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.