Everyone loves a relegation scrap, unless you’re in it
(Hindsight alert!) Once upon a time in the Premier League...around 10 years ago in fact...when a team would get promoted from the Championship (or Division One as it was then known), the manager would go about assembling a squad of slightly overpaid Premier League veterans, a smattering of free transfers, an assortment of ageing stars from the continent (think every player that Sam Allardyce signed for Bolton) and more often than not, Marcus Bent.
A manager would do this instead of maintaining faith in the players that got the team there. Experience was key. They would park the bus in every away game, they would play long-ball football and they would try to nick a 1-0 win as often as possible.
Frankly, it was depressing. The relegation battle was generally rather dull.
Fast forward to 2012 and things are very different indeed. With the plight of Portsmouth, newly promoted clubs now seem more intent on financial balance than instant success. Teams like Fulham and Stoke have been trailblazers in how to establish your club in the Premier League without senseless transfers and escalating wage bills.
Managers are now more loyal to the players that got them into the top flight in the first place. Newly promoted clubs have a go at other teams, with a group of players who are trying to prove they are good enough for the step up in class (such as Norwich and Swansea last season).
This is one of the many reasons that the Premier League has been so exciting in recent seasons: More than ever, it seems like anyone can beat anyone.
It has made the battle at the bottom far more interesting.
It’s nearly Christmas. Christmas Day is the wrong day to be bottom of the league. (To be fair, no day is really the right day to be bottom of the league, unless you’re Wigan at the start of the season and you don’t have a choice). In 20 seasons of the Premier League, only West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05 have survived after being bottom on Christmas Day.
By Christmas Day, the Premier League has generally taken the shape that it will stick to for the rest of the season.
Things will obviously change. Yes, West Brom will probably dip a bit and Arsenal will inevitably finish in the top four. But table-wise nothing too dramatic usually happens from here on in. Let’s face it, Manchester United aren’t going to get relegated and Reading aren’t going to make a dramatic late surge into the Europa League spots.
There will be a surge in form here and a dip in form there, but clubs will rarely go too far up or down as the season moves into the New Year.
Looking at the Premier League table now, only Newcastle United’s position looks genuinely out of place. No one expected them to match the heights of last season’s fifth-place finish, but only the most pessimistic of Geordies and the most optimistic of Mackems would have predicted them being so low down the table at this stage of the year.
They are only two points above the drop zone and one place below Aston Villa, who are more genuine relegation candidates. The ridiculously long Europa League campaign seems to be taking its toll, and it’s not looking too good for Pardew at the moment.
But if this Newcastle side got relegated, it would be one of the biggest shocks in Premier League History.
They would probably be the best team of all time to suffer the drop. They are in a spot of trouble at the moment, yes, but only some real dramatic stuff will see the Toon playing Championship football next season. (To be fair, though, if this kind of drama was going to happen to any club, it would happen to Newcastle.)
Blue and White Hoops out of fashion this season
So who is going to get relegated this season? Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.
QPR and Reading. 19th and 20th. 10 and nine points respectively. Cut adrift and forlorn at the bottom of the league.
Mark Hughes is a good manager and a solid tactician. He took Wales to the brink of Euro 2004, he did exceptionally well with Blackburn and he did a good job in his season with Fulham. But at QPR (and Manchester City for similar reasons), things didn’t go so well.
To be fair to Hughes, he did keep them up last season. But he never really took them away from the position that Neil Warnock left them in. Since then, if anything, he has taken them backwards. Hughes has done an excellent job at the three sides in which he was not responsible for shaping the squad, or had to work on an extremely tight budget. At QPR he struggled because he was given the opportunity in the last two transfer windows to build his own team entirely (something he struggled to do with Man City as well). In technical terms, he made a complete hash of it.
He seemed to lack any kind of cohesive plan or transfer policy at QPR. He just signed up players when they became available (signing Robert Green and then Julio Cesar just a few weeks later is one example). This left him, and now Harry Redknapp, with an incredibly disjointed squad and in one hell of a mess.
He has been left with a mountain to climb, but Redknapp finally secured QPR’s first win of the season at home to Fulham on Saturday. They are now unbeaten in the four games since he has been in charge. He seems to be getting better performances out of his players then Hughes ever managed to do, particularly the frustrating, yet wonderfully talented, Adel Taarabt.
If QPR are going to stay up, Taarabt will be key. Redknapp described the Moroccan international as putting in “one of the all-time great performances” on Saturday. Undoubtedly an exaggeration, but Redknapp is cunning and knows that the more confident Taarabt is feeling, the better he will perform. Redknapp will make him feel like the best player in the world. If Taarabt can produce the kind of form he did against Fulham every week, QPR will be climbing the table in no time.
One win can change everything in the Premier League. After QPR beat Fulham on Saturday, the impossible now feels achievable.
QPR to stay up. Just. 17th
To put it simply, Reading are going down. Their squad isn’t good enough. Even with the January window beckoning, they won’t attract enough of the right level of player to get them the wins they need in the second half of the season.
My only real hope for Reading this season is that they keep faith with Brian McDermott. He did an exceptional job in winning the Championship last season; I doubt even Mourinho could have done better this campaign with this squad.
They got hammered by Arsenal on Monday night, a team stripped bare of confidence, undone by League Two Bradford City just last week. They are now six points from safety, an amount that already seems insurmountable for a team with just one win all season.
With Manchester City away at the weekend, it is looking like they will be bottom on Christmas Day, and we all know what that means.
Reading to go down. 20th
The Wigan fluctuation
Wigan currently find themselves in 18th place after a run of just one win in six games. Compared with recent seasons, this is actually pretty good for this stage. They have found themselves in much worse positions than this, much later in the season, yet still managed to stay up.
Last season they were dragged back from the death by Victor Moses, the year before by Charles N’Zogbia. Ironically, this year is probably the best all-around squad they have had since they began in the top flight. Great escapes, though, are so often associated with one key player who makes the difference (think Tevez for West Ham, Bullard for Fulham and McQueen in The Great Escape).
Looking round the Wigan squad, I can’t see that one player that will make the difference if they’re still in this position in March and April (the period also known as Wigan’s "belief-defying period").
They have been punching above their weight for nearly a decade now, but this season will be their last in this league (for now).
Wigan to go down. Finally. But it will be damn close. 18th
Southampton staring into the red (with pinstripes)
I’m not sure who came up with the idea of Southampton’s change from their traditional red and white stripes to red with white pinstripes, but I don’t like it. Not one bit. Not that this has anything to do with Southampton’s struggle to beat the drop, but it bugs me.
Goals aren’t a problem for the Saints; they’ve managed 22 so far this season. In the bottom half, only Fulham have scored more. The signing of Gaston Ramirez surprised me a bit. He’s had a decent season so far, but seemed an unnecessary outlay at £12 million when there were defensive frailties that needed sorting out. To use a loose and irrelevant metaphor, it seemed a bit like purchasing a marquee when only a tent was needed.
Every time I see them play, they seem like they could get done by three or more goals. Whilst they’ve tightened up a bit recently, you feel like the next thrashing is never too far away. Lately they've gotten some decent results against the teams around them, but since pushing City then United all the way at the start of the season, they haven’t looked close to another positive result against anyone outside of the bottom six. Nigel Adkins is a good manager and seems like a decent bloke (despite a petty spat with us Brighton fans a few seasons ago), and he’s stayed loyal to a lot of the players who got him into the Premier League in the first place as well as a fair few who got them into the Championship the season before.
They've tightened up a bit at the back lately. They've won three out of their last five. They always seem to have goals in them. But I think they’re going to go down.
The two teams above them, Sunderland and Aston Villa, are just a bit better. And I’ve already tipped QPR to stay up. Therefore, using complicated mathematics, if three of six are staying up then three of six have to go down (barring a dramatic Premier League rule change or Newcastle deciding to make me look stupid), so therefore...
Southampton to go down. 19th
Falls from grace
Sunderland’s recovery from a similar position last season was down to the inspiration of Martin O’Neill, the exceptional form of Stephane Sessegnon and the discovery of James McClean in the second half of the season.
This season they’ve been woeful.
I remember watching them against Newcastle a few weeks ago and thinking that it was the single most inept display I have ever seen by a Premier League side in my life. With players like Sessegnon, McClean, Larsson and the gifted Adam Johnson there should be so much more flair about their play than there currently is. It’s so disappointing to see.
They have only won three in their last 25, which is pretty shocking. But they’ll stay up. O’Neill needs to get more out of his key players; he has a good attacking quartet but right now they are less than the sum of their parts.
Not a vintage season on Weirside, but they have enough to avoid the drop. 15th
Aston Villa will be fine as long as Christian Benteke stays fit. On Saturday he destroyed Liverpool’s defence, doing what everyone was expecting Suarez to do to Villa’s backline.
There has been a lot said lately about the omission of Darren Bent, but he is a distinctly average player who does not justify a place in any decent Premier League side if he is not scoring 20-25 a season. He brings absolutely nothing else to the team, which is why he was left out in the cold in his time at Spurs, despite a decent goal return. His all-around game is woeful, and nowhere near good enough for a top-half club. He is a small-club luxury (in the mould of Yakubu before him), any by not playing him Lambert is trying to show Villa where they should be, rather than where they currently are. All credit to him for that. The only issue for Lambert is that, by not playing Bent at all, they have made him expendable and greatly devalued his price tag should they want to move him on in January.
Villa are a shadow of the team they were less than 5 years ago when they were pushing for a Champions League spot. It’s been quite the fall from grace. Their current starting XI isn’t a patch on what it used to be, and without the brilliant Benteke (another player off the scarily impressive Belgian production line), they would be in much more trouble than they are. He is the difference.
Their win against Liverpool on Saturday was fantastic, but Liverpool, like Villa, are another team who are a shadow of what they were just a few years ago. The difference in both of these teams’ squads from just a few years ago is quite incredible.
Villa will stay up, comfortably, as long as Benteke stays fit and in good form. 16th.
Here’s how it will look come May 19th:
16. Aston Villa
18. Wigan Athletic
It will probably go down to the last game of the season, it will probably be very close and it will probably look nothing like that.
The Premier League is fantastic because it is predictable in its unpredictability. Who would have thought that Newcastle would be 15th at this stage of the season? That QPR and Sunderland would be doing so badly? That Wigan wouldn’t be rock bottom and looking out of it already?
Newcastle will claw their way out of it and finish around the halfway mark. The (not so) Super Six will feature Sunderland, Aston Villa, QPR, Wigan Athletic, Southampton and Reading in one combination or another.
But things do change. If I’d written this article six weeks ago, I would have tipped Norwich for relegation, and they’re currently seventh and unbeaten in 10. So at the end of the day, what do I know?