Chris Hughton had an honest and understandably smug reaction to not being able to find a place in his Norwich squad for newly-signed Sweden international Martin Olsson for the win over Southampton a fortnight ago: “I suppose I am at the stage where picking substitutes can be as difficult as actually picking the starting line up”. That his Canaries squad has been bolstered significantly over the summer without too much in the way of significant outgoings has generated optimism at the club.
No fewer than eight new players came through the doors as Hughton took the opportunity that is the transfer window to reshape the squad, with the focus clearly on strengthening in attacking positions. Grant Holt has departed and Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Johan Elmander have come in, while younger players in Nathan Redmond and Leroy Fer have replaced the likes of Simeon Jackson and Andrew Surman. Such have been the changes that they now have a squad depth that Hughton simply could not boast this time last year. 5 of Norwich’s 7 substitutes on the opening day of last season have been moved on to fields anew, while all 7 of those named on the bench in the win over Saints had decent runs in the first team last season.
This, with 7 internationals in the starting lineup and no place for Olsson or former Celtic striker Gary Hooper who was unavailable through injury, signals a sign of the times at Carrow Road. In turn, Hughton has a luxury on his hands that is befitting of a top half team, and thus those who funded his shopping spree may be expecting a top ten finish.
Some improvements have been visible from an early stage and the side looks a more fluid and exciting outfit. They have seen their players dribble past opponents 10.3 times per game so far this season, up from just 4.8 last season. Much of that is a result of Redmond’s presence, the winger second in the league in this regard, with 4.3 alone.
The Canaries were distinctly lacking in pace down the wings last season and the England Under-21 international will add to that. Able to run at defenders, go down the line and cross or cut in and shoot from distance – as showcased in scoring the only goal against Southampton – Redmond could be that player that can score valuable goals from nowhere that Norwich previously did not have.
What is more, Norwich were the only team that did not score a single goal from a counter attack last season, and breaking away at pace will come more easily with players like Redmond in their ranks.
Another development has seen a rise in the influence of their full-backs, who have been far more involved in their attacking play. Just 2 of Norwich’s 41 Premier League goals last season were assisted by right- or left-backs; only Stoke ranked worse in this regard (1). Furthermore, only 4 of the Canaries’ goals were scored by players in those positions, and already this season Steven Whittaker has provided a goal and assist apiece from his right-back berth.
Clearly, Whittaker has been encouraged to get forward more often than Russell Martin did from that berth last season. Of Norwich players, only Redmond (34) has completed more passes in the final third than Whittaker (33), while left-back Javier Garrido isn’t far behind (25). The Spaniard’s 8.3 successful final third passes per game is a small but significant jump up from 5.9 over the previous campaign. With a team that struggled for goals last season, Hughton is looking for new avenues to pursue for creativity, hoping to create overloaded situations involving Garrido and Whittaker that his wide players can exploit.
However, the changes in personnel are not going to necessarily mean a wholly different approach. A spine to the team – including the manager – has remained constant, and that is fundamentally a positive, but with them staying, so too have some rather unhealthy habits.
Van Wolfswinkel should be a significant upgrade on Grant Holt, but he won’t be if Norwich continue to play a style of football that bypasses the creative players in the middle of the field. All too often, the Canaries resorted to looking long for Holt to battle to retain possession high up the field. The likes of Fer have been brought in as a remedy to that kind of problem, but old habits die hard.
The side have played more long balls per game this season (55.3) than they did last (52.5) and that is not playing to van Wolfswinkel’s strengths. Goalkeeper John Ruddy has put the ball into the opposition third 42 times this season, which is 10 more than any other Norwich player and only fewer than West Ham’s James Collins (47) across the whole Premier League.
Another problem last term was their away form. They scored 16 goals and won only 2 of their 19 league matches on the road all season, one of which was a 3-2 win at Eastlands on the final day of the season when Manchester City’s 2nd place finish was long since decided. Already this term things look worryingly familiar, Hughton’s side going down in their only away game so far at 10-man Hull.
The widespread changes at Norwich will ultimately make for a better side and more success as a result. However, expecting too great an impact already would be unfair, with the new players and Hughton needing time to get used to each other, and this should be a learning curve for both parties. Those brought in signalled revolutionary changes in playing staff, but this is a period of evolution rather than revolution in terms of playing style and results at Carrow Road.
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