As the dust has now settled on Preston’s season, many people are already looking ahead to pre-season and going again next season. The summer ahead is undoubtedly a big one for Messrs Alex Neil, Peter Ridsdale and Trevor Hemmings with the fans harbouring hopes that we can mount a challenge at the top six. The expectations at Preston are always very high and this pre-season will be no different.
In my last piece, I eluded to the challenges we face in achieving promotion and in this piece, I decided to go into a bit more detail.
The season has now concluded Aston Villa joined Norwich and Sheffield United in the Premier League after beating Frank Lampard’s Derby County in the play-off final at Wembley stadium. I wanted to assess the three clubs and look at their qualities and attributes and what it was that they successfully implemented in order to gain promotion in order to see what we could perhaps take from it all. There always seems to be one or two default arguments as to what is needed in order to gain promotion and what we would need to do in the summer in order to challenge in the coming season. So, this piece is to try and provide a comparative analysis and also to highlight specific areas that we could look at.
Norwich City: 1st
The Canaries may have the reputation of a bit of a yo-yo team however, it’s hard not to be impressed with their season as they confirmed promotion at the end of April. They finished on 94 points scoring an incredible 93 goals in the process.
Norwich appointed Daniel Farke in May 2017 after showed a certain Alex Neil the door. Before taking the reins at Carrow Road, Farke managed SV Lippstadt for six years taking them up from the 5th tier of German football to the 3rd tier and then Borussia Dortmund came calling. He managed Borussia Dortmund II, the reserve side, for two years and also guided them to promotion. He was then approached by the Norwich Sporting Director, Stuart Webber about the vacant post in Norfolk after he failed to agree a new contract with Dortmund and signed on the dotted line for the Canaries.
In his first season in English football, Norwich finished 14th which left many fans rather underwhelmed. Their goal difference was below average and they were the 6th lowest scorers in the league, even bottom club Sunderland had scored more than Norwich. At the end of that season, the club stood by him with their long term vision for the club, in fact, in 2018 in an interview, Farke said: “They want to implement a new structure and I really felt honoured I should be allowed to be responsible, together with Stuart Webber, for leading this change”.
During the early stages of his first season, Farke highlighted the fact that Norwich were a long way from his preferred playing style citing the likes of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel’s teams as inspirations. He stated, “We work a lot on controlling the game, the structure of possession and controlling the ball”. It was pretty clear to see that they were strong in this regard in the 2018/19 season. Also his flexibility in approach highlighting the importance of the base formation being fluid.
He succeeded in creating an unstoppable force in the Championship only losing six times with one of the highest Championship points tally’s, only behind Readings record of 106 points in 2005/06 and Wolves’ total of 99 points in the 2017/18 season. They played some sublime football at the same time which rightly gained them plaudits from all parts of the media. This proved that the idea of prior experience in the Championship in order to get promoted is largely rubbish. Also, the argument that you need to grind out results and sacrifice an attractive brand of football as Norwich certainly played what I’m sure most would consider a good ‘brand’ of football.
The below table is to summarise the Norwich squad. It highlights the players signed by Farke and also the reported transfer fee where I could find one and also, the players who came through the Norwich academy and played.
Farke is a keen believer in promoting youth in his teams and the average age of Norwich’s starting eleven was 25.4 giving them the 8th lowest average age in the league and the youngest of the promoted sides in 18/19. The average age of the overall squad was 26.1 years. The squad that Farke created is enviable with some fantastic individuals but as a team, they were formidable.
Perhaps the best-known player for Norwich this season was Championship top scorer, Teemu Pukki. The Finn ended the campaign on 29 goals and also had 9 assists to his name in 43 starts. A pretty impressive return for the 29-year-old who joined Norwich on a free transfer in June 2018 after he was released by Danish side Brondby. Not many had heard of him prior to signing, despite a short stint at Celtic but they quickly rubbished him so rather satisfyingly for Norwich, they have certainly had the last laugh.
Marco Stiepermann, also brought in by Farke, in August 2017 from VfL Bochum on a three-year deal, started in 23 games contributing a single goal and 2 assists in his first season. In his second season, he was a revelation with 9 goals and 8 assists playing a part in 18% of Norwich’s goals. Farke has praised him as being an unsung hero with some influential performances including in their 3-2 comeback win vs. Bolton in December. Stiepermann’s transfer fee was reported to be in the region of £1.5m. Some may say that’s a snip…
There have been so many good players for Norwich and it’s a real blend of youth and experience. The experienced players not necessarily costing an arm and a leg either and the experience not coming solely in the form of the Championship.
Despite the view that the league is skewed due to the spending power of some of the clubs that have parachute payments or owners that are happy to bankroll them, Norwich somewhat bucked that trend. They sold a number of their big players in the summer of 2018 including James Maddison to Leicester for £22m, Josh Murphy to Cardiff for £11m and Alex Pritchard to Huddersfield, also for £11m and they then spent a very modest £5m.
This put Norwich in a very good position financially with them making the highest profit on player sales as you can see below in the graph from Keiran Maguire (@PriceofFootball on twitter) with a grand total of £48m in 2017/18.
Interestingly, Norwich were last relegated from the Premier League in 2016 so the 2017/18 season was the last that they were in receipt of parachute payments so it’s clear to see that Norwich have been very smart with their transfer dealings and have made some inspired signings without breaking the bank.
Norwich’s vision as a club has certainly helped them in many different aspects. When he came into the club, Stuart Webber switched the focus and ensured the club followed through on a sustainable strategy: “If you have a team of old men, in my opinion, you don’t get promoted unless you’re Neil Warnock.”
With this in mind, you can see exactly why he brought in Farke. The German was someone who bought into the Norwich’s philosophy and he had a firm belief in what he was doing: “The perception was always you need experience and to spend lots of money for quality in this league, and with beautiful football you can’t win games – we broke so many rules during the season.”
They really have shone throughout the season just gone and winning the league in the manner they did, playing the style they did, without blowing a tonne of money, there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from Norwich City, Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke.
Sheffield United: 2nd
The Blades had an absolute dream end to the 2018/19 season after beating promotion rivals Leeds United to 2nd spot, much to the absolute joy of the fans. It was an incredible achievement and it’s difficult not to admire them from the outside looking in. To put things into perspective a bit, the bookies had United at odds of 8/1, the same as North End, to get promoted.
Before the Blades, Chris Wilder’s management career started at Alfreton followed by stints at Halifax Town, Oxford United, Northampton Town and a spell as assistant manager at Bury. He took Oxford up to the Football League via the play-offs in his first season and he kept them up for the next four seasons, too. He then went on to join League Two rivals Northampton Town in January 2014 he and successfully avoided relegation that season and then took them on to a mid-table finish in his first full season. In his second full season in charge, he took them to the League Two title, winning it with 99 points.
He became manager of Sheffield United, his boyhood club, in May 2016 when they were in League One and despite his time in Sheffield not getting off to the best of starts, he eventually took them up as League One Champions with a club record 100 points. In their first season back in the Championship, Wilder guided them to a very respectable 10th place finish after flirting with the play-offs at points during the season.
The Blades had a good start but struggled on the injury front and ultimately fell short in the race for the top 6. It was his third season that would prove to be the one for Wilder and the Blades.
They managed to confirm promotion to the Premier League in April after securing 2nd spot. They had chased Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United for most of the season so to finally secure promotion, it was one hell of an achievement.
Club captain Billy Sharp said of Wilder [before promotion] “The belief was there, we were the ones saying that we could go one step further than last season when we fell away around March. The gaffer has been driving us for the last three seasons since he has been in charge and, hopefully, we can get promotion before he goes to PSG…”
It’s clear to see from all the celebrations that Chris Wilder has created a positive environment for his players to flourish in and you would imagine that this is one of the reasons that they have exceeded all expectations on a modest budget in getting promoted to the Premier League.
He plays a fluid 3-5-2 system with a lot being made about his “overlapping centre backs” but, with the players he has at hand, you could say it’s worked well. Wilder also has brought in key players throughout his three seasons at the club and without wanting to sound too cliché, he brought passion, grit and determination to the side, as well as some quality. His connection to the club has endeared him to fans and pundits alike which is another reason their promotion was so special.
A testament to Wilder is that he brought in somewhat lesser known and players who didn’t necessarily have Championship experience and he’s built the squad up with a small budget. See the table below, similar to the one for Norwich with the players signed by Wilder and their reported transfer fees where applicable.
The exception was when the club broke their transfer record in the signing of defender John Egan from Brentford in July 2018. Wilder said at the time of signing “We see him as a leader and he is worthy of the fee we have paid for him. In my opinion, he is a better player than a couple of those who have already moved for bigger fees this summer”.
The Republic of Ireland man more than justified the record-breaking fee as a key member of the Blades’ defence, along with Manchester United loanee goalkeeper, Dean Henderson, as they went on to keep an impressive 21 clean sheets over the course of the season. It probably won’t come as a surprise that they are trying to secure his services for their first season back in the Premier League but whether that’s a loan or a permanent signing remains to be seen.
Some questioned whether or not Billy Sharp may be past it at Championship level considering he turned 33 during the season but he finished Sheffield United’s top scorer with 23 goals and 4 assists. The centre forward was born and raised in Sheffield and much like Wilder, he has an irreplaceable affiliation with the fans and the club. He played a key role both in the promotion season and since returning to the club in 2015. He undoubtedly has a big impact in the dressing room too winning the Players’ Player of the Year in their end of season award ceremony.
David McGoldrick was crowned the 2018/19 Player of the Year in the fans poll. The attacker scored 15 goals and got 4 assists in the season just gone. McGoldrick was released from Ipswich after his deal ended in June due to his five years with the tractor boys being plagued with injuries. He then went on trial with Sheffield United and impressed Wilder enough to get a contract offer and he signed a one year deal with the club last summer. A really inspired signing given he was a free agent and managing to keep him fit really paid dividends as he made 45 appearances for the Blades.
The Blades aren’t a million miles away from Preston in terms of finances. We had similar squad costs in 2018 with United coming slightly lower. Since they were promoted from League one a couple of seasons ago Wilder worked with the talent he had at his disposal and, as previously mentioned, was very savvy in the transfer market.
To highlight this, he signed the following who all have experience within the Championship and will probably be on higher wages but they were the right type of player to bring in: Oliver Norwood, Richard Stearman, John Fleck, Gary Madine and Mark Duffy. In contrast to Norwich, Sheffield United’s spending is more concentrated in wages rather than buying younger players to develop and this is shown with the average age of their squad being 27.9.
It makes it all the more impressive that they got promoted via the automatic places with less spend than rivals Leeds, Derby and Aston Villa from 2018. Also from a Preston point of view, we had a ‘head start’ so it’s slightly annoying that they have gotten to the Premier League before us. You could also look at it from another angle though, it’s evidence that it is doable and a bit of an incentive that we could also do it.
Sheffield United, for me, and I’m sure others, proved that it can be done. They spent the least out of the promoted sides but got the right experience in and Wilder definitely got the right mix. You can see the strong team togetherness and the winning mentality. After the season he’s just had, it was also not a shock to see that Wilder was named LMA ‘Manager of the Year’ in what was a fairy tale season for the Blades.
Notably, he said after promotion “I get some of our supporters think we’re done – but the players aren’t done and I’m not done.”
I’m sure they will give the Premier League everything they’ve got at what must be a very exciting time for the club and their fans.
Aston Villa: 3rd
The final team to confirm promotion in 2018/19 was Aston Villa who secured victory via the play-offs in an entertaining final with Derby County. Villa had an exceptionally strong end to the season and fired themselves up the table on the back of an incredible 12 game unbeaten run with a 10 game winning streak in the middle of it.
Villa started off this season with Steve Bruce in charge but he was sacked on 3rd October after a 3-3 draw with, yep, you guessed it… Preston North End. Also, the game that was famous for ‘cabbagegate’. At this point they were 12th in the table on 15 points. They weren’t managerless for long, just a single match under caretaker Kevin MacDonald. After this game, Dean Smith was appointed as new head coach from Brentford and the former Chelsea and Aston Villa defender John Terry was brought in as his assistant.
Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, at only 48 had previously managed Walsall from 2011 to 2015 and Championship rivals Brentford 2015 to 2018. He really began to gain attention and plaudits for his work at Brentford. Like Preston, Brentford had a smaller budget but Smith got them playing an attractive and attacking style of football. It’s no surprise he attracted interest from Villa.
In the first nine games under Smith Villa won 5, scored 21 goals and picked up 17 points. From March to the end of April Villa won an unprecedented 10 game in a row, a new club record, which took them up from 11th to 5th. This run secured their play-off spot. Smith had a 51.5% win percentage winning 17 out of 33 Championship games since joining Villa. He often played a 4-2-3-1 system or 4-3-3 attacking style. One thing to note, from an outsiders point of view, appointing Jack Grealish, another life long Villa fan, as club captain in the absence of James Chester, seemed to massively help too.
In the way Wilder has the connection to the Blades, Smith as a fan of Villa, had a real connection to the club and created a feel-good factor previously lacking. Grealish said after the play off final victory it was the perfect fit having Smith as a Villa fan taking them back to the Premier League. It’s easy to see how much impact Smith had in helping to guide them back up to the top flight. He got them playing some really great football, scoring a lot of goals along the way and that came about after a poor start, too. However, Smith didn’t use that as an excuse. He pushed the team, they played some great football and they lived up to the play-offs favourite tag in their final 3 games of the season and were more than deserving of promotion.
As with the Norwich and Sheffiled United sections, see below the table of the Villa players. With Smith coming in mid-season not a lot of the squad were signed by him and so he was largely working with existing talent.
Villa had a number of standout players including the likes of Grealish, Mings, Abraham and McGinn. Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham scored 25 goals and 3 assists in the Championship which is quite a return for the 21-year-old. Before Villa, he had been out on loan to Bristol City and Swansea City so I think this bit of experience certainly helped him at this level. He really fit into Villa’s set-up and they got the best out of him. No doubting he was mentored well by the coaching team and more experienced players in the squad.
John McGinn had an outstanding season and has attracted quite a bit of attention for his performances. He added to this by scoring the winning goal in the play-off final. He joined Villa in August 2018 for a reported £2.7m despite a lot of interest and reported offers from Celtic. Since then he hasn’t looked back and had a sensational first season in the Championship scoring 6 and providing 10 assists. He’s a very hard working player and I think he has certainly risen to the challenge of the Championship.
I couldn’t do the players section for Villa without mentioning local lad Jack Grealish. I’m aware he does divide opinion, but for me, he’s an excellent player and has proved it time and time again. He missed 15 games of the season through injury between December and February and in those games, Villa only won twice.
His return from injury is when they Villa embarked on the 10 game unbeaten run which saw the finish 5th. This shows how key he is to the team in the midfield and also as captain. He grew up supporting Villa along with his whole family and you can see what it means to him to play for them. An irreplaceable player for the fans. It might be a long summer seeing if they can keep hold of him.
By contrast to Norwich and Sheffield, Villa did spend the most overall. They were last relegated from the Premier League in 2016 and this was, therefore, the final season they would receive parachute payments making promotion arguably crucial for the club.
Villa are a big hitter in the league with spending power but also did make use of successful loans as eluded to above in Abraham and also Tyrone Mings from Bournemouth; a key player through the second half of the season after joining on loan in January. I’m not a financial expert but looking at reports, Villa’s operating loss was quite high at £32m and turnover had dropped a large amount since they were relegated. This could be put down to TV revenue differences between Premier League and Championship. Their CEO did reassure fans around March time when figures were released that he believed FFP wouldn’t be a problem for them. Though I’m sure the club will breathe a sigh of relief to have won the £170m Championship play-off final.
After losing last year’s play-off final to Fulham it’s a credit to Villa’s character and coming back stronger. It looked unlikely at the end of 2018 but they pulled it back and Smith said after the play-off victory “Reality has just set-in. It all feels a bit surreal but it’s no more than those lads deserve and no more than this football club deserves”.
I think it’ll now be an interesting time to be a Villa fan. Undoubtedly they’re all going to be hopeful heading into summer that they can build on last season and look forward to Premier League football again.
Finally, thank you for sticking with me! Hopefully, I haven’t bored you to death either.
To conclude, I’ve summarised a few key points taken out of all the information I’ve gone through above for Preston heading into the 2019/20 season:
Championship experience is not crucial to success.
The right blend of experience and youth, as well as the depth of the squad, is important.
Playing philosophy and tactics being right and playing to the team’s strengths.
Not a pre-requisite or a need to spend millions to compete effectively. North End are already a prime example of this.
Important to have a transfer strategy, for example, Norwich – youth and development, Sheffield United – a mix of experience.
Overall I think having done this research and taking a look at the promoted sides you pick up on their similarities.
I think it’s too simplistic to argue that Preston can’t compete for the top six due to our financial constraints. The Championship has developed so much as a league and a lot of new managers are coming in and excelling. This is with different philosophies too which don’t involve throwing money at it which is working for them. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to mirror that with the resources we have available.
This summer it really is crucial who we bring in. Yes, we need experience but also we need to ensure we are picking out players of the right quality who are going to provide the desperately needed competition and cover in key areas. The obvious point I know, but Preston can’t afford another season of being thin on the ground with injuries and a lack of real quality in terms of squad depth.
A clear strategy is also another take away from this. I think it’s down to aligning from backing Neil in the transfer market to defining the strategy for promotion. For example club structure, youth academy and overall how they intend to make it happen. I may be criticised for this point but when you have a club that is invested in a goal, an example being Norwich, simply put, it works. They put everything in place from bringing in Farke who they believed in and then backed him to the hilt in every aspect. That’s where I think Preston fall down. No doubts on the right intentions but whether that materialises in every aspect is unclear. I think it’s key to give the best shot at promotion.
I think this season’s promoted sides have shown what can be achieved with the right appointments and overall strategy. I’m quite positive going into next season although that could change depending on what happens during the summer transfer window. Up the whites!