A season can often make all the difference in football, with the timeworn notion of ‘What a difference a year makes’ never having a more fitting example than the current happenings in Norfolk at Norwich City. Currently perched handsomely at the top of the Championship, very few of even the most optimistic of the Carrow Road faithful would have heralded the extraordinary turn-around a year on from Daniel Farke’s initial appointment and his rocky beginnings.
His arrival from Germany was met with cautious optimism from fans, with a complete change to more of a continental structure resulting in Farke being the first Head Coach ever to be appointed from outside of the United Kingdom. He was plucked from Borussia Dortmund II by Sporting Director Stuart Webber, the same man who enticed David Wagner (From the same position in Germany) to Huddersfield a couple of years previously with prodigious results. Farke’s role in Germany was to ensure the pathway was clear for youngsters to progress from Dortmund’s U23 team to the senior squad, and it was this quality which was earmarked with interest from City insiders.
Upon taking the job, Farke was under no illusions about the task ahead of him. The club’s vision moving forward was that of a more prudent approach, with great emphasis and trust to be placed in the club’s academy alongside adopting a real ‘footballing identity.’ Under his stewardship, Farke constructed a Dortmund II side comfortable in position, with a defensive resilience complimenting an expansive style in offence. This was clearly the direction the club hierarchy had in mind with the appointment, a massive task considering the overhaul which would be required. Tranquil and methodical, Farke seemed unfazed by the daunting assignment and can feel a sense of pride in the Canaries current position at the top of the division. However, it has been far from plain sailing for the German.
The Championship is largely considered one of the most challenging leagues in the world, riddled with rigorous demands and unpredictability. Farke is no fool, and is sure to have done his homework, however there is no doubt that it has taken him time to adapt. Just a solitary win from his first five league matches in charge culminated with a toxic 4-0 defeat at Millwall as August drew to a close, is about as punishing an introduction as there is to the English game. However, Farke was unwavering in his philosophy, and showed bravery to persist as a brief upturn in form followed, the team gaining confidence in possession and trying to dictate games with their higher ball retention stats. However, a terrible winter period ultimately put a premature end to their season, with the club still expected to make the right sounds in the play-off race despite such a challenging and complex revamp.
Fan unrest was not uncommon at times in Norfolk last season, with some fans not being satisfied with the progress on the pitch under Farke, where Norwich seemed to be specialising in being consistently inconsistent. A dreary season would fade out to a subdued 14th place finish, primarily drive by the creativity and mercurial talents of James Maddison. An agonising lack of goals was the main problem for City, with a meagre 49 goals accrued throughout last season, the majority coming from Maddison with 14. Strikers Nelson Oliveira, Cameron Jerome and Denis Srbeny would only contribute 10 league goals between them, with 8 of those coming via Oliveira. The bright outlook Webber and company had in mind when appointing Farke the previous May was suddenly looking much bleaker.
Norwich were forced into a serious rebuild in the summer, losing talisman James Maddison for a staggering fee to Leicester City in a severe blow. Farke used the setback to try and remould the squad, allowing him to perhaps bring in more personnel suitable to his ideology and style of play. The prolific Finnish striker Teemu Pukki arrived on a free transfer alongside veteran Dutch keeper Tim Krul, whilst the Maddison fee was re-invested in undisclosed deals for attacking Midfielder Emiliano Buendia, versatile winger Ben Marshall and the return of former loan star Moritz Leitner. The arrival of Pukki in particular has been a master-stroke, with a superb return of 18 league goals in 27 starts including vital late winners. Krul has been an ever-present between the sticks with 8 clean sheets for the term so far, whilst the fleet-footed Buendia has seemed a steal at times, helping to fill the creative void left by James Maddison alongside the mercurial talents of Mario Vrancic. The change of personnel and the easing of pressure on the club’s finances over this summer period has led to the creation of an environment where the overhaul of the club could really begin to accelerate.
Despite an all too familiar slow start, shades of the previous campaign have been eradicated by some superb results, with the consistency that was missing last year key to City’s ascent to the summit of the division. In fact, out of Norwich’s five defeats this season in the league, three of them came in the opening month of the season, meaning a staggering return of just two defeats since September to date. The dominant possession-based game with an unforgiving cutting edge which was envisioned by Farke last term has been on display in all its glory in Norfolk, where the Canaries have excelled themselves in almost every way in comparison to last season.
Last season’s paltry return of 49 goals in 46 games has already been smashed by Farke’s men, with an impressive 57 goals accrued already this term, with a staggering 16 games still left to play. Furthermore, this term the team have scored 4 goals in a match no less than seven occasions, a staggering 23.3% of all their league matches. There is an upturn in pace and tenacity clearly evident to the terraces compared to the year previous, with Norwich suffocating teams at times with an average possession rate per match of 54.6%, although on individual occasions more often than not this is much higher. Per game, Norwich are averaging over 490 passes per game, with 84% of those being classified as short passes, a direct result of Farke’s ideology which has been lovingly christened ‘Farkeball’ by the doting Norfolk faithful.
Norwich’s dominance on the ball has been instrumental in allowing the creativity of Buendia, Vrancic and Hernandez to shine, with the trio combining to fantastic effect with 15 assists between them including chipping in with goals to assist the forward line. Behind them, City’s philosophy has seen an enhanced burden on the defence, with the backline being breached 39 times in their 30 fixtures so far. An average of 1.3 goals conceded per game will be something Farke will be looking to shore up during the promotion run-in, with the Canaries currently 4 goals worse off than last season. However, with Norwich so potent compared to last year, Farke won’t be losing any sleep if the goals continue to flow as prominently at the right end as they are currently.
Alongside some shrewd transfer dealing and an acceleration of approach, Farke has continued to show his trust in youth, with three academy players playing key roles during the clubs sparkling run of form this season. Full-backs Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis have proven themselves as revelations respectively on opposite flanks, whilst midfield maestro Todd Cantwell has shown technical ability beyond his years in the heart of the pitch. Youth progression is a key part of the new philosophy at Carrow Road, so the fact that Aarons and Lewis have seemingly established themselves as first-choice full-backs by starting over 83% of City’s league games this season is testament to the faith shown in them both by Farke. The seemingly endless bundle of energy that both provide either side of the pitch has been a key component of the team’s success, with all three of the youngsters contributing to the attacking returns with numerous assists, with Aarons and Cantwell also netting goals themselves.
The blooding of young, home-grown talent whilst being able to maintain an assault on achieving promotion is one which should see Farke commended. It would be easy enough to use the clubs elevated position as an excuse to preserve with experience rather than the youthful endeavour which has graced Carrow Road this season. Farke has constructed an organised, dominant team with the heart and resilience to match. On numerous occasions this term, City have delivered with late, late goals to secure points, often from losing positions, in a real show of determination and tenacity. Norwich have earned a staggering 22 points with late goals scored after 80 minutes in the league this season and have completed a staggering turn-around against Millwall, as well as rescuing results with multiple injury-time goals against Nottingham Forest and a late winner against Bolton just weeks after the Millwall drama. This extravagant contrast could not be any more different compared to the City of last season – This time around, Farke’s men just don’t know when they’re beaten.
The turnaround in Norfolk over the past twelve months has been astronomical, and surely beyond even the wildest fantasies of the most optimistic City fan. The bleak, lethargic remnants of last season’s memory are almost foreign when compared to the stimulating offering from Farke’s men this season, now that the German has properly infused his ideology and beliefs over the past 18 months. The thrill of promotion to the promised land of the Premier League is currently a very possible scenario for Norwich, but however the remaining few months of the season pans out, the entire city will be talking about the revolution of Farkeball far beyond the season’s end in May.
Will Norwich secure promotion this season? What do you make of these thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!