Contrary to popular belief, Norwich City haven’t actually been relegated yet. And - believe it or not, the Canaries do actually want to stay in the Premier League this season, despite what the parachute payment conspiracy theorists that ring into those football phone-ins might have you believe.
Having already played Manchester City and Chelsea away from home as well as Liverpool at Carrow Road, there is no doubting that Daniel Farke’s side have been handed an unkind start to the season, and now with a quarter of the season behind them the table makes for bleak reading. They have scored just two goals, one of those a penalty, and amassed just two points thanks to 0-0 draws against Burnley and Brighton.
They took a hammering at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea scored seven and as a result, only Sheffield Wednesday’s -21 goal difference in 1999/00 after nine games prevents Norwich from having the outright worst goal difference the Premier League has ever seen at this point.
But having got their toughest fixtures out of the way early on, including away trips to Arsenal and Everton, Farke and his men are now entering a season-defining five matches, which begins this Sunday. Leeds United may not have been pre-season relegation candidates but their form in the opening quarter of the season sees them with just one win to their name.
Now a lot of fair criticism can be thrown at Norwich so far this season. Farke seems out of his depth at this level and has abandoned the attacking possession-based principles that won them the Championship last year in favour of a stagnant 5-3-2 system which doesn’t seem to suit the squad at all.
Having brought in the likes of Milot Rashica and Christos Tzolis for decent transfer fees, and with Todd Cantwell still unable to make a matchday squad, choosing a formation without any wide players is baffling to say the least. Josh Sargent and Teemu Pukki are the most ineffective strike force in the division and there is no creativity from midfield with the aforementioned Cantwell out and Emi Buendia sold in the summer.
But despite all of this and the nightmare start to the season they have endured, Norwich are only five points away from Leeds in 17th, and a win here would not only reduce that gap to two, but potentially see them leapfrog both Burnley and Newcastle. For all the derisory comments that have been directed their way, it is quite possible that in five games time, with an easy run of fixtures, they could well sit outside the relegation zone.
Leeds had a midweek League Cup tie to contend with at Arsenal and only Newcastle and Norwich have conceded more goals than them in the league so far this term. Both managers may be praised for their usual playing styles but it seems this season the priority for both will be simply avoiding the drop.
Bielsa’s men provide an opportunity for a first win of the season and that is followed by a trip to a side that came up with the Canaries in Brentford. The Bees have enjoyed a scintillating start to life in the top flight but Norwich finished ten points above them in the league last term and should be able to compete on the road.
If they win one of the next two, confidence will be high heading into two crucial home matches after the international break but if they fail to win before then, a managerial change could be made. Southampton and Wolves then both come to town with the Saints in particular obvious relegation rivals this term, but both games provide a chance to pick up points before a trip to the north-east, and a relegation six-pointer against Newcastle United.
The Magpies may have big plans for the future under their new owners, but the reality at the present moment of time is one of struggle, and Steve Bruce’s successor will have to pick up points sharply to get them out of the relegation zone.
For these matches against the clubs around them, Farke and Norwich must go back to the attacking philosophy that has served them so well in the second tier. With Rashica, Tzolis and Cantwell, they have some real attacking talent in the squad along with the likes of Billy Gilmour and Max Aarons - but as of yet, we haven’t seen enough of them in a system that benefits their strengths.
These five games will define their season. Come out of it winless and the writing is on the wall, but there’s an outside possibility that Norwich - derided by so many - can prove the doubters wrong over the next month.
The Canaries are favourites for relegation at 1/7 with Betfred.