An unbeaten preseason, astute transfer market dealings and a derby win against East Anglian rivals Ipswich Town have ensured an upbeat start to Norwich City’s return to the Championship.
After a disastrous 2013/14 season that saw negative, one-dimensional football lacking in intensity, and a squad with limited strength-in-depth, combine to disastrous effect – culminating in Norwich’s relegation – Neil Adams has replaced the doom and gloom with a renewed sense of optimism direly lacking under Chris Hughton’s tenure. Despite a disappointing loss to the Wolves on the opening day, the Canaries have since taken ten points from a possible fifteen, a run of three consecutive victories against Watford, Blackburn and Ipswich helping consolidate fourth in the table.
Several encouraging conclusions can be drawn from the opening five games, which saw new signing Lewis Grabban endear himself to Carrow Road with a league-best five goals, including the winner against Ipswich and against former club Bournemouth in a 1-1 draw. After the unsuccessful deployment of the diamond at Wolves left the full-backs terribly exposed – epitomised by Martin Olsson’s dismissal for two bookable offences – Adams has reverted to a 4-2-3-1, showing a willingness to recognise where mistakes have been made and how to adjust accordingly. The iron midfield alliance of Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson has provided solid cover in front of the back four, each taking it in turns to push forward – with Johnson bagging two goals from range in as many matches – while the creative talents of Nathan Redmond, Wes Hoolahan and new-signing Kyle Lafferty have provided the perfect foil for Grabban leading the line, a set-up that has yielded eight goals in four League games, while only conceding two.
Adams and co. have responded well to criticisms of the previous regime, but what will really set him apart from the other top managers in the division – the likes of Stuart Pearce, Steve McClaren and Ian Holloway – will be whether he can ensure his team continues to adapt as other sides discover the formula to Norwich’s success. Whether that is through a different strategic approach or through tactical game-changing substitutions, how well Adams does this will determine how successful the team is. That said, it is encouraging to hear that Watford keeper Heurelho Gomes was specifically targeted for his being prone to lobbing – a tactic which paid off handsomely in Norwich’s 3-0 win.
Exciting developments on the field have been supplemented by the club’s transfer dealings off it. Relegation was naturally accompanied by the fear that Norwich would lose its key playing staff, with offers received for England U-21 prospect Redmond, standout left-back Olsson, Dutch midfielder Leroy Fer and Scottish international Robert Snodgrass. Of course, City weren’t to be invulnerable to the vultures of the Premier League, as the latter two moved on to QPR and Hull respectively, yet Adams will feel he got a fair price for the duo. 2013/14 Player of the Year Snodgrass had only one year left on his contract, but Hull were nevertheless willing to pay over £7m, while Fer’s goal against Chile at the World Cup no doubt had some impact on his transfer fee.
Moreover, keeping hold of Olsson and Redmond will do wonders for the continuity of this squad, while Michael Turner’s decision to sign a new contract is arguably bigger than any signing City have made this summer. Add to that the in-form Grabban, Kyle Lafferty and Cameron Jerome to spruce up the attack, Gary O’Neill and Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe to midfield and Jos Hooiveld, Carlos Cuellar and Ignasi Miquel in defence, and Adams has got himself a squad very much capable of challenging for promotion. Picking his best team could be a welcome headache.
After the international break Norwich visit Cardiff and Brentford, before facing Birmingham and League Two Shrewsbury in the third round of the League Cup. Continuing their impressive start will be Adams’ chief goal; continuing their present average of two points per game would have been enough for Burnley to secure automatic promotion last season. One senses that there could be more to come.