So it’s back. The Premier League resumes its normal service of thrills and spills with Fulham, Swansea and West Brom thrilling and Liverpool, Norwich and QPR spilling. The annual analysis of who’s going to challenge for the title and who’s going to be relegated, based on just 90 minutes of football, has already begun. Lack of fitness, teams yet to gel and form yet to be really established, various punters will already know that Norwich are going to suffer second season syndrome, City are going to struggle to cope with the added pressure of being champions and Liverpool fans are already beginning to call for Brendan Rodgers’ head. Insane? Yes. Inevitable? Of course. In reality we won’t really know the pattern of the season till the end of October. An Arsenal season ticket holder once told me that there’s no point evaluating the start of the season till the ten match point, by which time the general quality of each team should be beginning to pan out over the isolated dips and flips in form that can happen on any given weekend. But first weekend judgements are inevitable such is the unquenched thirst for pseudo-punditry that has been going unfulfilled for the summer months. So what am I going to do? Yep, here comes some pseudo punditry based on the isolated gameweek one matches which finish with Fulham as the champions and Liverpool in the relegation zone.
One of the predominant topics of opening weekend discussion is, of course, how the new teams will fare. People who watched barely any Championship football the season before make judgments on the prospects of each of these teams by looking at how many names they recognise, often ignoring the often exceptional performances of the relatively unknown players in the Championship the season before. Wise sages then announce “I think they’ll struggle” when talking about the new additions – revolutionary stuff it is to say that teams coming from a lower level are going to be the weaker teams at a higher level. So wanting not to sound trite, and reluctant to make judgements about teams that I admittedly do not know as well as the more established premier league teams, I will instead consider the approaches that the promoted teams seem to be adopting for the season ahead and will draw upon my empirical knowledge of previous promoted sides in an attempt to evaluate at least what problems each of these teams are likely to face.
From the opening weekend it has become quite apparent that two of the three teams have broadly different strategies for the season ahead. West Ham appear to be employing the direct and robust style of play that has become the Allardyce trademark while Southampton look to play a free flowing attacking side, who like to cherish the ball and ‘play a bit’ (to borrow a classic Jamie Redknapp catchphrase) a la Swansea, Blackpool and Reading’s first stint in the Premier League. Reading seem a bit trickier to surmise from last weekend’s offerings. They seem to have plenty of pace in players like MacAnuff and Le Fondre, and have some experience in players like Guthrie and Pogrebniak. Whether they fit into the Swansea or the Stoke mould I’m not quite sure yet, though I’d anticipate the former.
Southampton were easier to place. Not afraid to have a go at City and able to use the ball creatively to launch threatening counter attacks, Southampton showed that they have plenty of the tools needed for Premier League survival. Lallana looked cool and composed in midfield, their defenders were seriously challenged by City’s attacking plethora but seemed to have the necessary anticipation and intelligence to deal with most other attacks reasonably well, while up front in Lambert they have a striker who seems capable of scoring a dozen or so goals, which is obviously vital for any promoted side. They certainly remind me of teams like Blackpool, Burnley and Reading (in the mid-00s) such is their endeavour and lack of fear and restraint. This approach has had mixed results. Famously Blackpool thrilled the footballing nation with their bravery and almost innocent naivety to go to places like Arsenal and Utd and try to play them at their own game. It resulted in a few considering thrashings (6-0 at Arsenal) but it also earned them some memorable scalps (winning at Liverpool of course). Reading earned similar superlatives with the side lead by Kevin Doyle and Steven Hunt that finished 8th in the league (2006-7). Although Reading’s approach was initially successful, it often doesn’t work and such teams have tended to be undone by poor defences and profligacy in the final third. For all of Blackpool’s admirers, they earned immediate relegation, as did Burnley, and Reading’s initial success unfurled in the following season leading to relegation.
This confident fearless approach was best exemplified by Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea side last season. Whereas Blackpool and Burnley could be described as being gung-ho with their attacking endeavour, Swansea played a possession based game of technical mastery in midfield, defensive composure and a mixture of pace and clinical finishing upfront. While previous promoted sides have struggled to adapt to playing without the ball having been able to dominate teams in the Championship, Swansea attempted to run games in the Premier League as well and they were successful in doing so. They even managed to outplay the usual possession lynchpins of the league when they beat Arsenal 3-2 in January. It was the kind of football that people often lament the English game for being unable to foster. Of course Swansea are Welsh, but their nerve and confidence to play a Barcelona type game with previously Championship level players was both brave and successful. Furthermore, judging on last weekend’s evidence, they seem content to continue in this light and Laudrup’s additions of Michu and de Guzman seem quite capable of allowing Swansea’s possession football to evolve and continue in its success. Southampton seem to have taken note such was their composure and willing to try to use the ball against City last weekend. Whether they too can emulate Swansea’s success is yet to be seen, but if they do, then the technique based football that British football has for so long eschewed, may begin to become the blueprint for all upcoming sides.
Traditionally, English football has resembled something more akin to Stoke’s physical and direct football of the last few seasons. The long ball (and of course the long throw) up the pitch, bypassing the midfield battle to instead engage in an aerial battle in the opposition’s area, may seem outdated in Catalonia or the streets of Rio, but it became their way of winning points. While purists lambasted Stoke for not ‘playing football’ (though what else they were doing I’m not sure) Stoke saw it as the pragmatic approach – why play Arsenal in a passing match when you know you’ll just end up being thumped 6-0? Pragmatism was vindicated as the Britannia Stadium became the great battleground of the Premier League, with ‘purer’ sides such as Arsenal and Tottenham perennially struggling to cope with the physical bombardment that Stoke unleashed. Now in their fourth season of Premier League action, Stoke are now seen as Premier League regulars and the Britannia remains one of the toughest away fixtures.
This approach is hardly unprecedented – of course it isn’t, it’s either the ‘old-fashioned’ approach or the ‘right and proper’ way, depending on whomever you are talking to. That West Ham – traditionally one of them ‘football playing’ clubs – seem to be going for this approach is due to one of the style’s most notable proponents of recent years. Hammers manager Sam Allardyce’s success at Bolton now almost a decade ago was based on an ability to ‘have a go’ at the opposition in a physical way as well as in a footballing way, and with Kevin Davies playing as a battering ram at the fore of Bolton’s attack for numerous of years, Bolton, like Stoke, became a team that the purists grow to love to hate. Again, it was the likes of Arsenal and Spurs who perennially got battered on blistery winter evenings at the Reebok, and with Stoke taking over from Bolton in this respect in recent years, the oft-mentioned question asked in football has become “Could Messi do it on a wet Wednesday evening at the Britannia?” It is a question that I suspect will never be answered (though I think most reasonable people know the answer).
Allardyce has again installed Kevin Nolan as fundamental to this approach – the battling midfielder is one who is able to mix sturdy tackling with plenty of goals. With Carlton Cole set to be the target man up front with the pace of players like Vaz Te on the flanks, West Ham have a team that is built towards speedy and direct counter attacks. Whether they can mix this with the defensive solidity that has underlined Stoke’s recent successes, remains to be seen (I will certainly have to be convinced by their defenders), but with Allardyce at the helm, you can be certain of a certain robustness. At the same time, it would be too easy to caricature this approach as being solely focused on physical imposition. Allardyce’s purchases in years gone by have been some of the most striking made by the supposedly less exotic sides in the leagues – Bolton’s signings of Anelka, Okacha and Djorkaeff back in the mid-00s all suggest that Allardyce has always been willing to mix physical power with technique and flair. It may be important for Allardyce to do the same at West Ham such is their perceived heritage for free flowing attacking football (not that that heritage has done them too well in recent years).
Whether it’s the Bolton and Stoke high ball way or the highly praised way of Swansea, one low way that seems to be losing popularity is the stoic ‘park the bus’ way that some sides have previously taken up. Most notable among these has been Alec McLeish’s Birmingham side from a couple of season ago. Based on the successful defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, Birmingham survived with relative ease in their last debut season, finishing ninth. Although they weren’t the most exciting club to watch in terms of goals, their success was largely due to an ability to keep clean sheets and get just about enough goals to win some games and draw many others. While Birmingham received accolades for their organization and solidity, the following season, a failure to build upon these successes by developing anything resembling an attacking style, lead to boredom and antipathy towards their perceived negative side. A remarkable Carling Cup delayed this criticism, but when they were relegated there were very few neutrals who were particularly upset. McLeish’s subsequent difficulties and sacking at Villa seem to have further compounded the criticisms against such negative play and have also highlighted that, without an ability to score goals and play some kind of expressive attacking football, teams will definitely struggle.
There are various approaches to Premier League survival, and while the Swansea way is the most attractive and pleasing on the eye, the league would be a worse place if the likes of Stoke and Bolton hadn’t been around to give the league those grotty, intimidating fixtures that other leagues do not have. But if every McLeish Birmingham side were to be replaced with another Swansea, and dare I prematurely say it, another Southampton side, then that can only improve the league and the British game in general.