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18 Apr 2018

West Brom, Stoke, Southampton & Swansea: Why have clubs with 'strong identities' struggled this season?

West Brom, Stoke, Southampton & Swansea: Why have clubs
with 'strong identities' struggled this season?

West Brom, Stoke City, Southampton and Swansea City have all been heralded in recent years for their clear and often progressive ideas on squad building. It's gone wrong.

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Things can only get better

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Diagnosing the problem

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Heading South

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Dismantled beyond recognition

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Stick to what you know

(Photo credit: Elliott Brown)

Sunday’s victory at Old Trafford was a stark reminder of West Bromwich Albion’s existence in the top flight and that such a remarkable victory was highly unlikely to be enough to save them from their fate. 

It was only the Baggies second league win since August and their fourth overall – four being the same number as the managers they have had throughout the season.

It is the club’s eighth successive season and almost certainly their final one, in the top flight. In that time they have only finished in the bottom third of the league once in that time and last season they finished in the top half. 

Such stability was widely praised and was arguably emphasised under Tony Pulis, with a strong identity of consistent performances and offering a threat from set-pieces.

Things can only get better

For Stoke City, it is their 10th season in the top flight and, like the Baggies, they were managed for a significant period by Pulis. 

In recent years, Stoke have attempted to transform themselves away from being identified with clubs like West Brom, adding a series of players to have earned success in squad roles at bigger clubs. 

This saw the Potters end up with more Champions League winners in their squad at the beginning of the season than any other Premier League club.

Glen Johnson, Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam and Joe Allen were signed from Liverpool, Darren Fletcher was distinguished at Manchester - where Mame Biriam Diouf and Ryan Shawcross also played - while Kurt Zouma was borrowed from Chelsea and big money was spent on Kevin Wimmer from Tottenham. 

Jese Rodriguez, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic were all signed from elite European forces. 

However, it wasn't too long before everything started going wrong. With four games to go, the Potters find themselves sunk into the relegation zone with only a miracle saving them from dropping down.

Diagnosing the problem

The problem in the Potteries seems to stem from a lack of motivation from players who have previously played at a higher level, being asked to provide fundamental qualities to a side who often find themselves out of possession and asked to hustle and harry opponents. 

The combined contributions of Stephen Ireland and Saido Berahino over the last two years is not far above zero with a Stoke matchday squad often resembling a tribute act or a ‘Legends XI’ side, featuring players you were not aware had not yet retired.

Back to the Baggies and a not too dissimilar problem exists; remarkably, the squad assembled by Pulis (and for one transfer window, by Alan Pardew) has not played between the age of 22 and 26 with none of the regular starting XI aged under 27. 

It’s not the only similarity, of course, as we have already identified the crossover of managers and the fact that between them, they have had four permanent managers this season. They are both likely to need new appointments over summer too.

Heading South

Stoke and West Brom are not the only clubs struggling. Southampton are only in their sixth successive season in the top flight but for each of the last four they have finished in the top eight, reaching cup finals and pushing for European football. 

While their policy of promoting youth players and signing others at budget prices before selling high was admirable, it could not be argued it was sustainable.

Liverpool’s current first-team squad has six former Saints players while there is Luke Shaw at Manchester United, Victor Wanyama at Tottenham and Callum Chambers at Arsenal. Star striker Graziano Pelle also departed to China. 

It is generally perceived that signings have a 50% success rate and whilst this can be improved with clever scouting, it is unlikely such levels can be sustained.

This has been exacerbated by poor coaching appointments. Claude Puel’s arrival was not compatible with the project at the club and their style of play established under Ronald Koeman and, whilst Puel is a fine coach, his tenure was swift and not pain-free. Mauricio Pellegrino merely continued this trend while the panicked appointment of Mark Hughes has not helped.

Dismantled beyond recognition

Swansea City – who are currently in their seventh consecutive Premier League campaign – are also struggling. 

For the second season in a row they were bottom at Christmas but, also for the second season in a row, they have made a smart managerial change. Will it prove third time unlucky for the Swans? 

Swansea rose through the divisions playing an attractive brand of attacking football with a strong continental feel. 

This has been dismantled beyond all recognition and, just as their other rivals have found, the sale of key players – Ashley Williams, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente – ensure the sticking plasters on the open wounds have been thrown away and the patient is bleeding.

Stick to what you know

All four clubs have abandoned principles they were once famed for and are now caught in the cycle of attempting to stave off relegation. 

‘Fire-fighting’ managerial appointments are made – Paul Lambert, Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes – not just here but elsewhere, notably at West Ham United who are also not yet assured of their own safety.

Meanwhile, promoted clubs – Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle – have not yet lost the identity which helped win them promotion. 

Other recent top-flight debutants, such as Bournemouth and Burnley, have also stayed true to principles alongside stability in the dugout. 

All clubs outside of the top six should take heed – once things begin to unravel, the situation becomes very messy, very quickly.

What do you think is fundamental to survival in the Premier League? Let us know by commenting below.