Pukki, Patience And Togetherness Define Norwich's Early Season
Teemu Pukki turns away from the ball and starts running.
It’s one of the tools he uses to test defenders. And in that one moment, you have the perfect explanation as to why Norwich City find themselves in the Premier League.
Pukki, 29, joined the Canaries last summer on a free transfer from Danish side Brondby. His career before that had been a mix of promise and struggle, with spells at German side Schalke, as well as Scottish giants Celtic, among others. Before his move to Norwich, the last time Pukki broached double figures in the league was in 2011 for HJK Helsinki in his native Finland.
Manager Daniel Farke knew Pukki from his time in the Bundesliga, but it was Stuart Webber that forced the deal over the line. The initial plan was for him to be a No 10 behind Jordan Rhodes, but he played as a lone striker against Middlesbrough in September, got the winner, and has played up front ever since.
That was one of many little surprises for Norwich last season that culminated in the club being promoted as Champions. For Farke and Webber, the achievement served as personal validation. The former had come under criticism during his first season in charge, but Webber ignored the doubters and backed his manager after a post-season debrief with key figures at the club.
“We were not over the moon last season but also not concerned at all,” Farke said in April. “We were pretty good in many statistics: we were in the top three in possession, passing accuracy, creating chances, but our problem was shot accuracy, and using big chances.”
They addressed the issue emphatically, with Pukki leading the league in goals with 29.
This summer saw some big moves from promoted clubs in the Premier League, but Norwich mostly kept their powder dry. By the close of the window, Norwich had secured three loan deals and two permanent first-team signings.
Instead of spending big on new arrivals, (Webber has spoken in the past about Norwich’s financial constraints) the club chose to reward those that earned promotion with new contracts. One of those players was Pukki, who signed until 2022. The decision to keep the 29-year-old as the club’s starting striker was a strong show of faith.
The opening weekend of the Premier League saw Norwich undone by a rampant Liverpool side, but nestled within a 4-1 defeat was a series of dangerous attacking moves and a goal for Pukki. He followed that up with a hat-trick against Newcastle United at the weekend (which ties him for top goalscorer with Raheem Sterling), and during both games, it was his willingness to run in behind that typified the team-ethic on display.
To study Pukki’s chalkboard from Saturday would suggest he is rarely involved in build-up play. Of those that started the game against Newcastle, no player attempted fewer passes than Pukki, with nine.
His threat, however, comes, in part, from darting runs in behind. They occur on the blindside of a centre-back and finish in the half-space. It forced Newcastle’s defenders to track him and be pulled out wide (which opens space centrally), or leave him potentially unmarked.
Pukki makes those runs knowing he won’t always get the ball, but it’s a symbiotic relationship. As much as he helps his teammates by creating space for them, he benefits from being found with their passes.
It’s still early days, but his relationship with youngster Todd Cantwell typifies the sense of harmony and could be central to the Canaries staying up. The 21-year-old was one of a trio of academy graduates in the Norwich starting XI on Saturday, a team which cost less than £10million to assemble.
There are, of course, still concerns. The team’s defending has at times looked naive, and it was severely punished by Liverpool in week one. Had Newcastle converted a pair of early chances on Saturday the result could have been different, and so Farke will need to work on tightening up. That should not bypass the fact the Canaries dominated on Saturday, however, and caused Liverpool problems during the first half of their encounter.
Both games saw Pukki display his intelligence off the ball as well as his selflessness.
He is no one-man team, and it is his willingness to work for others — just like his teammates — that makes this Norwich team so entertaining to watch. This is a group born from togetherness and patience. And it is those qualities that former quality that may define their attempt to stay in the Premier League this season.