The inception of the English Premier League in 1992 changed the game of football in the United Kingdom forever. The big money from TV rights transformed the sport to one of the most lucrative industries and helped the English clubs acquire the best talent from all over the globe.
One of the first major pioneers was Arsene Wenger, who completely changed the regime of the players and the style of football played in England. Many clubs followed suit and attracted foreign managers and athletes.
Nowadays, the variety of playing styles and tactical ideas is hard to believe. What’s even more interesting is the fact that the evolution of English football might have finally reached the English Championship as well.
The second tier of the game was mostly dominated by the old-school style of play, but the likes of Wolves last year as well as Norwich and Sheffield United are not your usual EPL newcomers. They have a completely different tactical approach to the game compared to what we were used to seeing in the past.
After years in which the Championship was the home of traditional English football, it now seems that the changes in the game are spreading there too.
In this post, I will try to understand why and explain this phenomenon.
The Championship Teams of the Not-So-Distant Past
Up to a couple of years ago, the vast majority of English Championship clubs played in a similar fashion. They were built around commitment, long balls, and fast pace.
Most clubs simply didn’t have the money to afford players that could be used for different tactical approaches or didn’t want to risk it. After all, the looser style of the referees and the condition of some of the pitches were also reasons to believe that the more direct approach to the game was the winning one.
Simply put, the Championship was the stronghold of what we consider the traditional English game. It was more about crossing, tackling, and running than short passing and the modern style of playing from the back.
The top teams in the division usually had a prolific striker up front and defensive discipline that allowed them to nullify the threat of most of their opponents.
A quick look at some of the newcomers to the top-tier of English football up to a couple of years ago is a good example of what I mean. The likes of Burnley, Huddersfield Town, Middlesbrough, Norwich, and Cardiff all had similar personnel and tactics.
It seemed like the Championship wouldn’t ever change. Sure, there were some exceptions here and there, like Bournemouth, for example, but the overall playing style remained similar.
The Championship Teams of the Present
We were used to seeing the same style from pretty much every newcomer to the English Premier League, but the past couple of years have shown signs of changes.
I already mentioned Bournemouth and their distinctive style of playing from the back and using short passes. Then there was Wolverhampton from last season. The club had an astonishing 2018-2019 campaign and finished seventh in the Premier League, earning a place in the Europa League.
The system employed by the Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo had nothing to do with the typical Championship teams of the past. He relied on a lot of ball possession, and the squad was full of players from abroad. The overall impression was that the Wolves looked like a team from the continent.
Fulham was also a different animal. The club failed to stay in the top tier because of its abysmal defense, but the attack included some players like Ryan Sessegnon, Andre Schurrle, and Ryan Babel. Sure, there was a typical target man like Aleksandar Mitrovic, but it was not your traditional Championship side.
The trend continues this season, as the promoted teams show a variety of tactical decisions that are unusual.
Sheffield United is using a bizarre 3-5-2 system in which the center-backs actually join the attack every now and then. The chaotic nature of Chris Wilder’s approach stunned most teams in the Championship and brought the club the second place in the final standings.
At the same time, Norwich is led by the manager Daniel Farke, who attracted a bunch of players from abroad, and the side looks more like a German than an English team.
Aston Villa is the most “traditional” English side of them all, but it still relied on a free-flowing football and not that many long balls.
It’s clear that something has changed, and we will see more of that in the future. The evolution of the game that was almost exclusive to the English Premier League has now reached the Championship too.
Why the New Wave Was Inevitable
The recent developments made me think about the reasons behind the dramatic changes in the second tier of English football. I believe there are a couple of clear factors behind them.
The Need to Survive
In the past, most clubs in the Championship had the ultimate goal of earning a place in the Premier League and all the money and prestige that came with it. That’s pretty much where the planning ended — just get there somehow and think about survival later.
As a result, you would often see the newcomers go down in one or two seasons in the elite. The gap in the squad quality required to get promoted and to survive the relegation battle was and still is enormous.
Since most teams relied on the same predictable system and similar type of players to execute, they were all easy to neutralize by the clubs in the top tier.
That’s when some teams figured out that you need something different to break the pattern. Winning the promotion remains the ultimate goal, but most clubs have one eye on the Premier League nowadays.
They know that the transition must start in the season before, or they are doomed to eventually fail.
The Foreign Investments
With so much money in the English Premier League, owning an elite club is an excellent investment. The problem is that the established teams are extremely expensive. Even the lower mid-table options usually cost a couple of hundred millions, even more.
There is a cheaper route, and it goes through the Championship. Prospective owners can buy a club from the second tier of English football much cheaper and invest some of the funds they saved. It takes a bit more time and patience, but it’s a solid business model.
As a result, many clubs now are owned by foreign and local investors with plenty of ambition. They hire coaches from abroad and provide them with the resources to attract foreign players too.
The best examples are Nuno Espirito Santo and Daniel Farke, but there are others as well. The overall result of such strategies is the higher tactical variety and the better average quality of the teams in the Championship.
The New Approach to the Game from the Academies
Another huge reason for the changes in the Championship is the different approach of the academies. In the near past, the English FA realized that to catch up with the likes of Germany and Spain, the country needed to dramatically change the whole approach to kids and youth football.
The focus shifted from a lot of running to more ball-handling skills and technical abilities from an early age. As a result, the new generations of English players are more flexible from a tactical standpoint and can integrate into systems that require more short passing and off-the-ball movement.
You can see that in the Championship but also in the fact that more and more young English athletes that failed to earn a place in the country’s top-tier league join teams from abroad.
What Does the Future Hold?
I feel that most Championship teams right now are still shaped in the more traditional English model. However, the success of Bournemouth, Wolverhampton, Norwich, and Sheffield United will certainly open the door to more and more experiments.
Many other clubs will likely try to adopt a similar style and rely on a more modern approach to the game. I expect more investment as well, so the Championship should see a lot of exciting strategies in the near future.
And yet, I don’t think the identity of the competition is under threat. There will always be more than enough teams that play the game in the traditional English fashion, so the hardcore fans of the old-school model have nothing to worry about.