The relegation dogfight in the EPL

Lets’ take a look at which teams could potentially get relegated from the Premier League this season because I think it’ll be one of the battles that could go down to the last match of the season. So far, I wouldn’t say there is an obvious team who will definitely go down, like Derby a few years ago, or Sunderland before that. It’s all relatively tight and a lot can change, considering we’re only a quarter of the way into the season. I would say there are six teams who will have relegation worries come May and for the moment, I’m going to assume several teams above them – Sunderland, Stoke, Swansea, West Ham and West Brom – to be safe unless they have a terrible injury crisis in the second half of the season and lose a run of games.

The teams that I think are most likely to go down are:

QPR

Overview: Currently bottom of the Premiership table, having picked up just four points from 10 games, albeit having played some hard matches. I don’t feel like their position will be cemented for the rest of the season though; they managed a draw against Everton and put in an encouraging defensive display at Arsenal recently. They arguably deserved to beat Reading, showing signs of improvement. I get the impression QPR can turn things around under Mark Hughes and it is refreshing to see Fernandes come out and publicly support him. They’ve got some winnable games coming up.

Strengths: Quite simple, really: The financial backing Tony Fernandes has given Hughes -investing over £40 mil in the squad over the past year – is fantastic. The general quality of the squad also suggests they should be a midtable team so you’ve got to think it will eventually come together for them.

Weaknesses: Lack of cohesion and team spirit within the team. Conceding 19 goals in 10 EPL matches is worrying; it would be okay if they made up for it by having a great scoring record, but only scoring 8 goals in those games is not great. If they keep that record they will inevitably continue to lose. Hughes needs to produce more bang for Fernandes’s buck.

Key player: Esteban Granero. A real quality player with a lot of creativity. To sign a player from Real Madrid is a real statement of intent from Mark Hughes.

Next 5 games: Stoke (a), Southampton (h), Man Utd (a), Sunderland (a), Aston Villa (h). The Man United match aside, all of their games in November are ones in which they can realistically get a result- they should hope to get at least 7pts from those games which would go some way to helping their cause in the relegation battle.

Verdict: I think eventually they’ll turn this around, either with Hughes or a new manager, and stay up.

Southampton

Oveview: The Saints are currently last in the table, with just one win so far this season. However, in their 10 EPL matches so far this season, they have already played 6 of the top 7 teams in the league and, apart from the Arsenal match, they’ve definitely not been pushovers. They’ve got some winnable home games coming up and their fans have demonstrated a great deal of support for Nigel Adkins who has been very defiant in interviews- it would take a short-sighted Southampton fan to give up at this stage.

Strengths: It’s certainly worth noting that, along with Swansea, Southampton have got the best ‘goals for’ record in the bottom half of the league and have actually scored more goals than Arsenal. Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodgriguez have shown signs of promise as goalscorers with 7 goals between them this season, and they are still awaiting the return of the talented Gaston Ramirez.

Weaknesses: highest goalscorers in the bottom half of the table? 20th? What are their weaknesses? You do the maths. They’ve leaked 28 goals; that’s 9 more goals conceded than any other side in the league so they have to address this issue, either by working on it in training and/or investing in their defense in January. There’s no benefit in being able to score 3 goals if you’re letting in 4 at the other end.

Key player: Undoubtedly Rickie Lambert. He’s the man who makes this Southampton team tick going forward. He’s such a handful: he takes defenders out of the game and can hold the ball up well, which will definitely create space for the likes of Ramirez, Lallana and Rodriguez going forward.

Next 5 games: Swansea (h), QPR (a), Newcastle (h), Norwich (h), Liverpool (a). I would definitely give Southampton a chance of getting points in all of those games; again, 7 or 8 points will be the target for these matches- beating the likes of QPR and Norwich especially will be key to building up their points tally, whilst knocking others down around them psychologically in the process.

Verdict: I do have a feeling Southampton can stay up, partly because I’ve got a soft spot for them and also their goal scoring record, but if severe defensive problems aren’t fully addressed then I can see them just falling under the trap door.

Reading

Overview: Reading’s inability to hold onto wins has left them in the relegation zone, and in trouble. Like the aforementioned teams, Reading are playing some of the bottom sides in November and have a game in hand, so again it would be wrong for Royals fans to be pressing the panic button. Yet at the end of the day, three times have got to go down- not everyone can survive.

Strengths: They’ve got a bit of strength in depth in terms of attacking options. Le Fondre, Pogrebnyak, Hunt and Roberts are all capable, particularly Pogrebnyak, of scoring goals and that can be an important thing to have in the winter months when the injuries start mounting.

Weaknesses: I would argue they’ve not got enough experience. They’ve thrown away so many opportunities to get that first win when all they needed were some composed heads to retain possession and slow the tempo down. There are no midfielders in their first team who are proven in the Premier League, which is what worries me about them.

Key player: I would say Pavel Pogrebnyak. The clinical Russian has been deadly in front of goal. I remember him scoring a hatful of goals when he’d just signed for Fulham in January last season, so I’m surprised he left them to go to Reading. A similar sort of player to Jermain Defoe, he’s got such an eye for goals, you give him the ball with a bit of space and he will put it in the back of the net. Key to Reading’s chances.

Next 5 games: Norwich (h), Everton (h), Wigan (a), Aston Villa (a), Man Utd (h)  They can probably write off the game against Man United, and they’d be lucky to get a point out of Everton, but they’ve still got three games in November against teams who may be in the relegation zone towards the end of the season. Having said that, Norwich, Wigan and Villa have all won their last matches, so though they won’t settle for it, I get a feeling the Royals could be lucky to average a point per game.

Verdict: Again, I’m struggling to come up with a definitive verdict because a lot of this depends on how the teams down the bottom get on when they play each other, and of course the number of injuries. I think it could go down to the last day for Reading, but I’ll predict a narrow relegation.

Aston Villa

Overview: With all three teams in the relegation zone still very much alive and kicking, the spotlight could be about to fall on Villa. Maybe that’s me as a Blues fan being optimistic but they’ve got to play all three teams who finished in the top three of the Premiership last season in November and the apparent unhappiness of Darren Bent could cause Villa some problems, I think they need to watch themselves.

Strengths: They’ve got the best defensive record of all the teams in the bottom six, Vlaar looks like a decent signing.

Weaknesses: Paul Lambert’s gamble of bringing through youth prospects and good young players from the lower leagues like he did at Norwich hasn’t yet worked. They don’t have the experienced players who can provide these youngsters with the confidence they need to express themselves. I think a few times at Villa park the fans have got on the team’s back and they’ve not had the maturity to deal with it. I also think Lambert’s handling of Darren Bent has been poor, and a little naive.

Key player: Belgian striker Christian Benteke looks to be finding his feet, with an impressive return of four goals so far this season, when many expected him to take a while to adapt to the Premier League. He’s only 21 but can hold the ball up and score goals like a proven Premiership striker.

Next 5 games: Man Utd (h), Man City (a), Arsenal (h), Reading (h), QPR (a). They can write off the games against the Manchester clubs, and are unlikely to get a point out of Arsenal. The main aim for them will be to get four points out of Reading and QPR to keep themselves afloat.

Verdict: Their lack of experience, particularly in midfield, makes me think the phrase ‘too good to go down’ won’t necessarily apply to them. If they lose too many games I’m not sure how long Lambert will last with the Villa fans, and then who would they get to replace him? Villa are in more trouble than their fans would like to admit.

Norwich

Overview: The Canaries seem to be really coming into form under Hughton. Being a Birmingham City fan I know how good he is at motivating teams and he immediately gets the respect of the players. Beating Arsenal was a real statement that they can pull together and stay up. Also, to beat Spurs in the Carling Cup will have given them an awful lot of confidence going into what are some tough games.

Strengths: Team spirit. I thought that with Lambert leaving, they would lose their competitive edge which is what made them so strong last season, and suffer from second-season-syndrome. It seemed to start off that way, when heavy defeats at Fulham, Liverpool and Chelsea were only married with draws against teams like QPR and West Ham at home. Then, out of the blue they managed a win against Arsenal, a game during which the players showed a lot of self-belief.

Weaknesses: Similar to Reading and Villa really, they lack that proven Premiership player(s) in midfield. They’ve got Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson in the centre of the park, neither of whom have much Premiership experience or definitive quality. They rely solely on the hardworking, no-ego nature of the squad to make up for a lack of obvious technical quality.

Key player: John Ruddy. If Norwich’s 5-2 defeat to Liverpool didn’t exist, the Canaries would have a good defensive record at Carrow Road, and John Ruddy has made a series of important saves for them.

Next 5 games: Reading (a), Man Utd (h), Everton (a), Southampton (a), Sunderland (h). The good thing about their position in the table at the moment, is that they can afford to draw at Reading and Southampton, which might mean the pressure is taken off them a bit. I can’t quite see them getting anything out of United or Everton, although stranger things have happened, but Norwich can draw three games this month and still be in a good position to stay up.

Verdict: I think Norwich’s unity and motivation under Hughton will be key to their success this season, and I think it’ll be enough to survive all but the worst injury crisises.

Wigan

Overview: Considering they normally come good around March time, Wigan will be pretty happy to sit 15th, and 4pts clear of the relegation zone. Martinez has gone them playing some great football, they’ve got a couple of winnable home games coming up this month as well, so on the whole things are looking bright for the Latics, if they can firm up defensively at home.

Strengths: Some of the football they played against West Ham a week ago wouldn’t have looked out of place in a good European team. If they could play like that every week they would be in the top half of the table in no time and Kone and Di Santo look to be forming a real understanding up front.

Weaknesses: I do mean IF they could play like that every week they would be in the top half, but the main problem for them has been the inconsistency- sometimes you just don’t know which Wigan team will turn up.

Key player: Arouna Kone. An absolute coup from Roberto Martinez’s point of view, his bullish work rate and passion for the game, has seen him get not just three goals, he’s also created a lot more for the team hassling and harrying defenders. They make mistakes and Wigan often profit. A great team player.

Next 5 games: West Brom (h), Liverpool (a), Reading (h), Man City (h), Newcastle (a). They’d be happy to get a single point out of games against Liverpool, Man City and Newcastle but the opportunity for wins is there at home to Reading, who are down at the bottom, and West Brom, who can perhaps rest on their laurels a little bit. Six points would be a realistic target, maybe seven or more if one of the bigger clubs have a bad day at the office like Tottenham did this week.

Verdict: The way Wigan are playing at the moment is something they should be proud of, it can be brilliant to watch and I think they’ve got one of the best managers in the country in Roberto Martinez. I think they’ll stay up as long as the Spaniard is in charge.

You get the feeling November will be a critical month for clubs in the battle to beat the drop, with six matches involving the bottom six clubs playing each other. I think by the beginning of December we’ll have a clearer picture of who can stay up, and who is relegation bound. For the time being though, my tips for relegation are Reading, Aston Villa and Southampton.

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