‘The table doesn’t lie.’
It’s true. We can moan, groan and recall the ‘what ifs’ of the season, but ultimately each team’s destiny will be decided by their own performances.
Norwich City fans have had plenty to moan about this campaign. With a league-low of 25 goals in 31 games, the Canaries appear condemned to life back in the Championship. However, while the table may reflect their points garnered so far, Daniel Farke would argue their ‘basement-boys’ standing certainly doesn’t reflect the quality of their play.
Despite their seemingly inevitable fate, Norwich can drop down to England’s second tier with their heads held high, having refused to tailor their passing philosophy in order to achieve survival.
Or can they?
While Teemu Pukki’s 29-goal haul certainly stole the headlines in their promotion campaign of 2018/19, the orchestrator of the team which enjoyed such a fruitful year was undoubtedly Marco Stiepermann.
The former Germany Under-20 international was head and shoulders above any other midfielder in the Championship. His wiry frame and ability to make up ground made him a nightmare for the opposition to get past, while his ability on the ball – not befitting for someone of his stature – was unparalleled.
Farke’s arrival at Carrow Road introduced a new dawn of football in Norfolk. No longer were they the ‘lump it up to Cameron Jerome’ side of yesteryear; there was a calculated approach to Norwich’s play and Stiepermann was central to that.
The former Dortmund man would dictate the pace of play and had the balance, ability and composure to lay the foundations of a superb side. Everything went through the midfield metronome, while his ability in the opposition box was also key to the Canaries’ promotion, notching double figures for the season.
Ably assisted by fellow-silky midfielders Moritz Leitner and Mario Vrančić, the Norwich midfield became a force to be reckoned with as they steamrolled their way to 94 points for the season; 11 points ahead of third place.
It was clear from the off that Farke intended to adopt the same philosophy in the Premier League, with Stiepermann a central figure in the midfield in the early stages of the season. However, with the club sitting bottom of the table at the turn of the year, Farke ripped up the blueprint and reverted to the newly-promoted type.
The German midfielder has played just 17 minutes of league football in 2020, even failing to make the matchday squad on four occasions. In his place have come Alexander Tettey and Kenny McLean; both industrious and workmanlike midfielders, but neither possess Stiepermann’s footballing ability.
The pair’s tendency to concede possession is evident cause for concern for Farke. In the club’s two games back since the break, both Southampton and Everton ran riot at times, with Norwich conceding cheap possession in midfield and the frail Canaries defence being exposed far too often.
While the creativity of Emiliano Buendía seems to have papered over the cracks of Stiepermann’s omission in terms of assists, the lack of a ball-playing midfielder is all too apparent.
Norwich’s biggest asset is undoubtedly the finishing of Pukki, but without Stiepermann in the side they don’t appear to have the class or the guile in midfield to link up with the Finland international, and he spends the majority of the game chasing lost causes from balls pumped aimlessly into the corners.
While Farke has ditched the tried and tested formula which gleaned success in the Championship, he doesn’t appear to have altered the way Norwich play out of possession, and this is another huge cause for concern.
Such was his side’s ability to keep hold of the ball last season, there was very little need for a high-pressing team that worked tirelessly out of possession to try and win the ball back; as they rarely gave the ball away.
Despite switching to two combative-holding midfielders who concede possession more readily than those they replaced, Norwich still sit very deep out of possession and show no urgency in trying to regain possession, meaning they spend long periods of games without the ball.
Not only have Norwich lost a goal threat by ditching players like Stiepermann and Vrančić for Tettey and McLean, but they’ve lost their identity. If Farke harbours any lingering hopes of playing Premier League football next season, he needs to revert to the blueprint which brought him success last season.