In Premier League mid-table, be careful what you wish for
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MANCHESTER, March 12 — There may be little glamour in being a mid-table Premier League team but this season suggests that those clubs who become bored with such an existence can find the alternative is far worse.
The temptation is understandable — top six status is nearly impossible for most clubs and so where does the consistently mid-table club turn for a sense of progress, for more thrills?
Fans once pleased just to secure top-flight status do become weary of pragmatic tactics and club owners, no doubt listening to pundits lauding progressive football, turn away from the managers and methods which gained them mid-table comfort in search of a more aesthetically pleasing style of play.
The relegation battle features several clubs who have dropped from mid-table after feeling the pressure to change direction to satisfy this demand, perceived or otherwise.
Southampton sacked Claude Puel as manager after the club finished eighth in the Premier League last season and reached the League Cup final.
It was the meagre return of 17 goals from 19 home games that arguably cost Puel his job but the club’s attitude was revealed when they appointed Mauricio Pellegrino as his replacement.
“Mauricio believes with the quality we have we can play exciting, attacking football, taking the game to our opponents by playing a high-intensity game,” the club said.
“He has an excellent understanding of the Southampton Way, and his style of play and aspiration matches the philosophy, culture and ambition of the club”.
Yet the Saints, who finished in the top eight for each for the last four seasons, are now 17th after Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Newcastle United and have managed five wins all season.
West Bromwich Albion had more of a case for making a change with Tony Pulis’ pragmatic brand of football having stopped delivering results, with the club a point above the relegation zone in November and without a win in 10 games.
Yet even though the focus was purely on survival, his replacement Alan Pardew felt the need to offer fans the promise of something more.
“The most important fact is to win games, that’s the bottom line. Tony does that very well but he does it in a different manner to me,” Pardew said on his appointment.
“My best teams play on the front foot and try to put teams under pressure. They sometimes get a bloody nose in doing that. And that’s what I’ll deliver here at West Brom,” he added.
There have certainly been plenty of bloody noses with West Brom now seven points adrift at the bottom of the table and staring at a future in the Championship.
After four straight seasons in the top flight, Crystal Palace also felt the urge for a change of direction.
Former Ajax player and coach Frank De Boer was brought in amidst talk of a transformation in the club’s style but the Dutchman was sacked after the opening four games of the campaign in which his team failed to score.
Under his replacement Roy Hodgson, Palace have been playing catch up most of the campaign.
But while the idea of Palace producing a South London version of Dutch “total football” may have generated a few sniggers, the dilemma for clubs is a real one.
Stoke City tried a more sensible, gradual approach with Mark Hughes trying to evolve to a more attacking style after taking over from Pulis. That project ran out of steam and the club are in relegation trouble now but in that case there was no rashness in the sacking of Hughes.
Since arriving in the Premier League in 2008, Stoke have never finished lower than 14th or higher than ninth and had been a model of stability and realism.
More recent arrivals in the top flight, like Burnley, Brighton, Bournemouth and Watford, would be happy to emulate that kind of mid-table consistency but if they achieve it they will surely face the same kind of pressure to change.
This season provides plenty of warnings that although understandable, the desire for progress can often prove to be a dangerous trap. — Reuters