Fans often clamour for ‘Premier League experience’ when it comes to our summer signings – but how important is it exactly?
Words by Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon
Everyone’s heard this mantra before. A phrase which has formed the bread and butter of would-be pundits’ analysis of “How likely a newly promoted is to stay up”. But the logic behind this statement has never really been questioned. After-all, getting players who know the league, know its players, and bring those steady 7/10 performances in the Premier League each week makes absolute sense.
However, as we enter the business end of the transfer window, an increasing number of Villa fans are becoming increasingly aware of this burning itch to sign “Proven Premier League players”. This mantra has become so widely adopted, that some are convinced Villa will be all but doomed if we rely on players who haven’t played in the Premier League before.
Those of us who remember our raid on the French Ligue 1 in 2015/16 will remember the failed experiment that saw the famous quote from Jeff Stelling: “You sign a bunch of players that no one has ever heard of, you’re going to go down.” So, it’s understandable why Villa fans are crying out for that key missing ingredient to a successful Premier League side – Premier Leagie players.
Before we get too carried away with this, and in light of Cahill’s proposed return to Villa Park, we’ve looked at those sides who have successfully come up from the Sky Bet Championship, and those sides who’ve dropped straight back down again, to see how well this mantra holds true – all else remaining equal.
Cast your mind back to 2015/16: Norwich City
In a season that Villa fans try to forget, Norwich actually had a fairly dreadful season themselves by dropping straight back to the Championship, following promotion the Premier League.
Norwich signed a modest number of players, including Mulumbu and Dorrans for West Brom, Jarvis from West Ham, Brady from Hull and Steven Naismith from Everton. Norwich brought in some clever, effective players – yet they failed to defend resolutely and ultimately made the drop. This isn’t surprising given Norwich’s failure to build on their back-line, as they didn’t make any smart defensive improvements in the transfer market.
Both Relegated in 2016/17 with Different Transfer Approaches
Hull City bounced straight back up to the Premier League after only one return season in the Championship, only to drop straight back down again. Hull’s light numbers at the beginning of their Premier League campaign were well documented, as they struggled to bring in the volume of players that many thought they would need to cope.
A good case for the mantra in question, Hull didn’t sign much Premier League experience and went down the route of looking to younger players to take that next step up for them. In fairness to Hull, they were a plucky side who made a good start of their return to the top flight.
They signed Niasse from Everton, Markovic from Liverpool, Ryan Mason from Spurs and Will Keane from Manchester United. Overall, other than Mason who’s career was tragically ended through injury, those remaining players didn’t make much of an impact and Hull’s overseas signings also didn’t provide the quality needed to keep them up.
Middlesbrough, on the other hand, set about signing a lot of players, and a lot of Premier League experience. Those names included Villa’s Gestede, and Brad Guzan. They also signed Victor Valdes from United, Bamford from Chelsea, Gaston Ramirez from Southampton and Chambers from Arsenal.
Despite some obvious quality in that list of names, and plenty of foreign league players given the chance to show their metal in the Premier League, Middlesbrough dropped straight back down, too. Middlesbrough had an okay defence, though they struggled to score at this level due to the lack of an attacking plan.
More Recently – Cardiff and Fulham in 2018/19
This season, many Villa fans will have been pleased to see Fulham relegated, after our disappointing loss to them in last year’s play off final. But, as well as stopping Villa’s unsustainable business model from going unchecked any longer, Fulham might have also been able to teach Villa some valuable lessons from their relegation from the Premier League.
Fulham’s deep dive into the transfer market was well documented over the summer, and they signed some real quality from foreign leagues. Interestingly, they also signed some good Premier League talent – including Schurrle, Chambers, Fosuh-Mensah and (to a lesser extent) Markovic. It’s worth noting that, in a team of 11 players, adding 4 experienced Premier League heads should have quite the positive impact on a team. However, as we all know, Fulham’s open style of play backfired, and Premier League teams exploited their defensive fragility with ruthless efficiency. The lesson to learn is that you need to focus on improving defensive weaknesses when making the jump to the English top tier. You can hardly rely on blowing away the top 20 English teams every week.
On the other hand, we have Cardiff. Who were actually slightly unlucky to be relegated, at least if you believe their “expected league finish” of 16th instead of 18th (based on expected goals, assists, goals conceded etc.). Cardiff only signed Niasse of Everton and Bournemouth’s Harry Arter on loan from the Premier League. Other than that, their squad did seem to appear to be missing “Premier League quality”. In contrast with Fulham, Cardiff’s organisation might have just about saved them, had they had the rub of the green. But then, of course, you could argue that having that little bit more Premier League pedigree in the squad might have tipped the performances in their favour, but that remains unclear.
The Success Stories:
Wolverhampton Wanderers 2018/19
Looking at the obvious success stories this year, Wolves’ efficiency in the Premier League following a good Championship season has be lorded as a model for other teams to follow. Looking at their transfers, Wolves actually signed a lot of players including Benik Afobe and Traore from Middlesbrough – but that’s where the Premier League experience ends. Other than that, it was the master strokes of Moutinho, Jota, and Jiminez which were well documented as Nuno’s ongoing march to the top of the managerial hierarchy.
Like Fulham, Wolves blew teams away in the Championship. However, Wolves adapted quite considerably and actually conceded very few goals this season, and this is largely because of the smart signings they made along the back line – Boly (following a successful loan the year before), Patricio and Jonny. These are key signings, given that Wolves altered their approach to football and ending up defending their way to Premier League success, rather than scoring all that many goals. Yes, they can score against the best teams at this level, but they can also defend, and transition into an attack efficiently to create those chances. This is an important part of Wolves’ game plan.
Magpies and Seagulls 2017/18
Premier League royalty; Newcastle United, returned to the Premier League following a disappointing relegation. Newcastle acquired some Premier League experience, with mixed results, but ultimately got the job done under a coherent and organised Rafa Benitez system. Signings included Atsu, Joselu, Kennedy and Slimani. These signings mostly under performed and it’s Newcastle’s foreign acquisitions (including Benitez) who kept the magpies up.
Brighton also managed to avoid immediate relegation – and their signings included Ulloa, Krul and Izzy Brown. However, these signings turned out to be relatively undistinguished for Brighton, despite including a Premier League winner. It was the inspired signing of Gross (a fantasy team mainstay that season), which typified Brighton’s solid and plucky nature. Brighton stayed up because they stayed organised and uncovered a gem in Gross. Not to mention, they already had some quality in key positions like centre back.
Burnley’s 2016/17 Journeymen
Upon their return to the top flight, Burnley signed a number of Premier League players – Ashley Westood from Villa, Robbie Brady from Norwich, Joey Barton (who, sort of, counts), the tried-and-tested Jon Flanagan and Bamford. In a season to remember for Burnley fans, these players all played a good part in their success. Couple that with the outstanding Nick Pope brought in from Charlton, and Burnley made a case for buying solid Premier League players.
2015/16 Saw Some Strange Transfers for Successful Promoted Teams
Bournemouth. Whatever you think of them at the minute, they know how to run their club. And when they finally made it to the Premier League in the same season Villa were relegated, they only signed a few Premier League players: Atsu, Glenn Murray, Boruc and an aging Sylvain Distin from Everton. That season, however, Eddie Howe persisted with the football and strengths that made them a good team in the first place. He had pace on the pitch and also made the smart signings of Max Gradel and Joshua King from outside the top tier. The lesson here, is that Bournemouth’s manager was their best experienced head in the dressing room. He had a game plan and he taught his team to execute it well.
At a completely opposite end of the scale, Watford signed en masse and mixed Premier League signings with foreign talent. However, their experienced PL signings including Pantilimon, Guedioura and Capoue, were good players for Watford, but they didn’t necessarily make the difference. Watford’s cocktail of flair players, young talents, experienced players, and complete outside wild cards, actually proved to come together and work somehow. This is another important lesson – a pragmatic, direct approach and some quality additions across the pitch can overpower the negative impact of making wholesale changes to a team. After all, football has always been short-term for players and managers alike.
There aren’t many strands of truth which are constant throughout all of these different examples. Most of these teams signed a least a few experienced Premier League players – but some of them worked out more than others. And the other important distinction to make is that both successful and unsuccessful promoted teams weren’t typified by the performance of their Premier League signings. Ultimately, it seems that signing proven Premier League players could be a bit over-valued by those of us following the sport.
Actually, what did seem to hold true, is that those teams who had clear systems and a playing identity are common in the most successful teams. Watford were pragmatic and direct, Wolves were very efficient and watertight, Bournemouth were silky and played excellent team football, Burnley, Newcastle and Brighton were organised and very solid at the back.
If Villa are to be successful, we will need quality players that suit Dean Smith’s style of play. We will need smart acquisitions who may, or may not, come from the Premier League that suit Aston Villa. Dean Smith will learn from other team’s histories and strengthen from the back line, while signing players who can suit Villa’s more counter-attacking style of play. So, it’s good to see Smith’s team looking to on-board solid defenders like Targett, Gilbert, Cahill and Hause. Looking forward, Smith is eyeing Philips as a defensive midfielder who can push Hourihane and break up play to then start attacks. Then, up top, signing Jota and Wesley and then El Ghazi on a permanent deal will improve Villa’s hold-up and counter-attacking style.