Daniel Farke took over at Norwich City in the summer of 2017.
Farke was the first non-British head coach in the history of the club, and it was a bold move from the Canaries to appoint someone whose biggest job to that point was managing Borussia Dortmund’s B-team, Dortmund II.
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But Farke knew Thomas Tuchel and had worked with him, and former Dortmund II manager David Wagner had just gotten Huddersfield Town promoted to the top division of English football for the first time ever.
So there was faith that Farke could do the same for Norwich; who had just finished eighth in the Championship under caretaker boss Alan Irvine (after Alex Neil was sacked in March). The Canaries had been something of a yo-yo team in the previous decade, having been promoted three times (two times to the Premier League) and relegated twice; so some stability was the aim.
Farke ended up struggling for results in his first season. The players weren’t happy with the intensity of his training and Norwich actually dropped down the table, finishing 14th – and then losing star man James Maddison in the summer. But Farke and sporting director Stewart Webber were on the same page, and they knew that eventually, results would follow the work they were doing.
True enough, they have. After 20 games of the 2018/19 season, Norwich sit top of the Championship. They’ve scored more goals (35) than anyone except West Brom and Aston Villa, and their defensive record (22) is better than all but Middlesbrough, Leeds and Nottingham Forest. And it’s worth noting that they conceded 10 of those 22 goals in August where they won just one of their first five games.
Since then they have methodically built themselves back up, winning 11, drawing three times and losing just once. So how has this all come to pass? Well, passing is actually the key to the whole thing.
Despite coming from the home of gegenpressing and rock n’ roll football, Farke is someone who prefers a more patient, possession game. He boasted of his defensive record at Borussia Dortmund II, which was, of course, predicated on his side’s ability to keep the ball. Defending through possession is so simple you wonder why more teams don’t do it: the other side can’t score without the ball, of course.
In 2016/17, Norwich played 19,862 passes in total; this was the seventh-most in the division. A total of 3,493 of those were long balls – 18% of their total. Then in 2017/18 under Farke, Norwich played 22,263 passes in the Championship; this was the third-most in the division and a huge improvement. Moreover, they played just 2,900 long balls, 13% of their total and a significant reduction on the previous season.
Norwich made 19,363 short passes in 2017/18, which is almost as many total passes as they had managed the season previous. It was clear what was happening. Norwich were moving the ball among themselves more, valuing possession (their short pass completion was 81% prior to Farke taking over, and in his first season that number had improved to 86%).
So progress was being made, the team was being taught to play in the Farke way. To dominate the ball and control possession. Their goals conceded came down from 69 to 60; the problem was their goals scored came down from 85 to 49.
In learning to take care of the ball, Norwich’s caution (and perhaps getting used to the intensity of Farke’s training – he demands his players be intensely fit to press constantly) had drained their goalscoring sharpness. This was a problem that had to be solved, but how? Farke had laid the groundwork in his first season, now in his second campaign, what could be done to take them forward?
New players, essentially. Webber needs to be credited once more because his fine work in the transfer market has been key. Norwich signed a whopping 10 players in the summer of 2018; chief among them were Tim Krul, Teemu Pukki and Moritz Leitner. Krul was an upgrade in goal, and his experience, as well as his relative comfort passing the ball out from the back, would help the attack.
Pukki was the goalscorer the side needed. Jordan Rhodes, a loan signing, has been very useful, too, but Pukki’s ability to hit the back of the net has had a transformative effect on Norwich’s fortunes. Now their attacks are genuinely threatening because the opponents know Pukki is to be taken seriously. His 11 goals is the third-highest total in the division so far, and joint-first excluding penalties.
But the big signing was Leitner. The German actually spent the latter half of 2017/18 on loan in East Anglia, but signed permanently in the summer. Now an official Canary, and more comfortable in England, Leitner set about taking control.
Getting Leitner was a huge coup. This was a former U21 international for Germany who, in his youth, was one of the most highly-rated prospects around. He emerged from the Dortmund academy and played for the first-team way back when Jurgen Klopp was still in charge. As a teenager, he helped Dortmund win the Bundesliga and was even on the bench for that historic DFB Pokal final vs. Bayern.
His career had stalled somewhat since then, with a series of loans that never really worked out. He returned to Dortmund back in 2015/16, however, and spent some time with Dortmund II, where he was coached by, yup, Daniel Farke.
It was this connection that Norwich used to lure a player of Leitner’s talents to England. And once he was there, Farke made him the centrepiece. Leitner was deployed at the base of midfield next to Alex Tettey and was given the keys to Norwich’s midfield.
Leitner has completed 1,020 passes so far this season, the second-most in the Championship. More impressively, his 390 forward passes is the most among the division and only one person has more through-balls than his total of four. In fact, there are three Norwich players in the top 10 Championship players for passes completed: Leitner, centre-back Tim Klose (903) and Tettey (891).
Leitner’s organisational abilities and capability to drive his side forward into good positions is what has energised the basic passing structures that Farke has been teaching his side since day one.
In addition to the new talent, Norwich have also begun to use their youth team to great success. A lot of young managers in a tricky situation would wait to introduce the youngsters, but Farke seems intent on building his side around well-scouted signings and young talent. Their back-line in a recent game vs. Bolton had a younger average age (21 years, 8 months) than any Norwich defence for 30 years.
In addition, the development of James Maddison in 2017/18 into a playmaker who can step seamlessly into Premier League football is obviously a highlight for Farke. But even this season, the way full-backs Jamal Lewis and (particularly) Max Aarons have added so much energy and thrust to the side; they look like they’ll be in the Premier League next season, even if Norwich aren’t.
The star signings and young prodigies that come into the first XI have obviously improved it; but the effectiveness of Farke’s methods are truly seen whenever a first-teamer needs replacing for any extended period of time. Obviously, the quality level drops, but the style of play and energy levels don’t; a remarkable feat in the Championship.
With Farke’s emphasis on passing and possession, as well as the scouting of Stuart Webber’s recruitment team, Norwich have developed into a truly awesome side. They are well run and very well coached. The potential for them to scale up should they stay the course and win the Championship is genuine. Should they return to the Premier League, Farke’s tactical acumen will give the Canaries a chance to fly again.