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Who's going down, then?
The drop, and its victims.
Ah, the relegation dogfight. It’s that time of year when it’s really hotting up. With the exception of the first and last teams on this list, I feel like all these sides could go either way, and that’s exciting. Glass half-full says that’s because there are so many decent teams and three don’t deserve to go down. Glass half-empty says they’re all crap. Let’s take a look at them.
14th. Newcastle United
Well, that’s me with egg on my face. I predicted that Newcastle would get relegated at the start of the year. Since then, they’ve picked up 17 points from seven games, which works out at title-winning pace. I don’t think they’ll keep playing like that, though it would be quite something if they did.
They’ve been decent value for their results, creating about twice as many expected goals in attack as they’ve conceded at the other end. These haven’t been the hardest games, but that’s still very impressive going for a team that struggled so much in the first half of the season. More than anything, it’s a damning indictment of how poor the tactical organisation was under Steve Bruce. Eddie Howe hasn’t needed to work miracles to make them look like a real football team for the first time in years.
The biggest story has been Joelinton’s reinvention as a box-to-box midfielder. I’d recommend reading Sam Gustafson’s article on that transformation if you’re interested. Otherwise, they don’t have much business being in this article. Newcastle should be absolutely fine.
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Brentford have looked about as secure as assets held in Russian Roubles in the past few months, even if the weekend’s win over Norwich lifted spirits. Their underlying numbers have taken a similar tumble, with their xG difference per game among the worst in the Premier League this calendar year. They’re conceding half an expected goal extra per game since the start of 2022 compared to last year. Their attack has also declined a touch, which is obviously not a great combination. Granted, that includes some very difficult fixtures, but it’s still an alarming slide.
Their very impressive set piece work has masked how abysmal this attack is from open play. In this calendar year, Brentford have scored three open play goals in ten Premier League matches. Their fixtures from now until the end of the season aren’t too bad. They better hope this poor run of form is being exaggerated by the calendar, or else they’re in serious trouble.
It needed to change. Leeds addressed their alarming form in a cold and cruel way, but a way that made sense. As such, the numbers aren’t all that useful here. Jesse Marsch will change a lot of things. The very early signs are good. They were clearly the better team against Leicester, and the adjustment to a zonal-marking back four is clear if imperfect (Leicester’s goal came about because Stuart Dallas steps out to press his man before realising he’s not supposed to do that now).
Marsch is a smart coach. Of that, I’ve little doubt. I think Leeds have the biggest upside of any team on this list bar Newcastle, and some basic organisation should see them move up towards safety, especially if injuries start to clear up. Kalvin Phillips is on the cusp of returning, as is Liam Cooper. While it doesn’t look like we’ll see Patrick Bamford any time soon, things are improving on that front.
Leeds are trapped in a tough spot and things could easily get worse if Marsch’s ideas don’t take. But equally, I can see a world where they look pretty comfortable by the end of the season. It could go either way.
Frank Lampard was supposed to have a quick impact. After the unpleasant atmosphere under Rafa Benítez, Lampard was supposed to lift the mood and get everybody playing their football again. His impact wasn’t supposed to be about slowly adapting to a system. So it’s that extra bit more concerning when he hasn’t turned things around straight away.
In Lampard’s five league matches in charge, Everton have conceded twice as much xG as they’ve created. Yes, they played Man City, but that was actually one of their better performances. I’m not sure what Lampard attempting to get solid and shut the opposition out looks like. He generally played expansive football at Chelsea and Derby, though he’s not wed to a particular system. He’s going to have to find the solution through experimentation rather than rigid drilling of ideas. Because if it doesn’t improve, and if Everton go down with their FFP issues and the… uncertainty over Alisher Usmanov, it could be a long and hard way back up.
Burnley’s xG difference per game in each season from 2017/18 onwards:
Same old Burnley? It’s certainly within that range. The worst year in the data though, the 2018/19 campaign, saw an absolutely awful xG difference for the first half of the season before they rallied really well after Christmas. No sign of that this time around, with Burnley’s form since the turn of the year right in line with what came before. This really could be the season it happens.
For all the five minutes of hype over Wout Weghorst, he’s at one goal in nearly 700 minutes since arriving at Turf Moor. The deal is that Sean Dyche gets Burnley to a midtable defensive record and sacrifices anything vaguely resembling an attack to do it. As such, he’s doing his thing. It’s all the same from Burnley, and I’m just not sure they can magically avoid getting bitten. Sean Dyche isn’t a warlock, he’s a manager who builds a team just about good enough to stay up as long as the bounces don’t go against him. One of these days, they’re going to.
“I’d like to experience other things and not sit on the bench like Roy Hodgson at 74. Definitely not.” – Ralph Hasenhüttl
“I’m not so sure if in my 70s I still want to be in charge as a head coach, no matter in which country, but this is what I admire [Hodgson] for.” – Ralf Rangnick
“I think when you are still training at 72, it must be boring at home” – Pep Guardiola
“He’s a really, really nice guy, I have to say, and obviously highly energetic that he thinks he has to do this stressful job in his slightly advanced age” – Jürgen Klopp
We love Roy Hodgson, don’t we? Well, everyone likes him when he’s not managing your team. When he’s managing your team, he won’t exactly play champagne football, but no one cares as long as the results are good.
“I don't believe in innovation”, Hodgson once said. His methods are about the basic principles of organisation that he’s emphasised since his days in the Allsvenskan in the 1970s. Save for his strangely ambitious spell as England manager, he hasn’t changed. He’s trying to do exactly the same job at Watford that he did when he was parachuted into Fulham, West Brom and Crystal Palace. That’s one he’s more than capable of doing.
Watford haven’t been great since he took over but, unlike Lampard, Hodgson is someone with a very clear idea of exactly what he wants, and the players should get better at it pretty quickly. The fixtures haven’t been great since he came in, and that’s not really going to change. Watford still have to travel to Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea. So take this one purely on faith. FiveThirtyEight has Watford at 81% to go down and it’s hard to completely ignore that, but I think Hodgson will get them closer to safety than they otherwise would be. Consider them a toss-up.
Do I even need to say it?
Norwich are going down. Of the teams on this list, they have by far the worst xG difference since the start of the calendar year. Dean Smith has not turned this team into something competent by Premier League standards. It’s another campaign of Norwich going straight back to the Championship.
Norwich promise attacking football and yet produce the second worst attack in the league by xG. They promise to press and yet allow the opponent to make more passes before attempting to win the ball back than any other team. In short, they promise a lot and deliver little. I’m sick of it. Come back when you’re serious, Norwich.
So that’s one team going down in Norwich, after that it’s really tough. At a push, I think I’d have to say Burnley are the next most likely to get relegated, followed by Watford. I know it’s boring to list the current bottom three, but it would not shock me at all if either Leeds or Everton really mess this up instead. We’re getting to the point where a couple of surprise results could derail everything, and that’s a precarious spot to be in. Up the chaos.