Norwich City season review: Canaries fail to fly high as Championship beckons
Max Aarons cuts a dejected figure as Norwich City's relegation to the Championship is confirmed - (Photo by Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As Kevin Friend blew the full-time whistle in Norwich City's game against West Ham United in early July, the mood around Carrow Road was sombre. 

A 0-4 defeat confirmed Norwich's return to the Championship after a dismal campaign, culminating in a dreadful run of form following the restart, in which Norwich scored one goal and conceded 23 in nine games. 

The performance which sealed their fate epitomised the other 25 defeats inflicted on City last season, with Norwich's 2019-20 season shattering some acrimonious Premier League records. Their 21-point tally was the lowest in the club's history, and they became the first team to be relegated by finishing 18th, 19th and 20th. The stats left little to chirp about for Canaries fans. 

Yet rewind to last August, and anyone in yellow and green would have been forgiven for thinking City would have what was needed to survive, after a comprehensive 3-1 victory over Newcastle United. A scintillating 3-2 victory over then-Champions, Manchester City a month later - ending the Citizens 18-match unbeaten run in the Premier League - confirmed Norwich's desire to take on even the most talented of opponents with an attractive brand of possession-based football. 

But such victories were rare high points in a campaign which ultimately revealed serious room for improvement. Although positives can be taken, there are areas the Norfolk club must fix before a long-term return to the top flight can become a reality. 

Money makes the world go round

"If you look at the other two teams promoted [Aston Villa and Sheffield United], one spent over £100 million and one spent £60-70 million. We cannot compete with that. 

"When we got promoted last year, the words that we used weren't a joke when we said we'd be the lowest spenders, have the lowest budget and it was going to be unbelievably difficult and we needed another miracle."

In a frank interview with the club last month, Norwich's Sporting Director, Stuart Webber stoutly defended manager Daniel Farke from criticism over lack of investment in last summer's transfer window. 

Whilst their peers spent tens of millions on players, Norwich's most expensive signing in the 2019 summer transfer window was Sam Byram, who cost a mere £750,000 from West Ham. Loan deals for FC Schalke 04 goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann, Sevilla midfielder Ibrahim Amadou and Man City winger Patrick Roberts all followed, but were indicative of a side that had little financial resource. 

Norwich's transfer record remains at just £8.5 million, a fee paid for both Ricky van Wolfswinkel in 2013 and Steven Naismith in 2016. Both signings reaped limited rewards, the pair scoring 10 goals between them in a combined 76 appearances, and the club was relegated to the Championship in the campaigns following both signings. For such a small club (in financial terms), paying for 'big money' signings with limited returns has brought about challenges to the club's sustainability. In turn, a cautious financial approach has been adopted in more recent seasons. 

No-nonsense Webber has, to his credit, been astute in ensuring the club is in a much healthier financial position than when he arrived in 2017, the club still reeling from their fourth Premier League relegation a year earlier. Whilst keeping on-pitch spending low, the club has invested heavily into their long-term future through securing player contracts and investing in the club's Colney Training Centre, as well as buying young academy prospects from lower divisions with the hope of selling them on for a large profit. The £25 million received for Leicester City midfielder James Maddison in 2018 suggests that this approach has merit.

However, fans have for many years been calling for the loosening of the purse strings, particularly from majority shareholders Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones. The top-flight inexperience of City's young squad was at times ruthlessly exposed by more seasoned Premier League sides. Now, calculated risks need to be taken in buying proven quality to ensure that Norwich can stand up to the rigours of Premier League football season upon season. 

The last campaign will serve many of Norwich's players well in the future, and lessons from the top flight can certainly be applied to next season and beyond. However, with the long-term financial sustainability of the club seemingly all but secured, the club would be wise to invest prudently in guaranteed reliability at the top level, to add a real backbone to their squad and lead the younger players around them. 

Lack of attacking potency highlights over-reliance

Superficially, the fact that Norwich's talisman, Teemu Pukki, scored 11 goals last year - the same as Burnley's Chris Wood and Man City's Kevin de Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus - seems positive. Even more so when one considers the Finn was signed on a free transfer at the start of the 2018-19 season, and scored 29 goals in 43 Championship appearances. Not a bad return. 

But now let's put that fact into perspective: Pukki's 11 goals made up almost half of Norwich's mere 26 goals last season (compared to 93 in the Championship), and the last of Pukki's 11 was scored in January. If one adds Todd Cantwell's six, that leaves just nine goals, which were shared between nine players. Only seven of those were scored away from home - the lowest number in Premier League history. 

This toothlessness was blatantly highlighted by City's failure to beat fellow strugglers. Watford, Villa, West Ham, Brighton and Hove Albion and Southampton all did the double over Norwich. Rather than focusing on 'six-pointers' against relegation-threatened sides, the Canaries grabbed rare wins and draws against the likes of Leicester, Man City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, which did little in the failed fight for survival. 

Although partly down to lack of investment, over-reliance on one or two players seldom ends well, regardless of team. When Pukki picked up a foot injury mid-way through the season, Norwich seemingly could not provide a solution, and the former Celtic striker seemed to lack confidence on his return.

As a result, more support is needed upfront for key players such as Pukki. The thus-far unconvincing striker Josef Drmic, and academy prospect Adam Idah, need to take advantage of the development opportunity the Championship offers if Norwich are to start scoring goals in abundance again. 

City's attacking midfielders and wingers, such as Onel Hernandez, Emi Buendia and Marco Steipermann, must also put their shooting boots back on the right feet, provided they stay with the club this summer. New forward signings Daniel Sinani and Sebastian Soto, as well as winger Kieran Dowell, also need to hit the ground running in terms of contributions in front of goal. Only then can Norwich return to the top-flight with a front line strong enough to pierce world class defences.

One down, and out - lack of resilience highlights leaky defence

Norwich were highly praised in the 2018-19 season for their ability to bounce back, taking 27 points from losing positions. 

But such confidence seemed to evaporate in the top-flight. An endemic lack of belief was palpable once Norwich had conceded, matches seemingly lost as soon as the first goal was scored. The stats confirm this, with City failing to take a single point from a losing position last season.

Such an absence of resilience may be to blame for Norwich shipping 75 goals in 38 games last year - 1.97 per game on average. City keeper Tim Krul kept just five clean sheets in the last campaign, but was still named Player of the Season, suggesting the issue lies with those directly in front of him. 

One can legitimately say Norwich were unlucky with injuries this season. Centre-backs Grant Hanley, Christoph Zimmerman and Timm Klose all suffered long-term injuries at some point during the season, sometimes concurrently. Nevertheless, this lack of belief needs to be addressed if Norwich want to tighten things up at the back and become a regular Premier League side.

Furthermore, this represents a challenge to Farke's footballing ideology. Free-flowing football often works well in the Championship, but without an investment in quality can be - and in Norwich's case, was - a recipe for disaster once teams reach the top flight. 

Farke is undoubtedly popular amongst Norwich fans. He is very approachable, refreshingly realistic and visibly passionate. But for the German to keep his side and the fans loyal to his possession-based style next season and beyond, then confidence and resilience are things Norwich must rediscover. Only then, backed up with a defence reinforced with quality signings, can Norwich return to the Premier League and stay there.

The sun rises in the east

Yet, there are some unquestionable positives to take from an otherwise disappointing season. 

Cantwell, Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis all showcased their potential as they became regulars in the starting XI. All four have been linked with big-money transfers to top sides in England and elsewhere, money which could certainly help the club in the current climate and in the future. 

Norwich's Category 1 academy is clearly continuing to build a reputation for developing top-quality players. Idah and Josh Martin also made their Premier League debuts. The signings of young prospects Bali Mumba from Sunderland and Matthew Dennis from Arsenal suggest that such development will continue despite the club's return to second-tier status. 

Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the club reached their first FA Cup Quarter-Final in 28 years last season, thanks to a memorable Round 5 victory at Tottenham. Farke has always taken the cup seriously, and such a run provided welcome relief from league form. This attitude to the cup has not been shared by many of Norwich's previous managers, and fans will be hoping for a repeat next season. 

As forgettable as this season may have been, Norwich can, in time, return to the Premier League. They have been promoted three times in the last decade, and there are positive signs for the long-term future of the club. But for now, Norwich fans can look forward to a cold Tuesday night in Wycombe.