The Premier League has become a two-tier league.
Arguably it always was, but never to this extent. To proclaim a top six a bottom 14 isn’t new or insightful, nor does it come as a newsflash to anyone who can read the table. But it’s a shocking development nonetheless.
It will have severe implications for the relegation battle this season, too, which looks like it could go down to the wire. Perhaps it will sort itself out into a more normal looking battle between five or six clubs in the final few weeks, but if the rest of the season is anything to go by, it’ll be even more who are left sweating over the last games of the campaign.
Last year, Southampton finished in eighth place, essentially top of the second tier. There’s no prize for that, of course, but they certainly wouldn’t have expected to be fighting a relegation battle this year.
It would be churlish and unoriginal to point to the sacking of Claude Puel here. The Frenchman guided the Saints to a good season, but every club is well within its rights to change leadership if they want to implement a different style: the homogeneity of modern football is something we all like to bemoan, and a club searching for its own identity is to be lauded even if the decision seems harsh.
Moreover, it’s not actually the sacking of Puel which did the damage, so far it appears that it was the appointment of Mauricio Pellegrino.
From the outsider’s perspective, the relegation battle is particularly interesting, but it’s also mathematically interesting: no one seems to agree on how many points teams will need to beat the drop this year. It could be more than usual, it could be less.
It’s all Manchester City’s fault. The fact they’ve pulled away so far means that the rest of the league is fighting over scraps. The standard of every club is, on paper, quite high thanks to heavy investment in the Premier League over the last few years, but the quality of football is often fairly low. That’s because of the pressure involved in every game in a tight league where every team can beat the others around them. And it’s especially pronounced when relegation means a potentially catastrophic financial hit.
That leads people to think the standard is dropping, but it’s simply a consequence of how cagey the bottom of the table has become.
Southampton are one of the better technical teams in the lower half, but the fact that the games between the bottom teams have become battles of will rather than technique, they’ve slumped to third bottom, and the next couple of weeks will be utterly crucial.
This weekend’s FA Cup fixture is a distraction at the worst possible time because after that, the next six weeks will be relentless. Starting with Burnley – who are probably already safe, in fairness – Saints then have four games against teams around them. After that, though, the final six games are tough: three from the top six in Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, and two who will be chasing for seventh place and a potential Europa League spot. That means it is only the home fixture against Bournemouth, three games from the end of the season, that looks like a truly winnable game.
That suggests that Southampton had better get a move on and start winning some of their games very soon.
Nobody knows how many points will be needed for survival, but most of the teams bunched up around the bottom half have around as many points as they’ve played games, meaning a ratio of one point per game is par for the course right now. If that means 38 points is around the drop line, Saints will need more than 12 points from their final 11 games. With five winnable games before six tough ones, there’s little room for error in a season where there has been plenty of that so far.
The final game of the season will see Mauricio Pellegrino’s men (assuming he stays in the job that long) face leaders – and probably winners by then – Manchester City. In an ironic side note, City were relegated on goal difference in 1996 with 38 points after a 2-2 draw with Liverpool in which they started time-wasting at the end in the mistaken belief they were safe. They were and dropped down two divisions in a row. But the team who benefitted from the mix-up was Southampton, who stayed up on goal difference.
Saints know 38 points might not be enough this time, but when they welcome Pep Guardiola’s team to St Mary’s on the final day of the Premier League season, you get the feeling they’ll already need to have at least that many points already in the bag.