Which of the newly promoted clubs from the Championship have the best chance of staying up?
ROBERT MUGABE’S PASSION
This week marks the passing and mourning of one of the most popular figures on the face of the earth. A Pan-African hero in the eyes of some and stubborn villain to others, rightfully polarizing opinions because of his reign as Zimbabwe’s President and audience arresting remarks. Pleasantly or unpleasantly. One bit of Mugabe’s less polarizing characteristics was his passion for the game of football. He once shared about his allegiance to Barcelona and Chelsea, also citing that whenever his team scores, he would also be scoring at home; kicking everything much to the disgruntlement of his surviving wife. In the same spirit of polarizing opinions, let’s look at a matter which will always be a subject of contrasting opinions but a joy to unpack and rediscover.
Of the English Premier League’s three promoted teams; Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United, who will likely survive the relegation chop and retain their place amongst the top 20 football clubs in the country?
HOW THEY MADE IT
Surprisingly for some, the Claret and Blue Army were the side that wasn’t guaranteed automatic qualification from the Sky Bet Championship amongst all three. Villa finished 5th in the 2018/19 Championship season, marginally making the top 6 and gaining a guaranteed play-off spot. They had to take the longer route to secure qualification, beating West Brom over a two legged semi-final before confirming their return to the Premier League for the first time since 2015, with a 2-1 win over then Frank Lampard’s Derby County.
It wasn’t any easier for Norwich and United who were persistently consistent throughout the whole campaign to secure first and second place finishes respectively, ahead of a pack of other 23 Championship clubs who are as competitive as they come. All gunning for those promotion places. Norwich were crowned champions after a remarkable run that saw them finish 5 points ahead of second-place Sheffield United and their Finnish star-man, Teemu Pukki who terrorised defenders, walking away with the top goal scorer award for his 29 goals.
Why don’t we look at each of these sides in depth to understand how they play, what exploits are being hinted at by their 2019 summer transfer window business and getting to know the players on their rosters that we should keep tabs with.
By any standard, Villa have been the most outspoken side of the three, majorly for their rich history and summer spending spree. With a resume of a top Premier League side adorning their history records that includes 7 top flight titles, 7 FA Cups, a European Cup now famously known as the Champions League amongst many others; it becomes difficult to understand why the Villa Park residents got the chop in the first place. For a sense of scale, they have won 5 more top flight titles than Tottenham, amassed over their rich 144-year history. But that’s a story for another day, a Mugabe refresher has surely been an enough history lesson for the day. Let’s look at their tactics and play fortune teller at their overall chances in the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Dean Smith was appointed Villa Manager in October2018 and went on to win them promotion in the same season for the first time in 4 years. Smith is the man they have retained for the English job to ensure survival in the top flight, at least this year. Their opening match against Tottenham gave an idea of what they are trying to do; stay humble, defend as unit, keep the big guys at bay and try to hit them on the counter. An age old tactic which works, well sometimes. Another key component of their style of play is their 12th man, the Villa fans who are relishing a return to the Premier League. They quite honestly almost turned the Tottenham Hotspur stadium into Villa Park. As a result, a superb grit for the day with heart on sleeves, Villa opened the scoring through McGinn and looked poised to get something from the game before individual mistakes costed them late on to inspire a Spurs 3-1 comeback victory. For a significant spell in the match, Smith’s boys had the 2018 UEFA Champions League finalists on the ropes. They’ve obviously picked up a few more points since then, staying humble against “superior” opposition and taking the game to mid-table sides such as what they did at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. Their expensively assembled squad is yet to fully sync but early signs signal they had a plan in almost curling out all the players that earned them promotion and bringing in over 11 more in the summer. Let’s explore how they did it.
The new owners who took over in 2018 really outdid themselves and put it out for all to see that they mean business. Villa were the 2nd biggest EPL spenders in the summer, splashing a total of over £144.5m for over 12 players. Only the two Manchester Clubs spent more, albeit for a less number of players. Their observable style of play suggests that they are not really trying to outplay everyone, but just having enough quality in the right areas to hit the big boys on the counter, enough experience and character to stay on the grind for the extremely demanding 38 match Premier League season. They brought in players from all around Europe with top flight experience that include Egyptian Trezeguet, Zimbabwean Marvelous Nakamba, Douglas Luiz from Manchester City, former England goalkeeper Tom Heaton from Burnley, Tyron Mings from Bournemouth amongst many others. Villa also retained the sought offer services of budding English talent, Jack Grealish who’s been tasked to captain the side in the new season. It remains to be seen whether overhauling almost the entire team was the wisest thing to do given the example of Fulham who did virtually the same thing, spending almost as much money but still guaranteed a chop, ahead of all others. It takes time to build proper team chemistry or else a side will always look less than the sum of its parts. Fulham learned that the hard way in the 2018/19 season and Villa fans would be hoping that won’t befall them.
Verdict: Before they were relegated in 2015, Villa had stayed in the Premier League for 24 years. The club and the fans probably feel they belong there. Despite their summer spree, at best, I see Villa doing just enough to stay in the top flight. Their recently assembled squad need a significant amount of time to vibe and play as a proper unit.
They were deserving 2018/19 champions in the Sky Bet Championship. A total points tally of 94 is no joke and one that was achieved through sheer determination and team spirit. Premier League history hasn’t however been very kind to the Canaries, always coming in and almost immediately booted out every time in recent years. Above many other things, their survival hopes will mainly be a test of their mentality and maturity to compete at the highest level. They clearly have the quality and experience in all the right places to do well, evidenced by a 1st position finish in the Championship were they outcompeted teams such as Villa, Middlesborough, Leeds, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United amongst many others. They will need to live beyond their previous relegation chop demons but up to that mantra they chose for themselves upon winning the Championship, “we are Premier League.” In their opening EPL match, they hardly couldn’t have had a more intimidating opponent than the European champions, Liverpool. The Canaries showed a little bit of naivety by trying to match Jurgen Klopp’s men play for play and found themselves 4-0 down by the stroke of half-time. Whatever Daniel Farke said to them during the break worked. A more disciplined and collected approach saw them frustrate the Reds, and pulled one goal back through Teemu Pukki to ensure the match finished 4-1.
Norwich can match anyone on their day as we saw in their nail biting and narrow 3-2 loss to Chelsea at Carrow Road. We have also seen them blow away NewCastle by a 3-1 scoreline, showing great dynamism going forward and putting it on plain tables that they mean business.
The Canaries actually spent the least amount of money amongst all the 20 Premier League teams in the window. A total expenditure of just £1.1m saw them bring in Sam Byram, Daniel Adshead and Josip Drmic permanently while Ibrahim Amadou, Ralf Fahrmann and Patrick Roberts signed on loan. It doesn’t look like that kind of budget would be enough to help them to stay up. However, their strength remains the team chemistry and fighting spirit that was a major ingredient in gaining promotion. Farke’s men managed to more or less retain that crop of players and provided they are not harboured by injuries on some of their key players, they still have enough quality to cause anyone problems and stay put in the English top flight. One player they will surely be hoping will be fit throughout the whole campaign is the Finnish forward Teemu Pukki, who just cannot stop scoring at the moment. He shook-off the Premier League feeling and brought forward his golden boot winning form to the top flight. The 29-year-old has now scored 5 goals in 4 matches and pretty much amongst the league’s top marksmen.
Daniel Farke’s boys probably have Wolves as a great inspiration to what they are trying to achieve. Nuno’s men attained promotion in the 2017/18 in the same circumstance as Norwich after winning the Championship, remained a bit conservative in the transfer market and pushed themselves to secure a 7th place finish, earning passage to some elusive continental football in only their first season. That doesn’t obviously happen all the time but Norwich could surely be asking the why not questions.
Verdict: They will also do just enough to stay alive in the Premier League. History has taught us that the ability to score goals could be slightly more important than just avoiding to concede in the race to EPL survival. The Canaries have shown early enough that they have goals in them, if they can keep it tighter at the back, they will be more than fine.
Despite a long and considerably wealthy history worth telling to even more generations to come, the Blades had stayed out of the Premier League the longest amongst the three. They last played in the top flight in the 2006/07. It is the same club that gave African players such as the Zimbabwean Peter Ndlovu, the chance to make their names bigger at the grandest stage. They quite fairly have been the least spoken of amongst the three promoted teams. Firstly, because a Championship title win obviously granted Norwich a greater audience and so did Villa’s play-offs matches. Early signs from their opening Premier League matches suggest that they are all about that old-school shoulder to the wheel grind. The Blades seem not to be trying to outplay or out manoeuvre anyone but just doing the basic things of defending, staying compact and scoring very well. Their patience was rewarded with an opening day point won at Bournemouth after they scored late-on to brings the scores to a 1-1 stalemate. Chris Wilder’s boys picked up their first 3 points at home to Palace in a similar conservative way of playing, using their fans’ passionate support as a clutch to be more composed going forward and neatly tucking away their chances.
It was quite decent for a side that just gained promotion. A bit more reasonable than the lavish way of Villa nor the extremely stringent Norwich way. The Blades splashed a total of £43m to bring in players such as the former Bournemouth forward, Lys Mousset, Phil Jagielka from Everton and Oliver McBurnie from Swansea They also held to quite a number of their Championship players which virtually make them fall in the category of Norwich as far as squad depth and team chemistry is concerned.
Verdict: They seem the least likely to stay up amongst the three for me. I am not entirely convinced they have enough goals in them even though their defensive work is quite commendable.
WHEN THE NOISE FADES
Key to the trio’s survival hopes is the ability to turn up week-in and out with a mentality worthy of the Premier League, not just trying to survive. Most importantly, the sides who will still be able to grind out results when the momentum and cheers of attaining Premier League promotion fades, because it will, are the very same teams who will avoid the chop.
Who do you think will most likely stay up?