In May 2004, Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League after fourteen years in the top flight. The three-time champions of England had made a place for themselves in the top five every year but one since 1997 and appeared in the semifinals of the Champions League in 2001. This was, therefore, an unexpected fall from grace.
The club had invested heavily to attain domestic and European success but built up huge debts which spiralled out of control. Relegation was only the beginning of their woes and in 2007, Leeds entered administration and dropped into the third tier of English football for the first time in its history. “Doing a Leeds” became a phrase associated with financial mismanagement in football and the aftermath served as a grim reminder of what could happen when a football club challenged established hegemonies.
These set patterns can take many forms and what has been striking in recent years is a clamour for ‘good’ football. Continental influences have invaded the English landscape over the last two or three decades, especially in the upper echelons and now, supporters at every club in the Premier League demand to be entertained in the manner the best teams do.
The top tier is the worst place possible to tinker with an identity though and there is a real danger for teams of straying away from the principles that keep them in the league. Stoke found that out the hard way by parting ways with Tony Pulis, who had guided them into the top division and kept them there for five years. An aspiration for more attractive football led to Mark Hughes being appointed as manager and while his results were good for a few seasons, the defence was slowly crumbling and the drop was not too far off. After rescuing Crystal Palace from relegation, poor Pulis took his bland yet valuable talents to West Bromwich Albion before getting the boot again after steadying the ship for three years. Albion slipped into the Championship not soon after.
The reality of the Premier League is that the goals against column usually dictates a team’s longevity in the division. Experienced managers in Rafael Benitez and Roy Hodgson have long realized this and they never sacrifice defensive organization for attacking intent. While Swansea were a beautiful team to watch, they were always going to be in trouble once the goals dried up. Bournemouth and Southampton have shown a similar tendency to leak copious amounts of goals and they are my favourites for the drop in coming seasons unless teething problems at the back are addressed. It is worth noting that even a big team like Liverpool have taken the best part of a decade to solve their defensive issues. Most teams do not have that luxury in the most competitive league in the world.
A lot of teams have shown recently what the template for attractive football outside the top six sides should be. Leicester have been the best example. Their surprise title win was based on defensive solidity and pace to burn up front. They have faltered somewhat since but under Brendan Rodgers, have gone back to what they did best. Wolves and Everton have looked good this season whenever their organization comes to the fore and one suspects that Benitez will take whatever money is available in the summer to only improve Plan A rather than make sweeping changes to the way Newcastle play.
In terms of results, the gold standard for teams below the established top six should be David Moyes’ Everton. His sides finished below seventh only three times in eleven full seasons he spent at the club. Organization and grit characterized his team and even today, the loudest cheers at Goodison Park are sometimes reserved for the crunching tackle. There is a lesson in there somewhere for those yearning for something better from their teams. Beautiful football may win some teams the titles, but solidity keeps the rest in the division.
Teams continue to do a Leeds at every level of football but with the TV money available in the Premier League these days, doing a Stoke is more likely to get one relegated.