Bottom At Christmas | Season 1: Norwich City

In 30 years of the Premier League, only three teams have ever survived relegation having been bottom of the league at Christmas. That got me thinking a fun challenge would be to try and brand ourselves a survival specialist and attempt to buck that trend in the virtual world.

So, with Football Manager 2022 loaded up, we’ll sim ahead to 25 December, see who’s bottom of the league and assume charge with our very own survival specialist. And, succeed or not, we’ll do the same the following season to chance our arm at survival again.

And who better to attempt that challenge with than the one and only survival specialist himself: Big Sam Allardyce?

Bottom at Christmas Season 1

After simming the game ahead to 25 December 2021, the team propping up the Premier League was… Norwich City. Not too much of a surprise there!

Norwich only had 10 points and 2 wins from their opening 18 games. They trailed 17th-placed Wolves, who had a game in hand, by 5 points and had a 7-point gap to 16th-place Burnley. So Big Sam dusted off his finest black suit and assumed control of struggling Norwich City.

Big Sam didn’t have an easy start his Norwich career as the day after taking charge he faced a trip to Arsenal, who were surprisingly down in 12th, then leaders Man City two days later!

Allardyce went straight to a 4-1-4-1 park the bus to see how the boys got on in two shots at nothing. He couldn’t work any miracles at Arsenal, where they lost 3-1 but Josh Sargent did double his goal tally for the season. And Billy Gilmour’s red card left them in the lurch at City, where they lost 4-0. But they drew 0-0 at home to Southampton on New Year’s Day to at least get a point on the board.

Strengthening Norwich

Clearly, the club needed recruits in January. To raise funds, Teemu Pukki moved to AEK for £2.8 million, Tim Krul to Dinamo Moscow for £2.4 million and Jacob Sorensen to Midtjylland for £3.8 million.

A massive area for improvement was in goal, so Big Sam moved for West Brom’s Sam Johnstone for £2.7 million. He also decided the team needed a little more flair in attack and snapped up Ezequiel Barco from Atlanta United for an absolute bargain of £2.3 million.

Midfield presence was added in an absolutely typical Big Sam signing as Cesc Fábregas arrived from Monaco for £29k and André Gomes joined for £1.9 million from Everton, plus a wing option as Bruma came in from PSV for £1 million. He also attempted to strengthen a leaky defence with Kortney Hause for £1 million from Villa then Daniele Rugani joining from Juventus on deadline day for £1.5 million.

Slightly controversially, Big Sam cancelled the loan deal for Billy Gilmour and replaced that slot with a deal for Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott. He also loaned in left-back Omar Richards from Bayern. And at the last minute on deadline day, another striker arrived as Leonardo Pavoletti joined from Cagliari for £275k and Dani Alves signed on a free transfer as there was no backup right-back at the club!

Seeking much-needed points

The first game with some of those signings involved was a big game at Brentford, who scored an early penalty but Adam Idah scored a vital equaliser. That secured Norwich’s first away point of the season – which is ridiculous! – to keep the gap at six points. Two good home points followed as they limited Chelsea to a 0-0 at Carrow Road then Barco scored on his debut to earn a 1-1 with a strong Newcastle side.

That very slight uptick in form teed up two huge trips to fellow relegation-zone-dwelling sides Brighton and Wolves. First up was a Friday night trip to Brighton, which followed two weeks without a game and days filled with triple training sessions. It seemed to do the trick as Milot Rashica scored the only goal and Fábregas and Rugani had excellent debuts. That ended a ridiculous 18-match streak without a win!

A week later, a dull game at Wolves saw an inspired substitution nick all three points as Pavoletti came on to score a debut winner! But Johnstone was the star of the show, making 10 saves to keep Wolves at bay. And that lifted Norwich out of the relegation zone with 12 games remaining.

Things could only get tougher… and did. They unsurprisingly lost 3-0 at home to leaders Liverpool and held Man UFC to just a 1-0 defeat. But the defensive efforts paid off as a Barco goal nicked a 1-0 win at Tottenham then absolutely didn’t as they got thumped 4-1 at Villa.

Back on home ground, Norwich played out a classic with West Ham. They went behind early, fired back through Rashica and a very dubious penalty that Barco converted before Zouma made it 2-2 from an indirect free-kick (surprise). But the Hammers had a man sent off and substitute Christos Tzolis made them pay with an 88th-minute winner.

That teed up another massive relegation clash as Norwich travelled to 17th-place Palace, who just beat Man UFC 1-0. Palace took the lead with a corner breakaway but Norwich equalised through Barco on the verge of half-time. But it was a dreadful game with a combined 1.52 xG. Another huge game followed in a classic Monday Night Football clash at home to 19th-place Burnley. Norwich missed an early penalty but dominated the first half and led with goals by Hause and Rashica. Tzolis, starting upfront, scored a third before Burnley got a consolation and Fábregas ran the show in midfield.

Five games from survival

A huge turnaround in form had led Norwich out of the relegation zone by four points with five games remaining. Big Sam had taken 20 points from 15 games in charge, compared to 10 points from the first 18. But the end of the season was not pretty.

It started with a pretty awful 2-1 defeat at home to Watford but they responded to win 1-0 at Leeds thanks to a first-half Tzolis strike. That moved Norwich six points clear of relegation with three games to go. But they then got battered 5-0 at Everton – who ridiculously scored three cross-header goals to lead 3-0 with 0.55 xG at half-time before Calvert-Lewin completed a header hat-trick. Just stupid.

A first chance to seal survival came at home to Leicester. Big Sam’s tactical input was “kick Vardy, Maddison, Tielemans, Barkley and Lookman.” And it worked as Rashica scored and Leicester struggled to do anything bar long shots. Survival sealed. Tactical genius!!

The season ended at home to Arsenal, who Big Sam also advised his team to kick. And remarkably it worked again as they stifled Arsenal for a 0-0 draw. So, when in doubt, kick people!

And that secured Norwich’s 16th-place finish in the Premier League, six points clear of Palace who went down with Burnley and Brighton but seven behind Leicester, who fell way down to 15th. Liverpool had an amazing season, winning the league with 102 points and a massive 16 clear of City. While Spurs finished 11th and sacked Antonio Conte.

How did they survive?

So there you go, Big Sam can keep a beleaguered Norwich up after they were bottom at Christmas! Although he’s probably destroyed them financially, and I absolutely guarantee they will be bottom again next Christmas…

The keys to the success were new signings Johnstone and Rugani who averaged 7.11 and 7.05 respectively, while Barco chipped in with 4 goals and 2 assists. Although the signings of Fábregas, Bruma and Elliott were less successful.

Join us next Saturday to discover who’s bottom at Christmas 2022, and whether we can repeat the feat!

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