The Weekend Match: Leeds United 1-3 Norwich City
It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Norwich City somehow shouldn’t be in the position in which they sit today. Last season saw the club finish in a distinctly underwhelming fourteenth place in the Football League Championship, and the summer saw the departure of the club’s most effective performer last season, James Maddison, move on to the Premier League with Leicester City. Indeed, when Norwich entertained Leeds United at Carrow Road in August the result was a comfortable three-nil win for the visitors and a third loss in the first five league matches of the season for Norwich and left the home side in seventeenth place in the table.
The nature of the Championship, however, is curiously both forgiving and unforgiving. A division in which just about anybody can beat just about anybody else means a season of potential booby traps, but also allows the opportunity to make up lost ground because other clubs will drop points. Norwich City have only lost two league matches since that defeat in August and this morning look down on the rest of the division with momentum building behind the team. A return to the Premier League which looked distinctly unlikely at the end of the summer is now looking at least as likely as not.
Of course, Leeds United have been hoovering up the headlines in the Championship of late, somewhat. The Spygate story saw to that. But 2019 has not been kind to Leeds, so far. The kerfuffle that surrounded Marcelo Bielsa’s comments regarding the extent of his research on all opposing teams has somewhat drawn attention away from the fact that, since his team’s seven match unbeaten run came to an end with a home defeat against Hull City on the twenty-ninth of December, Leeds have only won two (and have lost four) of their league matches whilst also being eliminated from the FA Cup. Owner Andrea Radrizziani’s Eleven Sports have ditched their Serie A coverage, leading to reports that they might even have to close their UK operation altogether this summer.
For all of that, though, the crowds keep coming. There were more than 36,000 people at Elland Road last night, an attendance which hints at the clamour for Big Occasions to return to a club that built its reptutation on them throughout the 1960s. The eventual outcome of this match, however, said a considerablle amount about the trajectories that both teams are following at the moment. It is Leeds who currently seem the more likely of these two clubs to get frozen in the glare of the headlights that the possibility of a return to the Premier League after a decade and a half away represent, while Norwich seem happy to just go about the business of winning matches.
While Leeds were winning matches at the tail end of last year, it was easy to scoff at the inner fatalism of those amongst their support who couldn’t allow themselves to quite believe that their club could sail serenely back to the top flight without some degree of drama along the way. And last night, they put on a show. Elland Road was raucous and febrile. If a team with any semblance of nerves was to set into such an environment, we might have expected them to show. For Norwich City, though, the evening couldn’t have gone much more to plan, and a steady, controlled performance ended in a comfortable win to send them to the top of the table.
It has been noted before that there is a tendency for the Championship to throw up a surprise club or two over the course of every season. Norwich’s ascent to the top of the division is no exception to this. The club was relegated from the Premier League, but rather attempting the “speculate to accummulate” model so beloved of their contemporaries – which, on the basis of the current available evidence, seems more likely to result in mid-table frustration and complaints about under-achievement – the club opted for a somewhat different approach. The wage bill was cut in order to trim off the excess fat, and the club turned its attention to the tricky (but potentially lucrative) job of picking up players with talent, scrubbing them up, and moving them on at a profit.
That first season following relegation was mixed, with Alex Neil overseeing a streaky team until a five match run without a win condemned him to an early departure and placed the team in the hands of Alan Irvine, the former assistant manager, until the end of the season. Under Irvine, Norwich finished in eighth place in their first season back, a creditable enough performance, even though they did end up some ten points short of a place in the play-offs that season. His replacement was Daniel Farke. It is no longer surprising to see young coaches with sketchy degrees of previous experience being imported into this country, and Farke’s appointment at Norwich fell very much into the template set by two people with whom Farke is already very familiar: Juergen Klopp and David Wagner, latterly of Huddersfield Town. Farke spent the whole of his playing career in the German lower divisions before cutting his managerial teeth with SV Lippstadt 08, who he took from the sixth tier of German football to the fourth, before accepting a job to coach Borussia Dortmund’s B-team.
Farke has become the personification of Norwich’s move towards this new model. Players have been promoted from the academy team to the first team. The manager has used his knowledge of the German lower divisions to flesh out his squad, but it has been the arrival of two players from outside of Germany who have arguably had the biggest influence on the team’s fortunes this season. Teemu Pukki might not have looked like a particularly exciting signing when he arrived at Carrow Road on a free transfer from the Danish club Brondby last summer. Pukki is an experienced player – his previous clubs include Sevilla, Schalke and Celtic, while he has also played seventy times for the Finand national team – but his eighteen goals in the Championship so far this season have only been bettered by Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp and Aston Villa’s Tammy Abraham. He scored the second goal, which really showed the direction that the match was taking, last night.
Emiliano Buendía, meanwhile, is six years younger than Pukki, but his influence on this year’s Norwich team has been just as pronounced. Signed from Getafe for £1.5m last summer, Emi has been one of the great discoveries of the season, an elegant attacking midfielder with a gift for creating chances from next to nothing. This combination of the experienced journeyman and the under-rated young talent has moved Norwich City in a different direction. The story of James Maddison’s two years at Carrow Road are instructive, in this sense. Maddison arrived from Coventry City for an undisclosed fee (rumoured to be between £2.5m and £3m) in the summer of 2016. He was polished by Alex Neil and then David Farke before moving on to Leicester City for £20m last summer. Not a bad profit margin for a couple of years’ work, and all the more important with relegation from the Premier League having cut an extremely large hole in the club’s financial position.
With the January transfer window having closed at the very end of last week, those clubs now fighting for a place at the top table next season are now broadly stuck with what they’ve got. Norwich City supporters are likely to be pretty happy with this state of affairs. Their team has only lost once in the league since the sixth of October, and has now risen to the top of the table for the first time since the second weekend in December. The team is not perfect, but the pieces seem to be in place, a coach with no small amount of knowledge and the tactical nous to be able to go to the Elland Road bearpit and walk away with three points after having not having looked as though they’ve even exerted that much energy. There’s plenty of space for things to go wrong – and it’s likely that there will be times between now and May when it looks as though they have, even should Norwich end the season by getting promoted – but for now the wind seems to be set fair for them.
Leeds United, meanwhile, remain curiously enigmatic. There was a point, about the time that they fell into financial chaos, that this club became English football’s longest-running soap opera. Where something could go wrong, it would go wrong. Where the worst man for the job could be found, he would be found. Those days now feel like the past, but the “arrogance” with which Leeds United have long been associated can feel as though it has dissolved into fatalism. They remain in second place in the table, three points ahead of Sheffield United and seven above fourth-placed West Bromwich Albion. There’s plenty for Leeds to be optimistic about. But Marcelo Bielsa’s team is definitely faltering, and a trip to fifth-placed Middlesbrough next weekend feels like a potential banana skin waiting to happen. They need to recover their composure and lose the fragility that they’ve grown over the last few weeks. Critics might even argue that Bielsa should be focussing a little more on his own team and a little less on obsessively scouting their opponents, on the basis of recent results.
Both clubs, however, remain plenty capable of promotion this season. Leeds may have lost this match, but they dominated possession and created more chances. On another day, they might have grabbed the first goal and they might well have gone on to win the match with a degree of comfort. Such are the slender margins between which matches are decided. When a talented team finds itself on a bad run of this nature, the problem is breaking the cycle, and it will be as much a test of Bielsa’s coaching acumen as any number of reports on future opposition. At present, though, the momentum at the top of the Championship is behind Norwich City. That three-nil defeat at home against Leeds last August feels like a very long time ago, already.