The top of the Premier League may be a world away from Sincil Bank, Vauxhall Road and Meadow Park – and a world that few of us would like to inhabit if truth be told, but this year’s title race has shown that there is still far more to the beautiful game than money.
And if that is the case in the BPL which is literally awash with the stuff, then it can only be a good thing where there is very little or none. It has been all too easy for management to hide behind the lack of resources as an excuse for poor performance.
A quick look at the respective finances for this year’s Premier League however shows that money doesn’t always bring success. Financial issues can be overcome – and in a very big and significant way. The total cost of Leicester’s squad for 2015 was a mere £52.8 million. Compare that to Manchester City’s £411 million or Man U’s £391.1 mill or even one of the rest of the 16 big spenders who invested more money in their squads than this season’s Premier League Champion. Let’s not forget, what Leicester City achieved this year wasn’t in a cup where a bit of luck can see you to the final and even further. This was in reputedly the toughest league in the world – and they won by 10 points.
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Though there are lessons to be learned from their achievement, there are also going to be a lot of chairman the length of breadth of the country pointing to the East Midlands club and asking “if they can do it, why can’t we?” Of course the level of resources available to Ranieri is still in a completely different stratosphere to even the richest of clubs in the Vanarama Leagues and below, but it does show that if you get everything else right on the training ground and on the pitch, the situation on the balance sheet is not as important as we may have thought, even 12 months ago.
The Family of Football
Any football fan, manager, player or chairman knows the fickle nature of the game. Anyone can be a hero one minute, the lowest villain in the land the next. The parallel incidents at Halifax and Manchester United bear testimony to the fact that whatever your league, history and status, it is still football at the end of the day. The press may want to magnify the situations and emotions at the higher echelons of the game, but fans of Hampton and Richmond will be no less overjoyed with their Ryman Premier League title this year than, those following Leicester or Burnley.
Regardless whether the 2015/16 season was a success for your favourite club, things rarely stand still in football. Next season, there will be at least 10 clubs starting in the National League that have played in League 2 or higher in the last decade. There are 4 sides who have dropped from the Premier League to League 2. Equally, there are sides who have made great strides in the other direction. The history of non-league teams getting promoted to League 2 is incredibly encouraging, at least in the short term. With the proposed structure to the leagues being muted, it could be further opportunity for more teams to make the step up.
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The distribution of wealth may be more dramatic at the upper levels of the game, but there are disparities at every level. So what can a manager or club do then in order to turn the tables on the richer clubs they are competing with?
Making the most of what you have
Dan Abrahams is a former professional golfer, and is now one of the UK’s most highly regarded sports psychologists, with a CV that boasts many footballers and football teams from both ends of the spectrum, as well as other sportsmen and women. His speciality is to get players and teams to perform consistently at the top of their game. Whereas the skills and tactics are learned on the training pitch, they can all be for nothing if the player is not mentally strong. That is a point where, interestingly, Abrahams draws parallels with the world of professional poker, especially in terms of staying strong when faced with defeat. Abrahams works with the players, giving them what he calls “match scripts” so they are mentally able to make the most of their talents. If any manager has a team of players performing consistently at 90% and above of their ability, he already has a massive advantage.
A lot – and rightly so – has been made of Jamie Vardy’s meteoric rise from non-league to international football, but his is far from an isolated incident. There is an assumption that anyone good enough to play at a decent level will have been picked up by either one of the bigger clubs’ academies or will already be plying their trade at a lower or non-league side. This is not always the case however. As Peacehaven showed recently, open trials can be a very good and cheap way to unearth hidden talent that for a variety of reasons may have gone hitherto unnoticed. Don’t forget, that was how AFC Wimbledon began their successful journey.
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Square Pegs in Square Holes
There is often the temptation for a manager to try to out think the opposition, and over think their own play – to show what a tactical genius he is. This goes for managers at all levels, but in the lower leagues, they are faced with the harsh reality that though he may have 11 talented individuals on the pitch, they do have their limitations. Knowing those limitations and playing to the team’s and the individuals’ strengths first and foremost is the most important factor. Design a strategy, tactics and formation around the players you have as opposed to trying to shoehorn the players into the beautiful 4-1-2-1-2 formation you are convinced is the way the game should be played. Once again taking Leicester as an example, there was nothing particularly clever about the way they played. They had a very fast forward who could beat defences and find the net, if an early enough ball was played. You have to think, if Arsene Wenger had had the same squad of players as Ranieri, would he have won the league sticking as he inevitably would have done with his so-called more sophisticated approach?
You have got your players performing to the very best of their ability, and they are playing in a formation that suits each individual’s skills and attributes. However, all this will go out of the window, if the team is playing for 10 percent of the season with fewer players than the opposition. Football is all about tiny margins. If you can do each part of the game slightly better than your opposition you will have success. Incremental improvements will take a team from fighting relegation to mid-table safety, and from the verge of the play-offs to automatic promotion. The biggest effect on a team is the number of players it has on the pitch. Any team that can keep its full complement for the majority of the season will have a vastly better chance of doing well than one that can’t. That stems from the manager, how he drills his players and the job that he asks them to do.
All of these ideas may well be clichés, but there are three things that are true of clichés: The first is that they are more often true than not. Secondly they tend to be the first thing that goes out the window when a manager is attempting to be seen to be clever/radical in an attempt to gain success and make a name for himself. The final thing about football clichés is that they are the foundation on which the game we know and love is built on. And, after all, in order to break free of clichés you have to first know them inside out.