Replacing Stuart Webber with Ben Knapper might in truth offer more of the same rather than a break out moment for Norwich City.

Time will tell in terms of style and personality whether Knapper is more back foot counter puncher than the front-foot, in-your-face delivery of his predecessor.

But in the manner Webber’s appointment to this mythical role of a 'sporting director' back in 2017 was viewed as innovative and forward-thinking, so too is the selection of Knapper.

The pedigree is impeccable. 14 years emerging through the ranks at a powerhouse club in English football, even if Arsenal are still on a mission to recapture the lustre of their best years under Arsene Wenger.

The unheralded Frenchman was a similarly leftfield appointment in the mid-1990s, but his impact reverberated around the top end of the national game.

Knapper’s formative footballing background, as he mapped out in his introductory club interview, was in data analytics. But in recent years his astute work as the Gunners’ loans manager exposed him to many of the challenges he must now conquer in Norfolk to refresh and renew, and set this version of Norwich City on a path which puts them ahead of direct rivals.

That is why his growing reputation as one of the sharpish exponents of harnessing data at the highest level of the game, and Norwich’s identification of his skill set, is potentially every bit as innovative as Webber’s transformative early impact.

As an aside, Knapper’s appointment also marks the most visible sign yet of the growing influence from across the pond.

We already know about the on going evolution in the City boardroom with regards to the shareholder mix, while the last set of published accounts framed the refinancing of debt within that relationship.

But in Knapper you detect a clear direction of travel with parallels to how Mark Attanasio and his group have guided the Milwaukee Brewers for the past 18 years or so.

Norwich Evening News:

A major league US baseball outfit who continue to punch considerably above their weight against foes with deeper pockets, richer reserves of commercial revenue, and access to much larger media rights markets.  

But what is data? What does it mean in the context of professional football? And how do you make sense of it all when you struggle to decipher your xG from your PPDA, or any other alphabet soup of letters and acronyms?

Let us go back to Knapper’s predecessor, talking at the start of this current season on the growing prevalence of data to inform recruitment at the football club.

“(It is) definitely going to be more data-led (in the future). At Norwich we have a team that is seven or eight full-time people and, with respect, we’re Norwich – imagine what it’s like at Liverpool, Tottenham,” said Webber, in a Sky Sports report on the changing data landscape. “The day of the scout going out to games is getting close to being redundant.

"I think it will be someone going to the game because they’re then meeting the player after, as opposed to going to the game to watch them.

“With modern owners, new chief executives and so on, especially with the massive US influence within our country now, I think they will believe a 25-year-old maths genius over a 60-year-old scout.

“We’re at the tipping point and we’re very close to going over it.

“I get it - if you can run a simulation of a million different seasons where you take out Teemu Pukki and put in Ashley Barnes and you’ve got a predictor model which can tell you you’ll be six points better off for doing that and you’re sat in the US, why wouldn’t you believe it?”

Knapper’s recent arrival, and his previous work in this field, would appear to be an accelerant to a process initiated by Webber that had already seen Norwich start to explore the potential of data.

Be it the appointment of Dr John Iga in 2021, to head up strategy and innovation, or the continuing shift to the bespoke scouting system credited with Brighton’s recruitment success in recent seasons.

Or even in the brand new multi-million pound recovery hub at Colney to aid rehab and management of injury to the most prized assets on the books.

Knapper sits atop the entire structure. His remit is vast and, from the outside looking in, daunting. Data is everywhere in football but only a few clubs have thus far embraced its full potential to inform decision making across the entire footballing operation.

Whether it is finding untapped markets to sign players, from leagues where the quality and value for money align, to rebalancing an aging squad. Or the practical application of coaching a side and addressing some of the enduring technical deficiencies that have sucked Norwich down the Championship standings at present under David Wagner.

This was Knapper, in his own words, on the use of data at Arsenal in an interview towards the end of 2022.

“We’ve got a huge internal infrastructure of developers, of data scientists, of programmers, literally they are so vital now in the modern game, because there's so much data available and it's about trying to use that in a smart way.

“We're fortunate because a lot of the challenges that clubs have is that there's almost too much data, and you don't have enough resources in the clubs to leverage it in a smart way.

“We’re well-resourced in that area. We have a data processing centre in south-east Asia, where we find lots of games from all over the world that generate data for us, that we use to drive all of our player recruitment processes, all of our opposition analysis, all of the work I do in loans and player trading. All of that is really underpinned by advanced analytics.”

Norwich do not possess Arsenal’s data resources, despite some astute existing external partnerships in this area, but in Knapper they do possess a new sporting director with the nous and aptitude to get the Canaries working smarter in an area that might define success and failure in the future of the professional game.

In so doing Knapper can now begin to position the Canaries at the forefront of this data frontier.