TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) analyses the race to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
Premier League: The battle for survival
With 11 games to go in the Premier League, the battle at the bottom is heading towards an entertaining finish. So who looks the most likely to survive the drop zone come May?
The bookies believe Norwich will not find a way out, best priced at 1/16 (SkyBet) for the drop, and their struggles in front of goal, coupled with a leaky defence, makes this no surprise.
Seven points from safety, it isn’t necessarily impossible, but with 51 goals conceded and 17 losses already, it’s hard to make an argument for the Canaries to fire their way to safety, particularly with the reliance on Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell up front, with no other player netting more than one goal.
Although the performances have improved since the arrival of a handful of players in January, it looks too little too late for Daniel Farke’s side, and the defeat to Wolves on Sunday was hugely concerning, as the tactical limitations, particularly defensively, came to the fore once again.
A tough run of games against Leicester, Sheffield United, Southampton, Everton and Arsenal as their next five could see them cut adrift quickly, and with other sides above them looking much more likely to pick up points, it looks like an immediate return to the Championship for Farke’s side.
Time running out for Villa
Next up are Aston Villa, and despite being sat 17th, the Second City club are 8/11 (William Hill) to go down. It is hard to argue with this price, particularly when considering the underlying statistics, reliance on key players and as a stand out, their poor performance on Saturday against Southampton.
Jack Grealish has been in fine form for the Villains, but when the Englishman struggles to impact a game, Villa look toothless in attack, and Saturday’s 2-0 defeat encapsulated this perfectly, with an Expected Goals (xG) of only 0.27, as the Saints nullified his threat out wide.
Seven goals and six assists has been an excellent return in a struggling side, but outside of Grealish’s contribution, the next best comes from Anwar El Ghazi at four goals and four assists. This dependence is a concern, as Villa become one-dimensional and over-reliant upon Grealish, particularly with injuries to key players plaguing them in recent weeks.
Three defeats on the bounce has ramped up the pressure, and Villa have seen their underlying numbers begin to catch up, as even when they were picking up points after their switch to a back five, the statistics were damning, with a victory over Watford and Burnley coming despite being outperformed on the xG, whilst a point at Brighton was similarly fortunate.
The last time Villa came out on top on the xG in a game was back in November in a 2-0 win over Newcastle, and this is a real concern for Smith’s side. Injuries to John McGinn and Wesley haven’t helped, whilst individual errors defensively are plaguing the Villans in games where they have given themselves a foothold, such as in the defeat to Spurs, and the signs are ominous for Villa.
Villa’s run of fixtures until the end of the season further reinforces their relegation worries, with only Newcastle, Crystal Palace and West Ham looking like games they can play on the front foot in, and I would fully expect to see Smith’s side in the bottom three come May.
Underlying metrics point to Toon
Now this is where it gets a bit tougher, and it appears to be a matter of picking one from Bournemouth, West Ham, Watford, Brighton and Newcastle.
I feel that Brighton have got enough to see them to safety, with a return to goalscoring form for Neal Maupay a huge boost on the weekend, and their underlying metrics have them below their Expected Points (xP) by nine.
If Brighton are to continue performing the way they are, I feel they should be fine come the end of the season, and a win in the derby against Crystal Palace will go a long way to easing any relegation worries on the south coast, and see the gap to the bottom increase once again.
Newcastle have been a nightmare to predict this season, as the Premier League’s joint-lowest scorers sit in 14th, but all the underlying data does point towards a struggle towards the end of the season. Steve Bruce’s side have had a knack of picking up points in games they have been otherwise outplayed in, and how long this trend can last for awaits to be seen.
Taking the xP metric, Toon sit bottom, hugely overperforming with 31 points despite an xP of 17.32. But Newcastle’s points total achieved gives them a much needed head start, and the fact they are playing a number of sides between now and the end of the season in around the relegation fight themselves means they will have a huge bearing on the outcome of the final spot.
With only 13 goals from open play to their name this season, breaking teams down is a problem, and it will be interesting how they fair in their coming games against sides they could be forced to play on the front foot against. An xG of 0.16 against Crystal Palace is particularly concerning, and if they are to struggle in their upcoming games against Burnley, Southampton and Sheffield United, it could see their price quickly cut.
Interestingly, at 9/1 (Bet365), the underlying metrics do point in the direction that the Toon are currently the best value option, as if they are to slip up to the sides in around them, the pressure could quickly build with the gap beginning to shorten.
The run of Aston Villa, Bournemouth, West Ham and Watford, with a clash against Manchester City in between, highlights why they are still a big price, as it would really just need a couple of wins against those around them to see them to safety.
However, on the underlying metrics, as well as their concerning form in front of goal, their price is currently the best on value available, and struggles to win their next three games could see their price quickly cut, and the pressure ramped up ahead of those crunch clashes.
Hornets to survive?
It does look to be a big ask for a side already on 31 points to go down, and given Newcastle’s upcoming run of form, the more realistic selection comes from those below them in the league.
Watford are creating chances and look a much better unit under Nigel Pearson, but the points have dried up in recent weeks, and in particular the ability to take their chances in front of goal, and this is the big concern for any side down the bottom.
Whether Troy Deeney has enough goals in him to fire his side to safety awaits to be seen, but I do feel they possess enough quality in behind in the likes of Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr to fire them to safety, particularly considering the settled tactics and form shown around the new year.
The defence on the whole looks much more solid, and Etienne Capoue and Will Hughes are fitting of the tenacious midfielder that Pearson loves to use, and the side Pearson has at his disposal is well suited to the style of football he wants to play.
Despite sitting 19th, I don’t think the alarm bells will be ringing yet, and a favourable run of fixtures, should see them start picking up the points once again. With the final two games against Manchester City and Arsenal, they will want to job done by then, but it must be factored in these sides could have alternative priorities by then, and see Pearson’s side come up against rotated sides, another factor for plenty of teams come the end of the season.
I can see them overcoming their blip in form, and I’d be more concerned by Bournemouth and West Ham, who look to be still searching for the tactical formula to get them to safety.
Hammers or Cherries?
David Moyes’ only league win since his return came against an injury-stricken Bournemouth side on his opening game, and although they have had a tough run of fixtures recently, it is a particularly concerning situation the Hammers find themselves in.
Similar to Newcastle, their big-money striker has struggled to fire this season, but the January recruitment has added some much-needed pace on the wing in Jarrod Bowen, as well as Tomas Soucek in the middle adding solidity and an attacking presence, and they are well suited to the tactics Moyes will employ.
Their 3-3 draw against Brighton was much more promising, and the direct play that Moyes is favouring, as well as using the likes of Bowen and Felipe Anderson on the break should have more luck than when up against Manchester City and Liverpool as has been the case in recent weeks.
However, a defeat at home to Southampton next weekend, a game tactically suited to Moyes’ plans, will send alarm bells ringing, with their run of four games after that troubling for a side leaking goals.
I am interested to see how he approaches the game against Southampton, as it gives his side the license to play more to their strengths and move away from a back five, looking to play more on the front foot, and this could see their attacking form improve.
The defence is still a massive concern, and they are leaking goals from set pieces, and Moyes will have to alleviate these defensive concerns quickly if they are to stop giving away soft goals.
By far the most favourable run in after getting through that run of games, they could see their price shorten before the run of fixtures against those around them, but with Bournemouth themselves taking on Chelsea and Liverpool in the next two weeks, the pair’s prices will probably stagnate bar any shock results.
Sat in 16th Eddie Howe’s side are on the brink after a five-year spell in the Premier League, and it is their run in that concerns me the most. Aside from two home games against Crystal Palace and Newcastle, every side they face until Southampton in May is fighting for European spots, so the huge importance to win both these games is overbearing, and failure to win either of those game could see their price quickly collapse from what is currently 10/11 (Ladbrokes).
It is hard to argue with the price they are given their run in, as they will have to pick up points from games that would otherwise not normally be targeted, but if they can pick up the two wins in those games, it would pile the pressure on those around them, and mean the sides below them have to win at least three to catch up by the end of the season.
The gamble on the Cherries’ price means that if you feel victory is out of reach against the two sides at home, they will very quickly shorten without victory, so if fancying Bournemouth for the drop, I’d act quickly.
Similar to Watford, playing some of the top sides who may have alternative worries in Europe could play into their hands, but it’s a big risk to take, particularly for a side struggling for goals, and has Howe chopping and changing tactics.
Key players such as Josh King are returning from injury, but it feels like it could be too little too late for the Cherries, and after tough games against Chelsea and Liverpool, the pressure on Howe’s side may become too much in their relegation crunch clashes, and quickly see any price around the even money mark disappear.
Admittedly, it is very hard to see past the three favourites in the betting for relegation, but there are a number of gambles that can be taken on sides when considering the fixture list to get the best value.
Newcastle look too big at 9/1 (Bet365) eve with their head start, and if the goal worries continue as they did against Crystal Palace against opposition around them in the table, their price could tumble quickly, and all the underlying data suggests it won’t be plain sailing.
Bournemouth represent the toughest to unpick, as failure to win the two crunch clashes discussed will see them backed in very quickly but wins in them two and the race is blown wide open, and will see the odds of those around them collapse quickly.
Premier League – Newcastle to be relegated (9/1 Bet365)