Norwich City report card: Illness left Stiepermann frustrated
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Describing this season as 'frustrating' would be quite an understatement when it comes to reviewing Marco Stiepermann's 2020-21.
The German midfielder was dealt a difficult hand which eventually left him drained both physically and mentally, with an unusual health concern.
City supporters and pundits had suspected something wasn't quite right with Stiepermann during the early stages of the campaign.
Daniel Farke eventually revealed in January that what had been thought to be the aftereffects of an ear infection - causing balance and energy issues - had been diagnosed as Epstein-Barr Virus, an energy-sapping viral infection.
The Borussia Dortmund youth product had been determined to reclaim an important role after City's return to the Championship though, resulting in performances of fluctuating quality during a total of 19 appearances.
At times it looked like the influential and physical attacking midfielder of the 2018-19 title triumph was returning, at others it looked like his body was struggling to keep up with his brain's orders.
It continued a strange 2020 for a player who had shaken off an underwhelming first year in England to become a fan favourite with nine goals, six assists and an almost telepathic understanding with Teemu Pukki.
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Three months into his Premier League opportunity, however, and Stiepermann had lost his starting role as he struggled to reproduce that form in the top flight.
Just before the pandemic-hit campaign resumed in June, he was in self-isolation after a positive Covid-19 test.
The former Germany Under-20 international did reclaim a starting role but the damage was already done, as City nosedived through the Premier League trapdoor - being left to chase shadows by a clever Kevin De Bruyne flick before the Belgian superstar scored a brilliant goal during the 5-0 defeat at Manchester City on the final day.
Hopes were high that Stiepermann could hit reset and rediscover his form in the Championship but fitful pre-season involvement and a back problem kept him out of five of the first seven matches.
He returned with a trademark through-ball assist for Pukki, as the Canaries impressed during a 3-1 win at Bristol City in October.
The following weekend the former Cottbus and Bochum midfielder was taking the acclaim but barely broke into a smile, as he scored a crucial winner against Swansea, sweeping home after fine work on the left from substitute Bali Mumba allowed Emi Buendia to tee him up in the 84th minute.
Two weeks later and another assist, finding Buendia in the box after good work from Josh Martin and Pukki, as a 3-2 win at Stoke consolidated the new leaders' position at the summit.
Then the injury crisis reached its peak, during an already unprecedented season of congested fixtures.
Stiepermann had once told the media that he was "born to score goals" but as he was forced into emergency cover as a striker during a 1-1 home draw with Coventry, that comment was left open to ridicule.
Thankfully Pukki wasn't out for long and Stiepermann continued to persevere for a few games, but it wasn't long before Mario Vrancic and the fit-again Kieran Dowell were ahead of him in the pecking order.
Just before Christmas news of his illness was made public and the last few months started to make sense, explaining the erratic form and frustrated manner of a player capable of much more.
Rest and recuperation were the order of the day for the 31-year-old, spending the next two months recovering his health before building up fitness with three goals in three games for the under-23s.
Stiepermann returned to the bench for the final 10 matches of the title-winning season and was introduced during four, but with Dowell finally fit and firing in the 'number 10' role the chances of consistent game-time were slim.
With a year remaining on his contract, it seems likely that Stiepermann will have to embrace the role of a supportive squad player and wait patiently for his chance if he is to add to his 119 appearances for Norwich.
Equally, if he finds a chance for a fresh start elsewhere, it seems unlikely that City would stand in his way.
Whatever happens, he'll always have 2018-19, the year when crucial goals were so often followed by creative celebrations, when he thrived on the pressure as one of the main men and was at the heart of the team spirit.
From clumsily chucking Mo Leitner around like a ragdoll in celebration at Portman Road, to his bromance with Mayor McLean, his appreciation for the Scottish humour and having to clean Farke's car thanks to the Colney wheel of fines - Stiepermann made his mark.
He'll need some serious mental strength to recover his poise amid the Premier League pressure but if he can, City's returning fans would love another rendition of "rhythm is a dancer, Stiepermann's the answer".