As odd as this may sound given Reading’s drop-off in recent months, Saturday’s fixture is a clash between the two sides who’ve spent the longest time at the top of the league this season. While the Royals leading the Championship after nine of the first 11 matches feels like a distant memory, Norwich City took over in matchweek 12 and never looked back. Mathematically ensuring the title is a matter of when, rather than if, for the Canaries.
To find out how Norwich got into that position - especially given their ill-fated 2019/20 Premier League campaign - we spoke to The Pink Un’s Connor Southwell. He discussed the Canaries’ imperious form this season, Emi Buendia and the lessons Reading can learn from Norwich’s success.
Norwich have been top of the table since the 12th game of the season – what’s been behind your imperious title charge?
There’s been a few things different to two seasons ago, I’ve described Norwich as grown-up this time around. Last time, it was about outscoring opponents and being exciting to watch. The fundamentals remain the same. They want to dominate possession and be the protagonists during matches, but there is a ruthless streak that runs through the heart of what they do.
It’s a more sustainable and mature approach, geared towards top-flight survival. Grant Hanley has brought stability at the back, Emi Buendia brings real quality in creative areas. So there is that balance. They’ve managed games with real effectiveness and know when they need to shut the door. Those elements have contributed to a completely dominant season.
How has Daniel Farke improved Norwich since the last time you were in the Championship?
After relegation, Norwich were on their knees. They’d failed to record a single point in the last 10 matches after Project Restart and only scored once. He had six weeks to turn the tide and shift the mentality whilst coaching the improvements City would need to compete again in the Championship. Given what his side has managed to achieve this season, the context behind that success is absolutely staggering.
The key difference is the improved defensive structure, I think. Oliver Skipp has been a major part of that, but that ability to see games out and just the improved solidity has really aided their promotion charge this season.
Beyond Watford, they have conceded the fewest goals in the division; that’s a remarkable feat for a side who were so porous during their last two seasons. They still concede quality chances, which is a concern, but it’s better.
Secondly, I would say the overall balance of the side is better than two seasons ago. There’s a symmetry on both wings, Cantwell and Buendia both drift inside into the half spaces, Aarons and Giannoulis provide the width. McLean and Skipp complement each other nicely.
All of that has been achieved in a very short period of time.
Somewhat unusually in modern football, Norwich have been patient with Farke, sticking with him after through a mid-table finish in his debut season and even relegation in his third. How important has keeping holding of him been, and is that patience something Reading should replicate with Veljko Paunovic?
You won’t find me quoting him often (for obvious reasons), but I remember Paul Lambert saying during his time in Norfolk that ‘you’re only ever three games from the sack’. There’s definitely a truth to that statement, and it highlights how bonkers football can be.
A run of form doesn’t dictate whether a coach is excellent or rubbish but the demand for short-term success spreads and creates this self-made pressure that just hampers a team’s chances of success. Stuart Webber made a brave call when he arrived at Norwich, he sat down and actually thought ‘winning isn’t the most important thing’.
That’s a bold thing to state, not less because expectation always comes from fans. A lot of people didn’t, or refused, to understand it initially. But by believing in the process and relieving the pressure, then you construct an environment for long-term success.
Boil it down and football is a simple game. Choose a style of play and appoint a coach to implement it. Clubs who lurch from manager to manager and change style (I’ll reference Sheffield Wednesday but you can pick several clubs), then you struggle for long-term success.
There is often pain during that process. But look at Norwich, you have to endure that to move forward sometimes. So Reading have to stick with Paunovic. If you change manager every six months, it may give you a short-term boost, but in the long term it will crumble because form will turn.
If you don’t let a coach build something, then you’re never going to reach a point of sustained success. That is Norwich stuck with Farke, they looked beyond the result and sought to improve the processes.
Just the 14 goals and 16 assists for Emi Buendia so far this season. What does he bring to this Norwich side, and how important is it for you to keep hold of him?
He’s rubbish. Terrible footballer. Nothing to see here.
Okay, now the Arsenal fans are gone, he’s the best player in the Championship. He’s playing at a level closer to Champions League football than the Championship. I’ve spoken to several people who watch the Championship regularly and they state he is one of the best to play at this level ever.
He is technically proficient, his touch is as good as anyone to ever wear yellow and green. He has the capability to pick a pass that other players wouldn’t even see. Perhaps what makes him more impressive is his desire to win possession back.
Buendia presses like his life depends on having the ball glued to his foot. People often complain about his aggression and the tally of red cards he’s amassed since signing for Norwich, but you need that. Don’t rob him of that.
He is the heartbeat. Without Buendia, Norwich have fewer points on the point. He is the star. They need to keep him next season.
Are the Canaries in a stronger position to stay in the Premier League this time around?
Stronger. Largely, that’s because of the improved defensive structure.
After relegation, Farke conducted a really good interview stating that sides who are solid at the back tend to have a greater chance of survival in season one in the Premier League (and cited Sheffield United), before adding they struggle season two.
But if you look to attack, you find it tougher in the first year but then it’s easier to establish yourself thereafter. Look at Villa. That has fuelled the changes we’ve seen from Farke in terms of approach. Plus, they have a better squad that contains more variety.
So yes, but let’s not kid ourselves, it will be incredibly tough for them to stay up and will hinge on the quality of their recruitment.
What have you made of Reading’s season overall, and what do you put our drop-off down to?
Pfft. What a question. I’m probably in the camp that felt there was a degree of over-performance early in the season (I know that won’t make me popular on here!), but I don’t subscribe to the view that it was fortune placing Reading in the top six. They were there on merit.
So I can’t lie and say I’m massively surprised, but small squads are dangerous at this level and sustaining that form is so difficult because of the sheer volume of games.
In many way, I think promotion this season could have been a bad thing for Reading, merely because it won’t allow you to build something and I think it would have been a tough year in the top flight. When people reflect on this season, I hope they take the positives from it rather than the disappointment of how you’ve slipped away.
Reading are in a strong place to build something. They can’t abandon that in search of promotion. You can achieve success by having an excellent set of processes and smart recruitment.
If they can strengthen accordingly this summer, Reading will be in a good place to have another go with another year of experience under their belt.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
I’m in two minds, to be honest. Often when teams have little to play for, they perform with freedom and quality. Reading have dangerous players and I think they can hurt Norwich in certain areas.
That said, with City needing a win to secure the title, I’m struggling to see a situation where they fail to get it done. So I think it will be a home win. 3-1.