Last season’s promoted sides were a revelation. Swansea dazzled the league with an adherence to short passing football stronger than Elton John’s adherence to ill-fitting wigs, Norwich showed a tactical flexibility rarely seen in England before while QPR relied on more prosaic methods to fashion an impressive escape from relegation, almost causing one of the biggest upsets in British football history against Manchester City in the process. This season Reading, Southampton and West Ham will aim to emulate them.
All these sides have fairly recent Premiership experience. West Ham were relegated in driving rain at the DW Stadium 15 months ago, Reading went down in 2008 and Southampton were relegated in 2005 when a club run by an unpopular chairman, an ex-Portsmouth manager and a rugby coach who didn’t know a football from a basketball went down a division after a 27 year stay in the top flight.
The Road to the Premier League
These sides got promoted in dramatically different ways. Southampton, champions of League One just over a year ago would never have thought promotion to the Premier League was on the cards. But they were never out of the top two, played attractive football under the relentlessly positive Nigel Adkins and after a wobble at the end of the season thumped relegated Coventry on the final day to seal promotion.
Reading had lost the play-off final to Swansea the season before, were 16th in the table after 15 games but then went on the sort of run you usually only see on Football Manager when you sign Cherno Samba and Tonton Zola Moukoko. 15 wins from 17 lifted them from 8th place after Christmas to the Championship title. This success was marked with longtime owner John Madejski selling the club to young Russian billionaire (sound familiar?) Anton Zingarevich.
West Ham did things the hard way. Hiring ugly football merchant Sam Allardyce then giving Kevin Nolan a five year, £40,000 a week contract raised eyebrows. Owners Gold & Sullivan kept the nucleus of the squad relegated from the Premiership together, gambling desperately on promotion. Poor home form in the league led to them finishing 3rd, but in the playoffs a dominant aggregate victory over Cardiff and a nervy 2-1 win against Blackpool at Wembley saw the Hammers promoted.
Reading are perhaps the most unpredictable side of the trio. The sale of the club from the steady, competent, naming-a-stadium-after-himself chairman John Madejski to the young, Russian, mega-rich Anton Zingarevich (with a rather attractive wife) provides this unpredictability.
They have been a renowned well-run club who have been either in the Premiership or on the fringes of the Big League for the last decade and have perhaps not spent as much as expected under the new owner. Only £6m has been spent so far on Championship defenders Adrian Mariappa and Chris Gunter, with Garath McCleary, Nicky Shorey and Danny Guthrie arriving on free transfers. The only sign of financial excess has been the signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak after his solid loan spell at Fulham last season for a rumoured £60,000 a week.
Reading last season used a rather basic, Roy Hodgson-esque 4-4-2 with Mikele Leigertwood and one of Jay Tabb, Jem Karacan and Hayden Mullins creating a solid midfield partnership who defended more than they attacked. This led to them having the best defence in the division and the arrival of Jason Roberts at Christmas saw them start scoring the goals which allied to their defence saw them rocket up the table.
I fear this solid 4-4-2 may be becoming outdated in the Premier League. More fluid formations involving five midfielders and a lone striker up front are the fashion for most Premier League sides (Man Utd are a notable exception) and it’s hard to see two of Leigertwood, Mullins, Tabb, Karacan and Guthrie coping with the midfield trios of top sides. Reading are not a side who pass the ball as well as other sides their ilk, like say Swansea or even Southampton. They will rarely dominate possession and thus expose their defence more than is good for them.
Also it’s dangerous to expect a good defence at Championship level to be a good defence at Premiership level. QPR last season showed how the best defence in the Championship was woefully exposed at times in the Big League.
The defence has been manager Brian McDermott’s focus on the summer and it needs to be if Reading are to have a sufficiently good defence to give themselves a chance to win games. Up front, Jason Roberts excelled in the Championship but has rarely produced the goods in the Premier League. Noel Hunt, Simon Church and Adam Le Fondre did fairly well in the lower leagues but are unknown quantities at the highest level. Pogrebnyak is their big hope and will be relied upon for between 10 and 20 goals for the season.
Southampton I think could be a surprise package. Like Norwich last season, they arrive in the Premier League on the back of two successive promotions. Like Norwich, they have a squad with few big names and are an attacking side who pass the ball nicely and who have bought mostly young players yet to prove themselves in the Premier League. Norwich and Swansea achieving Premier League survival with inexperience and QPR doing it with experience shows how both approaches can work.
The main strength of Southampton is their midfield. The likes of Adam Lallana, Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin were superb last season and provide Southampton with the ability to retain possession which is becoming increasingly vital in the modern game. Steven Davis signing from the train wreck at Rangers will only help them further in this area. The 4-4-2 may be becoming outdated, but at least Southampton’s players can keep possession, something Reading for example can’t do as well.
Nathaniel Clyne is a very promising young full back who could be an excellent signing, while Jay Rodriguez will look to form a little ‘n’ large partnership with Rickie Lambert up front. Lambert is Southampton’s talisman, a Grant Holt figure in both shape and goalscoring ability but without the public transfer request and support for the Conservative Party. He may be 30 but is currently at his peak and in old fashioned parlance could be a ‘handful’ for Premier League defenders.
Like Norwich last year, the strength of the club may be the manager. Nigel Adkins worked minor miracles twice getting Scunthorpe on paltry attendances into the Championship, and at Southampton in a season and a half has led the club to two promotions, playing sparkling football along the way.
Adkins is the optimist’s optimist, someone who radiates good vibes while being a thoroughly modern coach in terms of training methods, playing style and even the use of statistics and ProZone style tools in coaching. He could be the main factor in Southampton’s survival if he doesn’t do so well that he’s poached by a rival.
Another coach famous (or notorious) for his use of ProZone and statistics is ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce. Unlike McDermott or Adkins, Allardyce has been there and done it. He led Bolton to the brink of the Champions League, was solidly mid-table with Blackburn and Newcastle and has the friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson, good relationship with the press and the parody Twitter account that are seemingly the prerequisites for many Premier League manager nowadays.
Last season West Ham didn’t really click until near the end of the season. They were favourites to win the Championship, had the largest wage bill in the division but also the largest expectations. A litany of home draws to inferior opposition saw them slip to 3rd, and some impressive showings near season’s end were not enough to catch up to Southampton and Reading. In the playoffs though they battered Cardiff and hung tough to beat Blackpool to win promotion and save many of the players and possibly Allardyce himself from the sack.
His transfer policy this summer though has been bizarre. Having signed Nicky Maynard, Sam Baldock and Ricardo Vaz Te last season he’s already signed Modipo Maiga from Sochaux and is currently trying to sign Andy Carroll. Why Big Sam is trying to assemble more strikers than British Leyland circa 1976 is unknown. Whether he’s trying to adopt the 4-3-3 formation with three out and out strikers that worked so well on Championship Manager 01/02, or trying out a new style where defenders hoof the ball to strikers and eliminate the concept of a midfield, who knows.
Aside from building the world’s largest footballing strikeforce, his other signings aren’t particularly encouraging. Spending £2m on James Collins who’s almost 30 and who lacks pace, skill and the ability to pass the ball to a teammate won’t have fans in paroxysms of delight. George McCartney has been around almost as long as Paul McCartney while Mohamed Diame pulled up few trees at Wigan. Jussi Jaaskelainen looked past it at Bolton and may struggle as Robert Green’s replacement in goal.
Nonetheless you would expect West Ham to stay up. For all of his faults, eccentricities, at times ugly football and tendency to be a comic figure Allardyce knows how to keep teams up in the Premier League. He’s done it before with on paper worse sides than the one he currently manages. He’s never been relegated from the Premier League, some achievement when you manage Bolton and Blackburn.
Also despite his reputation for preaching long ball football, West Ham at times last season played some excellent football while a Bolton side that had Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff in it can’t have been too bad to watch.
Tactically West Ham are unlikely to deviate from 4-4-2, particularly given the boatload of strikers they’ve assembled. Carlton Cole will hold the ball up while Maiga and Vaz Te will partner him with Baldock and Maynard the back-ups.
The midfield looks fairly solid. Mark Noble has always been a good player, Jack Collison is a player of promise who’s seemingly overcome injury problems now. Kevin Nolan struggled at times last season and attracted the ire of fans, but he’ll always contribute goals to whoever he plays for. Gary O’Neil and Matthew Taylor are solid performers experienced at Premier League level while Diame will be a useful addition.
The defence perhaps oddly for a Sam Allardyce side was at times a liability last season. The back four lacked cohesion and organisation and was particularly weak at full back. James Tomkins has shown some talent but is error prone, Winston Reid rarely excelled last season while the likes of McCartney, Guy Demel and Joey O’Brien were nothing special either.
Allardyce has rather surprisingly not really strengthened his defence, showing either impressive faith in his charges or stubbornness. It will need to improve, because West Ham should have the firepower and the experience to stay in the Premier League. The defence needs to be strong enough to ensure West Ham are not having to score two, three, four goals a match to win games.