NORWICH ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Grant Holt of Norwich City battes with Peter Whittingham of Cardiff City during the npower Championship match between Norwich City and Cardiff City at Carrow Road on January 15 2011 in Norwich England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Norwich's midfield and attack should still do well enough to keep them comfortably midtable, and new manager Chris Hughton has looked to solidify the league's joint 4th worst defence.
Along with Swansea City, Norwich were one of the surprise packages of last year's Premier League, comfortably avoiding relegation by 11 points and finishing in 12th. All of this was done on a fairly small budget and a squad that hadn't made major additions from the team that won promotion from League One to the Championship, and then the Championship to the Premier League in successive seasons. In fact, Norwich's two biggest signings last summer, Anthony Pilkington and Steve Morison, were plucked from League One and the Championship respectively, as Norwich avoided the usual promoted team signings of overrated, mediocre players formerly of bigger clubs (we'll call this the QPR method).
Norwich have done similarly this summer, with three out of their four signings coming from lower levels of football. Robert Snodgrass, Leeds United's excellent winger, has come in, Steven Whittaker has come on a free to replace Kyle Naughton at right back and the excellent two-footed midfielder Jacob Butterfield signed from Barnsley, also on a free. Furthermore, top scorer Grant Holt signed a new contract, despite issuing a transfer request at the beginning of the summer. The big loss for Norwich, though, was their manager, Paul Lambert, who went to Aston Villa.
Lambert masterminded Norwich's promotions and survival by making his team very adaptable to various situations; they played three at the back and wingbacks last year, a diamond 4-4-2, a variation of 4-5-1 and a straightforward 4-4-2. Not only could they change their formation, but they could also change their style of play; they could either go long, using both Grant Holt and Steve Morison as battering rams, or they could play the ball more on the ground in a counter-attacking style using the pace of Simeon Jackson and the craft of Wes Hoolahan (who I'm contractually obliged to refer to as the 'Irish Messi').
Lambert has been replaced by Chris Hughton, who oversaw Newcastle's return to the Premier League, and started the rebuilding process that Alan Pardew has continued. Last season, Hughton managed Birmingham City, and qualified for the promotion playoffs. Although his teams weren't as flexible, they still had flexibility in style, something that should continue at Norwich. Hughton's concern, though, will be focused on Norwich's defence. Norwich conceded 66 goals last season, good for joint 4th worst in the league, with only QPR and the relegated trio of Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves conceding more. They stayed up on the basis of scoring 52 goals, 7th best in the league, but if they want to progress, they'll have to concede less goals.
To make their defence a little more watertight, Hughton bought Michael Turner, a solid, Premier League proven defender, from Sunderland. He should form a partnership with Russell Martin, who displayed an affinity for making goal-line blocks last season. Other centre backs include Ryan Bennett, who played well at the end of the season, Elliott Ward and Leon Barnett. All can play in a back three or back four, and have the versatility to play on the flanks if Hughton wants fullbacks who provide more defensive cover than Whittaker, Simon Lappin and Marc Tierny.
In midfield, Norwich should be as strong as they were last year. Snodgrass and Pilkington join Andrew Surman and Eliot Bennett as offering good options out wide, and the aforementioned Butterfieled will compliment the playmaking ability of Hoolahan when he recovers from injury. Jonny Howson, the former Leeds captain, can also provide chances for the front players, Holt, Morison and Jackson, while Bradley Johnson and David Fox will provide the cover for Norwich's defence.
Norwich are a fairly well-rounded team, and should comfortably avoid relegation again. They can be a threat on set pieces, on the counter attack or when building play, and they can be a nuisance to the top teams, and hold their own against midtable sides. They've also shown themselves to be adept off the pitch, resolving the Grant Holt situation and quickly replacing Paul Lambert.
Last year: 12th, 12 W 11 D 15 L
This year: 14th
Key players: Grant Holt and Michael Turner. Both will have to play well to ensure Norwich don't concede too many and score enough; if Holt doesn't play well, Steve Morison and Simeon Jackson aren't good enough finishers to constantly provide enough goals to cover Norwich's somewhat leaky defence; if Turner gets injured or plays very poorly, Norwich could find themselves closer to the relegation zone if they don't improve their goals conceded number.