Premier League Survival Guide: Conclusions

You can read the first 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 4: Build a fortress that rivals will fear


Crystal Palace will return to the Premier League in 2013/14
Image available under Creative Commons via ChristalPalace

Over the past month, I have written a series of articles exploring some of the strategies newly promoted clubs have used to survive their first season in the Premier League. Looking back at these individual pieces, what are the big lessons for Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace, as they prepare for life in the top flight?

In compiling this Premier League Survival Guide, I have looked in detail at eight different clubs’ fortunes in the top flight over the past five years, comparing those that have adopted similar approaches, but achieved differing levels of success.

From this analysis, two overarching conclusions can be drawn about the nature of trying to remain in the Premier League for more than one season.

The first is that no single strategy is capable of guaranteeing Premier League survival. Splashing the cash worked for Stoke City, but QPR are currently trying to offload their big money stars as they adjust to life back in the Championship. A gung-ho approach paid dividends for Southampton, but despite Blackpool having scored even more goals when they graced the Premier League two years earlier, their attacking approach saw them relegated.

As fans, it is tempting to imagine that if only our club were to spend just a bit more money, stick with those players who have shown loyalty to the club, attack more, or create a fortress at home, then survival could be ensured. But the truth is that every promoted club in recent years has adopted one or more of these approaches – some successfully, others disastrously – with a whole host of factors impacting on their final finishing position.

The second, linked, conclusion is that the margins between remaining in the Premier League and returning back to the Championship tend to be incredibly small – with survival often hinging on three points won, or lost, across a season where 114 are available. Had Burnley secured just one more win against a relegation rival, or had Blackpool converted a 3-2 defeat into a 3-2 win, both clubs might have survived.

Given the financial benefits of playing in the top flight, this puts big pressure onto those involved – from the fans, to the players; the manager to the chairman. When nine months work can hinge on just 90 minutes of play, the stakes are incredibly high for all involved.

Nevertheless, the comparisons featured in this Survival Guide do provide some useful insights into actions and approaches that, although not in themselves sufficient to guarantee safety, Cardiff, Hull and Palace must adopt if they are to maximise their chances of staying in the Premier League.

First, clarity of leadership and tactical play will be crucial. Across all of the examples featured in this Survival Guide, those teams that have benefited from strong leadership off the pitch, and a clear tactical approach on it, have tended to succeed.

Stoke City, Norwich City and West Ham United each approached life in the Premier League differently, but each had a clear tactical gameplan in mind, and at the beginning of their journey at least, strong relations between the management and the ownership. This foundation allowed these clubs to recruit sensibly (albeit at wildly differing costs) for their preferred systems of play, which resulted in strong performances.

Even when we look at Southampton, who successfully stayed up despite a wholesale change in management and coaching style during the season, the overall emphasis of their tactical play remained consistently offensive, and Pochettino’s decisiveness in implementing a new pressing style reaped immediate rewards.

By contrast, QPR’s time in the Premier League was characterised by confusion in the board room and the training ground, Burnley had their talismanic manager lured away before reaching the end of the January transfer window, and Reading sacked theirs when it was already too late.

The outrider here is Blackpool, who retained clarity of leadership and tactical play throughout their season in the top flight, but still suffered relegation on the final day.

Second, new signings must make a big impact. Some newly promoted clubs have chosen to spend big in the hope of staying in the top flight, while others largely stuck with the players that earned promotion, and made one or two low cost additions.

Either way, if a club is to survive in the Premier League, their new signings must deliver at the top of their ability.

For example, while Norwich City didn’t splash their cash, new signings like Pilkington and Morison made a significant, decisive contribution to their survival, as did bigger spending Southampton’s Gaston Ramirez and Jay Rodriguez, and Stoke City’s James Beattie. Whether signed for large sums or not, each of these players played pivotal roles in keeping their clubs in the top flight.

Where new signings fail to make an impact, trouble normally looms. Reading were badly let down by the contributions of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie, both of whom looked like shrewd bits of business when their transfers were secured. QPR’s scatter gun transfer policy meant that even though some players did deliver (for example, Djibril Cisse, who scored six goals in eight games having joined in January), the vast majority did not – indeed many were quickly sold or loaned out, as managerial changes to hold.

Third, on his own, a star striker will not keep you in the division. Rickie Lambert, Grant Holt, and Andy Carroll tend to grab the headlines, and although their goals proved pivotal to their respective teams’ ability to compete in the Premier League, Southampton, Norwich and West Ham each survived because they could rely on goals coming from a range of sources.

For Norwich, they arrived from Pilkington and Morison. For Southampton, Rodriguez, Puncheon, Schneiderlin and Ramirez, each contributed more than five goals each. And for West Ham, midfielder Kevin Nolan actually outscored his Geordie teammate with ten Premier League goals.

Meanwhile, although Burnley and Blackpool secured players capable of delivering goals (for Burnley, Steven Fletcher; for Blackpool, DJ Campbell and Charlie Adam), their inability to supplement that throughout the rest of their squads on the one hand, and to tighten up defensively on the other, meant that each played a style of football that was ultimately too open for the demands of the Premier League.

Final thoughts…

There are, of course, other reflections that could be made here. Does top flight experience matter? Instinctively, it is tempting to say, yes. Stoke City had next to none upon being promoted, and so they have emphasised recruiting it in spades in recent years. West Ham already had huge amounts of Premier League experience, both institutionally and within the dressing room, and as a result they were ready for the physical and tactical demands of the league.

But on the other hand, Norwich and Southampton lacked such experience, despite both having competed in the Premier League before, and each recruited largely from outside of the Premier League. Both survived. Reading and (especially) QPR recruited established Premier League players who had played at established clubs over a number of years, and both were relegated.

So the most you can say here is that possessing large amounts of top flight experience alone will not be sufficient to ensure survival.

And there are countless other interdependent factors such as this that each play a part in a clubs’ ability to compete at the top level, but fail to provide a consistent outcome for teams fighting for survival.

I do hope readers have found this series of articles entertaining and informative. While there is no sure-fire strategy to guarantee Premier League safety, the examples that feature in this series do provide some genuine insights for fans of Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace to consider as their respective teams get ready for life in the top flight.

For each, the fight for survival has already begun.

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