Ahead of Reading’s visit to Carrow Road tonight, we caught up with Norwich City fan Connor Southwell to talk life at the top of the Championship, building a philosophy behind the scenes and the Canaries’ key players. You can find Connor on Twitter @cjsouthwell1902.
Last time we met, we were talking about Norwich City’s ‘slow start’ to the season. What’s changed?
What has been witnessed is how different components develop over a prolonged period.
If you were to place a gun to my head and make me choose, that away fixture at Ipswich Town in October was a significant turning point. It was the first time that Max Aarons started with Emi Buendia in front of him. Jordan Rhodes led the line that day, the game after was Teemu Pukki’s first as a lone striker with Marco Steipermann behind him.
The change has been a subtle process. Philosophically, their play has always been clear. Norwich want to pass through the thirds, the introduction of the two dynamic, young full-backs have helped them retain width in attacking phases of play but also allowed those more technical operators to play in the space between the lines. Once you add some fluid, adept phases of play commonly finished by Pukki, you get a good side.
What’s been amazing is to watch the growth of some operators. Those who played last season have taken responsibility but aren’t operating with the restrictive nature of the football last season. Possession ends with chance creation; the wiring has been readjusted away from just keeping the ball and onto how to work it effectively.
Daniel Farke deserves credit also. This hasn’t merely been him chopping and changing before stumbling upon a formula but instead his long term methods becoming visible consistently. Farke has been stubborn when many managers would have opted to revert away from their core beliefs in fear of their job. Not Farke.
Promotion seems inevitable for you - will you get over the line?
Any football supporter knows that until you see the yellow bar backgrounding your team’s name, nothing is confirmed.
On 84 points, with six games to go and given the fact 87 points has guaranteed a top two finish for something crazy like the last ten years (correct me if I’m wrong…) so it does seem somewhat of an inevitability now.
The paradigm in and around NR1 has certainly shifted to when and not if. Three points on Wednesday night is another brick laid in the pathway to the Premier League but they cannot afford to look beyond that.
Why have they been so successful this season? Unlike others, they’ve succeeded against a backdrop of financial insecurity, lack of expectation and absent of any household names. They are every club’s dream of how to be successful. Low transfer fees, a trust in academy graduates and a belief in a style of play. Fundamentally, when you strip it all that, that’s the secret recipe behind the success.
This team deserves to be playing against the very best in the country. It’s going to entertaining.
What work has gone on behind-the-scenes at Norwich to put you where you are?
In 2017, Norwich City sacked Alex Neil after much criticism and under-performing with a squad assembled on the second biggest Championship budget at that point. Ultimately, they had failed. Players were playing as individuals, for their name on the back and not respecting the badge and what it meant to people.
Those occupying the corridors of power had to decide whether they wanted to continue down the same path which had ultimately resulted in Premier League relegation and Championship stagnation. So, Ed Balls, then chairman, consulted with ex-Liverpool Sporting Director Damien Comolli about the transition towards an altogether new way. The story goes that the board initially voted down the idea before Delia overruled them with an intervention. That may not be true. But it’s a nice thought.
So in came Stuart Webber from Huddersfield, arriving with a carte blanche to effect the inner workings of the club from a footballing perspective. He’s connected the link between the academy and first team, presenting those within it with opportunity should they warrant one. His recruitment policy has involved fishing in ponds where most don’t look. Reference Emi Buendia, who was playing in the second tier of Spanish football or Teemu Pukki, playing in the Superliga in Denmark.
A lot of it is intelligence. Developing players to make a profit and finding unpolished gems like Tom Trybull or Mo Leitner, seen as damaged goods elsewhere, have been taken in and refined under Daniel Farke.
This club is more of a Broadchurch. Their philosophy is cohesive and attractive to watch but also effective.
Appointing Farke wasn’t merely a repetition of Webber’s appointment of David Wagner at Huddersfield. Not every manager from Germany is a Jurgen Klopp wannabe. Farke is more like Thomas Tuchel, one of his key influences from Borussia Dortmund. His squad has been assembled through good recruitment and then built through good coaching plus the creation of a togetherness not there before. So, without scratching the surface on what they’ve done, the footballing side of the club has shifted dramatically, almost unrecognisably so. This Norwich City is inclusive, together and progressive.
Who are the key players behind your success?
All of them.
Externally, you’d probably pin your hat on Pukki’s stand for being the most influential but without the contributions of those behind him then he wouldn’t have 26 goals. Individually, Norwich possesses some fantastic operators. Collectively, they work as a piece of clockwork with expressive and togetherness. This group has been keen to avoid personal accolade, so that’s something I’ll maintain.
Pukki, Buendia and Trybull have been shining lights in recent weeks, they’ve been pivotal to the rhythm City have found. Luckily for you, one of those won’t be playing on Wednesday in Buendia who really has blossomed into quite the footballer. Pukki meanwhile has rediscovered his goal scoring touch, his rich seam of productivity has been amazing to consume. Has anyone mentioned he was a free transfer?! EFL Player of the Season and doesn’t often miss.
Honestly, Reading need to be wary of all eleven.
If Reading are to cause an upset, what Norwich weaknesses will they need to exploit?
Norwich have come unstuck against a pressing game, if you consume highlights of games against Preston and Middlesbrough then you’ll recognise their struggle against an intense press.
The problem is sustaining it. Deploying a low block and allowing Norwich’s offensive protagonists to dismantle your defensive shape is a dangerous plan to deploy. Pressing with intensity for prolonged periods is difficult to maintain. Even when teams have played a pressing game, Norwich have come up with a moment of quality to win the game.
That midfield duo of Trybull and Kenny McLean has settled now, but has shown weakness in recent weeks. If Reading can get a grasp of midfield, press effectively but not necessarily constantly, then be effective on the counter attack, then there is space behind the advancing full backs should Reading have the nous to exploit it.
It’ll be a difficult task but they have to come and be bold. Every point is key and they have improved under Jose Gomes. There is plenty of comparisons to draw between Gomes and Farke and the respective coaches.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
Personally, I struggle to see anything other than a home win.
Given the prize on offer and the way they have been playing, its difficult not to see a home win with relative comfort. Gomes has improved Reading and they are much improved to the extent where I believe they’ll stay up, but Norwich are simply too strong.
Without Nelson Oliveira available, Reading will lack definition up front and there’s the potential to be isolated given the way Norwich dictate possession. I don’t think it’ll be a home rout, but it will be a home win.
And if not, then Ipswich Town’s relegation gets confirmed with a Reading win, so there is that.