Making a justified assertion as to who will get relegated in a Premier League season is an elusive task. Despite every bit of research or stat that you can draw together, sometimes totally unexplainable things happen.
Take Sunderland from last season, for example. After a heroic Capital One Cup final defeat to Manchester City and a slump in domestic form, they looked a shoe in for relegation. They went to the Etihad and got a point, became the first team to ever beat Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge in the league (an outrageous feat), and then went and toppled United at Old Trafford.
It made no explicable sense at the time – they were awful in the months before that, and their rise in form did not correlate with returning influential players, an easing fixture list, or any moments of significant fortune.
Wigan and Roberto Martinez’s trademark move was to only start performing after the clocks went back. They too were always a different team in April and May.
Whatever is asserted here will be easy to undermine when the unexplainable again happens- that is the beauty of a relegation dogfight after all. No one in the bottom bracket of teams is safe, no managers have the privilege of having their jobs secured.
What’s more, a shrewd January transfer window can change everything. That can relate to staff and players; it’s astounding that a manager has yet to be sacked heading into the New Year.
Leicester are an easy target at the moment. They’ve made absolutely no progress since they embarrassed United 5-3 in September, and their inability to score is a glaring weakness. Nigel Pearson has just been charged by the FA and they’ve also just dismissed their Director or Football – someone clearly needed to take a portion of blame. Things are pretty much as bad as they can be.
You’d be surprised how often the team that stays up from the newly promoted three is rarely the team that won the championship outright the season before. They look like they’re stuck in that very rut. Pearson and Leicester’s squad have been used to winning week in week out, peaking euphorically with that win over United, and are now stuck in an ongoing cycle of defeats. Because, as a team, they so rarely lost (they lost six times last season), they’ve haven’t been tested sufficiently when confronted with genuine adversity. The lack of that resistant and determined quality exacerbates a bad run further.
But there is a saving grace, and that is their incredibly easy run in. Their last eight games, from which five are at home, feature no teams in the top seven. If ever there was a platform for a great escape, that’s probably it. Having that good run to finish with means they also have a fiendishly difficult February and March- so much so that you would expect them to be cut significantly adrift leading into the business end of the season.
If that happens, Pearson will be sacked. Already burdened with a seven point deficit, Leicester look like the most likely team to get relegated from the Premier League this season.
The question surrounding Burnley is to judge how genuinely good they are; they’ve turned a strong corner in recent weeks, but whether they’ll maintain that form is difficult to know.
On balance, you’d probably be able to argue that they have the least talented squad in the league. That won’t be entirely conducive to whether they’ll get relegated, but applies greater pressure on their best players to perform. Danny Ings is essential in that respect – he’s individually inspired them in recent weeks.
Sean Dyche has got them playing long ball football, a typical way of an untalented team altering their approach to compete. They’ve made more long balls than any other team. They also attack 42% down their right hand side, more than any other team in the league, which shows their reliance on George Boyd and Kieran Trippier. One dimensional tactics thus far can be effective, but if you can eliminate their target man or nullify that flank, Burnley will be subdued.
They’re run in is mixed – three of their last four games are away from home, but there’s an absence of top quality opposition at that crucial time. Still, their slow start has impeded them significantly while they may maintain some of the form they’ve shown in recent times, it’s likely that will probably not be enough to stop them from being relegated.
Precariously perched above the relegation zone they may be right now, but Palace look like the third and final team most likely to be drawn into the dreaded 18th spot.
Neil Warnock by all accounts has done a very good job there- they’ve been unlucky (they might have picked up more points against West Brom, Swansea, Stoke).
Palace’s problem lies in their attack- Mile Jedinak, a ball winning midfielder by all accounts is their top goal scorer. Tony Pulis’ departure has seen them lose that indefatigable defensive strength that they could call upon so frequently last season, meaning they’re more reliable on scoring than they’ve ever been before. Take away set pieces and they’re a blunt outfit.
More importantly, their fixture run is a horror show: three of their last four games are against United, Chelsea and Liverpool. They’ll need a good March, where they have a run of winnable games; that period will be pivotal as to whether they can build up enough ahead of steam to not have to out-perform against those big teams at the end.
If Palace, Burnley and Leicester get relegated, Hull (who currently are 19th) will stay up. Hull are currently on a dire run of form, bereft of confidence and incapable of scoring, but they’ve got a far superior squad and an experienced manager who will likely guide them to safety.
In their last six games they’ll have to contend with Arsenal, Spurs, United and Liverpool, which means Bruce has to get them performing soon.
His three at the back experiment has brought mixed results, but this is ultimately a good group of players drastically under-performing. Once Tom Huddlestone returns from suspension, Robert Snodgrass becomes fit and their strikers start firing, they’ll steadily migrate north.
That, overall, highlights a trend: all of the underperforming teams this year are doing so because of their inability to score, which is an inverted conclusion considering teams who stay up usually do so because of a steady defence.
QPR’s ascent away from danger has been because of that. If any of these teams can get start scoring in the way QPR have, they’ve all realistically got a chance of surviving.