There are a thousand different approaches to staying in the Premier League, but ultimately the goal is to stay in the Premier League. We have seen some of those different approaches in the past – Ian Holloway’s expansive, attacking Blackpool side almost caught a few sides unaware but ultimately were ended by their own defensive frailties while through much of the 1990s Southampton built a hard working side around the incredibly talented Matt Le Tissier hoping that he would do enough to keep them up.
There are differing approaches from this season’s strugglers. Hull’s struggles have come as a surprise considering some of the talent they have within their squad and their strengthening of that in the transfer windows. Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez is an exciting talent with a goal scoring record that is nothing spectacular while his countryman Gaston Ramirez may have cost Southampton £12 million but that didn’t stop them shipping him out on loan to Hull. Hatem Ben Arfa is incredibly talented but his attitude ended his time at Hull and Newcastle early and now he’s threatening to retire. Mohammed Diame is a physical beast in the middle of the park and was even linked with a switch to Liverpool not too long ago so to get him in a cut price deal in the summer looked to be a revelation yet he’s struggled to recreate his best form so far. Steve Bruce’s remedy to their struggles – sign more players. Senegalese striker Dame N’Doye joined from Lokomotiv Moscow to try and get more goals but only time will tell.
Paul Lambert has built a talented young side at Aston Villa that has served him reasonably well but it looks like this season they are struggling more than ever. The burden of Darren Bent has been lifted slightly by his loan moves to the Championship but the goals are not flowing at all for a Villa side that are becoming all too familiar with alarming mid-season slumps. There is some real talent at Villa Park though – Christian Benteke was almost a near £30 million striker about 18 months ago; Ashley Westwood is a lovely passer of the ball; Ron Vlaar has been linked with Manchester United while Brad Guzan has kept some of Villa’s scores respectable. There is real pressure building on Lambert as many feel he’s underachieving despite being unable to spend what some of his predecessors could.
Nigel Pearson’s Championship winners Leicester boasted little Premier League experience and he obviously focused on that as a big part of his transfer activity. In came Mark Schwarzer on a free in January to join fellow free signing Danny Simpson to bring a bit more Premier League know-how. Esteban Cambiasso has done pretty much everything there is to do in football and was brought in for a little bit of added quality and steel in midfield. Big money was thrown at strikers too to aid David Nugent and Jamie Vardy but Pearson took a big risk in going for two unproven at Premier League level. Leandro Ulloa cost Leicester £7 million and was excellent in the Championship for Brighton but there is a quality gap between Championship and Premier League. Ulloa started well but has not been massively prolific. Despite that, he has experience in English football unlike Leicester’s record signing – Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric. The talent is there considering Chelsea were very interested in signing him and he has scored goals but there is (with all due respect to Croatian football) a massive gap between the Croatian league and Premier League. And at £9 million, Kramaric has to deliver and deliver quickly for a Leicester side that are struggling to get wins.
What of all these teams have in common, generally, is that they have brought in a number of players many of whom have not quite performed to the level expected. Strikers aren’t striking and defenders aren’t defending is their simple problem. Their solution to this problem is to simply buy more players that they believe will do the job in keeping them up that won’t massively break the bank. Two of the other teams in the mire have polar opposite ideas of how to avoid relegation – QPR and Burnley.
Where do you start with Queens Park Rangers? The last few years has seen an incredible number of players walk through the doors of Loftus Road with very few actually proving to be resounding successes. They’ve been so poor in the league thus far but the only way Harry Redknapp seemed to know how to fix it was by suggesting that he should be able to buy more players. In around two years at the club, Redknapp bought a staggering 25 players. To put it simply, QPR have had essentially a whole Premier League squad of players arrive in the last two years and they still haven’t got it right. Some of these players that have been brought in have done so at great expense and then left at a fraction of their price – Jordon Mutch is the perfect example having joined in the summer for £6 million before leaving in the last window for £4.75 million. They signed Mauro Zarate on loan last month only to realise that they didn’t want him anymore but couldn’t get rid of him. It is almost comical at Loftus Road and performances on the pitch haven’t been much better. Their away record is, to be kind, abysmal and they have leaked goals like nobody’s business. There doesn’t seem to be a clear identity at QPR with the constant chopping and changing of personnel meaning that the players, despite their obvious quality, are struggling to string together remotely commendable performances. It’s not all bad news for Rangers though. Tony Fernandes has reportedly put his foot down and said that the days of signing fifteen players a window are gone while the recent late defeat to Southampton showed the side had fight within it. The performances of some the big names in the squad is nothing new at QPR with memories of Stephane Mbia’s single season at the club lingering in the minds of QPR fans everywhere. There does look to be some fight within the side though as they battled to get their first away win on Tuesday night at Sunderland
Burnley meanwhile have a whole different approach to staying up. In both seasons in the Premier League, the club has kept faith with the majority of their promotion winning squad and added cheap depth (usually from the lower leagues) to try and stay up. They are a modest club who are fully aware that they will not outspend most clubs but don’t aim to. To put it in perspective, Angel Di Maria cost Manchester United more in one go than what every Burnley signing has cost the Clarets combined. Danny Ings cost the club very little when he joined from Bournemouth a couple of years ago but will bring in a good fee when he leaves in the summer. There is an acceptance at Burnley that the club will lose Ings regardless of if they stay up because they won’t break the bank for any one player. It is not a lack of ambition though as they operate on a clear budget and won’t hedge their long-term for short-term glory (see Leeds United). It’s admirable and they have stuck to their guns throughout the season even when teams around them have went and spent huge sums. Sean Dyche has got a well-drilled and effective side that is direct without being considered “long ball” and they have capable enough players to stay up. Performances have been reasonably good as well this season but some defensive frailties have cost them plenty of points and they could do with scoring a few more goals too – their big summer signing Lukas Jutkiewicz has not scored so far while the next top scorers after Danny Ings (who only has 8 to date) are George Boyd and Ashley Barnes with 5 and 4 goals respectively. Unlike QPR, there is a clear understanding of how the team is supposed to play and Sean Dyche should be commended for getting his side into a position where they are not only competitive but also have an excellent chance of pushing hard to stay in the Premier League.
There are a million ways to stay up in the Premier League – throw everyone forward, park the bus, lump it long, pass it through, spend millions or spend what you can afford – it is always interesting to see how the bottom clubs approach it. One thing is for sure though. However they play and whatever their strategy is, anything can happen in the Premier League. Especially at the bottom of the table.