The phrase cardiopulmonary resuscitation might not mean many much to fans of English Football but CPR, as it is commonly known, is as unambiguous a metaphor as can be trying to explain the fortunes of those clubs that find themselves moving up from The Championship to the promised land of the Premier League. The deep, first breathe of oxygen and the gasping feeling often accompanied by a complex chemical reaction inside the body that we mistake as disbelief is similar to what those at clubs feel with those added riches and global appeal.
The English game beyond the Premier League is really a black-hole, as clubs like Portsmouth, Wigan, Bolton and Sunderland have found out, that suction of relegation could be severe to the point of extinction. Just getting to the Premier League adds around £170m in television revenue over three years for the coffers of the club but if they manage to survive even one season, Deloitte estimates that the club could earn £280m in television revenue at the very least.
Fulham, West Brom and Leeds United would be looking to do more than survive for a season, they are in the Premier League and depending on their ambition will want to establish themselves like Wolves and Leicester have over the last few seasons. In reality there is no secret to staying alive in the Premier League, most of it down to the fundamentals of football: a good squad, a good manager and some good performances. Of course, a lot of these can be undone by poor upper-management decisions and some poor luck with injuries – ambition is important but over-spending does not ensure survival (as Fulham learnt in 2018/2019), nor does being extremely frugal, as Norwich learnt this year.
We will look at the three teams and how the season may pan out for them:
Manager: Scott Parker
Key Player: Aleksandar Mitrovic
Prediction: (16th to 18th) could go either way, will be involved in the relegation battle
Fulham tried that just two seasons back when they had just been promoted to the Premier League, spending over £100m on transfers and completely revamping their squad. Yet, after three managers in the entire season, the club finished 19th due to a poor defensive record where the club shipped a total of 81 goals in the entire season (by comparison, even Norwich’s leaky defence conceded 75 goals last season). Yet two figures from that horrible campaign stand out even today: former captain Scott Parker was appointed caretaker manager for the last three months of the that season while Aleksandar Mitrovic was their top scorer with 11 PL goals.
Unlike the last time, Fulham’s transfer business has been quite conservative this season, largely due to the fact that Scott Parker likes playing with the ball with faster exchanges and needs his players to adapt to his system. Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert has come in to add width while Harrison Reed and Mario Lemina (loan) have arrived from Southampton to add cover to their midfield. But more than these additions, a lot will depend on Fulham’s expensive acquisitions from two years ago: Jean Michael Seri and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, the former being the club’s record signing – both of whom will be given a chance to prove themselves after season-long loans during the 2019/2020 season.
Fulham’s worry will still be in defence and Parker could do well with a potential Premier League quality addition at centre-back alongside their ex-Chelsea player Michael Hector, who has been phenomenal since his arrival in January, 2020. Many Chelsea fans will not know about Hector but he joined Chelsea in 2015 and made no appearances for the club, while spending 4 seasons out on loan. At the time of writing, Torino full-back Ola Aina is supposed to join on loan to add depth to the full-back position on the right side as The Cottagers are one of the many teams looking to sign Brentford forward, Ollie Watkins.
For Aston Villa last season. the performances of the team revolved around one star player (Grealish), a solid midfielder (McGinn, or Douglas Luiz; take your pick) and a half-decent centre-back (Mings). It is likely to be similar for Fulham with Hector organising at the back, Aboubakar Kamara and Ivan Cavaleiro could provide the service for the star-player, Mitrovic – who scored 26 goals in the Championship last season and all eyes will be on the striker.
Much like Villa this season, Fulham could be in for a tough road and might require till the last few matchdays (and some good fortune) to secure themselves a place in 2021/2022 season of the Premier League. It is unlikely that Parker will be able to succeed with the high risk, high reward approach given the players at his disposal but Parker has ensured that the atmosphere around the club is not as defeatist as the one a couple of years back and will be keen to remind his players that there is much to learn from that relegation; togetherness, trusting the coach and each other will be key.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Manager: Slaven Bilic
Key Player: Matheus Pereira
Prediction: (12th to 15th) Mid-table, maybe looking over their shoulder
West Brom come into this season as outsiders, not because their football is bad but because they are a bit of an unknown quantity. The Baggies do not have much of the same fanfare that comes with being a London club like Fulham with the fairy tale story surrounding Parker and by comparison, the appeal of Leeds United has reached stratospheric levels, which can be argued has never been seen with a promoted club before. The midlands club did have an eight-year continuous run in the Premier League before their relegation at the end of the 2017-2018 season and narrowly missed out to eventual play-off winners Aston Villa in the semi-finals the following season. They achieved automatic promotion by finishing 2nd in the Championship.
What will be key for the club’s survival will be the manager himself, Slaven Bilic. A proven Premier League manager who took West Ham to Europe in 2016 and helped them finish firmly mid-table the season after – is surely the best asset at this level. One could argue that even with all the investment West Ham have made in the seasons after sacking Bilic, they have gone behind with their managerial choices.
The feud with West Ham does not end there, highly-rated winger Grady Diangana left West Ham permanently to turn his loan into a permanent move for only £12m – much to the anger of West Ham captain, Mark Noble. It is Diangana’s combination with Brazilian playmaker Matheus Pereira that could potentially light up The Hawthorns this season. Pereira contributed 16 assists and 8 goals last season and the 24-year-old was averaging 2.5 key passes per game. Diangana had an injury but even with less than 2000 minutes, he provided 6 assits and 8 goals. West Brom are also looking at turning the loan of Croatian midfielder, Filip Krovinovic permanent from Benfica. The playmaker is press-resistance and ball retention could be key for the midfield to thrive while Romaine Sawyers and Jake Livermore are tasked with protecting the backline in a double pivot. Semi Ajayi is a strong centre-half but he would need a partner and Celtic’s Kristoffer Ajer could potentially join from Celtic.
The obvious weakness in the team, however, is the striker position. Charlie Austin and Hal Robson-Kanu shared the minutes with Danish forward, Kenneth Zohore deputising but those two only scored 10 goals each while the Dane added only 4 goals in all competitions. At the time of writing. West Brom are edging closer to signing Karlan Grant from Huddersfield; Grant scored 19 goals in the Championship last season; a strong, fast forward who is always looking to try and hit the back of the net.
In reality, West Brom’s starting line-up is not as bad and early momentum could push them into a comfortable position. Bilic is also a pragmatic coach that knows how to get the best out his players and will mould his system according to their strengths, instead of expecting his players to adapt to his philosophy. One of his greatest managerial performances was the 3-2 win at Wembley in 2007 when his Croatian side beat Steve Mclaren’s England to deny them qualification to the Euros the following year; that showed his passion to win, get the job done at all costs and an absolute sense of ruthlessness. It is probably this attitude that is likely to see West Brom finish in mid-table, if they can start with the right results.
Manager: Marcelo Bielsa
Key Player: Kalvin Phillips
Prediction: (10th to 12th) Firmly Mid-table
There is a great sense of optimism with Leeds United this year – armed with their swashbuckling football and regimented training sessions known as murderball, overseen by one of the greatest tacticians of the game, Marcelo Bielsa. Yet, it is easy to get consumed by the fairy tale of it all because as storied as the Premier League is, the bubble can burst quite quickly if teams do not learn how to adapt to their opposition. Bielsa probably knows that his players are not as good as those owned by City, Liverpool or Chelsea but will that stop him from playing his fast, attractive, high-intensity football? Probably not. Bielsa’s philosophy demands specific traits to gain the sum of all parts i.e. every member in the team has a role, and if every member fulfils that role, any team can be beaten. That is how Bielsa’s Bilbao rolled into Manchester 8 years back in the Europa League and rolled them over 5-3 on aggregate over two legs; Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had not experienced such a pressing game before (though that relentless pressing is much more common in the English game now).
Leeds – armed with their ambitious chairman, Andrea Radrizzani and equally ambitious Director of Football, Victor Orta, have not shied away from splashing the cash. Many questions were asked about the ability of Patrick Bamford to lead the line in the Premier League, so Orta sanctioned in the region of £27m to sign Spanish forward, Rodrigo – their record signing. It is, of course, up for debate whether it is prudent to spend so much money on a player who is 29 and has not scored many goals in the last season but perhaps Bielsa sees Rodrigo in a similar fashion to how Klopp sees Firmino: to initiate the press, combine the number-ten and number-nine role and whenever possible, also add goals. Leeds are not stopping there, they are also actively chasing Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul and Barcelona’s Rafinha to add creativity from midfield in order to assist 35-year-old Pablo Hernandez, Helder Costa and Manchester City youngster Jack Harrison, who is on-loan.
But where Bielsa has really added significant tactical evolution is his team’s build-up from defence, pushing his full-backs very high to create overloads (essentially a 3-3-1-3 formation): enter Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling, together they continbuted 8 goals and 8 assits last season. Also integral to their build-up last season their defensive midfielder – Kalvin Phillips who patrols and protects the backline by becoming the auxiliary centre-half and their two starting centre-halves, loanee Ben White and captain, Liam Cooper. Leeds threw a lot of money (in the region of £35m) to permanently sign Ben White from Brighton but unfortunately, Brighton did not want to sell their prized asset. He has since been replaced with Freiburg’s Robin Koch, who has similar attributes to allow the same sort of build-up. In goal, 20-year-old Ilian Meslier has made his move FC Lorient permanent and the Frenchman is likely to become Leeds’ first-choice goalie, taking over from Kiko Casilla. However, there is a lack of depth at centre-back and injuries to either Cooper or Koch could derail the season.
Leeds are a far-shout away from how poorly they were run in the early 2000s. Their approach to transfers has been aggressive but not reckless. Less than two decades back, Leeds were competing in the semi-finals of the Champions League and it is unlikely that the same heights can be reached in the next few seasons. However, Orta and Radrizzani will ask Bielsa to establish Leeds as a “Premier League” team, before embarking on more ambitious trails. If all goes to plan, Leeds can potentially finish in the mid-table, allowing the club to be even more aggressive with their project.