How do Norwich City solve their Todd Cantwell conundrum?

Connor Southwell

Connor Southwell | 3 Jan 2022, 06:00

With January upon us and Norwich City sitting rooted to the foot of the Premier League table, speculation surrounding their best players is somewhat inevitable.

But the context of Todd Cantwell’s situation makes it a slightly different debate altogether. 

Nobody entered this current season thinking that the attacking midfielder would have featured in just eight matches once the New Year arrived. 

Cantwell has completed only one full 90 minutes all season – that came in the Canaries’ 5-0 defeat to Manchester City – and he wasn’t even training with the first-team group at the end of Daniel Farke’s era at the club.

Underscoring the theatrics of that particular situation was a sadness that the coach who presented Cantwell with his first City opportunity felt he couldn’t play him regularly for whatever reason. 

Either side of that particular story is yet to present itself. For now, it is largely irrelevant given the predicament Norwich and Cantwell find themselves in. 

That was the past. But what about the present?

The realities of the situation are this: if an offer arrived for Cantwell this month, City would consider it carefully given his contractual status and what it may allow them to do from an incoming perspective. 

But that context mentioned earlier may well prevent other clubs from making their interest known. 

Cantwell is now a bigger risk than he was in the summer after the Canaries’ relegation from the Premier League. It would be something of a leap of faith for somebody to take. 

At a lower fee, with City in need of cash to fund some business of their own, perhaps it is a simpler one to make this window. 

The minerals are there. The quality is there. But questions beyond that remain.

Clubs will look at his period with City’s U23s and will be posing similar questions to supporters as to why his game time has been so limited this season. They will be monitoring his performances and wondering why his performance levels have dropped. 

By the same token, they know the quality within his game and how big the reward would be if he could make any move a success. That is recruitment in a nutshell, how does the risk weigh against the rewards? The answer to that formula may well decide whether teams step up their interest.

Leeds United are long-term admirers of Cantwell.

Their sporting director Victor Orta has been a fan of his since that first title-winning campaign under Farke. Whether they currently have either the interest or funds to make a move possible in this window remains to be seen.

Aston Villa held an interest in signing him in the summer when Dean Smith was at the helm, they made that known during negotiations that took Emi Buendia to the Midlands. 

City themselves were braced for those admiring glances to result in a solid bid after Jack Grealish’s £100m departure to Manchester City. That never arrived. 

For all of the talk and speculation around the academy graduate, the Canaries are yet to receive a single inquiry or offer for his services. 

There are some who feel the 23-year-old’s journey at Carrow Road is beginning to enter its final chapter. Privately, that thought may be shared by Cantwell himself. 

Behind those admissions is still the hope that Cantwell can rediscover his mojo and become a big player in the quest for survival. 

Lingering in the minds of many are the six goals he scored in their last Premier League campaign – five more than Buendia and a total bettered only by Teemu Pukki.

Look beyond the goals and there was also a consistent stream of creativity from him in that campaign. 

Cantwell managed 3.26 successful attacking actions per game, of those who played over 30 matches, it ranks second to Buendia. 37% of his 43 efforts on goal ended up on target, only Pukki averaged higher during that season.

But for all the goals, there were no assists. His expected assists (value for a pass is the value of expected goals (xG) of the shot that this pass led to) per game ranked at only 0.07, meaning he wasn’t constructing high-quality opportunities for teammates.

Those inside the game felt that was the difference between him remaining in the Premier League and a return to the Championship, he simply didn’t create enough chances. 

Others felt that a combination of Buendia’s creative numbers and Cantwell’s goal output would result in a player of high quality. In the end, the Argentine added those himself in the Championship last season. 

As for Cantwell, there was an improvement in his creative numbers, although he was overshadowed somewhat by the genius of Buendia. 

He made 1.85 smart passes (a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack) per game and doubled his amount of expected assists.

Not only that, there was a physical improvement. He was gliding past players and looked more durable when up against tough, strong defenders.

Everything was pointing to the Premier League witnessing a more rounded player this time around. 

Add in Buendia’s departure, and you begin to realise how this season was set up for Cantwell to excel and establish himself as the main man. 

Maybe, given the evidence of this campaign, he requires a showman to ease the burden on his game. Perhaps the expectation of stepping into the creative void of Buendia has proven to be too much too soon. 

But the numbers prove it, Cantwell is good enough for this level. His performance data displayed that two seasons ago and did the same last year. 

Smith is aware of his quality. It is the reason he wanted to sign him as Villa boss and why he threw him straight into the side for his opening game in charge of Norwich against Southampton. 

That is the internal frustration, Cantwell has the quality but currently isn’t showing it when Norwich require it most. 

Off the pitch, there is the midfielder’s contractual status. 

Officially, Cantwell’s deal expires in the summer but City have a club option to extend that by a further year on the current terms. That is something that will be activated.

Beyond that, there have been no talks over a new contract nor is that planned at this stage.

City would be comfortable with losing Cantwell on a free given he was an academy graduate and that would almost certainly see him leave the club with nearly 200 appearances under his belt. 

But there would be frustration given the valuation that was once attached to his ability. Nobody would wish for it to end that way, especially given his local roots and the narrative of his rise to the first-team. 

That is why an amicable divorce this month may make the most sense, but if Cantwell was to move on before February many, including Smith, may be left asking themselves ‘what if?’.