Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Can the Newly Promoted Teams Stay Up?

After a tough opening weekend for the promoted teams, can any of them survive this season or is their goose well and truly cooked?

First a quick recap. On Saturday afternoon Cardiff were the first promoted side offered up at the Premier League’s feast of football. A comfortable starter for West Ham, Cardiff were (welsh) lambs to the slaughter. A rejuvenated Joe Cole opened the scoring with a quality low finish on the turn and an excellent team goal saw Kevin Nolan double their lead. Cardiff ended up easily stuffed, two goals to nil.

Great work from the Palace faithful. Lets just hope no-one's
foot gets sawn off in a trade off to save
 Palace from relegation...
Unfortunately for the promoted sides their plight was to get worse as the main meal was yet to come. First Crystal Palace, then Hull City were spit roasted for Sunday lunch by London’s big boys (I am purely using cooking terminology here, not implying that there were any extra curricular activities after the game…). Palace were egged on by a partisan crowd whipped into Saw style frenzy by their return to the Premiership. Scrambled by the pace and trickery of Lennon and Chadli and the movement of the supreme poacher, Roberto Soldado, Palace were eventually beaten into submission by a dodgy penalty leaving manager Ian Holloway to stew in his mildly unhinged juices. 

This was followed by the main event at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea. The sacrificial bull at the Bridge was the hefty Steve Bruce and his tiger striped Hull side. Blitzed early on into surrendering a two goal deficit by the excellent movement and interplay of Chelsea’s midfield, Hull were slow cooked for the rest of the game as Chelsea allowed their intensity and pressing to dissipate, sparing themselves the energy. The feast was done, each promoted side offered up to the slaughter with barely a whimper in response. All in all it was a horrible return for the promoted sides as they crumbled in the pressure cooker of the Premier League but do any of them have what it takes to stay up?
A casual afternoon's work and a sweet return for Jose. 

One of the major downsides of watching large amounts of football is listening to lowest common denominator punditry. They either state the obvious (what else are pundits for?!?) or spout popular wisdom that is mostly either wrong or chronically out of date. As most pundits are ex-players from an era before sport science and technology it is very rare that any of them actually do any analysis at all based on statistics of any kind. Sky’s coverage of ‘Soccer Sunday’ was fronted by two such ‘veteran pundits’ in the form of Graeme Souness and Glen Hoddle. Both agreed that the main key to survival for promoted sides is scoring plenty of goals. Both thoughtfully pointed out, with the insight of a blind Andy Townsend, that none of the promoted teams have ‘goals in the team.’ Effective translation, “I have never seen any of theses guys play so couldn’t tell you if they are any good.” The perceived wisdom, repeated every season by inane talking heads, is that if you have goal scorers in the team you will stay up. The problem here is that the perceived wisdom is a load of bollocks.

Since the 2002-03 season 30 teams have been promoted. All of those teams, barring possibly Newcastle in 2010-11, were tipped to go straight back down.  Though this is considered a safe bet for pundits willing to do little to no analysis, a basic glance at the figures will tell you that only 13/30 have gone straight back down, a rather small percentage given the regularity with which they are backed to fail. Statistically, as only 43% of teams of teams are relegated the season after they are promoted, only one or two of the three clubs should go back down. What then is the most reliable indicator of success in the Premier League?

If you take a look back at the results of the newly promoted teams over the last 10 years in their first season in the top flight it becomes very clear that simply scoring plenty of goals, contrary to Hoddle and Souness’ speculation, is not the most important element to staying in the top flight. An excellent example of this is Blackpool’s campaign for survival under Ian Holloway in 2010-11. Blackpool scored a barnstorming 55 goals in that season, a total that made them the 8= highest scorers in the premiership tied with Spurs who finished fifth. Despite their goal scoring exploits, their gung ho attitude going forward led to holes at the back large enough that you could fit Holloway’s ego through (though only just). This chronic defending left them with a goal difference of -23 and got them relegated.

Similarly, Southampton scored a total of 49 goals last season, ending up in 14th. The Saints scored 14 goals in their opening 9 fixtures, roughly 33% of their total goals in just 23% of their games. `You would suspect this was a profitable period of the season for them if you followed the logic that merely scoring plenty of goals will keep you up. Instead this fruitful period in front of goal yielded a mere 4 points in total and a goal difference of -12. The Saints finally got their act together defensively with the return of Jack Cork from injury and the introduction of Luke Shaw, allowing them to record a goal difference of 1 for the remaining 28 games. It wasn’t scoring goals that Southampton and Blackpool found difficult, it was preventing them. The difference was that Southampton solved their defensive problems and Blackpool didn’t.

The numbers back up this anecdotal evidence. Promoted teams that were relegated in their first season in the last 10 years scored an average of 38.31 goals per season. Sides that have stayed up, as you would expect, have scored an average of 44.71 goals per season, an increase of 17%. While this is a fair increase, it pales into significance when measured against the goals conceded per season. Teams that stayed up conceded a respectable average of 50.35 goals per season whereas teams that were relegated conceded a whopping 70.38 goals per season, an increase of 40%. It is clear then that a solid defense rather than a potent attack is a far better indicator of Premier League survival. With that in mind, whilst not forgetting to point out any other indicators, let us look at this season’s candidates.

A. Cardiff changed their shirt colour from blue to red.
B. Their nickname is still the bluebirds.
C. These two things are incongruous.
Cardiff have wisely added the talented young centre back Steven Caulker from Spurs for a club record £8m.[1] This should help to improve a largely inexperienced (in premier league terms) back line. As noted with Southampton previously, it can take a number of games for players to get up to speed in the Premier League if they have not experienced its intensity and quality before. Luckily for Mackay, Cardiff do have the raw materials to field a decent Premiership defense. Cardiff defended well in the Championship last season, conceding 45 goals in 46 games, a total that left them 2nd overall in goals conceded. This previous defensive solidity bodes well for this season and their playing style may help them too.

Stylistically Cardiff will be looking to follow in the footsteps of their archrivals, Swansea. Swansea’s attractive short passing and possession based style has won many plaudits, and more importantly, points in the last two years and Cardiff seem to be looking to replicate that. As my father always used to say to me, if your team has the ball the other team can’t score. Cardiff will be hoping to alleviate the general lack of premier league experience in their squad through keeping as much possession as they can, in the hope that this will prevent the build up of too much defensive pressure. Despite the score line, to some extent this worked against West Ham with Cardiff keeping hold of 56% of possession, an excellent figure away from home. (One major caveat here would be that West Ham’s rather direct playing style means that they concede possession far more regularly than most sides in the Premier League, suggesting that the figure of 56% may not be sustainable.)

One problem for Cardiff when you look at last season in the Championship is the lack of Premier League experience. Only Caulker and the aging Craig Bellamy have played significant games in the Premiership, a problem that will be difficult to overcome. Coupled with a difficult opening fixture list, this may signal a tough start for Malky Mackay’s men. Winning is a habit and Cardiff won a great deal last year as they cantered to the Championsheep. If they can take their lumps early and learn from them, there is no reason the drop cannot be avoided, but if morale nosedives and their lack of experience cannot be overcome then they could be in trouble. On balance, in a rarebit of positivity, I think Cardiff will succeed in staying up.

Hull are the hardest of the three to read. Of the three promoted managers,  Bruce has by far the most Premiership experience as a manager having taken charge of nearly 450 games in previous stints managed at Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland. Bruce will not have been expecting to get anything away at Chelsea but the ease with which they were shredded in the first half will have worried him. (It must be noted that better teams than Hull would have been taken apart by Chelsea’s opening salvo. The 2-0 final score belies the utter dominance Chelsea showed in this game.) Bruce will have to use all his experience and contacts in the league to keep Hull up this season.

Hull finished last season with the fourth best defensive record in the Championship but with a goal difference of only +9. This goal difference was the worst in the top 6 with goal scoring an obvious issue. Unusually Hull did not have a single player that surpassed 10 goals in the season with their highest scorer being Captain Robert Koren from midfield with 9. Hull compensated for this weakness with a stout defense and a competitive spirit in tight games where they were able to grind out positive results. This spirit may be vital to Hull this season, as it will help them stay in games and allow a chance of stealing some unlikely points.

One major positive is that, of the three promoted sides, Hull have the most experienced defense. Paul McShane, Liam Rosenior, Ahmed Elmohamady and Abdoulaye Faye have all got Premier League experience and this will very important in keeping solid at the back. If they can establish some defensive solidity, (a regular feature of Bruce’s sides, especially at Birmingham), it may allow Hull to grind their way to safety. 

Can Huddlestone keep Hull up? Fro sure...
Bruce may have designs on something more expansive than grinding though. Bruce has made some interesting signings to help his side in midfield with Jake Livermore (on loan) and the cultured Tom Huddlestone both signed from Spurs. Danny Graham has been brought in up front to provide the goals and Bruce will hope that he can return to the form he showed at Swansea rather than the anemic performances he displayed at Sunderland. Sone Aluko, brother of England Women’s Eni Aluko, looks to be a lively winger and George Boyd has been destroying lower league defenses for years. If Bruce can mould these players into a side capable of scoring 40 goals and the defense can keep things tight then Hull have a chance of staying up.

For Crystal Palace however the prognosis is much bleaker. Defensively Palace were a shambles at times last season conceding 62 goals, the highest in the top 11 teams. Little has changed since then with Danny Gabbidon, hardly a world-beater in his time in the Premiership with West Ham and QPR the only member of the back four with any premiership experience at all. It would be very difficult to see Palace showing much improvement this year without a massive commitment to their defensive responsibilities, something unlikely for a Holloway managed side. To give credit where it is due, Palace were defensively stout against a talented Spurs side but they invited pressure on themselves, as they were unable to hold onto the ball for any kind of extended period. Spurs will make mugs of much better teams than Palace this season but what was worrying for the Eagles was how uncomfortable on the ball they looked, only managing a 41.7% share of possession.

In typical Holloway style, Palace relied on their goals to fire them into the Premiership scoring 73, the highest total in the Championship. However much of that firepower is now unavailable to Holloway with top goal scorer Glenn Murray out with a long-term injury and Wilfried Zaha sold to Manchester United. This really showed on Sunday as, despite playing at home, they struggled to penetrate Spurs defense or even hold the ball for an extended period. In replacement for Zaha and Murray, Palace have signed the inexperienced Dwight Gale, a raw talent who was playing non-league football last year. It will be a massive ask for Gayle to be expected to carry the weight of the goal-scoring burden this season.

A further problem is that Palace are playing a 4-3-3 with the three central midfielders all specializing in breaking up play. Whilst Jedinak, Dikacoi and Garvan were impressive in their roles, creativity will be at a premium if Holloway persists in picking all three of them. Huff and puff may not save these little pigs. A lack of premier league and experience, especially in defense will really cost Palace this season. If no other investment were forth coming, either at the back or in creative midfield, I would expect Palace to really struggle this season.

Despite what I have written it is quite possible that any of the three promoted teams will go down. It is just incredibly unlikely statistically that all of them will go down together. Pundits that previously predicted the demise of the surviving team(s) will praise their spirit, the manager and whoever scored the most goals. So when this inevitably happens at the end of the season, spare a thought for the defense whose efforts will have done much more to ensure Premier League survival than anyone gives them credit for. It’s all food for thought anyway.

[1] You could argue that Caulker was the best signing of the summer in the entire premier league. Given the statistical importance of defense in staying up, the serious upgrade in quality that Caulker represents and the money that Cardiff will make if they stay in the premier league, Caulker could easily repay the £8m Cardiff spent on him with one good season.