Paddy Davitt: Demolition job on Norwich City's backline was long overdue
PUBLISHED: 19:30 12 May 2017 | UPDATED: 20:05 12 May 2017
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Stuart Webber wasted little time in taking his scalpel to Norwich City's backline. Paddy Davitt assesses what is left and what is required to fill the holes left behind.
Build from the back is a football mantra you often hear within the coaching fraternity; albeit Alex Neil appeared to lose the memo for the majority of his Norwich City tenure.
Apply such logic to the Canaries’ threadbare defensive options right now and Stuart Webber has effectively erected the scaffolding and stuck the kettle on. Copious cups of tea must be consumed between now and the official opening of the transfer window before City’s sporting director and the recruitment team he is poised to assemble underline their credentials in the maze of buying, trading and loaning young men with a prodigious talent for manipulating a football.
Webber said it best himself, at Colney earlier this week, as he dissected what is left in the building following the departures of John Ruddy, Ryan Bennett, Steven Whittaker, Michael Turner and Seb Bassong. Russell Martin and Timm Klose are the only senior centre backs on the books, and Klose is sure to be the subject of various transfer gossip columns in the weeks ahead. Harry Toffolo the only left-back, Ivo Pinto the only recognised right-back.
The rest of this current Norwich squad may require a judicious tweak or two in the right areas, but wholesale defensive departures require an influx of fresh talent. Toffolo has been nowhere near the City senior XI in the past two seasons, after briefly threatening to make the first sustained breakthrough of the FA Youth Cup-winning crop. Jacob Murphy claimed that mantle with a regular slot on the right in Norwich City’s Championship midfield, a number of goals and assists, and the personal reward of an England Under-21 cap this past season. Toffolo played 22 games in Scunthorpe United’s failed bid for promotion from League One but Webber’s decision to trigger a one-year option in his Norwich contract is an encouraging sign of faith.
Mitchell Dijks appears a viable alternative, if the Canaries take up a purchase clause negotiated in his original loan move from Ajax. The man christened a ‘beast’ by Neil would be a popular signing, but challenging finances and potential interest elsewhere this summer will dictate whether Dijks marauding down the left at Carrow Road next season is a sight to strike fear into opposition defences. Webber confirmed this week he still has time on his side to make a final decision on the Dutch powerhouse.
Declan Rudd, like Toffolo, will return to his boyhood club for another tour of duty and must surely realise it is now or never if he wants to fill the seismic void left by Ruddy’s exit. Rudd briefly usurped the former City number one in those heady Premier League days but some chastening experiences at the highest level stunted his development at his parent club. Michael McGovern’s arrival last summer then blocked his route to the first team. But Ruddy’s re-emergence over the run-in and some enduring questions about McGovern’s ability to deal with balls into his penalty box ensure there is no clear successor to the big man. Yet. Webber also has Paul Jones and Remi Matthews in the mix. That suggests he may resist any temptation to look elsewhere but there is no doubt a dominant presence at the back is an essential element. Doubts will persist until one of the current roster can launch a convincing case for inclusion with the new prospective head coach.
It is central defence that must be addressed this summer. Webber knows it, long-suffering supporters know it. In truth, the remnants of Norwich’s playing squad know it as well. City have too often exuded distress signals at the heart of their backline. Stop and ask yourself when the Canaries last had a dominant central defensive union for any prolonged period of time? Malky Mackay and Craig Fleming perhaps? Bassong and Martin formed a sturdy barrier in that Championship surge under Neil that culminated in Wembley success back in 2015, but periods of calm assurance have proved fleeting. Certainly last season’s difficulties - particularly away from fortress Carrow Road - the alarming goals against column and now Webber’s recent cull underline addressing this deficiency is imperative.
Ben Godfrey was touted by Neil as a prospect who can eventually develop into a central defensive lynchpin but his time, along with the likes of Michee Efete and any of those in the development pool, is in the future. Webber and Norwich City need proven, mature, commanding defenders, harnessed within an organisational structure that is robust enough to resist at Burton on a windswept Tuesday night or repel a promotion rival in front of a baying crowd down the stretch come next April.
What Webber achieves over the next few months in this area could be the acid test of their promotion credentials. Change was long overdue. The tried and trusted was no longer fit for purpose. We await the big reveal when the scaffolding is taken down.