One of the strangest seasons in Premier League history has only one month to go before it rounds to a close, and one of the three relegation departures is already guaranteed.
Defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers meant Sheffield United will pack their bags to play in the Championship next season, but major questions remain over who will join them:
Mathematically speaking, there are eight clubs who could still occupy one of those two remaining relegation places, but some among that group will consider themselves all but safe.
Fulham and West Bromwich Albion occupy spots in the bottom three and are the overwhelming favorites to keep those places when the campaign concludes come May 23.
There’s a lot of soccer to be played in this final month, however, and there are some managers among those struggling outfits who are tasked with escape acts — and have succeeded in seasons past.
Even If It Is Broke: Newcastle United
“Relegation fight. Steve Bruce. Fan division.”
This time of year, one can feel the déjà vu whilst reading headlines referring to Newcastle United and their Premier League future – the least enviable of growing traditions at St. James’ Park.
Talk of a Saudi Arabian takeover stole attention from what was happening on the field for much of 2020. All that’s left is the on-pitch product now those distractions are a thing of the past, and wouldn’t you know the Magpies are finally utilising the shiny tools they went to such lengths to acquire.
A surprise 3-2 win over 10-man West Ham United leaves the team on 35 points with six games to play. That would have been enough to stay up last season (and the three seasons prior), but Bruce told reporters even that sum “is not enough” to celebrate just yet:
That somewhat muted response is understandable for two reasons.
The first is that Newcastle were relegated with 37 points in 2016, an outlier in modern times but nonetheless one worth heeding.
The second is there’s a not negligible percentage of Newcastle that would see owner Mike Ashley forcibly removed from his office, and some of that ire extends to the coach he’s kept through such adversity.
But Bruce can worry about convincing the fans when it matters, and as long as Ashley is his boss, that time may never come.
After failing to go more than two games without a loss since July, Newcastle have now managed the feat twice in their past seven games and are finally entertaining fans. Arsenal loanee Joe Willock has had a bigger impact after settling at St. James’, and desperation has coaxed another gear out of players like Allan Saint-Maximin and the infamously overpriced Joelinton.
Even one more point should be enough to put survival beyond doubt, and back-to-back end-of-season matchups against Sheffield United and Fulham couldn’t be timed better.
Style Over Substance: Brighton & Hove Albion
Graham Potter’s Brighton & Hove Albion can be summed up by the fact they sit just six points above the bottom three despite recording the same number of losses as Arsenal (ninth) and one fewer than Aston Villa (11th), Wolves (12th), and Crystal Palace (13th). The Seagulls have the ability to dazzle from a distance and can often be mistaken for something more majestic in full flight, but ultimately they’ve been left to fight for the scraps.
League position doesn’t paint the proper picture of how much better off Brighton should be compared to their present-day predicament.
The club has scored 33 goals in 31 games so far this term—10 fewer than their xG (Expected Goals) tally—and conceded 38 times despite posting an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 30.7 for the season. The resulting xGD (Expected Goals Difference) of +12.3 is the fifth-best in the Premier League, an example of how simple statistics cannot tell the entire story of a team.
Potter stated his intent to fight in their final seven games of the season having drawn against Everton at home, where Brighton have been one of the worst-performing clubs this campaign:
And yet there remains the suspicion that Brighton could still create something special under Potter, though it’s probably more a romanticist’s dying wish at this stage. The Seagulls have drawn 13 times in this season (the most in the Premier League), and each of their last six defeats have come via one-goal margins.
There’s every chance Brighton will secure the last few points necessary to rubber-stamp their stay in the top flight. With more daunting opposition at either end, the three-game run against Sheffield United, Leeds and Wolves in particular will be considered Potter’s prime opportunities to move away from the melee.
Driving On Fumes: Burnley
The absence of supporters appears to have taken a toll on Burnley as much as any other Premier League team, as far as winning matches is concerned. The Clarets earned on average around 1.45 points per home game across their first four Premier League campaigns; this season’s average of 1.13 points per game at Turf Moor reeks of a team reeling without that atmosphere.
Burnley’s relegation scrap can’t be wholly attributed to that one factor, of course, being that every club is under the same restrictions. But perhaps no squad in the top flight was papering over its cracks in the same way that Burnley did with abstract things like noise and a lot of emotion.
Sean Dyche deserved credit for brainstorming Burnley into a new (not necessarily improved) version, but the effects of fatigue are apparent after they’ve lost three straight for the first time since the opening weeks of the season. If there is a club outside the relegation zone we feel could replace one of its current occupants, it’s Burnley:
Only two teams have scored fewer goals than Dyche’s side this season, both of whom already reside below them in the standings. Positives have been rare as Burnley have collected one win from their last nine outings, but confidence has at least grown in attack after they’ve netted in the last six consecutive games (their previous best this season was three in a row).
The club has taken 10 points from the reverse fixtures against their remaining six opponents this term, which includes wins over Liverpool, Wolves and Sheffield United. The Reds have since rallied to reassert themselves in the top-four race, but points are there to be gained from the latter pair, along with Fulham and Leeds.
A last-day-of-the-season trip to Bramall Lane could end up playing a particularly pertinent role in who stays up when all is said and done, though Dyche will hope Burnley’s fate is resolved by then.
Parker Down There: Fulham
A return of two wins from their first 22 games of the season was always going to have grave consequences for Fulham, who really started to look like they belonged for a while there.
The Cottagers lost eight of their opening 11 fixtures but managed to wrangle some resilience, to the point where it took them 22 games more to match that number of losses again. An improvement, certainly, but not enough that it looks likely to save Scott Parker’s side.
Despite winning three times across a six-game span across February and March, the six-point space between them and survival may prove a bridge too far at this stage—especially given they’ve played a game more than most of the division.
Fulham’s recent 1-1 draw at Arsenal ended a spree of four straight losses, but it was the third match in a row the west Londoners dropped points after going in front:
Despite the best efforts of Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo to steady matters at the back, Parker’s squad has lacked certain centerpieces one needs to stop the ship creaking. The loan signing of Josh Maja from Bordeaux added some inspiration in attack, but Fulham have missed a leader up front, with Bobby Cordova-Reid’s five goals making him the least prolific top-scorer from any Premier League club this term.
Fulham’s 25-goal return from an xG value of 35.5 makes them the biggest under-performers (or most wasteful) this season as far as that metric is concerned. The fact they’re the other team to have recorded a joint-high 12 draws this term illustrates how close the Cottagers might have been to a much more productive campaign.
Same Old Sam: West Bromwich Albion
There is no manager in Premier League circles more renowned for hoisting teams out of the murky depths—but even West Bromwich Albion should prove a job too much for Sam Allardyce.
The Baggies haven’t budged from the 19th place they occupied when “Big Sam” waded into the Hawthorns in mid-December, but this is one hiring where consistency was never part of the job description.
The saving grace for West Brom—currently nine points from safety—is that they have at least one game in hand over those immediately above them. It’s less encouraging that five of their remaining seven fixtures are against top-half teams, while 11th-place Aston Villa are also of that ilk.
Three wins and a couple of draws will be considered the absolute minimum from those fixtures if the Baggies are to pull off the unthinkable, which is difficult enough to envision given the competition ahead:
Allardyce has performed wonders with Blackburn Rovers (2009), Sunderland (2016) and Crystal Palace (2017) when he’s taken over midway through a season, but his inheritance from Slaven Bilic hasn’t yielded the value on this occasion.
The short-lived England manager might have enough of an edge in experience and calm in these situations to finish above Parker’s Fulham, but that looks the extent of West Brom’s aspirations.
Predicted Premier League clubs to be relegated:
Fulham (19th), West Brom (18th)