It was a weekend packed with late drama in the ever-unpredictable Championship but, if there is one thing you can count on this season, it is that Norwich will outclass their opponents. The Canaries won their eighth game in a row on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of the table to seven points. Managerless QPR did not provide the toughest of challenges but Daniel Farke’s side have looked a cut above the opposition for some time now.
Farke has turned his squad into the dominant force in the division in hugely impressive fashion, which is all the more admirable given that his job came under some scrutiny after an underwhelming first season at Carrow Road. Norwich only finished 14th last season – when they scored fewer goals (49) than bottom club Sunderland – but they stood by their coach and his long-term vision.
When the club cashed in on their prized assets last summer, selling James Maddison to Leicester for £22m and Josh Murphy to Cardiff for £11m, fans could have been forgiven for expecting the worst. With the club only spending £5m of that money on new recruits, the Canaries looked as likely to be relegated as promoted. Maddison had been their jewel, scoring 14 times and providing a further eight assists, giving him a direct hand in 45% of their league goals in the season before he left. Replacing a player of his quality in the Championship was supposed to be impossible, but Norwich’s recruitment and faith in their coach has paid off handsomely.
Wolves won the league at something of a canter last season, but the quality of football Norwich have produced since the turn of the year has been just as entertaining, if not more so. They scored their 82nd goal of the season in the 4-0 win over QPR at the weekend, equalling Wolves’ total from last season with six games to spare.
Both clubs have disproved the theory that managers need experience of the Championship to succeed in this notoriously demanding and difficult division. Instead, their coaches’ knowledge of their native leagues and markets has been pivotal to their success – as was the case with Huddersfield before them.
Nevertheless, the way Norwich have set about ruling the league is more impressive than what their predecessors achieved. That’s not to discredit Wolves’ efforts last year but, in terms of financial muscle, there is no comparison between the two clubs. Norwich have made a considerable profit in each of the last three seasons, opting to promote youth while picking up more than the odd bargain along the way. They do not have the help of a Jorge Mendes figure to bring in players who never truly belonged in the league. Norwich have had to look for value instead and boy have they found it.
Teemu Pukki has been the face of their remarkable turnaround, particularly in front of goal. The Championship’s top scorer took his tally to 26 at the weekend with two goals against QPR. He was fairly prolific in his four seasons at Brondby but few could have foreseen the impact he would have at Carrow Road after his free transfer last summer. The former Celtic striker has been ruthless in front of goal and has been brilliant at bringing those behind him into play, picking up nine assists in the process.
Mario Vrancic, Marco Stiepermann and Onel Hernández have also come to the fore, having been signed last season – proving that acclimatisation and familiarity within the camp has also played its part. However, signing Emiliano Buendía has been a real masterstroke. The Argentinian has been the Maddison replacement that Norwich fans never thought they would find. He is not a like-for-like replacement, but Buendía has also made his mark in the final third, with eight goals and 11 assists so far.
Buendía operates from the right wing rather than down the middle, but the intelligence of his movement and understanding with those around him has flourished. He arguably possesses more creativity from open play than Maddison and, whereas a large proportion of the team’s threat came through the centre last season, that has now changed. Last season only Derby focused a higher percentage of their attacks down the middle of the pitch, while Norwich now rank 18th in that regard.
There’s an impressive balance to their play now too, with full-backs Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis playing crucial roles in supporting attacks from wide. Both have excelled this season and attracted interest from top-flight clubs – as has fellow academy graduate Ben Godfrey. The trio, who are all 21 or under, are joined in the back four by 26-year old Christoph Zimmermann. This defence offers huge promise for the future if they stay together.
If Norwich are not promoted – which seems a near impossibility now – the battle for their top young talent will be intense. As it is, the Canaries are soaring back into the Premier League with a fantastic platform for success built on astute overseas recruitment and promotion from the academy. Their philosophy was highlighted perfectly at the weekend’s EFL awards, where Finnish free transfer Pukki was voted player of the season and teenager Aarons was given the young player award.
Farke has been the biggest success story of all. He should serve as a reminder to other clubs – such as their latest victims, QPR, who are expected to appoint Tim Sherwood as their new manager – that the answer is not always close to home.