Newcastle United Creates Blueprint For How Championship Sides Can Succeed in EPL

Ever since the start of the Premier League in the early 1990s, soccer has become a world of haves and have-nots. Clubs with ‘history’ or extremely wealthy owners have leveraged television and Champions League revenues to such an extent that most of the top six in any major league can be predicted before the season starts. The days of a side coming up from the Championship and immediately challenging the established order are over, not least because the disparity in money means leading clubs can have their pick of players due to the wages only they can offer.

Recently, however, clubs that have languished outside the very top tier are starting to smarten up. Newly promoted sides like Swansea, Norwich and Blackpool didn’t play like underdogs, and Newcastle flirted with the Champions League for most of last season with a wage bill lower than Aston Villa’s (who finished 16th). Blackpool was ultimately unsuccessful in their quest to stay in the Premiership but they did pick up several prized scalps (Liverpool twice, notably) in their single season. What did these clubs do to punch above their weight?

First of all they made sure that everyone had a defined role. A club cannot succeed if its playing staff are constantly confused about what they’re supposed to do. For example, a full back that doesn’t know whether to press up the field constantly or defend deep and limit forward runs will do neither well. Similarly, a player needs to know if he’s considered a regular starter or a squad player to maximize team harmony. Taking Newcastle for example, the club has been playing the same back four and keeper regularly, all of them came through their season in the Championship and that stability made them one of the meanest defenses in the Premiership for most of last season. Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, and Jonas Gutierrez also made more than 30 appearances in the league (which is another thing teams need: lack of injuries) but there were only six other players above 15 league appearances. Having a settled squad that’s used to playing the same style week after week with each other can go a long way.

Another thing that doesn’t take money to achieve is a settled playing style. This might sound obvious but there are many teams that try and play in a way that’s simply not suited towards the players they have. Chelsea last season being the obvious example. Similarly Inter Milan’s players have seemed confused ever since Rafa Benitez failed to integrate a high line and pressing, starting a revolving door of different managers and tactics. Their results are yet to recover. In order to be successful a team needs a scheme that allows them to feel in control over games. In this case control doesn’t simply mean bossing possession, very few teams can do that week after week, it refers to a side that knows what’s going on and that has an offensive and defensive strategy.

Newcastle for example, only averaged 47% possession per game last season, but it didn’t bother them. In a game against Swansea they only had about 20% of the ball, obviously not trying for parity, but won 2-0. Alan Pardew realized quite early on in the season that his first choice back five were comfortable defending deep and his forwards good in one-on-one situations and built his team around that. Hatem Ben Arfa couldn’t find a place in the side because of his unwillingness to defend and track back, something essential for a side that basically gave up dominating the midfield in their pre-winter 4-4-2. Even when the mercurial Frenchman was included it came with a shift to a 4-3-3 where his role as a wide forward was more suited to his talents. Blackpool, ultimately doomed on the final day of their Premier League campaign, got whatever success they had through a defined plan built around Charlie Adam’s passing range and three players high up the field in constant movement. Even Norwich, where Paul Lambert preferred to alter his shape to counter whatever opponent he was facing, prepared his players a certain way. The Canaries crossed the ball more than all but five other sides and were the most accurate at doing so.

In short, just be organized. Organization is what’s allowed sides like Stoke City and Fulham to become furniture in the Premier League, and recently with that stability has come progression, with both sides parlaying their Premiership revenue into more expensive players. Contrastingly, a disorganized side with more money and pull in QPR looked in disarray for much of last season and predictably finished lower than both Swansea and Norwich. If a side is organized, then the game can be played in a way that’s comfortable, and plans and strategies can be put into motion. Trying to put square pegs in round holes just leads to frustration.

When a side doesn’t necessarily have world class players finding a system that allows what players are there to thrive is paramount. Denmark showed at Euro 2012 that trying to play out of the back like Barcelona is far more difficult without the technical ability possessed by all of Barca’s players. Recently, well run sides that are looking to secure a seat at the upper echelons of the world game are finding the right blend of pragmatism and positivity. Clubs such as Newcastle or Swansea appoint a manager and staff that have a defined style and vision and back them. Witness how much deadweight Manchester City has accumulated as compared to Newcastle, it’s not enough to buy good players they need to be able to become part of the fabric of the side, and once Newcastle realized that their transfer policy got much better. This day and age it’s certainly harder to be a club without a mega-rich benefactor, but some clubs are smart enough to work around that.

15 thoughts on “Newcastle United Creates Blueprint For How Championship Sides Can Succeed in EPL”

  1. An excellent article which states a number of obvious but often neglected points. As a NUFC season ticket holder, the main reason we played a settled back 5 was a lack of squad depth, especially when Steven Taylor was injured. We were extremely lucky with injuries and suspensions at centre half – Norwich away being the exception when we had to play Simpson and Perch who are both under 6ft in height. They were able to batter us on the day.

    The point about Ben Arfa is excellent. he was not played until he bought into the team work ethic. Similarly Santon did not appear until he was ready, leaving a right footed midfielder (Ryan Taylor) filling in. When he was ready after a difficult acclimatisation period, Santon played and produced some excellent perfomances.

    Our transfer policy stood us in good stead last year. It will be harder this season as other clubs wise up and learn of the need for stability and leaner, more sustainable squads. Sadly though Chelsea still see the only way to progress is to spend silly money. I hope it doesn’t work and would love to see the financial fair play rules ruthlessly implemented although I doubt it will happen. Can you imagine a Champions League without Barca, Real, Man Utd, Man City, Milan, Chelsea etc?!

  2. We’re hardly a Championship side “punching above our weight”.

    We were only down for one season!!

    And we get bigger crowds than the vast majority of the EPL.

    1. But you have to admit that Newcastle were not truly the strong team of years past during the 07/08 and 08/09 premier league campaigns. I’d say that not even the most enthusiastic of Newcastle supporters could have seen Pardew doing such a fantastic job for the past year and a half.

      1. no, we didn’t expect it, however, close scrutiny did leave a lot of quietly confident we would do well, because we really assessed our signings rather than looking at the price tag and whether or not Chelsea wanted to buy them solely as way to judge their calibre.

        signings incidentally that quite possibly wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for our recent history and travels around Europe, Bobby Robson for example, and those two years qualifying for the CL under him, these things have an effect.

        having done that you would see that there were no regulars in our team over achieving judging on past records and it then becomes less of a surprise.

  3. It’s misleading to describe NUFC as a championship side based on one season there. It’s almost as short sighted and unknowledgeable as those who keep on saying they are facing second season syndrome this coming season (their third since relegation)

    09-10 was the first season since 1992 that NUFC were outside of the top division. They also were relegated by one goal and spent the entire season in the second tier at the top gaining promotion with a points tally a few short of the record. Championship clubs don’t generally have such legendary managers as SBR in their recent history and two seasons in the CL within the last ten as well as enough fans to be very well known throughout Europe.

    To clarify this: until very recently NUFC had the fifth highest points tally in the PL when all the seasons are combined, the effect of one season out has pushed them down to eighth overall but there are only 50 or so points in it. They are sixth for points per season over the period, sixth for goals scored and seventh for wins. Hardly the records you would associate with a Championship team, in fact much closer to the ‘established order’

    So, you write a good article, and make good points, but mislead your audience by using NUFC an example

  4. Colin, the “second season syndrome” which people are referring to is in reference to finishing in the top 5. Its an expression that was originally coined in relation to a team not performing as they had done so in the previous season. When people talk about it, they mean that the club might not reach the heights of last season’s successes

    1. maybe, though it is pretty exclusively used to describe promoted teams.

      I haven’t heard used to describe Man City for example, who will be looking at their second season at the top, or Spurs, when they recently got up into the top 5 …

  5. Who wrote this?
    “a Championship side punching above our weight.”
    I’m sorry, but as a neutral fan Newcastle went down for one season and have been more than an established Premier League side over the years. I read something a little while back and it stated, Newcastle have finished in the top 4 more than any other club – apart from the obvious.

    It was a good read, but some of the things are silly.

  6. I never said they were a Championship side punching above their weight. The promoted sides I talked about doing better than expected were mainly Norwich and Swansea (Swansea particularly was talked about in some quarters as a candidate for lowest points ever). The points about Newcastle were made because it is a club without the financial muscle of the best, but a change in its policy in recent times (before spent so much money on flops without a true plan) has made it much better. The sentence in the first paragraph doesn’t refer to Newcastle but to days long past when sides like Manchester United or Liverpool came back from the second division and immediately stormed up the ladder. The point about the same back five from the Championship, well it’s true, and it just goes to show that backing the right players works.

  7. out of interest the back five were assembled as follows:

    Krul -> 2005, many years as a trainee in the prem
    Collocini -> 2008, relegated with us
    S. Taylor -> youth academy, relegated with us
    Santon -> 2011
    Simpson was the only championship player in our back five

    They might all have played in the championship (apart from Santon) but they were all premier league players

  8. Newcastle has the advantage of a 50K seat stadium that is mostly if not completely filled, which gives them more financial leeway. If anything, I think that Newcastle has created a blueprint for how established Premier League sides can survive a drop to the Championship and emerge stronger from it.

  9. that, @widm, is much much closer to the mark

    one of the fallacies of our relegation was the repeated assertion that we lost our best players, which was absolutely not the case, we got rid of all our high earners, and kept our best players. i don’t actually think, with hindsight, that the two groups (best, and highest paid) over lapped at all.

  10. First, sell a player worth 8m for 35m. Then buy attacking players who are undervalued. Take advantage of a lack of spending by most teams in the league. Take advantage of some poor managing by top club managers. When and if that all comes together, then you can succeed for one year. If they are able to stay in a EL place this season, then lets talk about a blueprint.

  11. to be fair we haven’t really taken advantage of other teams lack of spending, we’ve spent less than almost all. League transfer spending is down, but so is ours.

    we probably did benefit a bit from Kenny Dalgleish’s poor management, but anyone who thinks ‘Pool are still at top team in England are mistaken. They are no better than a lot of others in the PL, ourselves included, so I don’t think he’s solely to blame.

    the blueprint is the scouting, if anything, and have a couple of English players lying around because some numpty will pay over the odds for them. Our scouting finds those undervalued players and any club could benefit from it really, wherever they are in the league


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