Born in Dereham, joining the Norwich academy at age 10 and having a distinguished career with the Canaries at youth level, Cantwell took the scenic route to first-team football, with a loan stint at Fortuna Sittard in Holland. Daniel Farke played a crucial role in the development of another English attacking midfielder in James Maddison as the German is honing the skills of Cantwell. With impressive performances against Premier League juggernauts like Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City as well as a callup to the English U21 side, the youngster is on the right path.
The role of the playmaker has been reinvented in the age of more strenuous tactical demands placed on players in the pressing phase as well as in the defensive phase. The modern creative attacking midfielder is placed in different positions on the field as Farke utilises a modern 4-2-3-1 with a 4-4-2 defensive block. Cantwell is deployed on the left of the three attacking players behind Teemu Pukki. The 21-year-old from Norfolk is given the freedom to work the half-spaces and central channels with a marauding fullback outside him. Cantwell’s gifts have been drifting into space, playing quick one-touch combinations and executing elaborate flicks and tricks in tight spaces to draw defenders and move the ball to players in space.
In Norwich’s Premier League opener away to Liverpool, he was clever and innate at connecting play from the wide positions as Farke continued to trust his principles in build-up play. Cantwell would drop deep to demand possession, use his excellent control and first touch to evade Liverpool’s ferocious counter-pressure and construct passing sequences to progress into the opposition half. He also aided Norwich’s approach play in tight spaces as his clever flicks to teammates allowed Norwich to connect play quickly in the final third. In a 4-1 thrashing against the European Champions, Norwich fans will remember Emiliano Buendia’s sensational through ball for Teemu Pukki which only acted as a consolation goal but Cantwell’s encouraging performance should be noted.
Against Newcastle, he played with more freedom and liberation as he was able to utilise his ability to drift into spaces all over the pitch, work essential connections and instigate pivotal passing moves. Early in the game, Tim Krul worked as pass to Max Aarons who played in Cantwell who had moved to the right flank to receive the pass as he faced his own goal with an opponent pressing him. Cantwell controlled the pass with his left foot and played a through ball to Pukki with his right on the turn to instigate a break. On his own flank, he took on a pass from Jamal Lewis with the opposition pressing him again to cleverly layoff for Lewis to drive into the space in the centre.
He then shifted to the right half-space in the attacking phase as he received a pass from Aarons with his right foot before veering out onto the flank, allowing Aarons to move into the half-space before prodding the ball to Aarons who laid off to a deeper-lying midfielder as the trio showed impeccable coordination in their three-man combination for Aarons to move out wide and for Cantwell to move into the space that the right-back vacated. Cantwell then received a pass in between the lines, took a touch to control the ball before laying off to his teammate as the deep-lying midfielder shifted possession to the opposite flank.
Cantwell latched onto a loose pass from Miguel Almiron in the ten space as he drove at the opposition defence and worked a pass to Pukki who was moving inside from a wide position to have a shot on goal. In the second-half, he received a pass from his fullback to feint and burst past his marker in the opposite direction to drive into the box and lay a pass for Pukki to drill a shot past the goalkeeper at his near post.
A few minutes later, Cantwell drifted into the second striker role on the right flank for a throw in, Buendia then played a pass to him for the midfielder to execute a flick with his heel for the Argentine to have a shooting opportunity from the top of the box. Subsequently, Tom Trybull played a through ball for Cantwell who controlled the pass and shielded the ball for Pukki to take the ball from the Englishman’s feet and fire in his hat-trick goal. Cantwell continued to exercise his influence across the pitch when he controlled a lobbed pass to the flank from Krul as the 21-year-old from Norfolk cleverly held possession, drawing three markers before showing exemplary awareness to release the ball into the six space as his midfielder had space to drive the ball.
Cantwell is lanky and long limbed with long blonde locks unfurled on top of his head as he utilises a developed sense of location on the pitch to shield the ball. When he receives possession, he will constantly look to move and turn in order to look for a passing option as well as shield the ball. He can also easily trick his opponent into fouling him or his marker will have to wait for him to spin around but Cantwell is a master at receiving the ball and depositing it quickly in tight spaces.
Chelsea would provide a sterner test for Norwich, but Cantwell continued to play with nonchalance in possession as he received a pass from Buendia in the nine space to then spread the ball to Pukki who crossed for the Norwich youth product to tap in. Cantwell then received a pass from his centre-back with his back to goal as he flicked past Chelsea’s second wave of pressure for Buendia to burst through to play in Pukki as Norwich’s in-form striker finished with aplomb.
In a home match against Manchester City, where Norwich were expected to lose, Cantwell scored a pivotal second goal for Norwich when he and Pukki raced through on goal for the striker to square a cross for him to tap into an empty net. However, he illustrated his importance in build-up play and evading opposition pressure with his combination play in intricate three-man passing sequences. In the first-half, he received a pass from Lewis with Kyle Walker pushing up behind him for the youngster to flick onto a teammate who played Cantwell through to surge past Walker then cut back to play a pass to a teammate. Cantwell then took on another pass on his flank as he quickly side footed a pass to a teammate who played a pass to Marco Stiepermann for the German to play the 21-year-old through on the break.
“One thing is for sure there are no gifts. It is not like he plays just because he is a local hero, or he is a youngster," said Farke to the Norfolk Daily Press after the match against Newcastle. "He delivers, and my feeling is he is pretty focused and improves from day to day. He can go further on and he must. Everyone speaks about the young lads and our future and how we buy into this, but the most important thing is how you act, not how you speak.”
Norwich possess a lethal front-line with Pukki, Buendia and Cantwell as they have a combined 8 goals and 8 assists this season. Cantwell is a languid playmaker drifting into space and connecting play as the relationship amongst the trio is proving devastating. With an England U21 call-up and 2 goals as well as 2 assists already, Cantwell is proving to be a diamond that Farke has carefully polished. The 21-year-old was not a regular last season but has taken to the English Premier League like a fish to water with his press resistant style and his creativity. After impressive performances against the current English Premier League title holders as well as the UEFA Champions League and Europa League winners, Cantwell is building an immaculate reputation as a creative midfielder.