For all Premier League managers preseason is a learning experience. It’s about learning who, from last year’s squad, still has something to offer? Who, from the summer signings, can compete for a starting place? And it’s about learning how the team is gelling.
With six of the eight preseason outings complete, we should be able to make a handful of concrete statements about the team’s progress. Unfortunately, the games and the manager haven’t given us a great deal to go on.
The temptation is to glance at the scores and make a handful of hasty assumptions. For example, played six; won four (mostly against weak opposition), drawn one (against extremely weak opposition), lost one (against last year’s opposition). On those statistics alone, there’s not much to get even the Barclay End singing.
The assumptions are forgivable. After all, somehow we have to make time to read all 150 of Rio Ferdinand’s enthralling daily tweets. Nevertheless, further investigation confirms that the score lines really don’t mean too much. At least that’s what City’s sensei, Mr. Paul Christopher Lambert, would have us believe.
This month I’ve counted approximately 17 billion times (that’s an exaggeration) that Lambert, in his thickest Glaswegian accent, has stated (read phonetically), “I’m noo tee worrid aboot the result. What rilly mattes, s’that fust geem agunst Wagun Ath-leh-tuc”. As you’d expect from our seemingly infallible leader, he’s spot-on!
So, if score line assumptions tell us very little, then we have no choice but to get academic. Well…what have we learned, children?
Who, from last year’s squad, still has something to offer?
The easier way to answer this one is by considering who is surplus to requirements. Largely unsurprising was this week’s news that six of the senior squad members have been informed that they will not be part of Lambert’s plans. Owain Tudur Jones, Oli Johnson, Steven Smith, Stephen Hughes, Anthony McNamee and Cody McDonald have all been told to start job hunting. The one causing the most conversation in the Canaries blogosphere is Cody MacDonald. It’s unlikely he’d produce at the Premier League level, but I agree with those suggesting that giving MacDonald a couple of games could result in a more substantial price tag during the January transfer window.
Subtract those six from last year’s lineup and you can assume that everyone else is in with a shout.
The midfield offers some oversized question marks. Recent outings have seen Chris Martin, traditionally a forward, playing at the top of the midfield diamond as much as anyone else. Hoolahan, Crofts, Surman and Fox would all be justified in hoping for a first team start on the opening day at Wigan. My money is on Andrew Crofts getting the nod on game day. His work rate and quality in front of goal could well push him into pole position for one of those midfield spots.
Arsene Wenger has also announced today that Henri Lansbury will definitely not be joining the Canaries this season. Undoubtedly, Lansbury would have been a creative force in that midfield, but there is still strength and depth in the current midfield candidates.
Who, from the summer signings can compete for a starting place?
The 3-0 win away at Coventry today gave City fans a good look at what Elliott Bennett could bring to the table. The last 25 minutes were enough time for the 22-year-old to send a teasing ball across for Steve Morrison to finish well. What’s that? Not enough? Well, he then spanked one in the corner from 25 yards out to make it 3-0. He’ll be a contender.
Fellow “newbs” Ritchie De Laet, James Vaughan and the newest addition Kyle Naughton will bring some Premier League pace to the lineup and ought to feel good about their chances of a starting spot. With Ward on the injured list, De Laet and Barnett will continue forming a solid partnership in the heart of the defense. They’re skill sets are slightly different. While they’re both quick, De Laet is better on the ball and Barnett is the stronger in the air. Should complement each other well.
Amongst other attacking assets, Naughton brings an excellent boost of speed, down the right or left flank. This will be crucial if the diamond formation is to have any success. It also sounds like Harry Redknapp only let the youngster come to East Anglia on the condition that he was not simply warming the bench.
And how is the team gelling?
Team unity seems to be Lambert’s priority. Norwich’s teams have been known for their character and team spirit during the last two years since Lambert came to the promised (farming) land. These teams have celebrated massive achievements together and that breeds solidarity and trust. Let’s be frank; the victory trip to Vegas over the summer can’t have hurt the camaraderie. However, up until now, winning is really all most of these players have known since joining Norwich. A winning attitude is great...as long as you're winning.
Truth be told, we really don’t know exactly how they team is gelling. There's been some solid performances so far and all the news from the camp seems positive. This week brings a European flare to Carrow Road and an undeniable leap in the quality of the opponent. A midweek game against Real Zaragoza leaves Saturday’s fixture against Parma as the final game that won’t count. Both games will be a genuine challenge and will tell us a great deal more about what gelling has really taken place.
This week, I expect us to exhaust the opponents, and give a good account of ourselves as a Premier League outfit. The results, win or lose, will be irrelevant, but I’m eager to see the solidarity in action against some high-class opponents.
14 days and counting…