Bank the cash and keep the faith

You can read the other four parts of Ben’s Premier League Survival Guide below.

Part 1: Splash the cash and take a great leap forward

Part 3: Attack as the best form of defence 

Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear

Part 5: Conclusions

Norwich_City_Champions

Image available under Creative Commons via Dweller

Fresh from examining the fortunes of clubs who have decided to ‘splash the cash’ upon being promoted to the top division in English football, the second part of my Premier League Survival Guide looks at those teams who have done the exact opposite, and ‘banked’ it instead.

Rather than set about transforming their playing and coaching staff immediately, these clubs have opted to rely almost exclusively on a few cheap additions and those players who got them to the promised land in the first place.

The results, just as in the first part of the guide, are mixed. So what separates those clubs who have made this strategy work, as opposed to those who have succeeded only in making their Premier League stay a short one?

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Part 2: Bank the cash and keep the faith

Example to follow: Norwich City
One to avoid: Reading

Promotion to the Premier League has taken on a similar status to winning the lottery. Presented with such a windfall, many teams who may have struggled to survive full-stop (never mind in a particular division), prioritise their long-term future over gambling their new-found riches on remaining in the league beyond one season. These clubs instead hope that the players who succeeded in achieving promotion will be able to make the step up necessary to compete at the top level.

There are a number of examples where this approach has yielded at least some short term success; a good recent instance being Norwich City.

Led to the Premier League in 2011 by the impressive Paul Lambert, who had overseen successive promotions from League One, Norwich City bolstered their squad with only a handful of relatively unknown, low cost signings in pre-season.

But in the main, the Canaries faced life in the Premier League boasting a side that was largely the same as that which had scaled the Championship the year before. By sticking with a consistent squad and tactical approach, Lambert was able to ensure his side hit the ground running, losing only three of their first ten games back in the top flight.

In the end, the club were never in danger of relegation, and only slipped below 13th in the table twice all season, finally finishing 12th with a final day win over Aston Villa.

Despite losing Paul Lambert the following pre-season to the Villains he had so recently vanquished, Norwich City remained faithful in their approach to life in the Premier League. In employing Chris Hughton as Lambert’s successor, the club chose a candidate unlikely to set about dismantling and rebuilding the current squad.

And so it proved, with experienced additions made in defence (Sebastian Bassong and Michael Turner) and a handful of others drawn from the lower leagues, Hughton added to, but did not transform, the squad he inherited.

And despite a significant drop in form during the second half of last season, Norwich stuck to their plan, and ultimately stayed clear of relegation back to the Championship, and actually improved on their 2011/12 position by finishing 11th.

By contrast, relegation was to be Reading’s fate following just one season back in the Premier League.

Like Norwich, the Royals added only a handful of new players to their first team and kept faith with a large part of their existing squad.

But manager Brian McDermott enjoyed a far less successful beginning to the 2012/13 season than that of Paul Lambert in 2011 – he had to wait until mid-November for his first league win; a 2–1 victory over Everton.

A strong run of results in January saw McDermott awarded Manager of the Month, but subsequent defeats to relegation rivals saw Reading owner Anton Zingarevich sack his manager in March 2013, and install Nigel Adkins as his replacement later that month.

If an upturn in results was hoped for, it failed to materialise – the club won only one game during the remainder of the season, and that came only after relegation had been confirmed. Reading finished the 2012/13 season with only six wins, their worst ever record.

So, despite employing similar strategies, Norwich and Reading have experienced very different fortunes in the Premier League. What factors are likely to have made the difference?

First, Norwich’s senior players rose to the challenge. As the 2011/12 season developed, a number of star performers in key positions emerged within the Canaries’ dressing room. Goalkeeper John Ruddy enjoyed a fantastic season, earning a senior England call up at the end of the year, only to be denied by a training ground injury. And another Norwich player touted for England glory was stocky centre forward Grant Holt. Derided during pre-season as lacking the athletic ability to be a force in the Premier League, Holt proved his critics wrong, bagging a total of fifteen league goals, often in critical games.

With the exception of super-sub Adam Le Fondre, and possibly the emergence of young Alex McCarthy and Hal Robson-Kanu, it is difficult to identify similar examples in the Reading squad, and both lacked the consistency of Norwich’s star performers throughout the season.

Second, Norwich’s new signings had a big impact. Anthony Pilkington, Steve Morison, and Bradley Johnson each joined the Canaries from the lower leagues in 2011, but would go on to have extremely impressive seasons in the top division, notching key goals and assists.

In their second season, Sebastien Bassong (eventually named club player of the season) and Robert Snodgrass were just as, if not more, effective.

For Reading, main signings Danny Guthrie, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Nicky Shorey largely misfired, and were each dropped from the first team altogether for parts of the season. Without the benefit of reinforcements contributing in the way Morison or Snodgrass have done for Norwich, the limitations of the Royals’ squad were exposed.

Third, Norwich kept faith with their strategy. Both of the clubs featured in this article have changed their manager since arriving in the Premier League, but under very different circumstances.

Despite suffering a dramatic loss of form in the second half of this season, the Norwich board remained faithful to Chris Hughton, resisting any temptation to make a change in the hope of arresting their slide.

Their patience was eventually rewarded, as the Canaries picked up three wins from their final five games, including a last day triumph over Manchester City at the Etihad.

By sacking McDermott at the time he did, Zingarevich essentially conceded his strategy for Premier League survival had failed.

And while some will argue that McDermott paid the price for not getting more from his senior professionals, and for making poor signings with his limited budget, a change in manager in March reflects a desperation at the top of the club to try anything in order to stay up.

It is impossible to say whether McDermott, so recently awarded manager of the month, could have turned the situation around had he been afforded the time. Regardless, the decision signaled that even the owner had lost faith in the club’s ability to stay in the division, and from that point, Reading’s fate was sealed.

Conclusions

This comparison has shown that it is indeed possible to bank the cash awarded for gaining Premier League status and survive in the top flight.

However, it has also highlighted that doing so will depend upon managers being able to get the most out of their existing, experienced professionals; clubs securing a select number of signings that make a big impact throughout the season, and owners having the courage to stick to Plan A and back their managers, even if the going gets tough during the season.

And ultimately there is no guarantee that this represents a sustainable strategy for progressing in the Premier League. Norwich themselves have acknowledged this, breaking with their approach to date and signing high profile striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel ahead of next season. Time will tell if the Canaries can manage the transition from one approach to another.

In the meantime, be sure to check back next Friday for the third part of my Premier League Survival Guide.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Click to read the second part to Ben’s Premier League Survival Guide. […]

  2. […] Part 2: Bank the Cash and keep the faith […]

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  5. […] in, which should improve their squad significantly. It does represent a risk for them – up to now in the #EPL we’ve seen them take a more incremental approach to recruiting new players. But Hughton has clearly identified that a lack of goals cost them last season, and has quietly […]

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