Do Norwich, Sheffield United and Aston Villa have what it takes to survive in the Premier League? Adam Smith takes an in-depth look at how newly-promoted sides have fared in the past and the keys to avoiding relegation…
Fifty-six per cent. That’s the percentage of teams who have survived their first season in the Premier League since 1995, when the 38-game season was introduced.
With just 40 out of 71 newly-promoted clubs avoiding an immediate relegation back to the Championship, Norwich, Sheffield United and Aston Villa have a real battle on their hands to maintain Premier League status beyond 2019/20.
But what lessons can they learn from their predecessors?
Ipswich were favourites for relegation at the start of 2000/01 season after winning promotion via the play-offs, but finished in a remarkable fifth place, qualifying for the UEFA Cup and earning 66 points – the same tally Manchester United amassed last season.
Best newly-promoted teams since 1995/96 Club Season Promotion route Net transfers GF GA Pos. Pts Ipswich 00/01 Play-offs £4.6m 50 57 5th 66 Sunderland 99/00 Champions £4.1m 57 56 7th 58 Wolves 18/19 Champions £80.1m 47 46 7th 57 Reading 06/07 Champions £8.3m 52 47 8th 55 West Ham 05/06 Play-offs £18.9m 26 69 9th 55 The worst
Derby County hold the unfortunate record of having the worst top-flight campaign record since the current points system was introduced. After their promotion in 2007, they collected just 11 points in 2007/08 and won only one game.
Worst newly-promoted teams since 1995/96 Club Season Promotion route Net transfers GF GA Pos. Pts Derby 07/08 Play-offs £15.7m 20 89 20th 11 Sunderland 05/06 Champions £4.1m 52 55 20th 15 Watford 99/00 Play-offs £2.8m 35 77 20th 24 Fulham 18/19 Play-offs £100.1m 34 81 19th 26 West Brom 02/03 Runners-up £15.3m 41 49 19th 26
But how did these teams achieve such extreme highs and lows? We uncover the key factors that define a club’s fate after promotion to the top flight…
Sam Allardyce is widely considered to be an expert on the topic, with a track record of keeping teams in the top flight against the odds.
Speaking on Monday Night Football two years ago, Allardyce revealed his very own blueprint to keep clubs up – comprising seven key components for success.
Sam Allardyce survival blueprint
- Clean sheets
- Don’t lose possession in own half
- Play first pass forward
- Win knock-downs & transitions
- Set pieces (defensive & offensive)
- Exploit opposition weaknesses
- Quality in final third
There was a focus on defence, with clean sheets and careful possession in the defending half, as well as direct attacking play, such as playing upfield quickly and capitalising on knock-downs.
So does it work? Looking at last season’s promoted clubs, Wolves excelled beyond all expectations and finished the season as ‘the best of the rest’ in seventh spot.
What are recoveries?
This is where a player recovers the ball in a situation where neither team has possession or where the ball has been played directly to him by an opponent, thus securing possession for their team.
Nuno Espirito Santos’ side topped the league for recoveries and ranked 11th for clean sheets, with a goal difference of just +1 in the final table – while creating an above-average number of clear-cut chances in front of goal.
In contrast, relegated Fulham struggled to retain possession in their own half and keep clean sheets. At the other end of the pitch, the Cottagers failed to carve chances from set-pieces and convert opportunities.
However, Cardiff ranked reasonably in Allardyce’s model, but a failure to chase down loose balls and create chances appears to have cost the Bluebirds’ top-flight status – enabling narrow escapes for Brighton, Southampton and Burnley.
The Allardyce blueprint contains key components for survival – and data proves it works.
Tougher these days?
With the strength of the Big Six and an established chasing group, clubs at the bottom of the table have increasingly struggled to pick up points and typically battled against fellow, or recently promoted sides to stave off relegation.
Two promoted teams were relegated last season – Fulham and Cardiff – with the same number of teams suffering immediate relegation in 2016/17 and 2014/15.
There are exceptions: Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield all survived in 2017/18. But promoted teams have increasingly struggled to stay up since 2014 – a trend that was also apparent between 2004 and 2008.
Clubs have increasingly struggled to survive in recent years, with a 50 per cent survival rate over the past five seasons – compared with 56 per cent over the past 22 campaigns.
Promotion route impact?
Unsurprisingly, Championship title winners have the highest survival rate during the following season, with 67 per cent of second-tier winners avoiding relegation in the Premier League.
But, play-off winners are almost as likely to stay up, with 61 per cent retaining Premier League status.
In contrast, runners-up have a considerably lower success rate of just 42 per cent. That’s bad news for Sheffield United supporters.
Why? The poor performance of runners-up appears too striking to be insignificant. Certainly play-off winners appear to be able to take that winning momentum into the following campaign.
Does spending secure survival?
Fulham splashed more than £100m on transfers during their ill-fated campaign last term, more than any other newly-promoted club in top-flight history – until Villa smashed that record this season.
But large injections of cash have historically appeared to keep clubs up. In total, 21 clubs have recorded a net spend of £20m or more on transfers after winning promotion – only five of those were relegated.
Relegated with £20m+ net spend Club Season Net spend Fulham 18/19 £100.8m Cardiff 18/19 £46.1m Middlesbrough 16/17 £30.0m Norwich 15/16 £23.5m Cardiff 13/14 £37.9m
There is a strong correlation between significant spending on transfers and survival. But, as with all business – only wise spending works!
So clubs can buy success, but wise investment is key. So should teams primarily bolster defence or attack?
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Attack or defence?
The graphic below shows how many goals every newly-promoted team scored and conceded during a season since 1995/96 and reveals their fate hinged far more on defensive robustness than attacking edge.
The majority of relegated sides (marked in red) conceded in excess of 60 goals, epitomised by cases such as Fulham’s staggering 81 conceded last term – while a high proportion of teams that survived shipped totals below this threshold.
Those numbers are emphasised in the graphic below, which shows how newly-promoted teams typically score 30-49 goals, regardless of whether they stay up – but the majority of teams that survive concede only 50-59 goals.
Defence appears to be more important than attack. The mantra should be: concede fewer than 60 goals.
Home form key?
Burnley have made Turf Moor a serious fortress in recent seasons, securing top-flight status in 2017/18 with 33 home points and only seven away points – having failed to survive with 26 at home and only four on the road in 2009/10.
So, is home form essential for survival? The graphic below shows how the average newly-promoted side wins around 25 points on home soil and 14 away. So capitalising on home advantage is an essential ingredient for survival.
Home form is a key factor in staying in the Premier League.
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The bounce effect?
In total, 19 out of 71 promoted clubs have axed their manager in the season after promotion – typically during the frantic festive schedule or towards the business end – but did those manager changes achieve the sought-after bounce effect?
Well, only six of those 19 clubs stayed up after sacking their manager.
Those 19 sides averaged just 0.18 points per game more after bringing in a new boss – but the swings in form can be significant.
Crystal Palace’s form soared after sacking Ian Holloway in October 2013, with the Eagles going on to stay up. But Burnley suffered a major dip after axing Owen Coyle in January 2010 and were relegated.
Newly-promoted clubs get a 0.18 points-per-game boost if they sack their manager during a season, on average. So it’s a marginal gain and a factor that really is best examined on a case-by-case basis.
Are there crucial periods during a season that define a club’s fate? It appears so.
Most promoted teams tend to kick off their campaigns in underwhelming style, but sides that eventually stay up typically have an early purple patch through September and October before earning crucial points during the run-in.
A couple of early-season flurries and a sustained strong finish is key to survival.
Teams appear to perform better with fewer formation changes. The average surviving team over the past five years used about six systems, while relegated sides used close to nine.
But it would be hasty to claim consistency is a defining factor: teams are more likely to make changes when results are not going their way.
However, the graphic below suggests teams benefit from using no more than six well-drilled systems to tackle different styles of opposition.
In terms of line-up changes, relegated sides appear to change formation at a higher ratio than personnel, highlighting a potential lack in squad depth.
Meanwhile, clubs avoiding the drop tend to shuffle the starting pack and stick to familiar tactical styles.
Experience is often considered an essential ingredient for survival, but our study suggests the contrary – albeit from limited data.
Over the past five seasons, newly-promoted clubs suffering immediate relegation had line-ups averaging 27.8 years old – but survivors actually fielded younger teams with a starting average age of just 27.6 years old.
And the same applies for experience specific to the Premier League over the past two seasons.
The squads of Brighton and Huddersfield had each only amassed around 500 appearances in England’s top flight when they kicked off in 2017/18 and both survived, while Wolves’ squad had racked up only 218 appearances at the start of last term.
In terms of the managers, Huddersfield’s David Wagner and Wolves’ Nuno Espirito Santo kept their sides up without any previous Premier League managerial experience, while seasoned bosses Neil Warnock and Claudio Ranieri failed to keep their sides afloat at Cardiff and Fulham, respectively.
Conclusion Blueprint for survival
- Stick to Big Sam’s guidelines
- Spend big and wisely
- Prioritise bolstering defence
- Capitalise on home advantage
- Purple patches at key stages: early, festive period & run-in
- Use a limited number of well-drilled formations
- Ensure sufficient quality in squad depth
The Canaries return to the Premier League for the first time since their ill-fated 2015/16 campaign after being crowned champions last term.
Daniel Farke has a serious hitman at his disposal in Finland international Teemu Pukki, in addition to sought-after winger Emiliano Buendia and right-back Max Aarons.
But with 57 goals shipped during their promotion-winning campaign, defensive reinforcements might be required before the window closes.
Chris Wilder’s side were promoted as runners-up, a route which has only seen 41 per cent of predecessors survive over the past 22 years – in addition to being favourites for an immediate return to the Championship.
But United’s successful campaign last term was built upon defensive solidarity from a five-at-the-back formation, a priority this study has proven is critical for survival. But can the defence hold out in the top flight?
The club splashed £10m on Bournemouth forward Lys Mousset – the only member of their squad born overseas – to support veteran Billy Sharp up top, while the responsibility to carve opportunities and collect loose balls will primarily rest on Ollie Norwood.
All eyes will be on Villa after their sensational spending spree broke the £100m mark with the £12m signing of centre-back Ezri Konsa from Brentford, having paid a hefty £25m to sign fellow defender Tyrone Mings on a permanent deal.
The club have also drafted notable additions in midfield and up top, namely winger Jota from Birmingham and striker Wesley from Club Brugge – with last season’s top scorer Tammy Abraham returning to Chelsea this summer.
Dean Smith will be hoping his signings come good, particularly in defence after leaking 61 goals last term, while talisman Jack Grealish and workhorse John McGinn will undoubtedly remain key to success.