As Daniel Farke tries to explain Norwich’s Championship rise from finishing 14th last May to occupying first place this February he selects a suitable comparison.
‘Even last season I got the feeling we were heading in the right direction,’ he begins. ‘We were third or fourth in all the statistics we wanted: possession and passing and creating chances. Our biggest problem was shooting accuracy. We were 24th in the league.
‘You have to bring this ball over this line and into this rectangle. It is not like synchronised swimming, where you are judged by your unbelievably beautiful performance. We had some really, really nice performances last season but we missed opportunities to score. We are better this season.’
Norwich boss Daniel Farke has masterminded Norwich’s rise to the top of the Championship
Farke admits his philosophy was initially difficult to implement, but he stuck by his values
After working hard beneath the surface, Norwich’s artistry is finally causing ripples. For much of the campaign national attention has been elsewhere but a resounding 3-1 win at Leeds last weekend took Farke’s side top and ahead of Sunday’s derby match against Ipswich they are odds-on to go up.
Given Norwich sold their best player in James Maddison last summer, as part of a strategy that has raised more than £55million in total, the team’s position under Farke is a triumph of planning, belief, and coaching.
Recruitment has been spectacular too. Striker Teemu Pukki, signed on a free after leaving Brondby, has scored 18 goals. Winger Emiliano Buendia, who cost £1.5m from Getafe, is one of the players of the season.
Then there are the academy graduates. Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons have emerged to prominence in the full-back roles, while Ben Godfrey and Todd Cantwell are impressing in defence and midfield respectively. None is over 21.
This was the vision Stuart Webber had in mind when he left Huddersfield to become Norwich sporting director in 2017 and set about drastically reshaping the club. First he appointed Farke, who had been managing Borussia Dortmund’s second team. Webber had also taken David Wagner from the same role to Huddersfield with unprecedented success. But this was a different job entirely and Farke is a different head coach.
‘My deep belief in one word? Dominance,’ he tells Sportsmail during an hour-long conversation in his office at the club’s Colney training ground.
The German manager was in conversation with Sportsmail’s Laurie Whitwell
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‘We want to be the protagonists. If we could chose we would have the ball for 90 minutes. We want to play with passes. We can’t guarantee success but we can work on having a big opportunity to win games.’
That philosophy reached glorious fruition at Elland Road where Norwich picked apart Marcelo Bielsa’s side with frequency to leapfrog into first. It has required patience though. There have been times when supporters became restless at an approach that was yielding modest results.
But Norwich kept faith in Farke, who is now guiding the club towards the Premier League. ‘There were much easier options for me to choose,’ he says. ‘I could have done this as a native speaker in Germany and not just in the second tier. But my gut feeling was this is exactly the place I want to be. We can create something special.’
He adds: ‘You have to have a clear philosophy as a club, how you want to play, the work ethic, the atmosphere. We are all addicted to results. But the biggest chance to do that is to work in a methodical way. It’s important you are not too focused on public opinion.’
A strong relationship with owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones has been vital. ‘They are such heart-warming characters, full of passion for this club,’ Farke says.
Farke won over the Norwich faithful despite his tactical approach taking time to implement
‘They don’t think too much about their own reputation. They are not sitting in their seat eating some nice salmon and caviar, waiting for everyone’s praise. They are really working for this club.’ Farke has, of course, dined with Smith. ‘And she even wrote a German cooking book, so it is easier for my wife,’ he adds.
He says he knew upon meeting Webber that, ‘Ok, I have to spend more hours with him than my wife’ so fastidious is their shared work ethic. They have poured over potential signings.
‘Stuart is pretty young for this job, but I am sure either he will bring this club to unbelievable success or he himself will one day work for one of the biggest clubs in the world,’ Farke says. ‘I worked for one of the top ten clubs in Europe, I think I can judge it.
‘The financial pressure was on us last summer, we knew our way was to be smart and creative in the transfer market. It is not like you press a button and watch the laptop. It is important you are not just judging something by an agent. You have to follow a player constantly. After one poor game you don’t drive away and say, “Ok, he’s not for us.”’
Farke infuses his players with a similar mindset. They never know when they are beaten, scoring 22 goals after 75 minutes to accrue 15 extra points. No team has more in either category.
They scored twice in stoppage time to beat Millwall 4-3 and twice again against Nottingham Forest to draw 3-3. Fitness is a factor, but it appears mentality more so. ‘Pretty often the opponents know we are really dangerous in the last minutes, sometimes they are scared,’ Farke says. ‘And then we believe. It is also a credit to the way we play, we have lots of possession, we exhaust our opponents.’
It is funny that Farke did not want to be a coach at first. He started out with ambitions to be a sporting director but was thrust into the dugout at Lippstadt 08, his local non-league side where he had been a player. He ended up winning nine of ten games to avoid relegation and in six years led the club to two promotions. When he left in 2015 he was paraded round the stadium on horseback.
‘It was half-professional,’ he says. ‘You got an understanding of each and every department. You have to negotiate with the company responsible for the team coach to get a good offer. Because I had this experience I learned patience. It is important you stay grounded and modest.’
Borussia Dortmund, where Farke’s grandfather Franz won the German title as a player, appointed him Wagner’s successor. ‘I had a brilliant relationship with Thomas Tuchel,’ he says. ‘We spoke a lot, not only on the surface, but really deep about football and our work.’
Victory over promotion rivals Leeds United saw Norwich take the Championship top spot
Asked to describe his style on the training pitches, he has a clear message. ‘The most important thing is that you are authentic,’ he says. ‘Not to play on something like this. So not to try to be strict or close, be a father figure or friend. There are moments for all.
‘If I should judge it I have a pretty honest relationship with my players. I don’t believe in artificial authority. The best way is for the players to think, “He knows what he is speaking about.”’
He has settled into Norfolk life, calling Norwich his ‘second home’ even if he is yet to experience the delights of Argos. There was much mirth at the club when Onel Hernandez, the Cuban-born winger, said he had ‘never seen’ anything like the catalogue store in an interview for the matchday programme. ‘We had some jokes,’ smiles Farke.
The 42-year-old can do fun. He said earlier this season that if Johnny Depp can handle curses in Pirates of the Caribbean so could he, when asked about the jinx that befell clubs featured on Football Focus.
You imagine that sense of humour will help when the pressure inevitably rises now Norwich are making waves. ‘I want my players to work hard, be focused but also with a smile. If you can’t enjoy yourself you’ll ask yourself, “Damn why am I doing this?”’