Give and go up

wsc299 Teams can pass their way into the Premier League, but Adam Bate thinks that the long ball game is the best tactic to keep them there

It all looks set for an interesting battle at the top of the Championship. While Southampton are heralded for their pleasing football under Nigel Adkins, West Ham continue to power on with the arch-pragmatist Sam Allardyce. The prevailing wisdom is that trying to play football is not practical in the Championship. But history suggests you can pass your way to promotion.

Ten years ago, Jean Tigana’s Fulham won the league by playing an exciting brand of progressive football. The next winners were Manchester City, managed by the ever-attacking Kevin Keegan, with the twin playmaking abilities of Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic. In 2003,  the crown went to the Paul Merson-inspired Portsmouth.

Tony Mowbray’s West Bromwich Albion team found themselves at the heart of the debate after enduring mixed emotions between 2006 and 2008. Their former captain Jonathan Greening remains adamant: “You can get out of the Championship by playing football. When we lost in the play-off final with West Brom, people said we would never get promotion playing the way that we played. But the following season we went up as champions, having passed a lot of teams off the park.”

Vindication comes with a perk. Received wisdom suggests there is an additional benefit to playing a passing game and it comes once top-flight status is achieved. The Telegraph’s chief sports writer Paul Hayward points out: “West Ham would have to revert to a more subtle style in the Premier League and that will cost a fortune.” This view is echoed by Nottingham Forest’s veteran midfielder George Boateng, who says: “You can’t play long ball in the Championship and get promoted and then try to change, because you will get killed.”

Mowbray, referring to his passing ideals and now fighting the good fight at Middlesbrough, recently said: “I still have a total belief that it is the only way to go and survive in the Premier League.” It would seem there is a consensus that passing football increases the likelihood of success for promoted sides. The problem is that much of the evidence points to the contrary.

A look at the last three Premier League seasons reveals a very different pattern. In 2008-09, Mowbray’s West Brom, with their attractive style of play, were highly fancied to outperform fellow promoted side Stoke City. Tony Pulis remained committed to a direct approach and subsequently achieved a comfortable mid-table finish, while West Brom finished rock bottom.

The following year saw Burnley win plaudits from the neutrals for a spirited effort under Owen Coyle. But when Coyle jumped ship to Bolton, they sank without trace. Ultimately, it was Alex McLeish’s more functional Birmingham side fared better, with their defensive tactics securing an impressive ninth-place finish.

Blackpool’s slick game offered a refreshing change last season but it was the more powerful approach of Newcastle United that lasted the pace. While some may argue that it is unfair to compare sides with wildly different budgets, once again we can look to the experience of West Brom to reveal a key misconception about passing your way to survival.

For all the praise heaped on Roberto Di Matteo, the Baggies were bracing themselves for another return to the Championship when chairman Jeremy Peace decided to replace the well-liked Italian with the more pragmatic Roy Hodgson. The vastly experienced Hodgson elected to sacrifice a little flair in exchange for some points and the once-threatened side crept up to a healthy 11th place – Albion’s highest in nearly 30 years.

How these lessons from history will be heeded in 2011-12 is yet to become clear, but the signs thus far are intriguing. QPR manager Neil Warnock has criticised “tippy-tappy” football, saying: “I don’t enjoy watching a team that takes 25 passes to get to the half-way line.” In contrast, Brendan Rodgers’s Swansea team are wowing the stats aficionados with their approach. At the time of writing only Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have had more possession or completed more short passes.

Time will tell how this season’s promoted sides will fare, but the message is clear. Passing your way into the Premier League is an achievable ambition. Surviving in the top flight by continuing to pass it can prove the real challenge.

From WSC 299 January 2012