Coming up from the n-Power Championship are: the winners Reading, second-placed Southampton and play-off winners West Ham United. Reading amazed the footballing community to surge up the Championship fairly unnoticed for much of the season, before storming the last stretch to win the league with a game to spare. Southampton achieved back-to-back promotions, recording the best home record in the division and boasting the league’s top-scorer Rickie Lambert, who also won the Championship Player of the Year Award, pipping team-mate Adam Lallana to the prize. West Ham secured an immediate return to the Premier League, as expected, but not with the ease expected, having to win the play-offs after finishing third.
However, irrelevant of league finishes last season and reputations, are the Premier League’s new boys fit for survival?
Winning 17 of their games in the second-half of the season warrants mention alone: but perhaps doesn’t tell the full story. Although Brian McDermott won the Manager of the Year Award for his achievements his style of play is more aptly described as to suit the environment, rather than sustainable. If Reading are to survive, adaptability will play a key role.
Last season, against lesser opposition, Reading were able to soak up vast amounts of pressure and defend for much of the game knowing they had the speed and ability to break on the counter and finish attacks in a clinical fashion. In Hal Robson-Kanu, but Jimmy Kebe especially, Reading had rapid outlets. In Jason Roberts, in the second-half of the season, they had an intelligent target man that knew the Championship inside out, first with West Brom and then with Wigan – both of those experiences, too, resulted in promotion from the second-tier of English football. Furthermore they had Adam Le Fondre in the striking ranks, who had grown an addiction to scoring from the bench.
However, in the Premier League, Reading simply will not be able to defend for such long periods and experience minimal damage. When Reading beat Southampton 3-1 at St. Mary’s Stadium with just a handful of games left, the scoreline told a different story to the match. Reading had ridden their luck and not the type of luck one creates itself: Saints fired 19 shots at Adam Federici, Reading hit just four on target scoring three; Southampton had 60% of the possession and forced five more corners out of their opponents than their opponents did them; yet Reading somehow won. They had the ability to play with their backs against the wall, knowing they had individual brilliance within the team that didn’t need to be asked twice. Nabil Hassan accurately described that, perhaps, title-deciding game: “Reading’s victory was secured courtesy of some fine goalkeeping from Adam Federici and two moments of magic from winger Jimmy Kebe.”
Although Reading have signed seven players already for their Premier League campaign, three of which were playing in the Premier League just last season, and their new wealthy backers, the prediction is the Berkshire club will struggle this season and an immediate return to the Championship is a distinct possibility.
Although some areas still need addressing if Southampton are going to have a team able to fight the drop – namely central defence and an injection of speed in the final third – their signings thus far have been indicative of an exciting season with attractive displays of football.
Having already been in possession of Rickie Lambert, the Championship’s Player of the Year and top scorer, Nigel Adkins went out and purchased Jay Rodriguez for £7m, breaking the club record transfer fee, and signing the Championship’s 5th top scorer with 15. This added to the January acquisition of Billy Sharp, who finished third in the scoring ranks.
In addition to their marquee signing thus far Saints have stuck to their apparent transfer policy of domestic players plying their trade in the Football League, adding League Two ‘keeper Paulo Gazzaniga from Gillingham and defender Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace, who was also in the Championship Team of the Year alongside four other Saints players: Kelvin Davis, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez. It is believed Saints have tabled a bid for another player from the famed XI – Matt Phillips of Blackpool.
Despite making just four signings, the fourth being Steven Davis from Rangers, Saints do have the ability to stay up – further reinforcements will simply reinforce the point itself. Who they sign between now and September will define just how higher up the bottom ten they can push themselves. If the week’s story is to be believed, Saints look set to push as far away from “relegation candidates” as possible, supposedly on the brink of signing Gaston Ramirez for £12m from Bologna. The attacking midfielder has already turned down Spurs and is quoted telling the Italian press that, “[Southampton] believe in me in every way, I will be essential and above all they are going to grow. Southampton is a newly promoted team in the English top-flight but they will become a big team in years to come.”
At current, ambition is what is talking at St. Mary’s, but it need’s promise to materialise. Signings so far have hinted, but more is needed to confirm such promise. If the promise can be shown the ambition becomes a possibility.
Sam Allardyce has moved quickly in order to strengthen what was arguably a Premier League quality side already. Having kept hold of key players such as Carlton Cole and Mark Noble when they were relegated from the Premier League, Allardyce has further built on the side he inherited whilst securing an immediate return to the top flight.
With Robert Green leaving The Hammers on a free for QPR, Allardyce replaced the England international with a former employee, Bolton’s Jussi Jasskelainen, as well as signing Stephen Henderson from Portsmouth and Raphael Spiegel from Swiss side Grasshoppers. The defence has been bolstered by the permanent signing of George McCartney from Sunderland and the acquisition of James Collins from Aston Villa and the midfield has been added to with the presence of Alou Diarra from Marseille and Mohamed Diame from Wigan. However, their big money signing of the summer has been Modibo Maiga for 6 million euros.
Unlike their fellow Southampton and Reading, West Ham have a manager proven in the top-flight. Not only that, but they have a manager that does well with rather unspectacular teams and/or resources. Bolton and Blackburn didn’t play the most attractive football but they were never likely to get relegated with Allardyce in charge – in fact he took Bolton as high as a sixth place finish.
Yet, the prediction for them is not as ambitious as Alardyce’s own view on the matter: he believes a move into the Olympic Stadium would see them contend with the notion of being as big as Arsenal. Southampton’s Nicola Cortese holds a similar vision for Saints at St. Mary’s. In the immediacy though, a prediction of safety and by some margin is within the realms of realism, without performing with the elegance of Swan Lake.