Paddy Davitt verdict: Growing pains but Norwich City need to up the ante
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The Championship is an unforgiving workplace to learn on the job.
Norwich City’s staff turnover this summer has been immense. Out has gone a number of experienced operators and in their place a new wave of younger, raw talent from home and abroad.
Perspective is difficult to retain as the shots and headers rain in on the under-protected Angus Gunn, and the Canaries’ goals against column carries an alarming dimension to it already.
But in the interests of balance last season’s ‘project’ failed. City retained faith in a management and core group of players who had been there and done it. They never remotely threatened to do it again, after briefly topping the standings in September, despite the late flourish under the measured guidance of Alan Irvine that saw them finish on the front foot two places outside the top six. A surge, it is worth remembering, largely triggered by letting Alex Pritchard off the leash on a consistent basis.
The loss of Pritchard for the opening months of this latest tour of the second tier is seismic. Add in a massively disrupted pre-season for Timm Klose, Ivo Pinto and Wes Hoolahan, and the cards appear stacked against Daniel Farke right now.
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Christoph Zimmermann cut an impressively assured figure when he faced the media on Friday prior to his first brush with Aston Villa. He looked anything but 24 hours later as Keinan Davis schooled him in a brutal duel. But Zimmermann himself admitted on the eve of battle he had not expected to be featuring quite so heavily at this early stage of his Norwich career. That was no lack of confidence on the towering German’s behalf, more a recognition far more seasoned operators like Russell Martin and Klose would be ahead of him in the pecking order.
Klose had his own turbulent brush with the Championship first time around but the Swiss international’s injury woes opened the door for the man from Borussia Dortmund II. That is a pattern visible right across City’s squad at present.
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First team exposure is desirable, but on Farke’s terms. His hand is forced by persistent injury problems, filtered through an incessant early season fixture schedule which allows precious little time on the training field for anything but recovery. Villa unleashed the likes of Davis and Andre Green to potent effect but within a side containing vast Premier League experience woven around John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Alan Hutton.
Yet mitigation should not mask underlying concerns. City too often look laboured in possession rather than menacing. The penetration is sporadic. When it works, such as Harrison Reed’s wonderfully crafted ball for Josh Murphy to score, it is soothing on the eye. When it does not, like Reed’s earlier errant short pass which triggered the counter for Conor Hourihane to get the first of his hat-trick, it feels an entirely avoidable self-inflicted blow. The philosophy is sound; to retain possession, manoeuvre the opponent out of position and then profit from the space created. But at present the lack of tempo and the lateral thrust merely allows Championship rivals to shuffle back into two lines to smother any attempt at creativity.
Farke is a disciple of ‘building the play’ from deep but he is astute enough to recognise the template will need to be refined over time with more minutes for his squad and more exposure to the Championship.
That fitful productivity across midfield has an unwanted consequence. City’s inexperienced backline is coming under intense pressure when Norwich turn over the ball or have too many stranded higher up the pitch. It is not enough to simply focus on Zimmermann or Marcel Franke or Martin and James Husband.
Villa could have been out of sight but for Gunn’s shot-stopping prowess in a sobering first half. City currently ship two goals per game in their opening league tussles. That is a sizeable barrier to progress and some elusive momentum. Klose’s pending return, by its own, will not solve that conundrum.
The goodwill still massively outweighs the frustration from such growing pains. Carrow Road is a supportive environment for a new look squad to learn and to flourish under a new look German coaching team. That was palpable against both Sunderland and QPR. But the naivety and the structural imbalance in how Farke wants Norwich City to operate needs to be corrected. City are too easy to score against and do not carry enough of a sustained threat at the opposite end. That is a formula for failure.