People talk about the need to spend heavily to stay in the Premier League but there is more to it than that – and it doesn’t need to be complicated.
The key is to win your home games and let the rest look after itself. When the Stoke City side I was in were promoted to the Premier League in 2008 we focused on the 15 home games – they excluded Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – which we knew we could win. We won only two away games all season – at Hull and West Bromwich Albion – but we still finished 12th, 11 points clear of the relegation zone.
You need to have a philosophy when you get promoted to the top flight and ours was to be very difficult to get anything out of on our own ground.
Those were slightly different times. The rule changes on pitch sizes had not come in, so we were able to make the pitch as small as possible to avoid giving some illustrious Premier League opposition time on the ball. Because of the pitch size, we knew that by the time the ball was switched we could get over to the opposite side of the pitch to press it.
Away from home we tried to do the same thing – switch sides when the ball was switched. It didn’t work. The extra two, three or four yards of space made a big difference; we could not make up the ground. When the opponents switched the ball we couldn’t get across to the other side of the pitch quickly enough and the opposite full-back and winger were free to break forward. We got destroyed away from home at times.
But it didn’t matter because the potential to collect points at home was all we needed. As a newly promoted team you have to do anything you can to create the incremental gains in your favour.
I talked the other week about our preparations for Chelsea and against Manchester United we kept the grass long and dry, so Sir Alex Ferguson’s players could not play their fast-moving, passing game. You could hardly see your studs, the grass was so long. The game was on Boxing Day but I swear I came off the pitch with grass burns. We lost narrowly to an 83rd-minute goal by Carlos Tevez.
We knew we could compete physically with 90 per cent of the teams in the Premier League. I looked at some of the opponents lining up against us in the tunnel that year and I could see exactly what was on their minds: “What the hell are we doing here?”
Though the three promoted teams find themselves in the relegation zone going into this weekend, it can be the same for them.
Leicester City, who play Aston Villa, interest me. They had the euphoria of that 5-3 win over Manchester United on 21 September but since then they have taken two points from a possible 27. We are seeing the mindset of many promoted teams: the euphoria of winning the Championship and finding themselves among the elite; then the psychological effect when reality sets in and you find yourself struggling to raise your game every week. The defeat at Crystal Palace, six days after beating United, to goals by Fraizer Campbell and Mile Jedinak will have shattered Nigel Pearson’s players.
After a run like the one they are on, with six goals conceded in the last two games, they need to get back to the kind of basics we employed at Stoke six years ago.
They need a two-plan system to win at Villa. Plan A is first-half containment, because Villa are at their best earlier in games. They’ve scored only four goals at home this season but all of those have been in the first half. Plan B is second-half pressure, because there is always big expectation on players from the home crowd at Villa Park, which might be why seven of the 10 goals they’ve conceded at home this season have come in the last 20 minutes of games.
It might look desperate for Leicester, with three of the top 10 clubs up next after this weekend – but survival is possible if you plan things right.
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