In England’s Premier League, a team’s place is never guaranteed. Unlike its American counterpart, English soccer utilizes relegation to promote competition and opportunity. Each season, the bottom three teams from the Premier League are demoted to England’s second division while top teams in the second division are promoted. These promotions lead to the introduction of teams that find near immediate success on the highest stage of soccer behind inventive styles of play pushed by managers.
The relegation system applies through the ranks of every professional league in Europe, and while all soccer leagues outside of the U.S. have multiple leagues, England’s system proves captivating because of the newly promoted teams’ abilities to quickly establish themselves as formidable opponents in the league.
The success of these teams with significantly less money than the Premier League perennials begs the question about how such teams are able to survive and even thrive in the league. To address this, it is best to focus on the examples of Leicester City and the more recent phenomenon of Sheffield United.
If someone started to watch the Premier League this season, they would think that Leicester City has been an established team for numerous years. Leicester sits in third place and is a feared team throughout the league. They have been dominant this year and have had some big wins including the 9-0 thrashing against Southampton F.C. in late October.
Surprisingly enough, it was only 11 years ago that Leicester City was playing in League One, the third division of English soccer, before working its way through the ranks to reenter the Premier League in the 2014-15 season. Although they were in last place for most of their first season, the Foxes avoided relegation with a strong run of seven wins during their last nine games to finish in 14th place, securing their spot in the Premier League for 2015-16.
Coming into the next season, Leicester City did the unexpected by becoming the Premier League champions. Leicester City’s team cost a total of 54.4 million pounds that season. To put into perspective, consider that Manchester City spent 54 million pounds to acquire star player Kevin De Bruyne earlier that season.
Leicester City’s sudden success raises questions about the factors that elevated the team to stardom. These achievements began with manager Claudio Ranieri, who can be attributed to unlocking the potential of certain key players through specific formations.
Leicester was known for playing in an attacking-focused manner while also having a solid defensive line at the back. Leicester had two incredibly physical center backs in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan to anchor its backline. Its wing backs, conversely, would often get up the field and assist the offense once counter attacks began to ensue.
The midfield was controlled by N’Golo Kanté, who would prove to be pivotal in the team’s success. Kanté played central defensive midfielder, a position that allowed him to assist the defenders with his tackling prowess while also utilizing his quickness to immediately advance the ball to the attackers and help Leicester engage in counter attacks.
Winger Riyad Mahrez and forward Jamie Vardy were able to use their pace and technique to capitalize on these counter attacks and combine for a number of goals throughout the season. Ultimately, Ranieri’s incorporation of the central defensive midfielder and forward-thinking wing backs allowed his team to enjoy immense success with their entertaining, attacking style of soccer.
Sheffield United is a more modern example of a newly promoted team enjoying success in the Premier League. Sheffield United currently sits in sixth place, only five points away from a Champions League spot. It was only three seasons ago that they were playing in League One, the third division of English soccer. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team’s success once again has to go primarily towards the manager.
Chris Wilder was appointed manager in 2016 when Sheffield United was still in League One. They were able to achieve two promotions in three seasons with Wilder at the helm. Wilder has not spent much money on star players at Sheffield United, but rather signs many players from lower leagues to add to the squad’s depth, a strategy that relies heavily on player development.
He has introduced a very defensive style of play at Sheffield United that has gone on to frustrate attacking teams. Wilder plays three center backs as opposed to the traditional two in most lineups. Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and John Egan have found much success in these positions and are able to use their physicality and aerial dominance to make it nearly impossible for attackers to get anywhere near the goal. These defenders, along with Dean Henderson in net, have earned Sheffield United a league-high nine clean sheets thus far this season.
The majority of the Blades’ wins have been 1-0 victories characterized by a complete defensive lockdown with one or two counter attacks for their offense. Wilder has helped create an identity for Sheffield United that has taken the Premier League by storm.
With Liverpool having almost certainly won the league, the rest of the season will be decided by the battle for a top four spot. As the battle ensues, time will tell if Wilder can take his squad from League One to the Champions League in only a matter of four years.
Although spending hundreds of millions on superstar players has allowed certain teams to achieve success, the quality of the manager ultimately makes the difference. Ranieri and Wilder have shown that success comes from using each player on the squad effectively by employing specific formations and styles of play. Surely, American sports have much to learn from England’s practice of relegation and the success of its newly promoted teams.