Image from the Mirror
When you look at the top end of the Premier League table, there aren’t too many surprises. The two Manchester sides are there, as well as the usual London suspects – Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – while Liverpool, despite missing the contest of Merseyside rivals Everton, continue to be in the mix. Beyond that, however, are a few interesting names. Despite both teams losing at the weekend, Burnley and Brighton have continued to confound critics by surging into the top half and sneaking up on the continental places, while Watford have made some solid progress under new manager Marco Silva, throwing their name into the mix with some serious performances. But what has made these teams so good, so far, this campaign? And what can teams like Everton, West Brom and Swansea – all at the wrong end of the table – learn from them?
Buying is not always the answer
The most obvious common denominator between these three over-achieving sides is the lack of changes to personnel in key positions over the summer. Despite being under new stewardship in Silva, Watford have resisted sticking their hands into the transfer market and have stuck to a familiar centre-back partnership in Christian Kabasele and Miguel Britos, while, in the middle of the park, the continued faith in Abdoulaye Doucouré and Tom Cleverley has worked wonders for the Hornets so far this season, with both players getting in amongst the goals. At Turf Moor, despite losing Michael Keane for big money in July, Sean Dyche has promoted James Tarkowski to partner Burnley stalwart Ben Mee in defence, and the former Brentford defender has very much revelled in this new role, putting in a very impressive display against Arsenal on Sunday, despite conceding an injury-time penalty which Alexis Sanchez dispatched. Furthermore, Burnley’s midfield is very similar to the side that helped keep them up at the end of last year, including players such as Johan Berg Gudmundsson, Jeff Hendrick, Steven Defour and Robbie Brady, meaning the Clarets have enjoyed some much-needed continuity for the first time in the Premier League. Brighton, meanwhile, have given a lot of faith to the side that won them promotion from the Championship last season, best proven by their performance at Old Trafford on Saturday, where only three Seagulls players – Matthew Ryan, Pascal Gross and Davy Propper – were players bought by Chris Houghton over the last transfer window. If it weren’t for a lucky deflection of Lewis Dunk from Ashley Young’s strike, Brighton’s unbeaten run could’ve been extended to six games at Old Trafford. This continued faith in their second division side means that the Seagulls – despite being new to the Premier League, aren’t used to losing football matches and this type of experience has, and at the moment certainly will, serve them well over this campaign.
This is the type of mistake teams like Everton, Swansea and West Brom have made in the transfer window recently. The Toffees bought a whole new spine under Ronald Koeman, including Jordan Pickford, Keane, Sandro Ramirez, while also signing three attacking midfielders in Davy Klaassen, Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Swansea have made marquee signings in Wilfried Bony, Renato Sanches and Tammy Abraham but so far haven’t made the impact that their fans have hoped they would, while West Brom tried a similar tactic, buying internationally recognised players such as Kieran Gibbs, Gareth Barry and Grzegorz Krychowiak, but haven’t fit their system yet. It’s a bold move, not delving into the transfer market, but it’s paid off for the three sides currently in the top half.
Extra focus on defence, but a free and fluid attack
Both Burnley and Brighton have shown that they can shup up shop if they need to, with the Clarets having only conceded 10 goals so far this season, which is even more surprising when you consider that number one ‘keeper and club captain Tom Heaton has been out since September. Chris Houghton’s men, meanwhile, have let in only 14 goals in thirteen games. An astonishing feat for a newly-promoted side in their first Premier League season. On top of this, all three sides have proven that they don’t just defend from the front, a tactic that they’ve all been accused of doing in previous seasons, and their attack forces are almost free to do what they like in the final third. Watford, despite conceding twice as many goals as Burnley so far this campaign, have made up for this with a very potent attack. No matter if it’s Troy Deeney, Andre Gray or Richarlison playing through the middle, the freedom that those attacking players have led to goals. This has been best proven on the weekend, when Richarlison had a huge impact playing in an unfamiliar central role in a 3-0 win at Newcastle, simply because he had the freedom, granted by the manager of course, to play his own game. Sean Dyche, so far this season, has moved away from the idea of a big centre forward up front, despite Sam Vokes finishing the 16/17 as top scorer for the Clarets. The decision to play Ashley Barnes in recent weeks has meant that Burnley are a much more fluid side up front, and are looking to play a good style of football at the right end of the pitch. Brighton, on the other hand, have Glenn Murray up front, who at 34 years old age isn’t the most mobile of strikers, but is excellent at bringing other, shaper players into play, such as Anthony Knockheart and José Izquierdo.
This is exactly where Tony Pulis went wrong at West Bromwich Albion this season, as he focused far too much on the defensive side of the Baggies’ game, and simply left Salomon Rondon to fight for any long balls up field. Ronald Koeman was also guilty of picking Everton sides with not a lot of pace in their team; all three of Burnley, Watford and Brighton have not just been efficient in their games, but also very exciting to watch.
A good mix of Premier League-proven and European-experienced
On top of all of this, all three managers have created squads, not just starting XIs, that have a good blend of players used to playing in the Premier League, while also players at even higher levels of football. Watford are slowly developing a strong core of English players, with both Adrian Mariappa and Tom Cleverley close to being called Premier League stalwarts. While André Gray has come up through not only the Football League, but non-league too. Heurelho Gomes is also a good leader to have in the team, having played football in this division for around a decade now. But along with this Premier League-proven core, is a strong European contingent, including former Juventus midfielder Roberto Pereyra, Marvin Zeegelaar who has played for Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, and, of course, Richarlison. As previously mentioned, Brighton are mostly a Championship side but have added experience to their ranks; Matthew Ryan has experience playing in the Champions League while Glenn Murray is a regular Premier League goalscorer. Sean Dyche’s men, meanwhile, have Gudmunsson, who has fired Iceland to the World Cup, Chris Wood, a new arrival but a big character having played for New Zealand at the highest level, while Steven Defour has played all over Europe and in both the Champions League and Europa League. All three teams have a good mix between players who are excited by the prospect of the Premier League and players who are used to winning matches in Europe’s top division. That’s why these three sides have defied many predictors and analysts so far this season.
What do you think? Do you agree with our reasons for these teams’ successful starts? Or are there other reasons that we’ve missed? Let us know below!