If you looked around preseason predictions in August, Norwich City was one of the hot picks for a team to surprise. After an eleventh-place finish last season and some seemingly brilliant pickups over the summer, they seemed like an obvious pick for success. They had what looked like the right combination of promising young talent and veterans in their prime to put themselves in the top half of the table, if not contending for a Europa League place.
Instead, they enter this weekend sitting in seventeenth place, and just two points clear of the relegation places. Chris Hughton has been fired. Their three big striker signings, Gary Hooper, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, and Johan Elmander, have seven league goals between them. They've scored the fewest overall goals in the league (26, or less than Luis Suarez by himself), and their goal differential is better only than Fulham, who've shipped more goals than anyone else in the league by a disturbing margin.
So what's gone so terribly wrong with Norwich this season? How did they go from promising media darling to... this? They've gone from popular to pitiable, and it hasn't been a pretty ride. How did they get here?
First and foremost, that big summer spending spree didn't work out at all. Hooper and van Wolfswinkel were brought in to much acclaim as the EPL's next big strike pairing, but so far they've been anything but. Hooper has scored just five times in 29 league matches, and van Wolfswinkel has scored one and only one goal this season, and that was all the way back in the first match of the season against Everton. Elmander at least has been useful despite not scoring much, as he leads the club with four assists in his 26 matches.
Of Norwich's various signings, only Leroy Fer has really lived up to his reputation. The Dutch midfielder has become the engine of their midfield, but that wasn't near as much of a need for Norwich as goalscorers were, and their efforts in that area fell about as flat as they possibly could have. Martin Olsson has also been decent at left back, but mostly hasn't been anything special to write home about.
Creativity? What Creativity?
Part of the problem with that underwhelming strike force isn't so much the quality of the strikers, but the fact that Norwich don't really have someone to reliably get the ball to them in dangerous areas with space to use. The closest thing is Wes Hoolahan, he of the painfully average skillset and two-month transfer dispute with Hughton earlier this season. Elmander has done a decent job when called on in that role, but he's more of the type to finish what playmakers start, not do the playmaking himself.
Instead, Norwich have mostly been reliant on crosses, using their wingers and fullbacks to ping balls in to the box for their strikers to latch on to. Trouble is, they don't have terribly good crossers, and their strikers aren't the target man, good-in-the-air types. As you can imagine, that's been a recipe for trouble. As a result, Norwich have not once this season scored more than twice in a league match, and are currently embroiled in a three match scoreless streak.
Thanks to some bad decisions and, at times, plain bad luck, Norwich find themselves teetering on the brink of disaster. At the rate things are going, they will be very lucky indeed to stay up this season, and new manager Neil Adams will have his hands full just trying to hold on to the club's Premier League dreams and keep his canaries aloft. Given their recent history against Liverpool and Luis Suarez, that task won't be made any easier this weekend.