Dicing With the Drop: Assessing This Season's Premier League Relegation Battle
There are arguably nine sides that look as though they are at significant risk of relegation this term. With the new season almost upon us, Jonathan Wilson assesses their chances.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Amid all the chaos of last season – amid Leicester City winning the title and Newcastle United and Aston Villa being relegated – the theory was raised that there was so much money in the game that class divisions had begun to be erode. Everybody in the Premier League was so rich, it was suggested, that having the extraordinary wealth of a Roman Abramovich or a Sheikh Mansour was no longer quite the advantage it had been. The small could rise and the mighty could fall.
That may still be true, but as a new season begins with the mismanaged giants departed, those class divisions still seem fairly stark.
Realistically there are eight or perhaps nine sides that look as though they are at significant risk – and the reason, in almost all cases, is primarily financial. The corollary of the enrichment of the Premier League is that the gulf to the Championship is even bigger than it has been in the past. That is a major problem for clubs such as Hull City and Burnley, who are determined not to break their budgets.
If that is indeed what's going on at Hull. Their summer could hardly have been more chaotic. Owner Assem Allam is ill and their manager Steve Bruce quit, apparently after rowing with Allem's son – the vice-chairman Ehab Allam – over transfers. There have so far been no senior arrivals, while Mohamed Diame, whose face has adorned billboards round the City proclaiming, "We're back!", has left to join Newcastle. Four players, including the captain Michael Dawson, have picked up significant injuries; three are likely to be out for six months, and one for three.
Talk of a takeover by a U.S. consortium seems to have collapsed and, to cap it all, the first-team coach Keith Bertschin was sacked on his way to the airport to fly to Austria for pre-season training. Gianfranco Zola – whose last Premier League experience was leading West Ham to 17th in 2010 – may come in, but even if he is appointed relatively soon and with assurances that he will have money and control, it's hardly ideal to appoint a new manager with the season already underway. Strange things can happen and adversity can engender team spirit, but at the moment this looks like being effectively a 19-team Premier League with Hull struggling to make it even to 20 points.
At Burnley, Sean Dyche has had similar problems in terms of recruitment. Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Nick Pope have arrived from Charlton, but with Joey Barton gone on a free transfer and Michael Duff retired to take up a coaching role, the squad is arguably weaker now than it was in winning promotion. There was an attempt to sign Jeff Hendrick from Derby but, after the Irishman enjoyed a good Euro 2016, their bid of £3m was never likely to be accepted. Dyche has always relied on organisation and spirit rather than stars, and that won Burley plenty of friends two seasons ago. They were still relegated, however, and the league has only got tougher since then.
The other promoted side, Middlesbrough, have splashed out, with the presence of the former Real Madrid defender Aitor Karanka in the dugout presumably proving a draw. To what was already a relatively strong squad he has added the former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, the highly rated Danish 22-year-old Viktor Fischer, the USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and the former Manchester City forward Alvaro Negredo. Having been relegated in 1997 with a side that included Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, Boro know better than most that star names don't guarantee survival but, player for player, there are at least three squads worse than theirs in the league this season.
Like Hull, Sunderland, who have made a habit of late escapes, suffered from a summer of uncertainty over their manager; unlike Hull, they couldn't be blamed for it, as Sam Allardyce was appointed England boss. His replacement with David Moyes was swift, but there's no doubt that the change of leadership hampered transfer activity. Last season Sunderland were never higher than fourth bottom and spent just seven weeks outside the relegation zone in the entire campaign, less than any other side. There may be a perverse satisfaction in such minimalism for fans – the atmosphere for their final two home games was as good as anything the Stadium of Light has known – but they can't keep relying on the April and May surge.
Moyes' first task will be to win a game in August or September, something Sunderland haven't managed since 2012. While nobody would claim this is a squad full of stars, the signing of Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone last January did at least offer a defensive solidity that led to Sunderland losing just four games in the second half of the season. Success for Moyes would be winning the battle not to be in a relegation battle by the spring.
Crystal Palace briefly looked like being dragged into the scrap last least season. They have signed Andros Townsend, Steve Mandanda and James Collins, all experienced figures, but their concern is the slump that saw them win just two of the final 21 league games. The pattern is familiar for Alan Pardew sides: West Ham, Charlton and Newcastle all saw a sharp downturn in form after between 50 and 60 games under him. With Palace the rot set in after 37. Previously he has never been able to arrest that slide.
Swansea lurched towards the drop last term before pulling clear after the appointment of Francesco Guidolin. But with Andre Ayew, who scored 12 goals for them last season, departing for West Ham and skipper Ashley Williams seemingly Everton-bound, their fans must feel a sense of unease. Their fears may be tempered by Fernando Llorente arriving on a free, while Atletico Madrid striker Borja looks set to sign for a club record £15m.
Unease must also be felt by supporters of Watford, who will begin the season under Walter Mazzari after the dismissal of Quique Sanchez Flores at the end of last season. Although the young Nigerian winger Isaac Success has arrived from Granada for £12.5m, it remains unclear which was the true reflection of the squad: the first half of the season, when they took 29 points, or the second when they took 16.
Can Bournemouth, who showed remarkable character last season to overcome not only their meagre resources but a series of long-term injuries pull off the same trick again, having effectively swapped Matt Ritchie for Jordon Ibe? And will the Tony Pulis magic remain at West Brom, keeping them up even as fans increasingly grumble about his pragmatic approach?
It's possible, of course, that a Stoke or a Southampton, or even the champions Leicester, could start badly, panic and get dragged into the mire. But, while Leicester's example shows advancement is possible – and while the middle is perhaps rising – it's hard to deny that the old class structure remains in place.
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