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Is the gulf between PL and Championship narrowing?

The end of every season usually sees at least one Premier League newcomer sink back from whence they came, and significantly, only three previous Premier League years – 2002, 2012 and 2018 – have seen every promoted Premier League team survive. In all of the other seasons, the usual rhetoric from experts and fans alike has inevitably been about why said team(s) failed – and, in some cases, how the system is still lopsided against those that rise from the depths of the Championship.

Nurture over nature key to survival

Last year, it was this fate which befell promoted duo Fulham and Cardiff, neither of whom could buy a win for vast swathes of the 2018/19 campaign, thanks mainly to being shambolic in defence and attack respectively. Additionally, the third team joining them through the trapdoor was Huddersfield Town, who were themselves in only their second-ever Premier League campaign, and paying the price of their inability to attract the calibre of talents required.

While many people will point to case studies like the Fulham team of last year, the West London club were financially well-equipped to build a top-half squad, even before reaping the prize money from the 2018 promotion playoff final. Ultimately, positive coaching and shrewd recruitment is itself a priceless asset, and one which does not necessarily hinge on whether a team is established or a newcomer to the Premier League. In that respect, 2019 saw Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo take a huge bow, with his squad standing in glorious contrast to the other promoted clubs.

Compared to Fulham, Wolves did not particularly buy big at the start of 2018/19, but simply stuck to the attack-minded football that had emphatically delivered the Championship trophy. With Wolves aptly fronted by Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez, it was a gamble that paid off, and illustrated that dropping deep out of respect for the Premier League’s big guns is now an antiquated way of operating.

Can the Blades sustain their momentum this season?

Frequently praised in Premier League prediction blogs run by experts, Sheffield United are the second of two teams that have gained plaudits against the odds in as many years. However, they could yet do even better than Wolves did last year, and are still in with a shot of becoming the first newly-promoted Premier League club since Nottingham Forest in 1995 to score a top-four finish. While the Blades’ philosophy is based more around organisation than playing at a high tempo, Chris Wilder’s men have been one of the most difficult teams to beat, further underlining the belief that the Championship is finally catching up with the Premier League.

Amongst the Blades’ best traits is the ability to graft for points, with 70% of the ten league wins they took into their winter break arriving by just a one-goal margin. Additionally, Sheffield United’s tally of nine PL clean sheets was bettered only by Liverpool ahead of their 2-1 victory over Bournemouth on 9 February. As a result of that win, Sheffield United are also still unbeaten in home league games where they have found the net since August.

Are more or less teams going down these days?

Only one previous Premier League season (1997/98) has seen all three promoted clubs drop straight back down. Nonetheless, the sense of vulnerability that comes with promotion is a constant, with three of the last five complete seasons seeing two newcomers immediately drop.

The last five complete seasons have thus seen an average of 1.4 newly-promoted clubs suffer relegation, equating to nearly a 47% rate of newcomers undergoing immediate demotion. Though that same period has witnessed Wolves’ surge into Europe, and Leicester winning the title in just the second campaign of their current top-flight stint, it still represents a small but notable rise in relegation amongst newcomers.

In the five seasons prior to that sequence (between 2009/10 and 2013/2014), only five newly-promoted teams out of fifteen dropped straight away. In practice, that means just one promoted team per-season going down on average over the stated period.

Are big clubs more or less immune to the drop?

With such an increase in newly-promoted casualties over the past ten years, the default deduction would be that ‘big’ clubs are more immune to the drop than ever. However, that itself has proven false, with 2016 marking the first relegation of a (then) Premier League ever-present (Aston Villa), twelve years after Leeds United lost their own ‘ever-present’ status.

Indeed, the Leeds squad of 2004 is just one of several prime examples of how being an established Premier League club has no divine right to survival. The year before that, a West Ham side containing fringe England internationals like Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe had gone down, doing so with a 38-game high of 43 points – enough to survive in any other 38-game season.

The definition of a ‘big club’ does, of course, vary between fans. In the context of top-flight longevity, six clubs – Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton – are in a very exclusive circle by dint of having never missed a Premier League season. Collective trophy haul aside, that alone asserts their claims to inclusion in football’s perceived ‘big society’, but all of them have experienced dismal periods over the past ten years.

Liverpool, for instance, dabbled with doom early in 2010/11 under Roy Hodgson. Then came abysmal title defences for Manchester United and Chelsea – in 2013/14 and 2015/16 respectively – with the latter spending the Christmas of said campaign dangerously close to the bottom three. Everton’s high managerial turnover since 2013 is also well documented, with the club’s newfound resources under Farhad Moshiri yet to bear real fruit after a dreadful start to this campaign.

Meanwhile, the North London ever-presents, Tottenham and Arsenal, are suffering from hangovers after defeat in their respective European finals last May. Damningly, even Arsenal are still not quite safe from relegation under the regime of a rookie boss. Though Arsenal’s relegation price is currently well into the hundreds against, the sight of them this low in the table provides justification for the belief in a seismic shortening of the gulf between England’s two topmost divisions.

Would current Championship high-flyers survive?

At this time, West Bromwich look like the only certainties to go up, and have shown impressive character under Slaven Bilic after a difficult Christmas period. Defensively astute in most cases, they went into their recent match against Nottingham Forest having kept a clean sheet in four of their last five wins across all competitions. The Baggies had also led at half-time in each of those four wins, proving their resolve under pressure as well as their attacking prowess.

Naturally, teams like Sunderland’s infamous class of 2005/06, and potentially Daniel Farke’s Norwich squad of this campaign, demonstrate that winning the Championship at a canter offers no promises. Yet, such is the potentially lower-than-average points threshold for Premier League safety this term, with teams in the bottom half struggling for consistency, any newcomers in 2020/21 should at least see the eventual survivors currently in the Premier League’s relegation mix as fair game.

Article title: Is the gulf between PL and Championship narrowing?

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