With Norwich City beginning their first Premier League campaign since 2004-05 on Saturday, all eyes are on how Paul Lambert and his squad cope with the rigours of top flight football. The impressive Scottish manager has continued with a policy of signing hungry young players, often with a point to prove, rather than turning to old heads with more high level experience.
James Vaughan, Steve Morison, Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington, Elliot Bennett, Ritchie de Laet and Kyle Naughton have all made the move to Carrow Road this summer, the latter pair of defenders on loan, with Lambert also making a move for Liverpool’s young defender Daniel Ayala, as confirmed by the manager himself on Friday. Not counting Ayala, which is still at the early stage of negotiations, Lambert has brought seven players into the squad that tore through the Championship last season and, with a few transfers officially undisclosed but believed to be in the region of £2m, has spent wisely and frugally. Vaughan – when fit – will offer an industrious compliment to the guile of captain and talisman Grant Holt, while Johnson brings extra craft and hard work to midfield. The wide men Pilkington and Bennett also add attacking threat, with some defensive solidity provided by de Laet and a mixture of both from adventurous full-back Naughton. Lambert then has added to every outfield area of his team but, as the pursuit of Ayala shows, is eager for more new faces.
The goals of Holt have fired the Canaries to consecutive promotions, but if the 30-year-old cannot make the step up to the Premier League, former Millwall striker Morison suffers the same fate, and ex-Everton forward Vaughan is again hit by injuries, a new striker will be a priority in January. Having added two strikers already a third is unlikely to arrive permanently – although a loan signing is possible – and each of Lambert’s strikers with a place high in the pecking order needs to net in double figures if Norwich are to have a shot at escaping relegation. Holt has, however, shown that he can make rapid steps up in quality already, having scored 24 goals in League Two and then a further 21 in the Championship – half that amount would be a decent return for a player without Premier League experience. What Holt lacks in experience he does make up in ability, while Morison’s track record at a lower level suggests he is a natural goal scorer, and Vaughan, while not as prolific as his new teammates, is one of the more wholehearted players currently plying their trade in the Premier League.
De Laet and possibly Ayala will have to herald an improvement defensively now Norwich will regularly face the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Didier Drogba, since Lambert’s side managed only 11 clean sheets in the Championship last season, only one more than Scunthorpe United, who now find themselves in League One. John Ruddy, the former Everton goalkeeper, retains his place as Lambert’s No 1 but the former Reading and Wolverhampton Wanderers custodian, Marcus Hahnemann, available on a free transfer after leaving Molineux, has been linked. Newcastle United’s promising young stopper Fraser Forster, fresh from spending last season on loan at Celtic, has also been mentioned as a Lambert target, with a fee around £2m mooted, but there has been little concrete movement and Ruddy is expected to start the season in situ. Ruddy’s defence will be made up of either the highly-rated Russell Martin or new boy Naughton at right-back – with Naughton an option at left-back – and two from de Laet, Ayala, Zak Whitbread and Leon Barnett in the central pairings, and Adam Drury and Marc Tierney competing with Naughton at left-back.
Getting the best out of Wes Hoolahan, City’s creative hub behind a strike partnership, will dictate much of the club’s success – or lack thereof. With the midfield additions Lambert has made Hoolahan should again be the main spark, backed up by Andrew Surman, David Fox – rated highly by many in Norfolk – and the trio of midfield additions Johnson, Pilkington – also a striking option – and Bennett. Jimmy Bullard was linked with a switch to Norwich at various points but would not seem to fit Lambert’s preferred type of target, a rough or hidden diamond with potential to shine. Lambert has proven he is an expert at eking out more capability from his players when others thought they had reached their level, and the former Champions League winner has to do it all over again to give Norwich a shot at Premier League safety.
Kyle Naughton DEF – Tottenham Hotspur, loan
Bradley Johnson MID – Leeds United, free
Anthony Pilkington MID – Huddersfield Town, undisclosed
Elliot Bennett MID – Brighton and Hove Albion, undisclosed
Steve Morison FWD – Millwall, Undisclosed
James Vaughan FWD – Everton, undisclosed
Jed Steer GK – Yeovil Town, loan
Jen Berthel Askou DEF – released
Matt Gill MID – Bristol Rovers, free
Owain Tudor Jones MID – Inverness Caledonian Thistle, free
Luke Daley FWD – Plymouth Argyle, free
Daniel Ayala DEF – Liverpool