And we drift on, maybe aimlessly, until someone takes control of the situation. Nathan Hill dissects the challenges that lie ahead...
Blimey. If Ben Knapper’s in-tray wasn’t starting to pile high during the international break, it’s certainly overflowing now. Another brutal three-game week of Norwich City football has ended in the kind of inaction and radio silence that we’ve become accustomed to these past couple of seasons. David Wagner remains, for now. But he is sounding and looking increasingly deflated and beaten. The incoming sporting director will no doubt have his own head coaches in mind, the only question is how quickly he’ll pull the trigger on the current one. Given how data and process-driven he is reported to be, you suspect there’s no way he’ll view a current run of seven losses in ten (in league and cup) as an acceptable trajectory.
The manner of the three defeats has made me quickly reassess my previous take on Wagner. Until the second half against Leeds, the home performances and results were holding up – but it never felt reliably so. It was perhaps only a matter of time until the same game (mis)management the hardy souls have beared witness to on the road found its way back to NR1. We should be able to trust this team to play with a two-goal lead, but you could feel the lack thereof permeating around Carrow Road as soon as we’d notched our second own goal in as many games – perhaps even before that. Prior home fixtures could’ve also easily gone another way on another day when you think back to a few key moments in each.
What we’re seeing on the pitch feels awkward, temporary and misaligned – mirroring the dysfunction and rudderlessness occurring behind the scenes. Wagner, being a Jürgen Klopp disciple, would’ve surely coveted ultra-fit and energetic players to deliver his heavy metal gegenpressing and rapid transitions. Instead he was given a band of journeymen who give themselves whiplash if they ever attempt a headbang. Combine those with a handful of previously-forgotten men who the last two head coaches have half-discarded and no wonder it’s hard work getting a tune out of them.
However, the unravelling we’re seeing every game now, and of the season as a whole, does lie at the coach’s door. Ultimately it’s his job to maximise what he has and give us the best chance of picking up points. It has become impossible to explain his faith in the centre backs after cataclysmic error after cataclysmic error, as well as the algorithmic, ChatGPT-esque, approach to substitutions which appear to have no tactical benefit and serve to only reduce whatever tempo we’d built up. If the first 60 minutes (against Leeds) was a Slipknot set, the final half-hour was more akin to an ASMR video. Forget squad construction, forget footballing ideals, leaving the rapid Crysencio Summerville with just one man to beat over a 50-yard patch of grass in the 85th minute from your own set piece is jaw-dropping negligence at best, total malpractice at worst. This was the third game in a row where points have been lost in the last ten minutes to a completely avoidable mishap.
Wagner was never likely to be equipped with the precise tools he’d have wanted given the messy dynamic of a sporting director trying to sell the mid to long-term project of a football club which he himself is leaving. While we were forewarned that the average age of the team would increase, you have to wonder how much effort was made to appeal to what would’ve once been more on-brand signings. Which other football clubs, upon receiving the resignation notice of the guy who makes the transfers happen, months before a vitally important summer window, would allow that guy to keep making the transfers? What good, long-lasting foundational pieces were ever going to come from it?
Only Borja Sainz, out of those expected to contribute right away, is under the age of 27. And he isn’t yet contributing much due to a combination of his injury and our ultra-caution to introduce him off the back of it. The squad Knapper is being left with feels like the default, nondescript roster you’d start a PES Master League save with back in the day. No standout traits, every stat firmly in the 60-70 range. Certainly not a group built to suit any particular style or coach, or for any other coach to be able to seamlessly pick up and work with – as was the idea presented to us six years ago.
Why couldn’t we tap into the South American contacts book that Mariella Nisotaki has been so expertly cultivating? For just one or two, out of the nine or ten first team signings? A young lad joining the development squad on loan, who we may never see play in front of a capacity crowd, doesn’t count. Gabriel Sara and Marcelino Nuñez (for the first half of 2022/23 at least) added the only hints of flavour in last season’s shit sandwich and it’s the one branch of recruitment that does actually seem to be working well. Having several names on the books with no room to develop and grow (as players but also in transfer value) doesn’t work for Norwich City. It’s a complete one-eighty from the philosophy put in place in 2017 and signals, frankly, a lack of care as to what the team and club look like once the buck has been passed.
Meanwhile in the boardroom, we have a hung parliament for the time being. There’s probably nothing more Norwich-y than that. With 40% each, neither Delia and Michael or the Attanasios have a majority of the shareholding. For the Milwaukee-based group to officially become ‘owners’, Smith and Wynn-Jones would need to cede more (or all) of their stake – which they are still reluctant to do. This won’t sound anything other than a sweeping, ignorant, generalisation but I can’t think of a more tedious process elsewhere in the world of sport. We’re forever seeing takeovers at larger, similarly-sized, and even smaller clubs lower down the pyramid happen seemingly overnight – to us outsiders looking in anyway.
We’ve seen three or four shareholder votes take place over the last few months and we’re still not there yet. Don’t get me wrong, at some other clubs, more due diligence wouldn’t have gone amiss before certain questionable characters were able to seize far too much power. Over the last year, however, it has become unequivocally clear the Attanasios are a perfect fit for us. Recent quotes from Delia (on the High Performance podcast) have given the impression that a full takeover isn’t quite the formality we thought it to be.
You can appreciate the reticence, on a human level, to let go of something so dear to the heart after what has been over a quarter of a century but, at the same time, if you really want what’s best for the club, you’d realise the current model is actually preventing Norwich City from being the best possible, self-sustaining, version of itself. We need to fully commit to the next chapter or forever be stuck in limbo. If Attanasio were given the ability to inject a bit more money into the club, that gives Knapper a bigger warchest in each transfer window – at least to a point where it isn’t essential to sell the most prized asset every time before any new additions can even be contemplated. This in turn attracts better candidates for the head coach role.
We could, perhaps, afford to put up a modicum of resistance whenever Premier League clubs come calling for our top talent – because we don’t desperately need the sums they’re offering purely to plug holes. While promising young players will continue to outgrow Norwich, and they will always need to be sold (like at nearly every other club), they could do it on their terms and when the time is right more often. Currently, sporting directors, recruitment teams, data and performance analysts and coaching staff are all required to be miracle workers – finding replacements for players (on a shoestring) way ahead of when they should be expected to leave. We haven’t had that level of ability in the building for a while, hence the regression to the completely unremarkable football club we now are, lacking in hunger and ideas.
We could then maybe, as an aside, consider reducing season ticket prices a tad and doing more to improve the matchday experience – much like how Milwaukee has been transformed during the Attanasio era. For a club like ours to thrive, that connection with fans is essential – but you wouldn’t think so judging by recent words and actions. We could spend more on community and charitable projects, continue to improve the training ground and The Nest, continue to support the women’s team, etc.
This season, like last, is being allowed to aimlessly drift away. No grand plan, no philosophy on the pitch, no proper timeline or certainty off it – and little to be proud of besides the aforementioned women’s team and the brilliant mental health video a few weeks ago. It’s all on Knapper to arrest that slide, and then, somehow, plot a route forward. Good luck sir.