BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
East Anglia’s sole representative is the focus of the next Premier League season preview on Fan Fuel, as Norwich look to consolidate their presence in the top flight on the back of some ambitious signings.
Chris Hughton proved the doubters wrong last season after he led Norwich to a successful eleventh place finish after the departure of popular manager Paul Lambert. The final place in the standings was a bit misleading as the relegation battle tightened towards the end of the season, but Norwich were always in control of their own destiny and for a club that did not spend extravagantly the Canaries did extremely well by staying solid for most of the campaign.
Hughton made his team extremely organized and incredibly tough to beat. When Norwich took the lead, they became extremely difficult opponents to break down tactically as witnessed in memorable victories over Arsenal and Manchester United at Carrow Road. Now Hughton’s management will be challenged by integrating forwards of a higher calibre, and the greater pedigree of the squad heading into the season has fans of the Canaries excited by the club’s ambition.
On defence: John Ruddy’s injury in the early part of last season meant Mark Bunn was number one for most of the season. Bunn impressed between the sticks, and as a result Hughton knows there is good competition for the goalkeepers spot in the starting eleven. The duo have split pre-season evenly, though Ruddy’s better shot stopping ability along with greater experience might just give him the edge in the battle for a starting place at the beginning of the season.
Sebastien Bassong was easily the standout player for the Canaries last season. The centre-back clearly relishes the greater responsibility he has at Carrow Road compared to his tough stint at Spurs. At the age of 27, the team captain can only get better as most centre-backs do around this age. Getting past Bassong either in one-on-ones or in the air was beyond most forwards last season. Unfortunately for both, club and player, Bassong will not be ready to start the season. Hughton has started Michael Turner and Ryan Bennett in pre-season and will continue to play the duo in the starting line-up until Bassong returns. The partnership will certainly be tested, as Turner doesn’t relish being the leader at the back, and Bennett can’t be relied upon to maintain a consistent standard in the Premier League. The only other option for Hughton is Daniel Ayala, who hasn’t replicated his success in the Championship at the highest level, but can still improve, as he is only 22.
Making left-back Javier Garrido’s loan deal permanent was important as the Spaniard brought composure and calmness in possession to Norwich’s backline. Garrido’s comfort on the ball also meant that the Canaries found good outlets when defending leads, rather than aimlessly ceding position. Hughton has also signed Swedish international Martin Olsson as cover, and the wingback brings considerable experience to the team in case Garrido gets injured or suspended. Olsson can also double up with Garrido as an attacking left winger, further adding to his utility. Norwich’s weakest position at the back is right-back, with Russell Martin expected to continue in the position. Martin guarantees effort and perspiration, but his lack of speed can be exposed, and the worry for Hughton is that back up Steven Whittaker isn’t necessarily up to the requisite standard either.
The midfield: Hughton rotated between Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson and Alexander Tettey in central midfield last season, and the indications from pre-season are that the trio are going to continue to have an important role for the upcoming campaign. At times, Hughton was flexible enough to accommodate all three in the team.
Howson is the most dynamic of the trio, his all-action style well suited to the rigours of the Premier League. The former Leeds United man is excellent at tracking back, and will often run the length of the pitch to support an attack. Johnson prefers to be the pivot linking play between Norwich’s backline and the forwards with composed passes and can often sneak in unnoticed into empty spaces in the penalty box to score vital goals. Tettey is yet another Norwegian who has easily settled in the Premier League. The defensive midfielder is an excellent reader of the game, and his physicality brings an added dimension to the Canaries midfield. Extremely deft in the tackle, Tettey also very rarely cedes possession when he gets the ball at his feet.
However, there is a significant chance that the aforementioned trio will be upstaged by the arrival of new signing, Leroy Fer. The Dutch international was on the brink of signing for Everton in January until he failed a medical. It was quite surprising that Everton didn’t follow up their interest in the summer, and Norwich swooped in. Fer has superior all-round qualities to Howson, has a better eye for goal than Johnson, and is equally adept at tackling as Tettey. If Fer settles quickly, he has the potential to become a Premier League star at Carrow Road.
On the attack: Grant Holt and Steve Morison, two reminders of Norwich’s legacy of their promotion from League One have left the club. In their place, come the ambitious signings of Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel. It’s never easy for signings from abroad to immediately find their feet in the Premier League, but the odds of at least one of the striking pair being a success in their first season are pretty high.
Hooper will be more attuned to the league as he has been scoring goals for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League, a division similar in physicality if not pedigree, and since he is English will have no issues with cultural adjustment that most imports suffer from. The Dutchman van Wolfswinkel comes with a greater stature, and successful forwards at Sporting Lisbon don’t generally tend to end up at Carrow Road. He has the potential to excite the fans with his lethal finishing, while he is also extremely good at creating chances for his teammates with intelligent passes.
Though unproven, the signing of winger Nathan Redmond also has the potential to become a success, as pace and directness are always effective in the top flight, especially against weaker opposition. The Irish duo of Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington will also be responsible for sharing the creative burden. Hoolahan will feature prominently in the hole behind the forwards, while Pilkington will be expected to deliver crosses from the left wing as well as drifting inwards to create an added scoring option in the box.
Conclusion: Norwich are not the kind of club to make rash decisions and snap judgements. At most other clubs the ambitious signings of the summer would be viewed as fantasy football management, but under Chris Hughton’s astute leadership, the incoming transfers are the logical next step for the Canaries.
Scoring goals was the biggest problem last season, and the Canaries have at least made the right moves on paper to bolster their attack. With a manager that can only get better with experience, a defence that is reliable and trustworthy, in addition to a midfield that combines creativity with variety, and finally the upgrade in attacking options, Norwich should stay well clear of the relegation battle and consolidate their position in the Premier League.