To be a successful team on the pitch there are a number of areas in which you have to excel. A talented shot-stopper is key as are defenders willing to make those last ditch challenges that can sometimes be as valuable as a goal up the other end. A title-winning team meanwhile needs a very versatile and fully flexible group of midfielders with defensive minded midfield maestros who can provide extra cover in defence. Alongside attack minded wingers and attacking midfielders, equally as important are the more workmanlike individuals whose influence often goes unnoticed. Not forgetting a comfortable formation and style of play alongside the right decisions being made by the manager on the touchline, of course a prolific strike force (or lone striker as has become commonplace in modern football) are essential if a team is to be successful. So all in all, not much really…
What I am trying to say is that for a team to be successful over the course of a season, irrespective of luck or other results going in their favour, strength in numbers across the pitch is incredibly important – now more than ever before. A clubs best and most solid starting XI can go some of way in an attempt for league, cup or European success but it is a strong squad that always prevails in the long run. Yet given the need for squad depth and often two quality players in each position, whilst it may seem somewhat unrealistic I do however dare to pose the question of how the Premier League would end up if each team could only field five a side?
Whilst there perhaps wouldn’t be the petty squabbles over who has or hasn’t paid their money to play or even whose turn it is to go in net like you can often find in PowerLeagues up and down the country every Tuesday night, for the sake of this article the concept of five players per Premier League team is essentially the same – albeit a more entertaining way to think of the Premier League compared to the norm. And if current league standings are anything to go by, excluding the top half of the Premier League whom by in large would predictably and unsurprisingly dominate a 5 a-side league in the same manner as they do with 11 players currently in the league itself, I feel a 5 a-side league among the teams in the bottom half of the league would make for very interesting perusal indeed.
Meanwhile in consideration of the need to sign the right players for a price that reflects their true quality more so than their future potential perhaps more crucial than ever, not every transfer goes to plan and not every new signing is a success. With a highly inflated transfer market and an unavoidable climate of big spending in the Premier League there is more pressure than ever to get it right in the transfer market but as often is the case, despite spending vasts sums of money Premier League clubs are often left unbalanced. Regularly you can expect to see a side that do relatively well in the league rely on only 5/6 stand-out performers with the rest of their starting XI made up of the more reliable, workmanlike players that are capable of doing the jobs around them to let the select few work their magic for the club. Such players are included in a side for what they can offer and how well they can do it, without any of five star skill a multi-million signing can offer.
Yet in focusing on the concept that many Premier League teams are becoming increasingly dependent on a handful of players to help guide them to mid-table or to avoid relegation, @ASelbyInfo looks specifically at the bottom half of the Premier League and which five teams would fare the best if the league was limited to five players per team.
5-a-side XI: Schmeichel, Morgan, Drinkwater, Mahrez, Vardy
Perhaps the easiest choice of all is the 2016/17 Premier League champions Leicester City, who by their high standards have somewhat underachieved this season. Whilst many point to their run in the Champions League as the main reason behind their struggles in the league this campaign, for a team that has changed very little since they looked so dominant and swept away the opposition with ease last season, recapturing their strong spine is imperative from now until May to ensure they avoid relegation. In managing to maintain the core of their title winning starting XI with the obvious omission of N’Golo Kante whose absence has only really been felt since the club have began to struggle, you would think that the reigning champions still have enough quality from these players players alone to avoid relegation.
With the quality of these five players inevitably helping the squad stick together, there are clearly stand-out performers in the shape of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, who when on form as has proved last season are a handful for any Premier League side. Clearly Mahrez and Vardy will struggle to match their best form and individual achievements of last season perhaps for the rest of their playing careers but if they are able to emulate even half of what they did last season combined with a strong defensive setup, Ranieri’s side are a much more difficult side to beat and one capable of swapping the bottom half of the table for the top. Therefore in a league limited to teams with only five players, Leicester City might still be a long-shot for any success but it’s this which makes them all the more appealing. They’ve done it before and in this situation, you would bet on them doing it again…
West Ham United
5-a-side XI: Randolph, Reid, Kouyate, Antonio, Ayew
Similarly to Leicester City albeit to a much lesser degree, the changing fortunes of West Ham United have also been a major Premier League talking point this season. After producing a season to remember in what was their last at the old Boleyn Stadium, with the beginning of a new season starting, a new home at the London Stadium as well as a number of new additions to a West Ham squad capable of challenging towards the top of the table, everything looked in place for The Irons to build on last seasons 7th placed finish and to once again bring the good times back to East London. Teething problems may have been expected given the clubs stadium migration but issues among West Ham supporters perhaps with hindsight initially took the attention away from the clubs form on the pitch and after a stuttering start to the new season Slaven Bilić’s side currently sit in 12th – a stark contrast to their good form of last season.
Yet in looking at the clubs spine and the core of West Ham’s regular starting XI, you do question why Slaven’s side are facing such problems? Even with the absence of Dimitri Payet who looks likely to leave the club this January, the good form of Michail Antonio coupled with both Andre Ayew and Cheikhou Kouyate avoiding injury and earning more game-time would seemingly provide enough quality to avoid relegation this season with one of the best spines in the league, let alone merely the bottom half of it. Where the club possibly differs this season has been at the back with Spanish goalkeeper Adrian being replaced by Darren Randolph in goal whilst injuries to Aaron Cresswell and Angelo Ogbonna have meant for all of the promise that Bilić’s side have shown going forward, they have been shipping goals all too frequently at the other end. However following a good end to 2016 which saw the club pick up a number of vital back to back wins to move away from the relegation zone, you would think that the strength of their spine will only help the club to grow even more after recapturing a rich vein of form. Alongside any possible recruitments this January, not only should West Ham comfortably avoid relegation but on paper at least, the balance of West Ham’s five suggests they are capable of cutting it with the Premier League’s big boys if all teams were based on five individual players.
5-a-side XI: Fabianski, Fernandez, Fer, Sigurdsson, Llorente
After Francesco Guidolin left on a whim and Bob Bradley performed badly during his short tenure at the South Wales club and consequently parted company with Swansea City feeling ‘a little pissed off’, Swansea City will be hoping that they are third time lucky with new manager Paul Clement as they desperately battle to avoid a return to Championship football after 6 years in the English top flight. Although it would be unfair to suggest that Swansea have in some ways over-performed in the past few seasons, this year you do feel however that after every Premier League team has had to seemingly up their game and level of performances after Leicester City’s surprise title success last season, Swansea City could be in danger of falling by the wayside as they continue to try and match the more established Premier League teams like for like.
After new ownership and changes behind the scenes initially appeared to have the potential to threaten the clubs stability achieved during their time spent in the Premier League, Swansea’s striking Spanish summer signings went some way to placate supporters worries and with a new attack spearheaded by a La Liga duo of Fernando Llorente and record-signing Borja Bastón, pre-season optimism was understandably high in South Wales. Yet after both failed to instantly hit the ground running with the club’s defence also struggling and looking like a shadow of its former self most visibly after the departure of club servant Ashley Williams, the club will hoping that Clement can do something to change their recent misfortunes and lift the club from the foot of the table with fewer and fewer league games remaining. If the Premier League was fought with five players per team rather than eleven, you do wonder how well Swansea would fare with such a vastly experienced core to their regular starting XI. They might not win the league or even come close to European qualification but working with five rather than eleven, they would stand a much greater chance of survival and be in a much more respectable Premier League position.
5-a-side XI: Forster, Van Dijk, Davis, Boufal, Austin
Frenchman Claude Puel became the most recent in a long line of managers to be awarded the Southampton job after Ronald Koeman swapped The Saints for The Toffees and moved to Everton. At a club widely renowned for producing and giving chances to young players that are more than capable of carving out careers in the English top flight, of course the pressure was always going to be high for Puel but his struggles this season have been somewhat more noticeable than his predecessors with Southampton some way away from their impressive 6th placed finish last season, currently in 13th place at this time of writing. Inevitably the extra burden of a Europa League group stage alongside a domestic League Cup run which has took Southampton to the Semi-Final’s, where Puel’s side do currently lead Liverpool 1-0 on aggregate after the first leg, has ultimately took its toll and it is perhaps unfair to expect Southampton to be any higher than mid-table at this point in the 16/17 given the number of extra games they have faced this season.
Regardless however of whether Puel’s side go on to have cup success at the expense of a much higher league position, once the end of the clubs League and Europa League beckons and their Cup campaigns are over, with a squad both as strong and as balanced as Southampton’s, there is certainly no denying that it will not be long whatsoever until the club pick up more points in the league and fulfil their great potential. Young or old, no matter what five players you select to make up Southampton’s spine, you soon realise that with the squad that Claude Puel has at his disposal that their current league standing is of course an underachievement in the league but even more so a false reflection of just how good Southampton’s squad can be. Clearly there are some minor concerns over the number of goals the club have scored and perhaps the need for a new centre forward due to the absence of Liverpool new boy Sadio Mané but defensively the club have again been solid and with a five a side team of their own would be sure to give any Premier a League team a challenging game, home or away.
5-a-side XI: Valdes, Gibson, Ramirez, Adama, Negredo
In what was a tough decision between both Middlesbrough and fellow Premier League newcomers, local rivals Hull City, it is Aitor Karanka’s that appear to provide much greater stability through the centre of the pitch and look the more likely of the two sides to achieve a much improved league standing if all Premier League clubs were solely limited to five players. Unlike Hull City who have relied largely on individual star quality with Robert Snodgrass rising to the occasion during a number of Marco Silva’s sides’ league wins this season, Middlesbrough look a much more balanced side on the pitch with stronger squad depth and more of a chance of being successful in a hypothetical Premier League five-a-side challenge.
As well as being one of the few newly promoted sides to have ever been able to field a Champions League winner in former FC Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes in their Premier League starting XI, in many ways a modern sign of the timer after Leicester City enticed Esteban Cambiasso to the English top flight two seasons ago, a major factor behind Boro’s success has been their defensive quality more so than their goalscoring prowess and attacking threat. Building on their good form from their promotion last season, George Friend and Ben Gibson have improved even further whilst a number of slight yet significant additions have helped the North East outfit begin to establish themselves as a Premier League side capable of avoiding an instant return back to the Championship.
Although there are inevitably some questions regarding the overall quality of Karanka’s side across the pitch, Middlesbrough are able to field a spine at least as experienced as any other mid-table Premier League side. With the lighting quick speed and skill of Adama Traore who could yet be on his way to Chelsea this transfer window, the trickery and flair of Gaston Ramirez and both the strength and finishing ability of the vastly experienced Alvaro Negredo, on their day all three players can provide something different and a number of qualities that will always be highly sought after in the Premier League. Therefore as a team made up solely of five players, on paper and with all five players playing in-form, Middlesbrough would be more than capable of comfortably avoiding relegation and would be a tough team to beat.