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The Classic Centre Half / Centre Forward Utility Man – Where Have They Gone?

Let’s take a little trip back down memory lane to the 90’s, when the Premier League had just come into being, but football was still pure in its sense and simple to understand.

This is a world without pre-season tours of far off places with the sole intent of increasing commercial revenue. This is a world without sports scientists, where players still looked human, something your average joe in the pub could aspire to and relate to.

Hell, this is a world in which every player on the pitch still looks capable of playing in any position on the pitch, when Gareth Barry could still be considered a winger and few people deviated from the staple 4-4-2 formation.

While some things are remarkably different however, today’s world sees the ‘false nine’ phenomenon proving to be simply a variation on one of the great things about 90’s Premier League football.

With some attacking midfielders being lauded for their ability to fill in as a central striker when asked, we forget that a few players in the 90s would deviate between playing centre-back and centre-forward for their respective clubs.

We’re not just talking about the big lump of a defender thrown up front in the final few minutes as a team chases a result, but a player who would play at the heart of the defence one game, and spearhead the attack the next.

Certain players defined the early era of the Premier League with their fine tactical flexibility, with the likes of Marcus Gayle, Dion Dublin and even Chris Sutton proven just as effective at either end of the pitch.

'Farewell Centre Halfs/ Forwards'

‘Farewell Centre Halfs/ Forwards’

This is no mean feat to accomplish – to be tactically aware enough to be able to stop the strikers getting through and hold the line at the back when you would frequently be the one trying to break down a side is an impressive quality, as they are two different games completely.

These were very grounded players who, without being of a world-class quality, still managed to achieve international recognition for their performances and one wonders how many players of today would be able to provide such versatility, given the desire to specialise purely on one position.

While we hardly expect the likes of Jermain Defoe, Theo Walcott or Fernando Torres to line up in the middle of the back four given the lack of any serious aerial presence on their part, one could wonder why the likes of Didier Drogba has never been asked to fill in at the back.

Given that the Ivorian and the likes of Peter Crouch are considered an important tool to have when defending set pieces, it is that aerial prowess that sets apart the defensive minded striker, something that was often considered when pondering the question of Emile Heskey.

However, these were players that came through as central defenders before being found out to be a force up front, but again you feel there are few centre-backs in the Premier League that could fulfil that role now.

One would shudder to think of the lumbering form of Michael Dawson being a threat from anything other than set pieces, and while the ball-playing central defender has begun to make a comeback, there are few you feel could have the intelligence to lead the line at the other end of the pitch.

Rio Ferdinand perhaps could have made the transition at times and John Terry began life as a forward in his Senrab youth days, but you feel the quota of players who could play both positions comfortably is few and far between currently.

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There is more of an impetus at a player being a master of one position as opposed to the ever-useful utility player if they are to make a serious impact on the game, and that is understandable given the implications of failure in the modern game, both competitively and financially.

This especially applies to the modern 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation in which one player is given the singular job of being in the right place at the right time and having that composure to sweep the ball into the back of the net.

But something is missing from the game in the absence of the man who could line up at either end of the pitch on any given Saturday/Sunday, as it demonstrated a phenomenal sense of tactical flexibility.

One can understand why it is something that has died out, but football loses something quite special in the absence of the ultimate utility player.

Written by: Sam Parker

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Jose Mourinho – Genius or Crazy?

Imagine Manchester United were to sell Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. Imagine Liverpool were to sell Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini. Imagine Manchester City cashed in on Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo this previous summer, the fans of each club would surely look in despair and think that something was seriously going downhill.

Obviously it is always a possibility that at least one will go, as has happened with the aforementioned clubs, but is Chelsea’s replacing of all three of their first team strikers an unprecedented act from a title challenging team?

Chelsea this season have undertaken a major revamp in their attacking department by replacing all of their main strikers; the misfiring Fernando Torres, the aging Samuel Eto’o, the unwanted Demba Ba and to a lesser extent, loanee Romelu Lukaku. It is well documented that the Special One likes to operate with a one man strike force, utilising a five man midfield with technical players working the flanks, whilst a No.10 supports the striker. Unfortunately, it was evidenced that none of his strikers of last season were able to play this system successfully.

'It wasn't supposed to be like this....'

‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this….’

Torres, a £50m striker from Liverpool in 2011 with a reputation of scoring wonderful goals, blistering pace and being fouled by Nemanja Vidic, but where did it go wrong for the former Atletico Madrid captain?

This once great striker had fallen under the curse of being a high value Chelsea striker. Not too dissimilar to Andriy Shevchenko, Torres just seemed, despite his best efforts, unable to regain his form. The man who would score goals at an astonishing rate was now finding himself missing open goals.

As Chelsea’s main striker, he scored a pitiful 20 league goals in 110 matches, a statistic that just isn’t good enough for a title challenger. Although Diego Costa was signed long before Torres left for Italy, it would be logical to say that Costa was his replacement. In contrast to Torres, Costa is five years younger (according to his passport at least), was far more prolific last season with 27 goals in 35 La Liga matches and is also Torres/Villa’s full time replacement in the Spain national side.

He cemented his position as one of the most lethal strikers in the world with an impressive tally of eight Champions League goals. Including an effort against Barcelona which was on par withn Cristiano Ronaldo vs Porto in 2009. Despite being somewhat of a journeyman throughout La Liga, Radamel Falcao’s sale move to Monaco made him Atletico’s main man and it’s fair to say he took his chance.

When Liverpool were linked with a £20m move for him last summer, I thought that it would have been a risky signing given that prior to last season, he had fairly average stats, but how wrong I could have been if it did go ahead. His start at Chelsea has been phenomenal and I fully expect him to challenge for the Golden Boot. Has Mourinho got this right? Absolutely.

The next striker was one who, like a policeman in Phil Mitchell’s house, seemed to be out of the door not long after he got himself through it. Samuel Eto’o had performed wonders for Mourinho in his Inter Milan days en route to their Champions League triumph. However, Eto’o’s best days were clearly behind him and he was signed primarily as a backup player. He scored some important goals, including a hat-trick vs Manchester United, where we were treated to a wonderful goal celebration mocking his apparent old age, but it was always obvious to most that his one year contract was unlikely to be extended.

'Christ..my back!'

‘Christ..my back!’

Mourinho has also welcomed back Chelsea hero, Didier Drogba. It doesn’t have to be said why Drogba is a Chelsea hero, his record speaks for itself, but here we have a player who knows the club inside out, has a spectacular rapport with the fans, knows the league inside out, but also would command the respect from his colleagues in the dressing room. His CV is outstanding and who better to mentor his own heir Diego Costa than the main man himself?  His presence will be a fantastic lift to the dressing room, particularly after the loss of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and here, Chelsea again have a player who bleeds the blue of the club he plays for. Has Mourinho got it right? Without a doubt, yes.

The last man Jose has crossed off his attacking list is Demba Ba. I always felt that Ba was a top Premier League striker, as suggested by his record at West Ham and Newcastle, but Chelsea were the wrong club for him. At Newcastle, he always played with a strike partner and that very much complimented his style of play as a guy to make his way into the box and simply put the ball in the back of the net, whilst letting his partner create space for him and undertake the donkey work.

At Chelsea, he didn’t really have the game time to be able to prove himself as a capable top club striker, especially when he cost significantly less than his former colleague, Torres. When he did play, he wasn’t quite as prolific as he had been at his previous clubs and there was also a sense that he simply wasn’t Mourinho’s cup of tea. I credit Ba’s professionalism, as although he was a bit part player, he always did his best for the team and scored some very important goals  including one which Steven Gerrard will never forget.

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Ba’s replacement is that of French international striker, Loic Remy. With a buy-out clause of around £10.5m, Remy seemed very much value for money given the ridiculous price tags thrown about in the transfer market. His Premier League record is surprisingly similar to that of Ba’s, both scored on their Chelsea debuts and in my opinion they are similar type players who work better alongside a striker partner.

I feel that these two players are almost identical in ability and it would be difficult to say which one is actually the better player or if Jose has made the right call with this one. Has Mourinho got it right? Only time will tell with this. Should Ba have been unhappy with a bit part role, the answer is yes, however, to say that Ba was not part of his plans but Remy suits his plans more seems somewhat contradictory.

Obviously the other striker Mourinho has sold is Romelu Lukaku. The young Belgian striker who spent just as much time in the Midlands and Liverpool as he did at Chelsea in the three years he was contracted to them. There is no doubting Lukaku’s ability and his record whilst on loan is up there with any other Premier League striker, but Mourinho knew he would only use him sparingly, something the player clearly wasn’t interested in. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that Everton aren’t considered a title threat to Chelsea and receiving £28m for a player who did not feature in Mourinho’s plans is a fantastic piece of business.

With the above in mind, only time will tell if Mourinho truly is a genius, but with these changes, he has definitely set his side up well for the season and I expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy come May.

Written by: Lee Quinn – Q7

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Eight Share ‘Game Week 5′ Prediction Pot

A familiar face denied Chelsea a valuable win at title rivals Manchester City as substitue Frank Lampard — the Blues’ all-time leading goalscorer —  netted a late equaliser for the Premier League champions.

The 36-year-old, on loan from Major League Soccer side New York City FC, rescued a point for the hosts five minutes from time after an afternoon of much frustration.

8The 1-1 draw at The Etihad saw 8-players  rise above the rest to share the FREE £2,000 ‘prediction pot’ that was on offer in uMAXit’s ‘Game Week 5′ predictor competition.

How events unfolded in Game ‘Week 5′:

The pressure had been building for Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew ahead of his side’s clash with Hull City and amid protests against his continued reign, the Magpies looked set to crash to another defeat.

But after going 2-0 down against Hull, Newcastle showed great spirit to battle back and claim a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park.

Nikica Jelavic scored first for the Tigers and Mohamed Diame added a second with a stunning strike — his second in as many games since moving from West Ham United — but as Pardew stared a third Premier League defeat of the season in the face, his substitute Papiss Cisse popped up with a late brace to salvage a point.

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Southampton’s fine start to the season continued as a strike from Vincent Wanyama gave the Saints their fourth straight victory and took them to second in the league with a 1-0 win at Swansea, who had Wilfried Bony sent off just before half-time after he picked up two yellow cards.

Midfielder Niko Kranjcar curled in a late free kick to earn QPR a 2-2 draw against Stoke City at Loftus Road.

Stoke, managed by former QPR boss Mark Hughes, had taken the lead after 11 minutes through Mame Biram Diouf, only for Peter Crouch to stab a header from QPR defender Steven Caulker into his own net just before the break.

Crouch, who played at QPR as a youngster, looked to have secured victory when he swept home from close range after 51 minutes. However, with two minutes left, Croatian Kranjcar clipped in a fine 20-yard free-kick to earn Harry Redknapp’s men a share of the points in the Premier League tussle.

Burnley and Sunderland shared a goalless draw at Turf Moor.

In our MAXIFY game, Manchester United’s defensive frailties were laid bare in embarrassing fashion as Leicester romped to a 5-3 win over Louis van Gaal’s shellshocked side at the King Power Stadium.

United’s stellar cast of attacking talent allowed them to race into a 3-1 lead thanks to Robin van Persie, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria, who scored a stunning chip over Kasper Schmeichel.

But however impressive United’s Galacticos are on the attack, this squad is woefully sub-standard at the back and Leicester took full advantage to record their first home victory over the 20-time champions since 1985.

Leonardo Ulloa headed in at the back post in the first half and David Nugent found the net from the penalty spot after a needless foul by Rafael on Jamie Vardy.

Esteban Cambiasso equalised on his full debut before Vardy slotted the ball past David De Gea after a counter-attack in which United’s defending was all over the place.

Tyler Blackett was then sent off for hacking Vardy down in the box and Ulloa converted the penalty to make it 5-3.

Congratulations:

Scott Baker
Adam Finnis
Dominic Jones
Sean Kelly
Angel Lozanov
James Nolan
Danny Seaman
Benjamin Smith

Predictions In Numbers:

  • 4 x Correct Predictions – 2% of players
  • 3 x Correct Predictions – 11% of players
  • 2 x Correct Predictions – 27% of players  
  • 1 x Correct Predictions –  38% of players 
  • 0 x Correct Predictions – 22% of players  

Match Outcome In Numbers:

Queens Park Rangers 2 – 2 Stoke City
(30% of all players predicted a draw)

Newcastle 2 – 2 Hull City
(27% of all players predicted a draw)

Burnley 0 – 0 Sunderland
(29% of all players predicted a Southampton win)

Swansea City 0 – 1 Southampton
(24% of all players predicted a Southampton win)

Manchester City 1 – 1 Chelsea
(26% of all players predicted a draw)

MAXIFY: Leicester City 5 – 3 Manchester United

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Arsenal MUST Sign Morgan Schneiderlin in January to Solve their Midfield Woes

In hindsight perhaps this is an easy argument, but ask any Southampton fan who the best overall player at their football club was last season, and the majority will answer: “Morgan Schneiderlin.”

Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez received mass exposure due to their eligibility for England’s FIFA World Cup 2014 charge, and Dejan Lovren’s resurgence as a premier central defender attracted talk of £20 million bids.

All the while, the most complete player on the books, Schneiderlin, received the flattering looks of just one man: former boss Mauricio Pochettino. A bid to take him to Tottenham Hotspur this summer failed, and with it the Frenchman’s attempts to engineer a move of his own fell flat.

Tighe

‘Keeping Schneiderlin may be the best decision Southampton made all summer’

Saints chairman Ralph Krueger, cruelly nicknamed “Wreck-it Ralph” due to the demolition job he did on the squad during the transfer window, recently insisted his club enjoyed a “dream summer.” While that is, for all intents and purposes, a flat-out lie, keeping Schneiderlin on the books stands one of the most important decisions any club took during the transfer window.

Anchoring the team in its base 4-3-3 formation, the Frenchman performs a varied, integral role and adds steel to a revamped defensive line. He possesses the rare blend of physical tools and footballing IQ, able to dominate a game single-handedly if required.

Scouts label him a “sole anchor” – a player capable of spanning the pitch width-ways on his own, enabling him to play holding midfield in the same fashion as Sergio Busquets or Asier Illarramendi. He has enough mobility to cover a huge space, and enough strength to hold the fort on his own.

These players are rare, and ones with strong attacking instincts and incisive passing are even rarer. Schneiderlin is criminally underrated because he plays on the South Coast, but the reality is he’s a safer, better, more cost-effective solution to Arsenal’s holding midfield problems than William Carvalho is.

Gooners are obsessed with William, the Sporting Lisbon midfield product; his natural muscle and build is comparable to the likes of Victor Wanyama – another rare find in the fooballing universe.

But Schneiderlin’s a polished article, capable of improving still but already firmly entrenched in the French international setup under Didier Deschamps, working alongside Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and more. William struggles with slightly mobility issues and if you run directly at him, he struggles to readjust his body to make the tackle in tight spaces.

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You look at the Southampton man’s game and compare it to what Arsenal currently boast, and it’s clear that for around £20 million, Arsene Wenger can acquire himself a serious upgrade at the heart of his team.

Defensive midfield play at the Emirates Stadium has been sub-par for years now, with Wenger quizzically clinging onto Mikel Arteta as his chief holder despite his clear shortcomings in the role. Mathieu Flamini is better at the dirty work but stands a disciplinary nightmare, leading some fans to believe Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey is the way forward.

The beginning of the 2013-14 season, when Arsenal took on Aston Villa and Fenerbahce, is video evidence that this double-pivot doesn’t work. A year removed, fans have either forgotten those shambolic displays or simply believe it can’t be any worse than what they have right now.

For many Arteta supports, this week’s dismal showing against Borussia Dortmund was the last straw. He’s central to the Gunners’ build-up issues when facing big teams and high-press tactics, and he doesn’t have enough defensive nous to cover it up.

Making the Spaniard this season’s captain in place of Thomas Vermaelen was huge mistake, and although Wenger tends to defend his decisions even to a fault, he needs to swallow the cost of Schneiderlin and fix a key area of his team – even if it takes £25 million.

Southampton’s midfield maestro won’t be on the South Coast for long, and the more performances he churns out for France, the more varied the interest will become. Arsenal need to address this in January, before the likes of Paris Saint-Germain free up enough funds and Tottenham bend his ear.

Written by: Sam Tighe – Scout’s Take

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Premier League’s Domestic Competition for Places Continues to Hide English Clubs’ European shortcomings

As the dust settles on the season’s opening Champions League gameweek, where do the results leave the English clubs? Chelsea picked up the trophy in 2012, yet one English win in six years is underacheivement. Are we any closer to ending this barren run of form?

Two defeats in Germany, one a close shave, the other one of the most resounding 2-0 reversals in memory, are disappointing but perhaps not entirely unexpected. A stuttering home draw against Schalke and an unconvincing win over Champions League debutants from Bulgaria have hardly set European pulses racing.

For Manchester City and Arsenal, the toughest ties of the week confirmed some already familiar problems in the world’s greatest club competition: For the English champions, another false dawn on the continent.

Having been pummelled at times in the opening 45 minutes, Manuel Pellegrini’s side had done admirably to hang on, thanks in no small part to Joe Hart, only to fall short at the final hurdle. In their fourth season in the Champions League, still they wait for a meaningful victory against one of Europe’s top teams.

James Dutton

‘Last minute heartbreak for Pellegrini’s men’

As for Arsenal, it was once again a failure in idealism for Arsene Wenger, who set up as they regularly do against top sides, and were duly overwhelmed. Mikel Arteta looked lost amongst a relentless yellow tidal wave as the Gunners’ all-too familiar defensive injury crisis was laid bare

For Chelsea, a disappointing draw, but no prevailing sense of doom – they should still qualify easily from a comfortable group. Liverpool, guilty of being tactically naive at home to Ludogorets, can only improve after their first appearance in the competition for five years, and have a great opportunity against FC Basle to almost assure themselves of a passage through to the next stage.

A difficult week, yet it would still take a brave man to bet against all four progressing through to the knockout stages. But do these sides look equipped to trouble the latter stages, and break a run that has failed to see more than one English club reach the semi-finals in five years? Beyond Chelsea, it is hard to back the other three to break past the quarter finals, even at this early stage.

What was such a regular occurrence is now a thing of the past. But for all the talk of the Premier League’s fall from grace, competition from the continent is undoubtedly as strong now as it has ever been.

Five years since Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer to Real Madrid embodied the shift in power from the Premier League to La Liga, the European strongholds have grown.

From 2005 to 2009 the Premier League provided 12 of the 20 semi-finalists; since 2010, only three of 20. During the mid-noughties, the European powerhouses were struggling, shifting through various transitions, and besides Barcelona, none were able to mount a consistent challenge for the top prize.

Real Madrid were caught between two eras of heavy spending, while Bayern Munich were failing to stamp their dominance over the Bundesliga, as Stuttgart and Wolfsburg broke their stranglehold. Serie A lurched through scandals, and with Juventus stripped of two titles and demoted to Serie B, Inter Milan dominated yet could not reach beyond the quarter finals of the Champions League.

AC Milan continued to age and continued to challenge, but their need for regeneration was ignored from powers on high. It was left to Barcelona, transitioning between the crumbling of the Rijkaard era and the beginning of Guardiola’s, to lead the charge against the English clubs.

GW5-20th-SEPT

Now, in 2014, it is hard to see any of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich falling away, whilst Paris Saint Germain and Juventus continue to grow in stature. The onus is now on the Premier League clubs to overcome these powers, rather than the mere shadows that they were then.

Following a summer of stardust influx into the Premier League, from Angel Di Maria to Radamel Falcao, from Diego Costa to Cesc Fabregas, the competition in English football looks healthy and strong. The Premier League has strength in depth in its top-seven; the points total for finishing fourth is growing higher every year. The 60 points that Liverpool won to finish fourth in 2004 would see them finish eighth in 2014.

Yet this is a cloak that continues to hide the failings at the top end. English commentators love to laud the competition and excitement that the Premier League generates, but what good is continually proclaiming it as “the best league in the world” when the evidence of their performances on the continent suggests plainly otherwise?

After an inauspicious start for the English clubs this week, there is a lot of ground to be made up for the Premier League clubs if they are to return to where they believe they belong.

The Champions League is where the Premier League most prove its worth, not in the false-glorification of competition for places

Written by: James Dutton

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Are “Experienced Players” Really the Key to Avoiding Premier League Relegation?

Insanity.

Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

The volatility of the managerial merry-go-round is no greater than at the bottom of the Premier League, and with the ramifications of relegation being so severe, managers and owners alike will go to great lengths to ensure survival.

The Premier League is worth around £60 million to promoted clubs and so, unsurprisingly, the pressure to retain that status is immense.  Yet despite this, teams continually find themselves embroiled in relegation dog-fights having made the same cardinal sins over and over.

Some managers will go down in history, renowned for their trophy-laden cabinets and great teams. However, there is a different breed of manager – of which Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce can consider themselves gold card members – whose primary role is to fight against the drop.

What, then, is the secret to staying up?

'I make no apologies for this photo of Big Sam, just stunning.'

‘I make no apologies for this photo of Big Sam, just stunning.’

With the ever-swelling  influx of money coming into the Premier League the temptation to spend your way out of trouble is all too tempting for the under-pressure manager. Panic buys are the norm, the miracle striker who can drag a team to safety is a much sought-after commodity.

However, for every team that spends £12 million on Kostas Mitroglou and sobs at their fate, it is the team that has spent wisely, balancing their squad, that prospers.

For promoted sides, the idea of adding plenty of Premier League experience in the hope that this will rub off on the other players, is a mysterious one. Leicester City this season signed Marc Albrighton, whose only tenuous claim to fame is scoring the league’s 20,000th goal.

Upon signing, the winger stated “I’ll teach Leicester how to stay up,” despite playing just 28 league matches in the last two years. It is hard to believe that a fringe player at Aston Villa can be of such great benefit to a club battling relegation.

Another promoted team that implemented a similar policy was Burnley; they opted for three players (Steven Reid, George Boyd and Matthew Taylor), none of which had started more than 50 percent of their team’s Premier League matches the season before.

Premier League experience they may have but, the quality needed to survive? I doubt.

While top-level experience will have value, it should not be the primary concern. Promoted sides such as Swansea City and Southampton sought genuine quality from abroad after arriving in the same league. Their players arrived both at a cheaper fee and with more quality; the two teams are now prospering in the top half.

'George Boyd doing his best to feign optimism.'

‘George Boyd doing his best to feign optimism.’

In a league that is rapidly seeing more goals fly in, an ever increasing importance is being placed on not conceding. In the last three seasons, eight or nine of the teams relegated were amongst the three highest-conceding teams in their respective seasons.

However, only four out of nine of those relegated teams were amongst the lowest scorers, therefore it is surprising that teams continually prioritise their spending toward forwards when building a strong defence is clearly key.

Upon looking at the success stories of teams who have successfully made the transition from the Championship to the Premier League, it is those with the meanest defences (both in terms of goals conceded and aggression) that have managed to thrive rather that struggle to survive. Tony Pulis has made a living out of producing teams who do just this and his prioritising of defence has made his teams very tough to beat.

It is the increased attention toward this facet of the game that saw them rise well clear of relegation.

The step up from the Championship to the Premier League is not only significant for the players but more importantly for the manager. Over the last seven seasons, of the eight teams who have gone straight back down after promotion, seven had managers who were experiencing a full Premier League season for the first time.

This is perhaps an alarming statistic for Burnley and Leicester fans, and it proves the gulf in class between the two leagues.

A major adaptation needed by the managers is on the tactical front. Most teams in the Championship play two up front and while two strikers may be enough to dominate in the Championship, it can be exposed in the Premier League.

Here it is more common for teams to play three in midfield, and if promoted teams persist with two up front (as Leicester and Burnley have), they will tend to struggle to hold as much possession in order to provide the requisite service for their strikers.  As a result managers have to prove themselves to be astute both in the transfer market and from a tactical perspective.

While it is clear that maintaining Premier League status is not an exact science, what is obvious is that there are certain mistakes that are to be avoided. It is experience in the dugout that should be prioritised as highly as that on the field.

Most importantly transfer dealings are key to defining a season, and it’s those with the more rounded and defensively resolute squads that will prosper.

Written by: James Wareing

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