How Norwich made getting straight back to the Premier League look easy

In the end, Norwich did not even have to wait for Saturday night’s home game with Bournemouth, helped over the line before a 3-1 defeat with 10 men by the failure of Swansea and Brentford to win at lunchtime. It turned into a procession in recent weeks but, while Norwich have made returning to the Premier League at the first attempt look easy, in many ways this was a moment they had been preparing for long before last season ended.

A brutal relegation – death by a thousand cuts as Stuart Webber, the club’s sporting director, put it – fuelled their hunger to return reinvigorated but there were never plans to rip it up and start again. Instead, they practised what they preach: that the long game is king.

“The future started yesterday,” Webber said last July, two days after relegation was confirmed, and so Norwich quietly got on with things. Daniel Farke remained, as did a core of players, including Teemu Pukki, who has provided a steady flow of goals, and Emi Buendía, the jewel in the crown and arguably the standout performer in the Championship this season. Buendía left Preston with a bloody ankle on Good Friday, a veiled compliment towards a player who has racked up a league-high 15 assists, and it was apt that the Argentinian was at the heart of Norwich’s 7-0 destruction of Huddersfield last week that left them on verge of promotion.

Apart from the absence of a feisty challenge or an audacious lob from halfway, as tried in victory at Cardiff, that trouncing offered something of a full house in Buendía bingo. It was a display of brawn and beauty; he coiled away from Jonathan Hogg before playing an irresistible one-two with Kieran Dowell as Norwich added a fifth before half-time, by which point he had teed up Pukki and Todd Cantwell to strike (the latter via a Cruyff turn), smacked the crossbar and got on the scoresheet.

After that avalanche of action, cameras caught a snapshot of Farke-life as the Norwich head coach channelled Pep Guardiola by offering the 18-year-old defender Andrew Omobamidele, fresh from a seamless performance on his second league start, pointers on tactical positioning a few minutes after the final whistle before heading down the tunnel. Farke is a master in man-management, meticulous in his approach, to the point where he wishes to be kept in the loop on seemingly trivial details, be it senior players being on the verge of individual milestones or academy youngsters signing new contracts so that he can weave such topics into training or a conversation.

Emi Buendía causes problems for Rotherham’s defence
Emi Buendía causes problems for Rotherham’s defence. Photograph: Shaun Brooks/Action Plus/Rex/Shutterstock

There may be some difficult conversations on the horizon too, should suitors step up interest in Buendía, Cantwell or Max Aarons, the electric right-back subject of a loan inquiry from Barcelona last summer and interest from Roma in January. Norwich will not stand in the way of players but sanction sales on their terms, as they did with Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis, sold for a combined £40m last summer, and James Maddison, whom Leicester bought for £22m 12 months earlier.

Norwich will not panic. Buendía, signed from Getafe for an initial £1.3m a fortnight before Maddison’s departure, is a prime example of their sound succession planning, though the midfielder is one of several key players who they would no longer be able to sign owing to Brexit. “I remember when we sold Jonny Howson [to Middlesbrough in 2017] and everyone was moaning about me,” Webber said in February. “It’s like: ‘Well, there’ll be a new hero,’ and later that summer it was James Maddison and six months later everyone’s going: ‘Jonny who?’ One day Emi will leave and there’ll be another version of him. You have to take emotion out of it and plan for these departures because at some point it’s inevitable.”

Norwich’s manager, Daniel Farke, with Kenny McLean and the loanee Oliver Skipp.
Norwich’s manager, Daniel Farke, with Kenny McLean and the loanee Oliver Skipp. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

Norwich have leaned on the spine of the team that won the Championship two years ago – Tim Krul in goal, Buendía, who has developed a telepathic understanding with Pukki, and Aarons, who has missed only 82 league minutes this season – but their manipulation of the loan market has also been key to success this season, with Oliver Skipp, who arrived from Tottenham as a teenager with three league starts, outstanding in midfield. Promotion triggers the permanent signings of the defenders Dimitris Giannoulis (£6.2m from PAOK Salonika) and Ben Gibson (£8m from Burnley) but how they would love to find another temporary solution with Spurs and Skipp, an authoritative presence.

Norwich have been sturdy in defence and displayed a level of pragmatism that will surely bode well on their return to the Premier League but equally they have entertained. “The best quality in football is not no-look passes or backheels where you try to fool the opponents, it is more when you make football look simple,” Farke said in midweek. “To do that you have to do the easy things really tidy and clean and to be on good on the detail.”

Upon promotion two years ago, Norwich’s biggest signing was the £750,000 arrival of Sam Byram and, despite Webber admitting they got it badly wrong last time, a lavish recruitment drive is inconceivable. They will surely focus on furnishing Farke’s attack, having registered a league-low 26 goals, 11 by Pukki, last time.

After relegation Webber shouldered the blame, insisting he was responsible for sending Farke to war without a gun. “And guess what? We’ve got shot,” he said. “What we need to do is make sure that if get back there, we’re fully armed up and ready to fight back.”


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