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The signing of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel for Norwich City is probably the deal of the season; even if he isn’t due to arrive until the end of the campaign. £8.5m is a lot of money, a record signing for the club, but it is a serious sign of their intentions. Van Wolfswinkel is a Dutch international, has an excellent goal-scoring record at Sporting Lisbon and in his native Netherlands, and has been linked with moves to Liverpool and Manchester United over the last few years. Quite a coup for Chris Hughton’s men.
But there’s a problem. And that’s Norwich’s position in the table – 14th and sliding fast. People – rightly, have fixated on Stoke’s rapid descent towards the Premier League trap door, but Norwich’s form is just as troubling. They’ve won just one Premier League game in 2013, have just three points from their last possible 18, and they now stand a perilous four points above the drop zone. With Wigan enjoying the luxury of playing two fewer games than the sides immediately above them, the Canaries are now peering nervously over their shoulders.
In a tightly-contested Premier League seasons where margins are finer than ever, Norwich have been masters of their own downfall. Looking at the league table, the problems are clear, too many draws caused by too few goals scored. They haven’t played too badly, but their reliance on Grant Holt last season now looks increasingly apparent. When you consider they’ve found the net a mere 31 times, and with set-piece specialist Robert Snodgrass the top league goal scorer with 5, it’s difficult to see how they are going to arrest their late season capitulation without a dramatic up-turn in form from last season’s lynchpin.
Their best hope arrives in the form of an inviting next three fixtures. They welcome Reading to Carrow Road next in what is now a must-win game, before a trip to Stoke, in the throes of their own crisis. They then host fellow relegation candidates Aston Villa in the penultimate game of the campaign, with the added spice of a return of ex-boss Paul Lambert. All these games are winnable, but the consequences of losing more than one would be cataclysmic.
After a couple of clever summer purchases in Alex Tettey and Snodgrass from Leeds United (their now perennial feeder club), Norwich had an abysmal January window. Recognising their goal-scoring problems, they acted to draft in prolific Championship marksman Luciano Becchio from Leeds (where else) and Sierra Leonean Kei Kamara, on loan from MLS. The former’s barren spell in front of goal, currently without a goal since his winter move, may shock, considering his 46 goals over the last two and a half seasons for Leeds. But it shouldn’t. Anyone who has seen Becchio play, and you’d hope that included the Norwich scouts, would know that his first touch is reminiscent of George Best’s famous excoriation of Carlton Palmer’s, and that his complete lack of pace would be shown up against the best defenders in the country. Kamara is an unknown quantity, and has only registered a single goal so far. Van Wolfswinkel’s class would have been ideal, but is he arriving a window too late?
Their on-field model has been sensible, attracting the best players from the lower leagues and assimilating them into a small, tightly-knit squad, lacking superstars but well-organised and united in purpose. It’s the philosophy that propelled them from League One with two successive promotions. But that was under Paul Lambert. Chris Hughton is undoubtedly a good coach and a good man, so harshly treated at Newcastle. But Norwich seem to be lacking a touch of the ruthlessness that defined them under Lambert, that almost dragged them up to the Premier League and kept them there last year. The ability to churn out victories seems to have been lost, the football a little stodgier and the team a bit flakier.
So Norwich should be concerned. They may have been financially prudent to this point, but the multi-million pound summer splurge on Van Wolfswinkel will only help them if they can manage to stay in the division. Norwich are now paying the penalty for allowing this season to drift, at the worst possible time. Remarks today from Van Wolfswinkel’s agent suggest he may be able to back out of the deal if they are relegated, and whilst they undoubtedly have the squad to cope well in the Championship, a huge opportunity to push on as a club will have been missed.