The new boys: Marley Watkins’ influential performance against Brighton showed he may prove to be an excellent signing for Norwich City
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As pre-season comes to a close for Norwich City, DAVID FREEZER assesses the progress of the seven new players in City’s squad ahead of the Championship opener at Fulham.
Smashing the ball into the back of the Barclay Stand net via the underside of the crossbar was a fine way for Marley Watkins to introduce himself to the Carrow Road faithful.
The forward’s switch to the Canaries from Barnsley was announced almost two months ago, confirming the 26-year-old would join on a free transfer at the start of July.
With so many players leaving the club and a further six arriving, the signing of Watkins was the subject of debate for only a short time, before attentions shifted to who would be next. He could prove to be an excellent signing though.
Last season the Swansea City youth product scored 10 and created seven goals in 42 league matches to help Barnsley comfortably secure their status as a Championship side.
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With his contract running out, it allowed City to swoop for a player who received his first Wales call-up at the end of last season, only for a minor injury to prevent him winning his first cap.
Compare that with the statistics of Jacob Murphy’s impressive breakthrough campaign, scoring nine and creating six goals in 37 league games, and Canaries sporting director Stuart Webber looks to have pulled off a coup having subsequently sold Murphy in a deal worth up to £12.5million.
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Watkins may not be a direct replacement for Murphy but is a versatile forward player who can play wide and through the middle, so offers a similar threat.
On Saturday he impressed playing as support just behind striker Cameron Jerome against Premier League new boys Brighton and his thumping effort from the edge of the area to equalise in the 42nd minute showed the eager Carrow Road crowd what he is capable of.
This is a player who is used to the rough and tumble of the Football League, helping Barnsley earn promotion via the League One play-offs in 2016, and one with good pace and ball control.
Watkins now looks very likely to have a starting role at Fulham for City’s Championship opener on Saturday, particularly with Wes Hoolahan not fully fit, Alex Pritchard out injured and Steven Naismith suspended.
Along with fellow new boy Mario Vrancic and youngster James Maddison, those absences offer opportunities to stake a claim for the central attacking midfield roles which look to be a key part of head coach Daniel Farke’s systems.
Watkins, born in London but raised in Swansea, looked comfortable in his new surroundings immediately on Saturday.
Barnsley are no minnows but the attendance of 12,907 was just short of the 13,857 average league attendance at Oakwell last season. Compare that with Carrow Road’s 26,335 average in 2016-17 and it is clear that the move is a big step up for the forward – and he looks hungry to get stuck in.
The draw with Chris Hughton’s team also gave many in the stands their first glimpse of other new faces in City’s revamped squad. In fact all seven of the additions during the transfer window started the game.
German defenders Christoph Zimmermann and Marcel Franke were part of a three-man defence alongside skipper Russell Martin, shielding goalkeeper Angus Gunn, returning to his boyhood club on a season-long loan from Manchester City.
Southampton loanee Harrison Reed acted as the defensive midfield pivot, with £1m arrival from Middlesbrough James Husband at left wing-back and Vrancic also in the midfield mix.
There was no mock headbutt of the crossbar from Gunn pre-game, as his dad always used to, perhaps that’s being saved for the real action or the 21-year-old would rather make a clean break from the past. The keeper could do little about Pascal Gross’s looped header in the 21st minute, who got in front of Zimmermann to meet a cross from the right from Bruno. It wasn’t the tall centre-back’s best moment but along with Franke the defensive unit looked in decent shape, avoiding too many nervy moments as passing began from the back.
Husband was outnumbered on more than one occasion on the left though, as he was for the goal, and the wide areas have been where Farke’s new systems have looked vulnerable at times. The 23-year-old needs game-time though and has improved with every game of pre-season.
Reed is already looking a class act although doesn’t have quite the same physical bite of Alex Tettey but Vrancic, who nearly scored with a 35-year chip, is my early tip to make the top three in the player of the season voting come May.
More players may yet arrive but hopefully no more will leave. Either way, it’s poised to be an enthralling campaign.