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    What "Elitist" Struggling Teams Can Learn From Burnley & Bournemouth




    Anger, frustration, embarrassment, disillusionment, finger pointing, "what ifs", wondering why you ever loved the game to begin with - just some of the thoughts that will go through the mind of any fan who's witnessed their team suffer relegation. The day you see your team with the dreaded "R" accompanying them on the league table is one of the few days where you can act like a jerk and get a temporary free pass because the poor lad supports *insert rubbish team here*. These feelings can be multiplied tenfold when it occurs to fans of "big teams" who find themselves in a relegation battle, as opposed to the "just happy to be there" attitude that fans of smaller clubs are often wrongly accused of.
    Mark Zuckerberg failed to envision that social media would be used mainly for fans of struggling teams calling their players useless idiots who wouldn't get a game in League Two.

    At first glance, the immediate problem that lies with "big clubs" who find themselves in such a predicament is embarrassment to their status and losing out on the financial windfall of remaining in the top flight. However, an additional problem is the unwanted purgatory of "semi-elitism" they subsequently find themselves in. Elitism in football is rife not just amongst the upper echelons of the ladder echoed in boardrooms and conventions, but also as a mentality that threatens to penetrate the average fan's mindset. For example, it can be argued that the majority of Barcelona fans would probably not be satisfied if they still consistently won games but with a season average of 35% possession. Real Madrid fans would have a similar attitude if they developed a style of play that delivered results but committed the ultimate unforgivable football elitist sin of playing like a Tony Pulis team. Conversely, at the opposite end of the scale it is very common to see small teams think it is a written law in football that against big teams, they must have 10 men behind the ball, rely on set pieces, try to out-muscle them, cover the pitch in four leaved clovers, hold a rabbit's foot and hope for the best.


    Based on this oversimplifying, subjective, cut-and-dry generalisation of categorising football teams, it leaves the majority of clubs in the purgatory of semi-elitism. It leaves them just out of reach of signing elite players with outstanding quality, coupled with an attitude of thinking they're above signing other players who perhaps lack exceptional quality, but offer other traits that can be used to good effect within certain styles of play. Teams in this category find themselves between a rock and a hard place in terms of determining their playing style. Can they find a happy medium between the exaggerated 70% possession football big teams are almost religiously expected to adopt, with the physicality and defensive solidity smaller teams are often labelled with?


    If they choose to lean towards the latter, can they find the right assortment of players with a strict adherence to on-field tactical discipline and a willingness to curb creativity for the sake of the team keeping its shape? If they go for the former, knowing the elite players are out of their reach, can they find a group of 11 players who excel in distribution and early decision-making despite lacking other qualities which curtail their potential to be elite players? Would they be willing to be patient and accept that a non-elite team with good distribution will inevitably fail to convert most of their chances, and probably struggle to use a more direct Plan B approach when a game is going against them? Looking at the recruitment of clubs who fall under the category of semi-elitism, it seems apparent that few of these questions are answered decisively beforehand. What you'll usually see is a haphazard assortment of players of varying ages, qualities and experience in their respective leagues. The types of players brought in are so varying and differing that they often provide no apparent clues whatsoever as to what the intended style of play will be or what role will they be expected to fulfill.
    "What's that? Sign reasonably priced Premier League experienced players who actually fit our system? Dumbest thing I've ever heard, go sign that guy from the Belgian League who has an 84 potential on FIFA."

    For clubs outside the elite, there is an argument that less emphasis should be based on signing players of pure individual quality, and instead attaining talent that complement the team's style of play. Leicester City will be viewed by many as a blueprint for this method, but for clubs who are struggling it may be wiser to ignore the exception to the rule and instead attempt to emulate clubs that do the basics and use common sense to allow them to punch above their weight. Two clubs that can be mentioned as good examples are Bournemouth and Burnley. Both sides' dedication to pure graft on the pitch is reflected by their impressively high statistics of distance covered in games, with Bournemouth's work rate in 2015/16 being bettered only by the youngest side in the league in Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur. Burnley were equally as impressive in this regard in their previous 2014/15 season in the Premier League along with their strong Championship-winning promotion campaign the season after.


    Burnley are arguably the more impressive case considering they lost their 2 biggest stars in Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier to Liverpool and Tottenham respectively. As replacements, Andre Gray was purchased to replicate Ings' pace, whereas Matthew Lowton's cut-price signing replaced Trippier to good effect. This is not an anomaly considering Burnley have previously had to undergo the process of replacing the prolific duo of Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez. Bournemouth, despite their pre-Premier League financial struggles and rise from League Two, did well to not lose or sell any of their star players. Instead they bolstered the squad with the likes of quick powerful ex-Arsenal forward Benik Afobe, tricky wingers such as Jordon Ibe and Joshua King, a target man "Plan B" in Glenn Murray and the athletic strong presence of 6 foot 5 defender Tyrone Mings whose season was unfortunately cut short with an ill-timed long term injury. Their added loan signings of players such as Jack Wilshere and Nathan Ake provided extensive Premier League experience with room to improve. With these clever signings relying on the specific attributes a player provides and fitting the system rather than focusing on their pure individual talents and stats, Bournemouth and Burnley currently find themselves in a better position than bigger, better financially equipped clubs with larger fanbases such as Newcastle and Aston Villa last season, and clubs such as Swansea City and Crystal Palace this season. 

    Sean Dyche, Burnley manager, celebrating Burnley's 2015/16 Championship Trophy.

    So should struggling "big" clubs who find themselves at the wrong end of the table simply look at Bournemouth and Burnley's models and apply similar notions? At the start of the season, it would have been difficult to imagine such teams' fanbases being particularly pleased had their summer signings consisted of Andre Gray, Benik Afobe, Joey Barton or Matthew Lowton. Had Newcastle's signings, for example, been a replica of Bournemouth's and they still got relegated, the fingers would instead be pointed at the perceived "low quality" of these signings. The feeling of the familiar being inferior would have led to a "grass is greener" attitude that claim they would have preferred it had they instead signed some highly rated young players from Ligue 1 or Eredivisie.


    Following the end of last season however, it is reasonable to suggest that many of these semi-elitist views may have been shattered in the minds of many. It will not be uncommon to now see teams attempt to replicate the perceived "less quality but more work rate" outlook. A clear system of playing rather than a haphazard scattering of individual quality in a team with no real clear-cut style of play or a blatant description of what each player's tailored role is will be the main aspect clubs will attempt to decide on clearly before embarking on the recruitment process. This can be seen with Newcastle United signing more sensible, system-fitting players in the Championship to good effect. It would perhaps be wise for other teams to follow a similar approach without undergoing the reality check of being sent down to the Championship in a sort of enforced cleansing footballing rehab.

    Obviously, it is easy to say a team that got relegated or goes long periods without major success should have done this or that instead. However, common sense cannot be underestimated and in many cases it seems on short supply inside many clubs. The metaphorical handbook of elite thinking of football is just that - metaphorical, and clubs should feel under no obligation to follow its rules. After all, any form of elitist rules, in football or elsewhere, are never put in place with the aim of benefiting the non-elite. It is time more football clubs realized this.

    - Ahmad Hosny
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