Build a fortress that rivals will fear

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 3: Attack as the best form of defence

Part 5: Conclusions

West_Ham_match_Boleyn_Ground_2006 (1)

West Ham’s home form was key to their survival last season
Image available under Creative Commons via wikipedia

In the last part of my guide to Premier League Survival, I moved on from examining the transfer policies of newly promoted clubs, and instead looked at the playing philosophies and tactical decisions those clubs have taken upon arriving in the Premier League. In particular, the article considered clubs who have decided to stick to a set of attacking principles, even in the face of superior opposition.

For this installment I am focusing on those clubs who have prioritised collecting as many points as possible from their home games as a means of securing survival in the top flight.

The results, just as in the first two parts of the guide, are mixed. So what separates those clubs who succeeded while prioritising a strong home record, from those for whom impressive home form was not sufficient to keep them in the division?

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Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear

Example to follow: West Ham United
One to avoid: Burnley

It has become a football cliche that to achieve “success” in the game, first you must win your home games. According to this conventional wisdom, teams must make their stadiums a fortress that the opposition fears to visit, and this is held to be particularly true for newly promoted teams. But to what extent is relying on securing points at home a dependable strategy for maintaining your Premier League status?

West Ham United’s performance in the season just gone appears to support the view that survival can be earned primarily at home. Returning to the top flight at the first time of asking, Sam Allardyce shrewdly set about recruiting a number of free transfers and loan signings to bolster the Hammers’ squad for the season ahead, including Jussi Jääskeläinen, Mohamed Diame, and Andy Carroll, as well as big money signing Matt Jarvis.

Allardyce’s men got off to a strong start, losing just one of their opening six games, and reaching ten points by the beginning of October. Throughout these early months of the season, it was already clear that Allardyce was determined to ensure West Ham picked up the maximum number of points possible at the Boleyn Ground, with only Arsenal beating the Hammers on home territory in their first eight home games.

The team’s direct, powerful style seemed particularly suited to earning points at home, and despite losing consecutive home games during the Christmas period, West Ham soon reasserted their dominance of Upton Park, winning six of their remaining nine home games, including a memorable victory over Chelsea.

The Hammers finished the season in a comfortable 10th place in the Premier League, but with the 8th best home record in the division (the best record of all newly promoted clubs). In total they picked up 33 of their 46 points at the Boleyn Ground, the same number that Liverpool secured at Anfield. There is no doubt, therefore, that West Ham’s impressive first season back in the Premier League was built on consistency at home.

Another club that can boast an impressive home record upon being promoted to the top flight is Burnley. Arriving in the Premier League in 2009/10, Burnley also recruited heavily during pre-season, signing no fewer than eight new players, including stand-out signing Steven Fletcher from Hibernian for £3m.

Despite an opening day defeat, Burnley’s early season form was spectacular. By the end of October, Burnley had already secured five Premier League wins, each at home, including 1-0 wins against Manchester United and Everton. A succession of draws slowed their momentum through December, but their home form remained intact, with Wigan the only club to come away from Turf Moor with three points by January.

However, as Owen Coyle departed to Bolton Wanderers at the beginning of 2010, Burnley’s form went into free-fall. New manager Brian Laws could not steady the ship, and despite picking up a further 11 points at Turf Moor that season, Burnley finished the season on 30 points (26 of which were gained at home). Although they had the 15th best home record in the division, the Clarets finished 18th, and were relegated back to the Championship.

So, West Ham and Burnley both enjoyed significant success at home upon being promoted to the top flight, and yet only the Hammers ultimately remained in the division beyond a single season. What factors are likely to have made the difference?

First, while both depended upon their home form, West Ham picked up crucial additional points away from home that Burnley failed to secure. Burnley’s strong home form in 2009/10 could not compensate for a dismal away record. The Clarets had the worst away record in the division, amassing just 4 points on their travels with just a single win to show for their efforts.

Wigan and West Ham, who that season were the teams who finished just outside the dropzone, each amassed more than double this amount of points away from home to boost their chances of survival. If Burnley had been able to match their record away from home, they would have almost certainly survived.

Despite only Norwich, QPR and Reading having a poorer away record than the Hammers during the season just gone, the East London club managed to collect three wins and four draws on their travels. This provided them with over three times the number of points away from home than the Clarets managed in 2009/10. Had they simply matched Burnley’s record of 4 points secured away from home, West Ham would have achieved a points total of 37, just one more than Wigan who were relegated that season.

Second, it isn’t just about how many points you pick up at home, but who you pick them up against. Not only did West Ham boast an impressive home record in 2012/13, but they ensured that they picked up points at home against those teams they were fighting for survival with. They didn’t lose at home to any of the teams in the bottom seven of the division, winning four and drawing three. This not only meant that the Hammers were adding significant points to their own total, but they were denying those clubs around them crucial points in their own battle to remain in the division.

By contrast, in 2009/10 only two of Burnley’s seven home wins came against other sides in the bottom seven, and only seven of their 26 points earned at home came against other teams fighting relegation. So while early wins at home to Manchester United and Everton gave the impression of a club that could compete at the top level, defeats at home to Wolves, Wigan and Portsmouth meant that the teams they would ultimately need to finish ahead of came away from Turf Moor with important points. Had Burnley beaten Wigan at home and all other results remained the same, they would have stayed in the division.

Third, West Ham could achieve these successes as they benefited from greater levels of Premier League experience, quality and stability that Burnley could not draw upon. The Hammers had only been absent from the top flight for one year, and boasted an experienced manager in Sam Allardyce who had masterminded previous, and a number of players with significant experience of playing in the Premier League. Indeed, the spine of West Ham’s starting xi – Jussi Jääskeläinen, James Collins, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll – had notched 950 Premier League appearances between them before a ball had been kicked in the 2012/13 season.

This undoubtedly helped the Hammers acclimatize quickly to life back in the top flight, and ensured that throughout the season they maintained a level of consistency that kept them away from ever seriously worrying about relegation – the Hammers never went longer than two games without picking up a Premier League point. Add to that the recruitment of yet more top flight experience and talent in the shape of Joe Cole in January, and West Ham were well equipped to compete in the top flight.

Burnley on the other hand were competing in the Premier League for the first time. Although they made a number of summer signings, the vast majority had no significant Premier League experience, nor did their promising young manager Owen Coyle. When he left in January 2010, the lack of experience and quality in their squad really began to tell, as the Clarets went on to lose seven of their next eight games. This run obliterated any momentum the club had garnered to that point, and a further seven defeats followed, including four at home.

Conclusions

This brief comparison has highlighted that if newly promoted teams are to stand any chance of surviving, a strong home record will be vital; but alone it will not be sufficient. Clubs must be able to marry dominance at home to an ability to pick up a minimum of ten points away from home. In addition, it also matters who newly promoted clubs secure points against – an impressive overall home record is unlikely to mitigate the impact on their (and their rivals’) survival chances of losing against other relegation threatened teams on home territory. And finally, experience, quality and stability remain key to prospering in the Premier League – at home and away.

It is a running theme of this series that the margins involved with surviving in the Premier League are extremely narrow. In recording 30 points in their debut season, Burnley exceeded the expectations of many, and came close to achieving survival. As outlined above, the final standings hung on just one or two key results, where if  the Clarets achieved a positive result, they would have guaranteed their safety. This will no doubt sharpen the minds of fans of Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace ahead of the new season.

Be sure to check back next Friday for the final installment of my Premier League Survival Guide.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

  2. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

  3. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

  4. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

  5. […] This is in stark contrast to the beginning of last season, when the Hammers lost just one of their opening six games, and reached ten points (their current tally) by the beginning of October. Key to this impressive run was West Ham’s strong home form – only Arsenal beat the Hammers in their first eight games on home territory. […]

  6. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

  7. […] Part 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear […]

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