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Jul 31, 2014

Prem safety amid uncertainty

Danny Ings celebrates Burnley's promotion from the Championship.

Something is happening. It is becoming easier to cement a place in the Premier League's mid-table -- the rank between the European contenders and those engaged in miserable battles against relegation. Parachute payments cannot, for all their fundamental, anti-competitive absurdness, be the very first thing to blame: only two of the past 12 relegated sides have bounced straight back from the Championship. It seems a safer bet than at any time in the Premier League era that a new club, any club, can jog straight along with the top division's also-rans.

Burnley boss Sean Dyche will not be growling out this statistic to his tightly-wound ranks before sending them out to play Chelsea on Aug. 18, but the club's last Premier League appearance -- a 4-2 comeback win over Spurs in May 2010 that came, effectively, from beyond the grave -- tells something of a tale if you're prepared for some extrapolation.

Those three points clawed them to a final position of 18th in the table, a five-point buffer between them and survivors West Ham, but was not enough to keep them up. The oddity -- and really it seems more of a mild curiosity at first glance -- is that no side making its debut in the top flight has finished in 18th place since.

Only two have finished in 19th, and one -- an abject, bedraggled Cardiff -- in 20th. Just four newcomers from the second tier have been relegated straight away in the past five years; in the previous five, that tally stood at eight. None of those seasons over the past half-decade has seen more than one promoted outfit bite the dust, and one has finished in the top 11 in each of them.

Transfer activity at Burnley, Leicester and QPR has been conducted at little more than an easy trot so far -- although the latter's residual contractual entanglements from their last failure at the top table requires them to be treated as something of an outlier.

Burnley's six signings (there may, yet, of course, be more) include a substitute goalkeeper and a player, Michael Kightly, who has just spent a fruitful season on loan at Turf Moor; Marc Albrighton, the 9 million-pound Leonardo Ulloa and Matthew Upson are Leicester's only first-team recruits, and only the Argentine looks likely to slot straight into the side; QPR, for what it's worth, have only enlisted Steven Caulker and Rio Ferdinand so far. There have, in Burnley and Leicester's cases, been no undesirable departures; their squads' successful cores have been kept together. Would anyone see much of a need to leave for a mid-table side that you might well be jostling for position within a few weeks' time?

That this is at all possible owes much to a truncation among those beneath the Premier League's top six or seven -- the kind that ensured Southampton could make the sort of rise Burnley and Leicester dream of before being put firmly in their place this summer amid a feeding frenzy for their star names. A gap of 30 points between fourth place and 10th is few people's idea of fun; the stench of mediocrity is inescapable beyond that, and it is difficult to see what can narrow the chasm.

The new TV deal, in which everyone gets to eat a piece of the pie, was supposed to, but it looks likely to do little more than clump those bottom 13 clubs together even more firmly. In an interview conducted a year ago, Arsene Wenger suggested the riches on offer would allow mid-table makeweights to punch with the big boys. "The main influence will be on what clubs can do abroad," he said. "It seems that the likes of West Brom and Swansea can buy from whoever they want, except perhaps from Barcelona and Real Madrid, because of the increased television money. That should make the Premier League even more interesting this season."

He was not entirely wrong until he got to the final sentence. Fulham, who finished 19th in the table, but 63.3 million pounds to the good, were able to pinch serviceable talents from Roma (Maarten Skelenburg) and Athletic Bilbao (Fernando Amorebieta); there was ill-founded excitement when Norwich, of all teams, were able to pick up Sporting Lisbon's star man (Ricky van Wolfswinkel); Sunderland had a minor coup in the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus; that was about it.

The effect may carry more weight with time -- Everton's unprecedented 28 million pounds spent on Romelu Lukaku might provide an early clue -- but the early impression has been one of an arms race in which spending simply begets more spending and the results remain the same.

Perhaps a comparison between Chelsea, who received 39.1 million pounds more than in 2012-13, and West Brom, who stayed up and received an extra 17.5 million pounds, tells the tale better. The gap hasn't closed: it's easier than ever for Southampton to be picked off for a manager and half a team; Ben Davies and Michel Vorm to be plucked from Swansea and sent to Spurs. Clubs whose mobility had piqued such interest are being asked, finally, to start all over again.

Mid-table sides' problems become issues of player and staff turnover, of intense disruption. Thirty players have already joined the first-team squads of the sides that finished between 11th and 17th last year; far more have moved on. It's not new: the threat of relegation and, concurrently, the vague obligation to take a crowd-pleasing shot at the Europa League spots mean players' and managers' shelf lives are shorter than ever; conversely, jumping either hurdle will lead to the vultures having their way.

The result is a lack of any real momentum, and of much ability to plan with certainty, in two-thirds of the Premier League's sides. And that makes it easier for Championship ascendees to make hay, in their first season at least.

Crystal Palace found success by the inspired signing of Tony Pulis.

Norwich's 2011-12 campaign was a triumph of cohesion, planning and clear thinking while all around them were pulled in different directions, with a third of their starting XI having risen from League One; the same can be said for Swansea's first two top-flight seasons, at least. Hull (16th place and a spot in Europe courtesy of an FA Cup final appearance) and Crystal Palace (11th) -- the latter admittedly after parting company with Ian Holloway's dizziness for Tony Pulis' vision -- demonstrated what a clean set of eyes with one clear ambition and a high sense of organisation can achieve when chaos reigns around them.

Dyche's Burnley side conceded fewer goals than anyone else in last year's Championship; only three sides scored more. Their success came through the manager's meticulous, workaholic implementation of a relatively simple system. They have a genuine star of the future in Kieran Trippier and neither he nor the outstanding striker Danny Ings will start the season away from Turf Moor. Leicester are better-furnished financially, but their own runaway promotion came iteratively after the previous year's narrow failure; Nigel Pearson only added Zoumana Bagayoko and Dean Hammond to his squad last summer, even if a small Kevin Phillips-led cavalry arrived later in the season, and the former did not play a league game.

Both will tweak, test, add and subtract. Major changes will be few, but nothing will stay exactly the same, of course. And, if either stays up, everything will probably change. Dyche and Pearson know that, at its heart, football is a simple game; in today's Premier League, such awareness is enough to give you some kind of competitive advantage until you get caught up in the confused, exploitable muddle of the mid-table merry-go-round yourself. Staying up isn't the easiest task that awaits a newly-promoted club, not quite yet, but it might soon be.