This weekend the Premier League is preparing for a showdown between the division’s best two clubs, as Manchester City travel to Chelsea for Saturday’s late kickoff. It’s a meeting between the top two, and while not realistically a true title decider, it’s probably the biggest game of the season.
It’s difficult, however, for the majority of other clubs to learn lessons from the Premier League’s two title contenders. While Chelsea and Manchester City have performed well over the past half-decade to put themselves in this position, their rise is largely because of huge financial investment from wealthy benefactors. This is the first time Chelsea and City have been the country’s top two, and it perfectly summaries this money-driven era of Premier League football.
Barring a sudden, significant takeover, Chelsea and City are impossible to replicate — they’re in different world to over half the Premier League sides. For real inspiration, however, Sunday afternoon’s Premier League fixture is much more instructive.
A day after Chelsea and City slug it out at Stamford Bridge, Swansea will travel to Southampton for an intriguing clash between two attacking sides sitting comfortably in the top half. Such has been their consistency over the past couple of seasons that no one bats an eyelid, but the rise of both Swansea and Southampton has been hugely impressive, and a brilliant example of the mobility still possible within the Football League.
Swansea climbed from the fourth tier to the Premier League within seven seasons, while Southampton achieved back-to-back promotions to jump from League One. Swansea finished 11th, ninth and 12th in their first three top-flight seasons, while winning the Capital One Cup in 2013. Southampton have managed 14th, eighth and look set for a Champions League push this season. It’s reached the stage where these two clubs are arguably more attractive destinations for players and managers than the likes of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Sunderland — historically much bigger. Interestingly, there are a number of common features in their rise.
A shiny new stadium
Building a new stadium is the biggest logistical challenge a football club can face, with the huge financial implications of such a move often resulting in a serious downturn in on-pitch performance. The cases of Coventry City and Derby County, who faded from the limelight shortly after their move to a new ground, are obvious examples.
Southampton opened St Mary’s in 2001 and things didn’t go entirely swimmingly — they were relegated after four seasons with the stadium, then later dropped down to the third tier, but the stadium move has been of huge long-term benefit. The key, as with all modern football stadiums, is that Southampton have increased their revenue stream; it’s no longer simply about season ticket sales and bar receipts, but about hospitality suites and using the ground for non-football reasons. As well as a healthy income through luxurious executive boxes, St Mary’s is a conference facility in midweek and a concert venue in the summer. It’s a huge asset, especially compared to The Dell, their historic but somewhat antiquated old ground.
Swansea’s situation is different: whereas Southampton own their ground, the Liberty Stadium is owned by Swansea council, and they groundshare with Ospreys, the rugby union side. Neither club had enough money to finance a new stadium, so the council stepped in — and must have been delighted with the results. Swansea’s ability to generate income from non-matchday sources is minimal, but it’s a fantastic facility compared to their old, run-down Vetch Field ground, and matchday revenue is very good.
A defined football style
Since their promotion in 2011, Swansea have impressed because of their huge emphasis upon possession football, and they’ve stuck to that blueprint throughout the good times and the bad.
When Swansea gave away a cheap goal to Manchester United early in their Premier League experience, courtesy of a misplaced pass by Angel Rangel, then-manager Brendan Rodgers absolved him of any blame, and insisted that he wanted to continue playing the Swansea way — the occasional mistake was inevitable, but overall the approach would work.
It sums up their commitment to passing, and Leon Britton is a fabulous case study. He’s been with the club from League Two to the Premier League, and his passing accuracy statistics have often been among the best in Europe. The appointment of Garry Monk, a former player, was a recognition that Swansea wanted to continue doing things a particular way.
Southampton have played differently, and when appointing Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, have attempted to play in a proactive manner featuring lots of pressing high up the pitch. In comparison to Swansea, Southampton dominate possession because they win the ball quickly, rather than because they retain it for long periods, but it still creates an imposing style of play.
It’s not about the type of philosophy, but the fact there is a philosophy. It’s understood by everyone at the club, has made recruiting players much simpler and means transitions between managerial regimes have been simple.
Emphasis upon youth
Southampton have become the poster boys for brilliant youth development — over the last decade they’ve produced Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers. among others. Only West Ham United, around the turn of the century, can boast the production of so many brilliant youngsters from the academy at a similar period.
Southampton are understandably secretive about precisely how they’ve been so successful, although it’s widely acknowledged that they pay particular attention to a player’s off-the-field development, as well as their on-pitch quality. Not only are the aforementioned players highly talented, they’re all extremely down-to-earth, committed professionals too.
It’s also worth considering their financial commitment to the academy. “When the club faced administration, the academy was still funded to the level which it used to be,” said former academy director Matt Crocker, now working for the FA, in an interview with FourFourTwo last year. “Other clubs with financial problems usually cut back on academies, to save money — but Southampton never cut back the youth programme.”
Swansea can’t match Southampton’s form in this respect, but the example of Joe Allen is particularly encouraging. He joined Swansea as a 9-year-old, helped Swansea achieve two promotions and excelled in the Premier League before being sold for 15 million pounds. Left-back Ben Davies is another success story, and for Swansea to produce two Premier League-quality players, despite being a lower-league club for the majority of the last decade, is seriously impressive.
Intelligent transfer decisions
Football transfer policy is a simple process: buy low, sell high. In recent seasons, Southampton and Swansea have been masters of the art.
This has often involved selling youth players — for example, with the proceeds of the Joe Allen sale to Liverpool, Swansea effectively bought Michu, Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez and Ki Sung-Yeung, significantly improving their side.
However, it’s also been about taking a chance on relatively big-money buys: Wilfried Bony was a huge outlay for Swansea at 12 million pounds — over double their previous record purchase — but they received 28 million pounds from Manchester City earlier this month when the Ivorian was sold. They know how to get a good deal — with Allen, Scott Sinclair (8 million pounds to Manchester City) and Danny Graham (5 million pounds to Sunderland), Swansea have got the better of the deal.
Southampton’s skill here barely needs outlining, but last summer they swapped Lallana, Chambers, Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert for Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Fraser Forster, Shane Long and Sadio Mane, made a profit and improved their league performance considerably. Their new signings have all played well, and none of the players they’ve sold have excelled. Good bargaining and intelligent scouting have worked wonderfully.
Premier League football clubs are, in general, run abysmally for huge, multimillion-pound companies: they spend money poorly, fail to take full advantage of potential revenue streams and are handicapped by a crippling obsession with short-termism.
However, here are two Premier League clubs who should be a shining example for every other side in the English football pyramid. Swansea and Southampton are here to stay as Premier League clubs, courtesy of intelligent use of finances, a strong commitment to a football style and commitment to a cohesive long-term football plan. Chelsea and Manchester City are top of the class, but these two are the biggest overachievers.