Of all the issues left to be decided this Premier League season in the wake of the pandemic, the matter of relegation is easily the most cutthroat, with several crucial matches featuring in our Top 10 EPL matches to watch.
Premier League matches restart on Wednesday, June 17th. Norwich City have sat in last place since Boxing Day (Week 19), and a return of 10 points from the last 45 available suggests they’ll struggle to avoid the drop, with Aston Villa (19th) and Bournemouth (18th) making up the rest of the bottom three:
One would imagine Southampton and Newcastle United—on 34 and 35 points, respectively—will be able to preserve their places in the Premier League by virtue of their results so far. The Magpies’ Saudi Arabian takeover is still up in the air, with a rival bid appearing only yesterday from a US businessman. The uncertainty amongst the players and staff will surely play a role in their performances for the remainder of the season, but crucially, both the Toon and Southampton should be safe with the buffer they've built up before the restart.
Bournemouth, Watford, and West Ham are all tied on 27 points apiece, and projecting who will see the drop is all the more complicated by the fact Aston Villa—two points behind—are the only team in the bottom half with a game in hand. Let's take a look at the relegation odds for each club.
On the rise: Watford
Nigel Pearson's appointment at Watford in December had a transformative effect on their year. They climbed from last place up to 17th within seven matches under the Englishman, and although results stagnated in the lead-up to play being paused, their trajectory appeared to be taking them further from the bottom three.
Back-to-back matches against Norwich, Newcastle (both at home) and West Ham will play a special role in their top-flight fate, with points likely to be hard to come by in their final games against Manchester City and Arsenal.
Pearson supported those Watford players who were unwilling to return to small-group training amid the pandemic—including captain Troy Deeney, whose son has had respiratory issues. It's difficult to ascertain whether even that slight delay could put the Hornets at a disadvantage compared to their competition:
Toughest slate: Aston Villa
Dean Smith’s Villa are somewhat cursed by a run-in that will see them come into contact with Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United before the campaign is over:
Villa took a combined four points from their reverse fixtures against those seven sides—a home win over Everton and a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford—and could be happy enough with an identical tally on the second go-around, provided they can cut the deficit in their more winnable games.
The ‘magic 40-point mark’ is a thing of the past in England’s top flight. The team to come 17th has averaged 35.6 points (rounded to 36) in the past five Premier League seasons, and that amount would have been enough to stay up in four of those.
In fact, 36 points would have been enough to stay up in 12 of the previous 24 seasons—since 1995-96, when the Premier League was cut to 20 teams.
Smith rightly pointed out to Sky Sports that his team would be out of the relegation places should they win their game in hand, but it’s difficult to see where the remainder of their necessary points come from (via Football Daily):
It’s worth noting Villa had the longest active losing streak of any Premier League team when play was suspended (four in a row), while Watford, West Ham and Norwich were the only clubs in the bottom six to have recorded a win in their last four outings.
Home advantage no more: Brighton
Brighton & Hove Albion have taken six points in 2020 (from six draws) and have one win from their last 14 attempts. Graham Potter’s side has simmered around 15th since losing much of their early promise around December, though Opta’s prediction algorithm suggested they might just cling onto top-tier status:
One saving grace for the Seagulls is that five of their remaining nine games are at home, which is just as well considering Norwich are the only team to have waited longer since their last away win. Then again, matches will be staged behind closed doors, potentially erasing any advantage Brighton had heading into their final 12 matches.
The main downside for Brighton is Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool are still to visit The Amex, leaving Newcastle as perhaps their only beatable opposition on home soil.
Nevertheless, the level of competition for Brighton combined with lacking form prior to the suspension makes for a worrying concoction approaching the end of Potter’s first season at the club.
Escape Artist: West Ham
West Ham and Bournemouth are two points worse off but may retain some quiet confidence given the qualities of those currently at their respective helms.
David Moyes has more experience saving clubs from relegation than falling down with them, having pulled off rescue jobs at Everton and West Ham in the past. One could also suggest Sunderland were a ship waiting to sink when they finally dropped down to the second tier with him at the wheel in 2017.
Experience above all else: Bournemouth
Bournemouth, meanwhile, have stuck with Eddie Howe through calls that the veteran coach might have reached his limits at the Vitality Stadium. The 42-year-old remains one of England’s more promising managerial minds, who seems the humble sort to have made good use of his time away from the usual training methods during lockdown, via The Coaches’ Voice:
Data analyst Simon Gleave highlighted at the end of the 2018-19 campaign that Bournemouth edged south-coast rivals Brighton in points won during the second half of the season, while Watford and West Ham fared even better in that regard:
Experience is liable to count for a lot when the Premier League makes its comeback in a changed format, and those most ready to adapt to the new game will reap the benefits. That’s particularly the case should home advantage become a non-factor, magnifying the importance of tactical acumen, player management and preparation—those seemingly obvious things that can otherwise get masked in the noise of a usual matchday.
Predicted Premier League clubs to be relegated:
Norwich City (20th), Aston Villa (19th), Brighton (18th)
The sheer difficulty of Villa’s remaining schedule makes it too difficult to imagine them keeping their heads above, while Daniel Farke’s first half of the campaign has likely sealed Norwich’s fate.
A last-day tug-of-war to avoid 18th seems all but inevitable for the remaining candidates, which Brighton were on track to lose if current form is anything to go by. Their last three fixtures in particular—against Southampton (away), Newcastle (home) and Burnley (away)—will dictate whether they stay among the elite following three seasons in the Premier League.
Potter’s men are furthest from the drop out of the bottom six at present, but forgetting what it means to win games after Christmas is usually a precursor to relegation in this business.