The Relegation Battle of 2019/20: Nine Games In
The 2019/20 Premier League season is just nine weeks old, but away from the top-two, it is already defying expectations. Perhaps most significant of all is the sight of Manchester United potentially just two defeats away from occupying a Premier League relegation zone in November for the very first time.
While credit must be given where due, it is often far more entertaining to explore who is looking likely to drop – especially with the same two-horse title race of 2018/19 being replayed.
Pundits on radio and television have been typically quick to weigh in with their candidates to drop, but will their predictions be proven correct?
Overachievers at Risk?
Starting the late autumn period with a gutsy 1-0 win over Arsenal, Sheffield United have gained a lot of admiration from neutrals. Sitting ninth ahead of October’s final Premier League weekend, Chris Wilder’s men command the respect of the league. On current evidence, they do – unlike many newly-promoted teams of years past – have the stamina to emerge from a brutal winter without sinking down the table too much.
Following said win over Arsenal, Sheffield United had conceded just 0.4 goals per-match in the five-game form table. They are also very astute when it comes to hitting on the break and then holding out, with all of their league wins up to their West Ham trip seeing them hold out for at least 45 playing minutes after taking the lead.
Also significant is the fact that three of Sheffield United’s first four road trips in the league saw them score in the final 15 minutes of the match. Ultimately, it seems as though the Blades can only be undone by an injury crisis – or a run of fixtures against a group of teams that can finally figure out how to provoke the Yorkshire outfit’s stern defence into making naïve errors, which are so readily expected of promoted sides these days.
Promoted Peers set for Decline?
Like Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Norwich City have both had moments to celebrate this season. Yet, along with Sheffield United, the Villans and the Canaries have made multiple appearances on the various ‘relegation tricasts’ of pundits and self-styled experts.
Aston Villa’s last-ditch win over Brighton last weekend kept their relegation odds surprisingly long, but their defence is porous enough to suggest that there will be tough runs of form from here. The one-time Premier League runners up have kept just two clean sheets in their first nine league outings, and have shown a lack of resilience after the break, with ten of their 13 goals conceded to this point coming in the second half.
Those ponderous second-half performances have seen Villa drop a significant number of points (eight) from winning positions this term. Successive games against the league’s top two promise to plunge Villa back to their predicted lowly station, but it is how Villa react from there that will be the telling factor in their fight for survival.
Meanwhile, after a respectable start to 2019/20, Norwich occupy the relegation zone, and now appear to be the most vulnerable of the promoted trio in the most exciting Premier League markets out there, such as ‘To be Relegated’ and ‘To Finish Bottom’.
While the Canaries returned from the October international break with a disciplined 0-0 draw at Bournemouth, Daniel Farke’s men went into that game with the worst defensive record in the league, on the back of six losses from their previous seven. Every one of those losses saw the Canaries concede first, showing true overreliance on the opening goal.
Watford: Time Up?
Over the past three years, it has become a very familiar statement, but Watford are likely to pay the ultimate price for their high managerial turnover. Though Quique Sánchez Flores has steered Watford to safety before, that came at a time when the dressing room shared a different mentality.
After four successful survival campaigns, expectations at Vicarage Road have grown, even though they’ll always be in some people’s pre-season to be relegated.
Naturally, that progress begets bigger egos, more pressure and, perhaps inevitably, a greater overall feeling that there are better options out there. Right now though, Watford are bereft of the leadership necessary, on or off the pitch, to use that collective change of mentality in a positive way.
Should Watford fail to score in their final league fixture of October, they will also be averaging just one goal every other game. At their current rate, the Hornets are – in purely mathematical terms – already on-course to enter the penultimate game of the season on just 16 points.
That alone is not even half of the record-low (33 points) for Premier League survival set in 2005. The Hornets’ point at Tottenham on 19 October was a potential sign of improvement, but it was little more than a grim display of defensive desperation at times. Prior to that, Watford’s main weakness had proven to be the start of matches, conceding 30% of their league goals scored against them coming in the opening quarter-hour of play.
Fears over Newcastle Prevail
Only Everton, Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle make up the space between Manchester United and the drop zone. Only the latter three had a presence on any relegation prediction lists, but with Newcastle occupying the bottom three after nine games, fears over the long-term ramifications of Benitez’ departure seem to have some justification.
There were hopes that Newcastle could have used a 1-0 win over Manchester United to gain momentum, and get a positive result from Stamford Bridge – a stadium that is by no means the fortress it once was. While it is unwise to read too much into Newcastle’s recent defeat there, the tendency to lapse into a one-dimensional approach remains ever-present.
That ‘one dimensional’ characteristic betrays an underlying sense of fear, and a siege mentality on Tyneside, which is reflected most crudely by the fact that Newcastle have only scored more than one goal in three league matches across their last 16. So far, Newcastle are also averaging less than ten shots per-match in the league this term.
Which Teams will Drop?
At the moment, there is very little to separate the current bottom six, making a call of this magnitude virtually impossible. Yet, given how much Norwich depend on getting the first goal, they do seem like an early tip for the drop.
That said, the Canaries’ talisman Teemu Pukki may yet do just enough to save his club from immediate demotion.
Indeed, prior to the October international break, the Finnish striker had netted seven goals across Norwich’s previous five league wins. That itself suggests an indomitable spirit, and Pukki’s very nature will not allow that to wane.
However, it remains to be seen just how well a man approaching thirty can continue this form, in his first season as a player in the superlatively tiring Premier League.
A strange statistic…
Despite knowing of the danger their club faces, Watford fans will be pleased to know that 2016/17 remains the last time the team sitting bottom after nine games went on to be relegated.
This suggests that even Watford are not completely out of the survival equation yet. However, the opportunities to gain momentum for them, and those currently in the bottom three, are undeniably running out.
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