Saturday, 14 May 2011

Blog 21 - Battle Plans for Norwich next season

I haven't blogged for 4 months. This is mainly due to laziness. However, I've decided to slap down some thoughts regarding the marvellous Norwich City and how I think they should progress with the recruitment process for next seasons tilt at the Premier League.

Norwich City 2011-2012

Goalkeepers: John Ruddy, Declan Rudd, Jed Steer.

Ruddy is one of those players that Lambert has developed in a very short space of time to become greater than the sum of his parts. He now looks like a top level keeper, not just a mediocre shot-stopper with confidence issues. I suspect he could still have the potential to have a wobble given one or two mistakes back-to-back but I'm confident if he starts the season as our number one. I would however look to get a genuine rival for him as competition. The likes of Robert Green have been mooted but I don't think his wages would come anywhere near our budget anymore, and I'm not sure he would fit the "hungry with a point to prove" philosophy that has underpinned so much of our success. Fraser Forster would be ideal for where our club wants to go, and that's not just a sentimental throwback to memories of a year ago but an honest opinion that a young English keeper who has a genuine affection for our club and clearly a great career ahead of him, would be a top signing. With Ruddy and Forster competing for the number one position I'd be extremely happy going into the season. Rudd and Steer are both good prospects but equally they both need more experience before they are ready for the Prem, so a season-long loan for Rudd at least is preferable. Someone like Brighton, Coventry or Barnsley playing Championship football but where he would have a fair bit to do would be the best option.

Right Backs: Russell Martin, George Francomb.

I'm a huge fan of Russell Martin, and like Ruddy, Lambert has built this guy from the ground up, to the extent where a player Peterborough felt was not up to Championship football is clearly going to play games in the Premier League. The only question is whether you add cover here. I like George Francomb and I have high hopes for the future for him, but next season may be a step too soon for him if he has to cover for Martin. Lambert may be comfortable with Korey Smith as the back up and if so, In Lambert We Trust. Personally I'd look to add an experienced body who can fill in elsewhere if needed. Bobby Hassell of Barnsley is someone that always impresses me and can play numerous positions.

Left Backs: Adam Drury, Marc Tierney, Sam Habergham, Stephen Smith.

I wouldn't look to add to this. Tierney and Drury are both quality left backs and I don't have any worries that they are capable of making the step up and providing ample competition between them. With Lappin and Surman also capable of deputising if need be we seem well covered here. Habergham was a highly fancied youth player that hasn't managed to make a breakthrough and it's difficult to see that happening now. I would be surprised if he was retained for next year. Smith is as good as gone and there is no chance he will be here come August.

Centre Backs: Zak Whitbread, Leon Barnett, Elliott Ward, Jens Berthal Askou.

After years of having "big lump" centre halves that can head and kick everything that moves but can't pass over 5 yards it's been a genuine pleasure to have defenders who are comfortable on the ball and able to pass or move forwards against the opposition where possible. Whitbread, Barnett and Ward are all in contention for Premiership starts and I have no problem with any of them going into the new season. Askou is a decent L1/Championship player who would be punching well above his weight in the big leagues and he is very unlikely to be retained this summer. I would look to add one other centre half to the group to ensure adequate cover as all three centre halves have had injury concerns in the past. My first choice would be Swansea and Wales captain Ashley Williams. He fits perfectly into the Canary ethos of being a young, hungry, professional, who looks after himself and takes his own development seriously. Williams has spent a lot of time in the gym in the last year, bulking up to aid his conversion from full back to centre half and the work has paid dividends with Williams now a skilful, pacy behemoth who proves a dominant force in either box. The fact that he has taken on captaincy for club and country at a young age speaks volumes for his character. Perfect addition in my book, and I would make him our number one target this pre-season. His wages would likely fit into the structure and an investment of £3.5 million would likely secure his services IF Swansea fail to go up via the play-offs.

Midfield Anchor/Quarterback: Mathew Gill, David Fox

David Fox has made the position his own in the second-half of the season and has quietly been one of our best players. Another example of Lambert making the most of a player. Fox has the skills, breeding and mentality to be highly successful at the top level and the space and time available in the Premiership should suit him more than most. Crofts can also fill in at the base of the diamond but more as a defensive shield than as a play-starter such as Fox, so I would expect to see another midfielder added who can also play this position to compete with Fox. Lambert is an expert at finding gems from the lower leagues who are comfortable on the ball and have the potential to play higher so I look forward to seeing who he picks up. Dare I suggest that someone like Sammy Clingan might be a good addition? It would take an awful amount of forgiveness but there aren't many players who can play this role well and Clingan has the skills needed. Mathew Gill is a good pro and a popular player in the dressing room but would have struggled in the Championship, let alone the Premier. With the best will in the world I can't see him being here next year.

Midfielders: Andrew Crofts, Stephen Hughes, Andrew Surman, Korey Smith, Simon Lappin, Matt Ball, Owain Tudor-Jones.

The "sides" of the diamond are currently occupied by Surman and Crofts, with Lappin and Korey Smith the back-ups. To play successfully in the system, you need the stamina and strength to get up and down and support full backs in making tackles, the technical ability to link play and find non conventional angles for passing, and a great deal of comfort on the ball. Surman is excellent on the ball and tracks back well. His only weakness is a slight lack of pace which is the only reason he isn't playing at very highest level. He will however, be fine at the next level and I expect him to flourish with a little more time on the ball. Crofts is an exceptional worker and ok on the ball, but against the Arsenal's and Manchester United's who punish every mistake that may not be enough. He certainly deserves his chance but I would expect Lambert to bring in players to challenge Crofts and either raise his game to the next level or replace him. Lappin is someone a lot of supporters see as being a potential casualty of the promotion recruitment process but I don't agree. Technically he is very good and he works hard and always follows the instructions handed to him. You definitely get the impression that Lambert and Culverhouse have great faith in him and trust him to do whatever job is handed to him. I don't see him going anywhere, and I think he'll be competing for a bench place. Korey Smith has massive potential and is another 100% man. Whether his technical ability matches his work rate at this stage is up for debate but he's still very young and he has some great footballers to learn from. I wouldn't be surprised if Lambert lets him out on loan for at least part of the season. He could play comfortably in the Championship which is probably preferable for his development than simply the odd bench appearance. Stephen Hughes, like Askou is a good L1/Championship player but he has come about as far as is possible and will most likely be off. Likewise Owain Tudor-Jones. Matt Ball is a well-thought-of youngster who will benefit from training in a Premier League set-up and if he develops well he may even see some bench time. In terms of players to come in, I would expect Lambert to make at least three aquisitions to really improve the competition for places. I like the look of Wigan's James McCarthy (if they come down). A young player who has overachieved with struggling sides, he always impresses me whenever I see him. Huge motor and technically able. Likewise, Wolves' Dave Jones may be a relegated player who'd like another crack at the Premier League and wouldn't cost the earth in either transfer fee or wages. He has great ability on the ball with a Fox-esque Man United Youth pedigree, and is a hard-worker. A move for Henri Lansbury either on a loan or permanent would obviously be wonderful if Arsenal were agreeable but speculation in North London suggests that Arsene Wenger plans on bringing Henri through next season. With his love for Arsenal and the underwhelming feeling he seems to have at the hotel-based life of a loanee, I'd be surprised if Henri went anywhere this season unless he was given a guarantee of no future with Arsenal.

Wingers: Anthony McNamee, Josh Dawkin.

I have a huge amount of sympathy for McNamee who has barely been able to get a look in based simply on his fit into our system. I think with Lambert's pursuit of Elliott Bennett, it's clear that he wants a Plan B for when the diamond isn't working so well, and the width that McNamee and Bennett could offer in a 4-4-2 would open up even the largest of Premiership pitches. For this reason alone I can see McNamee still being here and challenging around the bench next season, especially as his attitude regarding his lack of starts appears to have been good. Dawkin is one for the future and may well be loaned out next season with L1 a good practice ground for him. I expect Lambert to add one or two players who either play wide or can do so comfortably. Bennett is an obvious target, and I suspect Lambert may be prepared to pay slightly more than he bid in January to secure such a promising player. I don't see any big names coming in though because the realities of our system mean that a wide player will need the patience of McNamee or a great deal of role flexibility to stay involved. Wright-Phillips or Kightly are two names on the rumour circuit but are never going to happen. Likewise Scott Sinclair unfortunately.

The Hole: Wes Hoolahan.

Everyone who says Wes is a one-off and impossible to have cover for was proved wrong when Henri Lansbury and Dani Pacheco both proved it possible. It is a difficult position to play successfully, but it's a dream position for technically able players and we'll find no problem as a Premiership club finding players who have the skills and would give their right arm to play there. If neither Lansbury or Pacheco return then I would expect Lambert to bring in another option as cover for Wes.

The Target Man: Grant Holt, Aaron Wilbraham.

Holt will cause Premiership defences the exact same problems as he has caused defenders in every other league and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he still manages to notch 15-20 goals. He'll still win headers and throw himself at anything in the box, and his technical skills are constantly underrated by the opposition. Most importantly he's a goalscorer, and has the coolness and instincts when through on goal which some better footballers will never have. Wilbraham may have come as far as he can and whilst I expect him to still be here next year, I would be surprised if Lambert didn't add another big striker to the mix to keep Holty on his toes because the gulf between the two in terms of competition is enormous. Ricky Lambert and Steve Morrison are two potential options that would fit the Lambert criteria well. I'm not convinced that Sam Vokes is quite good enough but he may be another consideration.

Striker: Simeon Jackson, Chris Martin, Oli Johnson, Luke Daley, Cody McDonald

3 months ago I'd have laughed at the thought of Simeon Jackson being a Premeirship striker but now he's one to leave out at your peril. He always had speed and keenness but his all-round game was lacking and it looked like Gillingham had been on the better end of the deal that took Cody Macdonald on loan in part-exchange. But then, with a 30 minute cameo against an already beaten Scunthorpe he scored a hat-trick and it was like he suddenly "got it". An entire seasons worth of frustration and missed opportunities was released and we not only got the striker we hoped we were buying from Gillingham, we got a far better player than we thought we had signed. He ended the season looking the best player in the Championship and a threat every time he had the ball. Another example of the Lambert belief coming to fruition. Chris Martin is one who's future seems up in the balance and it will depend on who comes in as to whether Martin stays or moves to pastures new. I think he's developed into a fine footballer and it would be a shame to see him go but he didn't score the goals we know he's capable of in the Championship and the feeling may be that the Premiership is too big an ask. Oli Johnson is likely to move on following a long loan spell at Yeovil where he proved adequate but didn't pull up any trees. He's a good player with quick feet and the ability to create a chance from nothing but may be better suited to League 1 or the Championship than the Premier League. Luke Daley failed to get off the bench for Stevenage during a loan spell and I can't see him being here in August. I would definitely expect Lambert to make another striker a priority. I think Mackail-Smith is an obvious target but Lambert and McNally won't be held to ransom and neither should they be. A return for Dani Pacheco would be hugely welcome but this is unlikely to be decided before late July at the earliest and Lambert may not have the patience to wait for that. Leon Best is a target and would be good as long as his wages fit in. For that reason alone rumours of Michael Owen or Craig Bellamy are ridiculous. Ironically, Cody McDonald could be a great option if you think of him as a prolific L2 striker coming off a great season who would come into the club as a new signing with a point to prove hoping to fight for a place. I can't see it happening however as Cody's indicated he thinks he's leaving and he wants to play for Gillingham and Paul Lambert has moved to play down the more exhuberent cries to recall McDonald from loan with reminders of the level that Cody was playing at.

Overall, I have great faith in Paul Lambert to continue his excellent record in the transfer market. I have no doubt that come August we will be a lot stronger than we are now. Lambert's skill to date is that his team has evolved in a positive manner for both players coming in and players moving out and if that continues Norwich's ongoing forward progress should continue and a few "big teams" may well be dumped on their backsides by "Little Old Norwich".