Attack as the best form of defence

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 2: Bank the cash and keep the faith

Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear

Part 5: Conclusions

SouthamptonStoke19May2013

Southampton’s attacking style contributed to their survival in 2012/13
Image available under Creative Commons via Andre666

So far my guide to Premier League Survival has examined the contrasting investment strategies that clubs have adopted upon gaining promotion to the top division.

For this installment I am focusing on the playing philosophies and tactical decisions newly promoted clubs have taken to boost their chances of survival, and in particular those clubs who have decided to stick to a set of attacking principles, even in the face of superior opposition.

The results, just as in the first two parts of the guide, are mixed. So what separates those clubs who have succeeded while maintaining an attacking approach in the top flight, as opposed to those who have been undone by being much too open, much too often?

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Part 3: Attack as the best form of defence

Example to follow: Southampton
One to avoid: Blackpool

There was a time when it was accepted that the only way for newly promoted clubs to survive their first season in the Premier League was to “park the bus” in front of their own goal, and grind results out. The logic went that the gulf in quality between the top flight and the Championship was so big that to continue adopting the same playing style that secured promotion in the first place would simply be suicidal.

But in recent years an increasing number of clubs have eschewed this conventional wisdom, and decided that the best means of securing survival is to remain progressive and positive in their play, and to place as much emphasis on attacking opposition teams as possible.

A good recent example of this approach is that of Southampton during the season just finished. The Saints were led to successive promotions by Nigel Adkins, following an absence from the top division of English football of over six years. Setting the tone in pre-season, Adkins prioritised boosting Southampton’s ability in front of goal, spending £7m on Jay Rodriguez and a further £12m on Uruguayan forward Gaston Ramirez.

However, the season did not start well. Faced with a difficult set of opening fixtures, Adkins remained determined to play offensively. Although the Saints scored in all but one of their opening eight games, including two against each of the Manchester clubs and four against Aston Villa, they conceded 24 goals and picked up just 4 points. This left them 18th in the table and in the relegation zone.

When their form picked up later in the season, it was in part because the Saints tightened up at the back through December and January, but neither this nor the managerial change in at the beginning of 2013 heralded a radical overhaul in approach. Yes, Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino implemented a new, high-pressing style within the Saints’ play, but their strategy remained open, and their games high-scoring.

Across the season, Southampton only failed to score in five games, scored two or more goals in 14 of their games and conceded two or more goals in 15 of their games. In total they conceded 60 goals (the same number as bottom club Queen’s Park Rangers, and the joint fifth highest in the division) but scored 49 goals (only Fulham with 50 goals scored more out of the bottom 11 clubs in the league). They picked up wins against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, and draws against Arsenal and Everton, before eventually finishing five points clear of relegation, in 14th place.

However, using attack as the best means of defence does not always work out so well.

In their first ever Premier League campaign in 2010/11, Ian Holloway’s Blackpool adopted a similarly cavalier approach to the top flight, despite being favourite to return to the Championship that year. In a pair of results that would characterise much of their season, they began life in the Premier League with a 4-0 away win at Wigan, but followed it up with a 6-0 defeat at Arsenal.

Nevertheless, throughout the season Holloway’s men maintained their style of play, and refused to change in the face of clubs with significantly bigger budgets and with larger reputations than their own.

Yet despite completing a memorable double league victory over Liverpool, a year to the day since their promotion to the Premier League, Blackpool were relegated back to the Championship with 39 points, just one away from safety.

So Southampton and Blackpool both employed what were to some extent similar playing philosophies, yet they experienced different fortunes in the Premier League. What factors are likely to have made the difference?

First, Blackpool were unable to evolve their tactical approach to tighten their defence while maintaining an attacking threat. Despite an extremely poor start to the season, Southampton were able to steady their performances defensively while remaining dangerous going forward, reflecting a higher degree of flexibility and sophistication in their tactical set up under both Adkins and Pochettino than Holloway was able to achieve.

While Blackpool were actually more effective from an attacking point of view than the Saints – they scored two goals or more on 20 occasions, six times more than Southampton, and scored six more goals across the season as a whole – defensively, they were all over the place.

The Seasiders conceded two or more in 25 games, ten times more than the Saints, and ultimately leaked a whopping 78 goals in total, 18 more than Southampton. This led to some extremely entertaining games – on nine separate occasions Blackpool were involved in games where five goals or more were scored. However of those nine games, they won only one, losing the other eight.

Second, by building on this improved defensive stability and tactical awareness, Southampton achieved greater consistency across the season as a whole. In order to survive in the Premier League, teams must get points on the board consistently throughout the season. While seven of Blackpool’s ten wins were obtained before the new year – meaning that at the end of 2010 they sat in 8th place – seven defeats in the opening eight fixtures of 2011 saw them drop down the table sharply.

And when it came to the crucial run-in, Blackpool’s form had fallen away completely. Between the last week of February and the second week of May Blackpool failed to win any games. By contrast the Saints secured three wins in a row during this period, including against top 6 opposition, as well as grinding out important results against relegation rivals.

Finally, Southampton’s key players ultimately performed to a higher level than their Blackpool counterparts. Making an attacking strategy work does not just depend upon your leading striker scoring lots of goals – it requires strong performances from across the team. So while it was important that established Saints striker Rickie Lambert finished joint 5th top scorer in the League with 15 goals, it was just as vital that new signings Rodriguez and Ramirez also shone as the season progressed. Likewise Southampton could rely upon the impressive performances of new signings Maya Yoshida and Nathaniel Clyne, as well as midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin (Saints’ player of the season), Jack Cork and Adam Lallana, and young players like Luke Shaw.

Blackpool did also benefit from strong performances from their goalscorers Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell, who each reached double figures for the season. But that could not disguise the lack of depth and quality to be found throughout the rest of the squad.

With predominantly journeymen reinforcements secured in January (James Beattie, Andy Reid), Blackpool could not recapture their early season form and when the rot set in, were always up against it to cling on in the division.

Conclusions

This comparison has shown that it is possible to gain promotion to the top flight and retain an emphasis on attacking football and scoring goals, particularly where that represents a continuity of approach from a promotion winning season.

But, it has also highlighted that doing so will depend upon teams adapting to life in the Premier League defensively and finding the right tactical balance to keep things tight without stymieing their attacking capacity; being able to use a continued goal-threat to pick up points throughout the season and into the critical run-in period; and that key offensive and defensive players throughout the team are capable of delivering consistently high quality performances.

However, there is no escaping that the margins involved here are slim. Blackpool finished the 2010/11 season with just two fewer points than Southampton finished the 2012/13 season and enough to have survived in 2012/13 – yet Southampton finished five places higher. If Blackpool had converted just one of their 2-3 defeats to a 3-2 win in 2010/11, they would have remained in the division. As for Southampton, they still have work to do at both ends of the pitch to establish themselves for the long term in the Premier League.

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

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