Is there a winning formula to not only surviving in the top flight of English football – arguably the most elite league in the world, though not just merely surviving, but flourishing?
Surely there is a reason (or several) why some football clubs are able to cope with the step up and bridge the gulf in class between the Championship and Premier League and also why some clubs cannot.
Others, as we have seen in recent years, have relied on the ‘bouncebackability’ model, knowing that they are too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premier League; seemingly content with settling for the parachute payments and increased gate receipts and television rights for a season. Perhaps the worst thing for them is that they know this is their most realistic approach.
The Championship is arguably the toughest league in world football to get out of; proven time and again by some clubs who have succeeded after two or three attempts, having come up short on previous occasions. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Premier League, by equal measure is seen as the hardest competition in the world for a promoted club to survive in.
After a gruelling 46 match campaign in English football’s second tier, where on some weeks clubs would play two games, promoted clubs would then have to prepare for a season in the most competitive league in world football, where if you let your guard down, even for a second, you will be punished by some of the world’s best players.
Just what is it though that makes a particular club successful in the Premier League? Do some clubs get promoted too early, in terms of players not having enough time together on the pitch? Has the coach had enough time to implement his methodology?
There are many different factors that set apart those clubs that survive and those that do not and we have explored some of these below, detailing some examples as well.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Leicester City, who stunned the football world when they won the Premier League title in only their second season back in the top flight, after struggling to survive the season before.
While they had a very pragmatic coach (Claudio Ranieri) who essentially went back to basics, the club also benefited from an eagled-eyed scouting department, led by the respected Steve Walsh, who was responsible for uncovering gems like N’Golo Kante (£5.6 million from Caen), Jamie Vardy, and Riyad Mahrez.
All three of these were crucial to the Foxes’ second season in the Premier League and their simple, yet effective counter-attacking style was a breath of fresh air, aided by the pace and sharp-shooting of Vardy, midfield industry of Kante, and trickery of Mahrez.
At left-back, stalwart of the game, Christian Fuchs, turned out to be an astute signing from German club Schalke; his delivery, energy, and experience proving key to the campaign – astonishingly, on a free transfer as well. Compatriot Robert Huth, signed from Stoke City for £3 million, turned out to be a revelation at centre back, making for a highly effective partnership with old head Wes Morgan. Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki was brought in from German club Mainz for £7 million and his work rate proved vital to a lot of the results that the club got on the pitch.
The beauty of the club seemingly lies in their continued ability to replace their stars and still maintain their top four status. While Kante, Mahrez – even Danny Drinkwater all moved on for significant sums, the club has still been able to find significantly suitable replacements and continued to do so.
This was perfectly exemplified with the signing of centre back Harry Maguire; signed in 2017 for £17 million, then sold to Manchester United two years later for a touch over £80 million. When Kante left, there was the fear that he was irreplaceable, though, in the £17 million signing of Wilfrid Ndidi from Genk, they have someone who current coach Brendan Rodgers leans heavily on and is as good as their departed former Frenchman.
James Maddison could arguably be described as their best creative signing in recent years and was a coup from then Championship club Norwich City, if not a calculated risk for a fee thought to be around the £20 million mark. However, he has more than repaid this in assists and goals, especially from set-pieces.
It has been a great ride for the East Midlands club and after great scouting over the last few seasons, they finally appear to resemble the shape of a club who no longer need to sell their best players.
When Southampton achieved successive promotions, they did so with a quality core of players that were easily too good for the Championship and more than capable of producing in the Premier League.
Many of these players though, were products of their youth academy, which at the time received a substantial amount of attention, for its almost conveyor belt-esque approach to player development.
At the time, they had a squad that had all of the attributes to do well in the Premier League and they became a lot of people’s second team for the dazzling football that they played. In Morgan Schneiderlin, they had a lynchpin in midfield who very quickly went on to become one of the most desirable in Europe, while youth products Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw were just as essential.
Finishing a respectable 14th in their first season back in the Premier League, helped to perfectly lay the foundations for consolidation and since 2012 they have been ever-present. Of course, one thing that most agree on for survival in the Premier League is that every club needs a goalscorer and in hitman Rickie Lambert, they had arguably one of the most effective finishers in the country, scoring 15 goals in his first campaign.
Meanwhile, English striker Jay Rodriguez proved to be a savvy signing for £7.5 million from Burnley, forging an effective on the pitch relationship with Lallana and Lambert, while chipping in with six goals and eight assists.
Undoubtedly the reason for their consolidation over the last decade though has come from the continued success in their youth academy and they have used this as a bedrock to build the core of their squad around. Ward-Prowse is still there, while defenders Jack Stevens and Jake Voskins have become integral members of their team and former academy sensation Theo Walcott has recently returned in what can only be described as somewhat of a swansong.
There is a belief at the highest level of the game that a coach is arguably the most important element of a football club, in terms of how successful they are. It is often a coach who is the difference of being able to attract quality players and average players, though not only this, as we have seen on numerous occasions, the best coaches just have everything.
In 2018, when Marcelo Bielsa took charge of, then Championship side Leeds United, the whole world sat up. Regarded by many in the game to be the best of the best, he is credited with the success of Pep Guardiola and fellow Argentine Mauricio Pochettino.
Just two months later, the impact was emphatic. He took a squad of players who finished in the bottom half of the Championship the season before and during pre-season turned them into something unrecognisable. It was clear that pre-season had been something like the players had never seen before; emphasised with their first result of the season when they swept aside Stoke City, playing a brand of football the Championship had not previously borne witness to.
Falling short of the Premier League at their first attempt, Bielsa signed on for another season and duly delivered, his Leeds United side winning the league by 10 points. The anticipation for the club’s first season back in the Premier League for 16 years was almost breathless.
Media were kept guessing until the very last minute of how Bielsa would instruct his side to play. Would it be the same rambunctious, dare-devil approach they used to electrify the Championship or a case of caution?
A narrow 4-3 defeat at Anfield to Premier League champions Liverpool in their first match said it all. Leeds were not here to make up the numbers. It was testament to the ability of Bielsa throughout the season to keep his players going.
Unlucky with injuries, especially to new signings, it meant that they were essentially playing with the same squad that they had in the Championship for most of the first half of the season and still picking up points, playing their exciting brand of football.
Also with a depleted defence, this did not help matters, though one of Bielsa’s major plus points is identifying strengths in his players and getting the best out of them, as exemplified in young Dutch centre back Pascal Strujik; a product of the Ajax academy. Thrown in at the deep end, after a shaky first few games, he now looks like a highly polished Premier League centre back at only the age of 21.
Leeds at full strength in the Premier League, with players, fully fit are a mouthwatering prospect if you are neutral; for fans, excited isn’t the word. Now with their Premier League status confirmed and what looks like could be a top-half finish, the club can now enjoy the rest of the campaign.
Having picked up a point against them at Elland Road in September, they stunned likely champions Manchester City at the Eithad Stadium, going down to 10 men at the end of the first half at 1-0 up. It was a completely different game for Bielsa; defending for 45 minutes with 10 men behind the ball. While City did eventually equalise, a dramatic winner in injury time for Leeds said it all about the effect that Bielsa has had.
This Leeds United team, simply do not know how to give up. It is programmed into their game and it was this that saw them take three points at the Etihad and then follow it up with an 87th-minute equaliser against Liverpool eight days later at Elland Road.
Perhaps the boldest approach of any promoted club to the English top flight, ever, it has seen the Yorkshire side earn a lot of fans around the world, especially but not surprisingly in Bielsa’s native Argentina.
While coaching has without a doubt played a major part in the reason for Leeds United’s success, it could be argued other factors have helped as well. In cases like this, it starts at the top. Owner Andrea Radrizzani has to be applauded for the system that he has put in place, starting with the executive committee.
In Victor Orta, Leeds United have a head of recruitment with a contact book as good as there is, perfectly exemplified with the uncovering of a number of players that have contributed to the club’s success, not to mention Bielsa.
Previously unheard of players such as the revelation Raphina (£17 million from Rennes), loanee Jack Harrison from Manchester City, the aforementioned Strujik in addition to Spanish internationals Rodrigo and Diego Llorente are just a number of players who have helped to take Leeds to the next level.
Chief Executive Angus Kinnear has been crucial in helping to implement the club’s operational strategy, attracting new kit sponsors like Adidas, in addition to strategic commercial partners the San Francisco 49ers who are helping the club to become a global brand.
Defensively Solid Foundations
While being able to score goals in the Premier League is considered to be a major contributory factor of ensuring safety, there are some clubs that take a completely different approach.
This has been evident with a number of clubs over the last few seasons who have set themselves up in a way that they are simply hard to beat and take more of an ‘old school’ approach to playing football.
Burnley, over the years, have come in for a lot of criticism for their playing style, however, it cannot be argued that it is effective. Playing essentially a simple 4-4-2 (or variations of), they have always retained a solid defence and two industrious central midfielders. Turf Moor, is regarded as one of the hardest stadiums in the Premier League for a visiting team to take three points from, due to how the team set up.
Being able to absorb pressure and then create goal-scoring opportunities from wide areas is clearly the philosophy that manager Sean Dyche had identified from day one and he relies a lot on his wingers and ‘old school’ centre forwards as a result, who prove to be a handful for defenders aerially as has been the case in the example of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes.
This was also a model that Stoke City adopted following their promotion to the Premier League in 2008. They exceeded expectations in their first season and again, had players who could get the job done and knew their position. The Britannia Stadium as it was called at the time became a fortress while they had a somewhat unconventional weapon in Rory Delap, whose ability to launch the ball into the penalty area from a throw-in 20 yards away and land it on the head of the tallest player in the league in Peter Crouch, proved invaluable.
Relegation Fodder: Clubs That Don’t Last Long
As has been seen in recent years, a club that can last two seasons in the Premier League usually provides a good indicator that (barring any unusual event), that they have the basis to endure a long term in the top flight and go from strength to strength. Leicester and even Burnley are proving this at the minute.
There are some clubs that appear to accept that they will go straight back down, but then back up, however, recruit wisely when they get promoted, knowing that they have the players who can take them straight back up. It could be argued that this has been the case with West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City over the last decade and, while it perhaps appears to be counter-revolutionary, it could just be a smart way of doing things.
Often for those clubs that do not last long, it starts at the top. A business, which is what a football club, for all intents and purposes is, relies on having effective personnel and those that perform to a high degree often have the best people.
So, in order for this to materialise, those people who are responsible for attracting others to key roles play a huge part. While promoted clubs often have a considerable purse in terms of their transfer budget, this is redundant if there is not a unique selling point. Quite often, clubs get promoted too early, without having the necessary foundations in place to not only survive but flourish, which sounds counter-intuitive, but does make sense.
It could be argued that this was the case with Sheffield United. The weapon that they had at their disposal during their maiden season; the style of football implemented by Chris Wilder was quickly found out in their second campaign, though their inability to attract new players for their second season also played a major part in their subpar performances.
When Southampton achieved promotion, among many ‘in-the-know’ football enthusiasts, there was the general consensus that they were there to stay. They had the infrastructure in the form of the youth facilities, training ground, stadium, fanbase but most significantly a Premier League brand established many years before.
They were a prime example of a club that was perfectly geared for steady success in the Premier League. The same could be said for Leeds United, though time will tell.
There are some occasions where in a promoted club’s second or third season, they qualify for Europe; more commonly the Europa League. In their first season, Burnley achieved a 16th placed finish and then went on to secure seventh in their second, thereby qualifying for the Europa League. However, they did not have a squad big enough to compete on both fronts and ultimately, this showed when they ended the Premier League season in 15th place.
This is a prime example of a promoted club needing to build gradually, especially if they are relying on organic growth. Southampton were able to keep this up for longer; when in their third top flight campaign, they achieved a Europa League finish and sustained this for two seasons, before narrowly surviving the following season.
Even Leicester City, who, the season after they defied the odds to win the league, ended up finishing 12th the following term, then 9th successively before clinching a fifth place finish. Only this season do they look like they could consolidate a top four place for the future, though the next campaign will definitely provide a litmus test.
For obvious reasons, Manchester City is a prime example of a club that has been able to consistently achieve Champions League football. Their takeover by, effectively a nation state has ensured that they had the financial backing to compete at the highest level on multiple fronts and they have a trophy cabinet that proves this. They are a breath away from winning the Champions League for the first time in their history, while the Premier League title appears to be a forgone conclusion.