Big Sam has yet another club to save – this time, in London.
It’s truly on now. While Chelsea continue to cement their 2016/17 league title; while Liverpool continues an impressive chase after The Blues; while Arsenal, Spurs and City are trying to keep up with the pace – much more interesting, much more dramatic things are happening in the bottom half of the table. We’re half-way through the season and the distance between 9th place and a rock-bottom spot is twelve points. Twelve points – the amount to earn or throw away in the span of about a month. This time, there are no Aston Villas or Newcastles to bend over and accept their miserable fate; worse off, there are also very few shock defeats for the big clubs. It’s actually quite simple: if the current trend continues, the fight for Premier League survival will be decided in several direct encounters between endangered sides – and that could be down to the proverbial wire.
That being said – some teams are in a less danger than the others. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine Southampton, Bournemouth, Burnley or West Ham going down. It’s just not going to happen. Each of these lots have several, quality players at their disposal. But it doesn’t stop there: despite a fair number of setbacks this season, they all have the right attitude, right team spirit to scrape some important results. Saints’ draws with Liverpool and Man City; Cherries’ four points stolen from Reds and Tottenham; Burnley’s four points picked up against Liverpool and Man Utd; West Ham’s recent three wins in a row: those are the kind of results that, once repeated two or three times more, will keep their heads up above the water. Thus, baring severe injury woes, random managerial insanity or extreme discrimination from the referees – nothing bad should happen to them in the year 2017.
The real trail of tears starts a notch below them, at the fateful 13th spot. Watford. One of the few, surprise packages of the last season are now struggling find their form… forget it: they are even struggling to find their best starting XI! Their perfect forward partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo has suddenly fallen into the obscurity once the team switched from an archaic 4-4-2 system to a more modern version of 3-5-2. As a result, Deeney is now on only 4 goals and 3 assists; 2016’s New Years’ Eve has seen him with 6 goals and 6 assists to his name. Ighalo regressed even further: from 14 goals and 4 assists to just one (!) goal and one assist. If it wasn’t for Etienne Capoue’s five good strikes, Hornets would’ve been the fourth-lowest scoring team in the entire league. With only one win in their last seven Premier League matches – they could still potentially face lots of trouble this spring.
Similar trouble are haunting the well-season relegation survivors, Stoke. They might’ve done some of the best business around by signing Joe Allen, Bruno Martins Indi and loaning out Lee Grant – but the goalscoring output has been absolutely sub-par. It had a lot to do with Xherdan Shaqiri’s calf injury that saw him miss four games early this season and let the Swiss international to a prolonged struggle for finding the form. However, even more awkward was Marko Arnautović’s fall from grace. Last season, the Austrian has reached 11 goals and 7 assists: a return close to impossible considering his team’s defensive profile. In 2016, all end product he has provided was a single, obsolete goal in a 1-4 defeat to Crystal Palace and an assist against Sunderland. Oh, and one more thing – a red card he deservedly saw for a horrendous kick on Sofiane Boufal’s right knee. Where will the goals come from now?
Behind these two toothless sides, there’s Leicester. The reigning Premier League champions; the fairy-tale artists from the last season. It was obvious that the dream isn’t going to last for them – not with N’Golo Kanté leaving the club for Chelsea. However – to slip back into the league obscurity with defeats to Hull, West Bromwich and Sunderland already in their book – that is massively disappointing. This time, it’s defending that obviously does not work so well anymore: with less cover coming from the weakened midfield, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have been repeatedly exposed by the pace and width of several different teams and the other hero, Kasper Schmeichel, struggled with an injury, leaving the goalkeeping to a much less experienced Ron-Robert Zieler. On the other hand – Foxes are doing well in their maiden Champions League start. That alone should indicate that they’re unlikely to drop.
One-season wonder? Not much’s left from Mahrez’s sensational form.
As I’m writing these words, Leicester are visiting Riverside Stadium in what has to be one of the most bland football matches played in the Premier League this season. For a good reason: this Middlesbrough’s side is really, really dull. Manager Aitor Karanka notoriously fields a 4-5-1 formation in which all attacking goods are supposed to come from set pieces or long, aerial crosses played to Álvaro Negredo. Occasionally, it works – but more often than not, it doesn’t, as the end product of wingers Stuart Downing and Adama Traoré is consistently nonexistent. On the other hand – the ultra-safe approach at the back means that most of Boro’s games are oscillating around the 0-0 scoreline. I admit: it’s straight-up impossible for me to decipher their final fate – all I know is that whether they manage to hang around or not, the outcome of their campaign will be decided by a single goal; a single win; a single, narrow defeat.
Behind Boro, there come four clubs which are unanimously in shambles. Crystal Palace have sacked Alan Pardew and installed “the unsinkable” Sam Allardyce in charge – but their game against Arsenal has underlined all old problems they’ve been unable to fix this season. Eagles are defending way too deep, their full-backs do hardly offer any protection in the wide areas and there’s too little chemistry between the defenders to avoid situations in which they are troubling each other. It would’ve been much more optimistic had Christian Benteke converted that critical penalty against Watford a week ago – but with his miss, the confidence dropped, the nervousness started to creep in and now, there’s a lot of fixing to be made in that side. Number one goal at the moment: get the maximum out of the next five, relatively easy fixtures and sign at least one, competent full-back. Then, we shall see.
If it’s any consolation to Big Sam – the teams behind his back are in even worse condition. David Moyes’ Sunderland have just been mercilessly slaughtered at Turf Moor, conceding four goals from just six shots on target Burnley have managed to produce. Andre Gray has been handed his first Premier League hat-trick on a silver platter – even though he’s only scored twice in twelve games prior to this match. What’s even worse: the hell broke loose when Lamine Koné had to be subbed off with a minor injury. The centre-back is expected to be fine within few days – but then, instead of helping Black Cats, he’ll be travelling to Gabon to take part in Africa Cup of Nations for Ivory Coast. Without him and with Jordan Pickford being sidelined for two months with a knee injury… The Mackems are probably done. Sorry, guys: there won’t be another “late revival” this year.
A little more hope is being offered by Hull. They could’ve and should’ve beaten Everton last week but a late lapse of concentration cost them two points. Yes, they are an extremely insipid team and their ability to defend set-pieces is, at best, awful – but at least they have a starting XI sorted and Robert Snodgrass is some sort of an attacking outlet for them. The ex-Norwich winger is one of the most dangerous free-kick taker in the league and occasionally he can deliver a good cross to whoever is playing upfront. If only Tigers could spend some money on one more attacking player who would help the Scot in the third half – things could actually work out well for Mike Phelan’s side. And it’s not even because they have any particular ability or even consistency – it’s just that, unlike some other teams, they haven’t been completely embarrassing themselves on a weekly basis.
Robert Snodgrass – the only man standing between Hull and certain relegation.
The same cannot be said about Swansea. This summer, the club did not learn from Aston Villa’s demise and allowed two of their three best players to leave. And, just like Delph and Benteke for Clarets – Ayew and Williams have completely disintegrated the team once they were gone. Francesco Guidolin tried to patch the axewounds with Modou Barrow and Jordi Amat, but it was futile. Regardless of dozens different defensive lineups and configurations: Swans were and still are, absolutely dreadful at the back (over 2.3 goals conceded per game!) and useless going forward (21 goals despite having Gylfi Sigurðsson, Fernando Llorente and record signing Borja Bastón in the same roster). Confused with all that, Huw Jenkins panicked and made a ridiculous appointment by bringing Bob Bradley in. Another miserable failure – and now, the lone Welsh team in EPL are out there, looking for another boss to save them.
The stakes are high: as it stands, one season more in the top-tier of English football is worth roughly £100 million from the TV sponsorship deal alone. Compared to £30-35 million a top Championship club could get after dropping to that division – it’s a gigantic difference. In fact, the current, one-season payment from the TV deal exceeds the market valuation of six smallest Premier League clubs – and covers up to 80% of wealth for two other. That’s a return definitely worthy of making investments in January. We’re already hearing that Boro are after Rudy Gestede from Aston Villa, Watford are eyeing Henri Lansbury from Forest and Hull would love to loan out Carl Jenkinson from Arsenal. Squad improvements are needed: currently, about the half of EPL tail-enders are playing nearly unwatchable football.
Give us entertainment – or give yourself a drop.