After their meteoric Paul Lambert-inspired rise from League Two, taking the Championship by storm last year, Norwich City return to the top flight following a six-year absence with a group of talented players short on Premier League experience but high on potential.
New signing James Vaughan and the long-serving Adam Drury are Norwich’s only players with much real Premier League experience, the former enduring an injury-plagued spell at Everton and the latter a veteran of the Canary’s last top flight excursion. How many games both men will play remains to be seen – Vaughan because of the injuries that restricted the striker to 60 appearances in six years, Drury because of the presence of Marc Tierney, who took the left-back spot last season when Drury was injured, and loan-signing Kyle Naughton, also capable in that role. Their sheer presence around the squad should, however, offer a good deal of experience for the younger players to draw on, in conjunction with the well travelled manager.
Having scored 53 goals in two seasons, how Grant Holt, Norwich’s captain and talisman, adapts to life outside the Football League will be crucial. The 30-year-old has been City’s lynchpin ever since signing from Shrewsbury Town in 2009, netting five goals in his first three games – including a brace in the first match of the Lambert era – and inspiring the club to consecutive promotions. Having been prolific at League Two level – netting 20 goals by Christmas in the 2009-10 season – and stepping up to the Championship with admirable ease, ending last season with 21 goals in the league alone, the next step for Holt is to test himself against the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.
While Norwich’s season will not be decided by games against the title challengers, any points picked up from fixtures with that ilk will be a bonus that could go a long way toward ensuring safety, for safety is surely City’s main objective. Along with Swansea City and Queens Park Rangers, the other promoted teams, and perennial strugglers Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, Lambert’s team are amongst the favourites for the drop – indeed, most bookmakers list Norwich as second-favourites behind Swansea. Proving the naysayers wrong and sealing a second season in the Premier League would be an achievement for Lambert to rank up there with attaining promotion in the first place. In order to so Lambert has not bought big, but has rather bought in bulk. More than half-a-dozen players have moved to East Anglia, including on-loan defenders Naughton and Ritchie de Laet, Vaughan, fellow striker Steve Morison from Millwall and midfielders Anthony Pilkington, Elliot Bennett and Bradley Johnson.
With Lambert utilising a diamond formation so far, using Wes Hoolahan as the attacking point, how the manager and players adapt tactically to their new surroundings will be key. Suffering the same fate as Blackpool – winning plaudits for their style and enterprise, but ultimately too few points – will not comfort Lambert if his side are back in the Championship next season, but switching from the expansive style that brought the side this far to a more conservative approach may do more harm them good. With the manager’s reputation high and well-deserved, this season will be a thorough test.
Key signing – James Vaughan: The former Everton striker was believed to have a big future at Goodison Park when he became the club’s and the Premier League’s youngest ever goal scorer in 2005, but a succession of injuries left his development frustrated. A fresh start in new surroundings could be the answer.
Key departure – None: Lambert has kept the group that achieved promotion together, an important feat as the summer could be spent building on a successful squad rather than re-building it. An impressive first half-season for marauding full-back Russell Martin and attackers Lambert and Hoolahan could however give the manager a quandary come January.
Martin – de Laet – Whitbread – Naughton
Crofts – Surman
Holt – Vaughan
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