Glorifying the bare minimum in the quest for survival

As Fulham found out last season, spending is no guarantee of survival in the Premier League.

Glorifying the bare minimum in the quest for survival

As Fulham found out last season, spending is no guarantee of survival in the Premier League. An outlay of over £100m last summer made Fulham — promoted via the play-offs — an outside bet for relegation, but by the time Claudio Ranieri arrived in November the club had picked up just five points from 12 games.

Spending big — and cleverly — did work for Wolves who achieved the highest finish of a newly-promoted team since a Matt Holland-inspired Ipswich finished fifth in the 2000/01 season. But that was a Wolves side that had already bought Premier League pedigree players to fuel their promotion, a position that none of the newly-promoted sides — Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa — find themselves in.

So what are their chances of survival and how do they plan on staying up? The 1997/98 season was the last time all three newly-promoted teams were relegated, while only two years ago Newcastle United, Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town all survived, so the chances are we’ll be seeing at least one of these teams celebrate like they’ve won the Champions League on the last day of the season.

And given the riches that come with being in the Premier League, who could blame them? Celebrating survival — and it’s not just the newly-promoted clubs guilty of glorifying the bare minimum — may not please the romantics or traditionalists, but given the financial disparity within the league it’s the best some teams can hope for.

The parachute payments that can soften the financial blow of relegation are also substantial but there’s no escaping the high stakes these clubs are playing for. This season sees Norwich (and Sheffield United to a lesser extent) hedging their bets while Aston Villa go for broke.

Dean Smith’s side clinched promotion through the play-offs after the club’s three-year absence from the top flight, and have already brought in over £100m of new talent, although Tyrone Mings spent the second half of last season on loan at Villa Park and returns on a permanent deal.

There are a number of risks that come with this level of spending for a promoted side. Firstly, some of the players that achieved promotion may begrudge the lack of faith in their talents. At the very least an influx of new players will always take time to gel, but a number of core players from last season — Jack Grealish, Conor Hourihane and the returning Mings — will provide some continuity in the spine of the side.

The other risk, that players of relegated teams generally lose some of their value, does not seem to have crossed the minds of Smith or CEO Christian Purslow. And while most of Fulham’s outlay went on attackers, Villa have signed five new defensive players, with a solid defence the best foundation for survival.

Neither Norwich nor Sheffield United can afford to take such risks, but even between both clubs there are different strategies at play, perhaps reflective of their respective managers Daniel Farke and Chris Wilder.

Norwich, relegated the same year as Aston Villa, looked a long way from a return to the top flight when Farke joined the club from the Borussia Dortmund reserves in 2017. Promotion may have come a year too early for a side full of young players still developing, and finances dictate that creativity is needed in the transfer market.

Farke has leaned on his experience in German football to good effect in the past, and the capture of experienced goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann on loan already provides an upgrade on Tim Krul. Josip Drmic has also joined on a free transfer from Borussia Monchengladbach to provide competition for Championship Golden Boot winner Teemu Pukki.

Patrick Roberts and Sam Byram are former hot prospects in the English game and will be eager to impress in the Premier League. Otherwise, Farke is keeping faith with the players that got Norwich promoted. Even clubs of a similar size — Brighton and Huddersfield for example — who achieved promotion significantly bolstered their squad without breaking the bank, so the lack of reinforcements will be a worry going into the season for the Norwich faithful.

A core of British and Irish players may suggest that Sheffield United will take a Tony Pulis-like approach to survival — digging in and grinding out results with an obstinate defence. That hasn’t been Chris Wilder’s style so far, and with five attacking players joining since promotion, Sheffield United will at least be fun to watch.

But after conceding only 41 goals last season — the joint-best defence in the Championship alongside Middlesbrough — their cavalier approach has served them well in keeping teams on the back foot.

Phil Jagielka returns to the club to add much-needed Premier League experience, but mainly Wilder is relying on the cream of Championship talent signed over the summer (including Ireland’s Callum Robinson) making the step up.

There is a long list of players who fit into the category of “too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League”, with better quality opposition a challenge for individual players as much as the promoted clubs.

Masterminding a prolonged stay in the top division has been made look easy in recent seasons, while case studies of teams like Fulham can also point clubs in the right direction.

The reality remains, however, that the best laid plans can quickly come undone in the Premier League. Promoted clubs are only an injury crisis, a couple of tricky opening fixtures, or a VAR teething issue away from end of season despair. And a swift return from whence they came.

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