a category one academy?
It’s a pertinent question when you’re left struggling to think of a single, successfully developed centre-back that has progressed through the ranks at Colney and into top-level football, since Jason Shackell’s debut in April 2003. And that was initially at left-back.
For the record, I’m reluctant to ever call the set-up at Colney failing.
Even last season the Canaries came up against several Championship players that had been developed wearing yellow and green while numerous coaches, scouts and staff pour hours into giving their players of all ages every possible opportunity to succeed.
From the likes of Glenn Middleton and Jamal Lewis, to the younger City age groups that are already forging a decent portent for promise once they get closer to the end game, Norwich City do produce players.
Arguably the real problem is that end game; the de facto transition from potential to professional – and it’s a problem far from limited to the county of Norfolk.
It’s the bit where a player is warranted good enough to be a real resource at Carrow Road. There have not been enough at the standard of Josh and Jacob Murphy in the last decade, to either use or sell-on for substantial revenue that would sustain the academy for several years after they left.
Or perhaps with more subtlety, the bit where academy products are good enough to back-up their more established first-team rivals and offer some genuine squad depth, at the same time saving Norwich the expense of attracting a player from outside. Even on a free transfer – they are still more costly.
City’s academy is currently expensive. If the Canaries don’t earn promotion next season and the parachute payment tap is turned off, it becomes both crucial and a cash concern.
That means it has to be producing players to play, sell or back-up.
None of the above is not a feasible option when, as I mentioned earlier, the academy costs in excess of £2m per year to run. That’s the equivalent of two players on £20,000 per week – and the days of City being able to pay that could soon be numbered.
From the outside looking in, the academy and first team set-ups have lacked a connection. There seems little trust from the club’s past football chiefs to really give their youth options a chance.
Maybe not since Paul Lambert came into the club, looked at the entire squad available to him and said, Korey Smith – I want you.
The midfielder’s career since has shown what he would be capable of – the only difference was Korey found himself in a moment when someone backed his ability, rather than waited for proof.
From Webber and his public proclamations about what he wants to build at Norwich City, to his own scouting recruitment and the way David Wagner led that philosophy at Huddersfield Town, to the appointment in Farke of a man who managed an Under-23 Borussia Dortmund II side in an adult league – it all points to a need for City to manage far better the way they develop players into first-team contention. But more specifically, to trust them more when they get there.
Zimmermann’s arrival will hopefully prove successful on numerous levels and in reality, his signing has little to do with the club’s wider direction over future years.
However, the academy’s production of first-team players has to prove its worth from here on in if the Canaries’ future philosophy is to stand any chance of coming off.
And if it can’t, then there is a genuine debate to be had over whether something continually increasing in expense while City’s revenues threaten to shrink, is really worth the outlay.