Premier League Survival Guide: Lessons from 2013/14

You can read the first four parts of the Hit Row Z 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

Part 5: Conclusions

Last season Hit Row Z published a series of articles examining how Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Hull City could maximise their chances of survival in their first season in the Premier League.

While the study revealed no hard and fast solutions to staying in the top flight beyond one season – instead highlighting just how fine the margins between salvation and relegation really are –  it did set out a series of critical success factors that would need to be in place if any of the teams were to stand a chance. These included strong leadership, tactical discipline, signings that make an impact and talent that runs beyond a single, key striker.

Last season, Cardiff City failed against each of these criteria, with the chaotic chairmanship of Vincent Tan and tactical naivety and scattergun signings of both Malky Mackay and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sending the Blue Birds back to the Championship at the first time of asking.

By contrast, Crystal Palace and Hull City each demonstrated good performance against these criteria, at least for extended periods of the season. Tony Pulis, arriving about a third of the way into the season, quickly instilled a much needed tactical rigour to Palace’s play, resulting in the Eagles keeping 12 clean sheets on their way to recording a hugely impressive 11th place finish.

For their part, Hull City endured a re-naming drama off the field, and a slump in form during the second half of the season, to comfortably survive for another season of Premier League football, and reach an FA Cup final, under the guidance of Steve Bruce.

But over and above measuring the sides against these critical success factors, what additional lessons can be gleaned from the performance of last season’s promoted teams that could help inform the approaches of Leicester, Burnley and QPR?

First, changing manager mid season can transform a team’s fortunes, but Premier League experience seems to matter. The Cardiff City train was already off the rails by the time that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed, with performances and results under previous boss Mackay have already significantly declined. As such, it was always a huge ask for the relatively inexperienced Solskjaer to come in, refresh the squad during the January transfer window, and lead his side to survival.

By contrast, Tony Pulis may have inherited a team in chaos – lest we forget, the team was rooted to the bottom of the league after Ian Holloway had left, conceding the job was just too much for him – but by bringing to bear his years of Premier League experience at Stoke City, the upturn in performances was immediate. Pulis implemented his tried and tested systems at Palace, deliberately making the game very simple with regards the tactical approach adopted, and prioritised being hard to beat (see below).

To cap it all off, Pulis won Premier League Manager of the Year award. Indeed, had the season began when Pulis took over, the Eagles would have finished in the top half of the table!

Although QPR fans will not need reminding that such a switch is not guaranteed to succeed in and of itself, should the owners of the three promoted clubs find themselves issuing a P45 this season, they would nevertheless do well to heed this lesson and look to recruit a proven Premier League boss to salvage matters.

Second, being hard to beat is vital to surviving in the top flight. Both Steve Bruce and Tony Pulis implemented effective defensive game plans throughout the season, ensuring they were competitive in the vast majority of games they played. The Eagles kept twice as many clean sheets as Cardiff City, and conceded three or more goals on just four separate occasions, with Steve Bruce’s men doing so only six times.

By contrast, Cardiff City conceded three or more in nearly one third of their games (12) indicating that when the going got tough, invariably, the wheels would fall off.

This matters not only because of the demoralising impact that getting thumped can have on a squad of players, but because with the average number of goals scored in a Premier league being around 2.5, leaking goals in such a way essentially guarantees defeat, removing even the most remote chance of claiming a point from an adverse position. Pearson, Redknapp and Dyche should all take note.

Third, spending big is no guarantee of survival – and it is possible to bring in too many new signings at the same time. Crystal Palace signed 20 players in total during 2013/14 (including loan signings) with the bulk of these arriving ahead of the new season, and almost as many leaving the squad during the course of the season.While ultimately players like Marriapa, Chamakh and Puncheon delivered performances which secured survival, this degree of upheaval undoubtedly contributed to their shaky start to the season, and made Tony Pulis’ task a more difficult one initially.

Cardiff underwent wholesale changes in both transfer windows, leaving them with a disjointed and bloated squad come the final Premier League run in. Very few, if any, of the additions to the squad had the desired impact, with too many failing to secure a place in the first team throughout the season.

By contrast, Steve Bruce sought to incrementally improve his team, bringing in key midfield reinforcements in the shape of Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone in the summer transfer window – both of whom shone. But fast forward to January, and only one of his big money striker signings came good, with Shane Long added valuable goals, as Nikica Jelavic tended to struggle.

Conclusions

Once again it is worth re-stating that this kind of analysis can only ever provide partial answers to those looking for insights in to how to survive being promoted to the Premier League. There are countless other interdependent factors that each play a part in a clubs’ ability to compete at the top level, and yet in and of themselves, fail to provide a consistent outcome for teams fighting to stay in the top flight.

But by adding to our reflections the lessons learned by three clubs that each took very different approaches to staying in the division, endured very different challenges during the season, and ultimately finished the year in sharply contrasting form and league positions, the owners, managers and fans of Leicester, Burnley and QPR do at least have a number of additional examples to draw upon as they finalise their plans to avoid the drop this season.

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