Teams promoted from the Championship to the Premier League – or any lower division to a higher one, for that matter – are usually faced with an enormous problem. How can they achieve any modicum of success with a team of players who are technically and probably tactically inferior to a majority of the opposition they are going to encounter throughout the season? That is where the coaching team come into their own.
So how can a technically inferior side succeed at a higher level? There are three issues to look at: Fitness, tactics and organisation.
Hull City manager Phil Brown is well aware of this issue. Last week, Brown revealed to the Daily Mail that his new signing, George Boateng, is already questioning the training methods they are adopting during their preseason.
Apparently Boateng is complaining that they are doing far too much running without the ball.
“It’s a classic, isn’t it? I totally agree with him. But there are games when we’re hardly going to have the ball. We’ve still got to be fitter than the opposition,” Brown said.
“It’s a compromise on my beliefs but we’ve got to be fitter and stronger than the opposition because we haven’t got the quality that Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal have got. So we’ve got to be able to compete physically. We have a Premier League fitness test. It has a measurement. Last year it showed that we had Premier League fitness in the Championship. What we need now is Champions League fitness in the Premier League.”
Whilst Brown is absolutely right about the team needing to be fit, he must realise that fitness is not the key to success on its own.
The fact is that the very top teams are incredibly fit. They have the best coaches, fitness coaches, conditioning coaches, masseurs, nutritionists and any other experts on fitness that there could be, helping and advising them every day.
The top sides, Manchester United, Chelsea, etc, are not at the top simply because they have the most gifted players. They are also supremely fit and have a work ethic on the pitch that few others can match.
In a one-off cup match, supreme effort by the lower team might occasionally upset their more illustrious opponents over ninety minutes. Over the course of a season, it will not provide success. The fitness levels achieved will only ever equal those of the top clubs at best. It would be impossible to over-achieve thirty-eight times a season by working extra hard alone.
So fitness is crucial because as Phil Brown says, the players are likely to be chasing the ball for long periods. However, with the more technically gifted players also being supremely fit, there has to be more.
This is where managers and coaches have to be flexible and adaptable. The technically inferior team must have a ‘Plan B.’ It is all very well going out with a plan to stifle the opposition, defend deep and hit them on the break or with set-pieces, but what happens if the opposition are of sufficient quality to open your team up in the first minute and go one-nil up? Do you spend the next eighty-nine minutes on a damage limitation exercise or do you try to get back into the game?
The biggest mistake made by most teams entering the Premier League is that they tend to play with a negative attitude. They start the game with a draw and if they get one at the end, they’ll be more than satisfied. They accept that they will not outplay the opposition and therefore adopt the attitude of trying to be difficult to beat rather than trying to win.
If a technically inferior side choose to defend from the off, they will always defend deeper and deeper and eventually, against quality opposition, they will always get picked off. When my beloved Watford were in the top league a couple of seasons ago we were rarely hammered by anyone, but we lost a majority of games by the odd goal. We were relegated but not humiliated. Is that really the best we could hope for?
A decision has to be made about whether to try to play crisp passing football using your central midfield players and wide men, or whether to be more direct, get the ball forward quickly and support your front men as quickly as possible. The answer lies somewhere between the two because with the quality of Premier League defences a long ball team will be dealt with easily and technically inferior players will never be able to win games by consistently ‘outplaying’ their opposition.
Decisions have to be made about whether to press high up the field or not. Do you try to intimidate the better players? Try to harry, hassle and upset them? Not easy to intimidate Deco, Ballack and Essien, I would suggest.
This is the most crucial weapon in the lesser team’s armoury. It is not possible to win games on a regular basis simply by trying to be fitter. It is not possible to win games by trying to ‘outplay’ the opposition. The one thing that can be absolutely one hundred percent right, and needs to be, is the organisation of the team.
Defensively, the team must be absolutely solid. A four-four-two formation is probably the best way to defend as players are always comfortable with their role within that lineup. When the opposition has the ball, the midfield players and defenders should be organised so that it is like watching a game of table football in the pub where all the players are joined together on a bar.
Two solid banks of four players is always going to be difficult for the opposition to break down. If one of your players is beaten, there is always another one to get past. The defence and midfield stay together as a group, shuffling across the pitch together and the gaps between them never grow. The back line needs to be superbly marshaled and must never drop too deep nor should they push up too far and allow easy passes in behind them. I didn’t say it was easy!
When the team does get possession of the ball they must have a clear idea of what they are going to do with it. The forward players must never become isolated and, whilst making sure that adequate protection is kept at the back, the team must not be afraid to throw players forward in support when the situation requires it.
Every set piece you have must be well organised, rehearsed and implemented. They are still the most likely way to score. On the other hand, you must not allow the opposition to make the most of their set pieces.
So that is my take on what is needed for the teams coming up to the Premier League from the Championship to survive and prosper. All they need to do is be super fit. Fitter than the top teams. They have to have their tactics absolutely spot on using every possible method of attack and defence. They also have to be totally flexible to respond to the changing situations in the games. They also have to be supremely well organised in everything they do. They must score from their own set pieces and under no circumstances concede from those of the opposition.
If they manage to do all that they might be possibly keep in with a chance of avoiding relegation for a longer period of the season.
It’s as simple as that!