The Dirty Dozen

James Ward-Prowse against WBA. Was this goal the key to Southampton’s survival?

Five years ago, it was thirteen points.
Four years ago – fifteen points.
Three years ago, it shrunk to twelve points – and remained that way the next season too.
A year ago, it was eleven points.

But this season, it’s different. After 26 matchweeks completed, the point gap between Premier League’s ninth place and the dreaded, three-team relegation zone is only seven points. A run of three consecutive wins has the power to lift a major relegation candidate straight to the mid-table zone. Twelve teams, including the formerly-formidable Everton, Southampton and West Ham, are all together in a desperate fight which, in the midst of Manchester City’s reign at the top, will surely be remembered as the most interesting contest of this campaign. The Dirty Dozen. For them, the stakes are: players’ honour, salvation from rainy, route-one away days at Brentford and a £100 million payoff from the current owners of Premier League’s television rights.

How did this happen? First of all, the league’s “upset potential” has hit it’s absolute low. Gone are the days when West Ham could travel to Etihad, make 65 clearances and snatch a 2-1 victory against the run of play. This year, for a very long time, the only two huge surprises have been Burnley’s shock win away at Chelsea and Huddersfield’s snatch-and-grab job against Manchester United. Only in the recent weeks, Swansea stepped up by beating Arsenal and Liverpool while Antonio Conte’s Blues felt even more blue after falling on Bournemouth’s and Watford’s swords. That makes it six upsets. Two years ago, during the outlandish Leicester City reign, that number of plot twists would happen in the span of a single month.

Secondly, the endangered eleven’s attacking potential has been letting them down. A year ago, after 26 games, only three teams (eventually relegated Hull, Middlebrough and Sunderland) would average less than one scored goal per match. Today, there are six such sides (plus Burnley, who are pretty much safe already). Wherever you look, goalscoring threats are hard to find. Everton struggle to fill the void after Romelu Lukaku. Joshua King faded away at Bournemouth. Christian Benteke is having nightmares at Crystal Palace. Swansea lost Fernando Llorente and failed to replace him. Watford’s new forward Andre Gray has been a spectacular flop. The injuries of Andy Carroll and Charlie Austin have really hurt West Ham and Southampton. And so on, and so forth…

Since there are no big fishes to make a difference in this slugfest anymore, the minnows were forced to step up. If it wasn’t for several, surprising goal contributions from Andrew Surman and Abdoulaye Doucouré, Cherries and Hornets would’ve been far lower than 9th and 11th. On several occasions, Everton were dragged out of mud by young Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Oumar Niasse – two players who, upon the arrivals of Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramírez, were, at best, expected to enjoy the bench. Newcastle would’ve been rock-bottom without Jamaal Lascelles’ headers; Brighton have found a lifesaver in a 34-years old veteran, Glenn Murray. If one of those players steps up one more time, it’s bound to be the difference between the agony and the survival.

But if they don’t – the brawl shall be decided by fixtures. When it comes to those, Swansea hold the key to the Premier League stay. Carlos Carvalhal’s team has no less than eight (!) relegation six-pointers ahead. That includes home clashes with West Ham, Southampton, Everton and the final day test – Stoke City. Impressive against Gunners and Reds, absolutely clinical during their FA Cup replay with Notts County, Swans seem like a safe bet to keep their heads above the water.

Man of the hour: Carlos Carvalhal has already done a lot to save Swans this year.

Another side on the rise are Bournemouth – currently, the most in-form team in the entire league. Eddie Howe’s lads have not lost a single match since December, scored in each of their seven last games and completed two crucial comebacks, against Arsenal and Stoke. That, plus the timely return of Callum Wilson, look like the assets big enough to seal the mid-table finish, not to mention the safety. Fourteen (!) goals less conceded at this stage of the season, compared to 2016/17 run? That’s quite impressive in itself.

The third side that should feel relatively confident are Crystal Palace. Since November, only Tottenham and Arsenal (twice) have found the way to beat Roy Hodgson’s team in a league match. Last week, The Eagles were absolutely hammering Newcastle and only grotesquely poor finishing prevented them from collecting all three points. There’s just no way around this: after the worst top-flight start in England’s history, Palace are set to keep their place in the elite. They may want to start building a statue for injured Wilfried Zaha after that happens…

After those three, there go the clubs which should survive the hard way.

Watford impressed heavily against Chelsea, becoming the first team in over three years to put four league goals past The Blues. It’s only their terrible inconsistency, that remains the issue – this season, they were only able to string only two consecutive wins together. From 2-1 over Arsenal to 2-4 at Chelsea; from 2-1 over Leicester to 1-2 to Swansea – the team continues their hit-and-miss ventures. The main reason they’ll stay up regardless? Six remaining home fixtures against other small sides involved in this dogfight.

Everton reverted back to mediocrity after New Years’ Eve, but let’s be serious – Kopites’ dream of seeing their dreadful rivals relegated after a £182 million spending spree will not materialize. Even after a 1-5 catastrophe at Emirates, Toffees still have a bit too much quality and a bit too comfortable remaining fixtures to realistically go down. They will likely end up with 45 points, lick their wounds and start evaluating how on Earth they’ve managed to go backwards this far after the biggest squad investments in their history.

£182 million later, Everton’s season has actually been worse than this tattoo.

Brighton are still kicking. Two months ago, when they were stuffed by Liverpool, outplayed by Huddersfield and beaten by Tottenham, few experts gave Seagulls the chance. From then on, though, their performances were steadily improving: two wins, four draws and two defeats. For Chris Hughton, the next two matches will be absolutely critical: he’ll be tackling Stoke and Swansea in those. In my opinion, the in-form Glenn Murray and José Izquierdo will just barely carry the newcomers over the finish line.

West Ham were a disgrace to their badge several times this year. 0-3 at home to Brighton; 0-4 to utterly dreadful Everton at Goodison Park; needing a replay and some extra time in it to eliminate Shrewsbury from the FA Cup… Take your pick for a howler of the year. However: the more recent wins at Huddersfield and Stoke have somewhat revived David Moyes’ team. Once Marko Arnautović recovers from a hamstring injury – they should have just enough to score three or four wins they need.

Just when he was finding his best form: Marko Arnautović will need two more weeks to recover.

Then, there are those who’ll need a miracle.

In many ways, Huddersfield and West Brom are already doomed. Both are on abysmal runs of form; neither have been able to keep a single clean sheet this year. Terriers have scored only a single goal in the last seven matches and Baggies, though uplifted by Jay Rodriguez’s good form, are four points off the rest of the pack. After several, painful defeats, Alan Pardew and David Wagner are now hard-pressed to deliver big results this weekend. If they don’t, their direct encounter, in two weeks, at Hawthorns, will be a proper Prison Break. Judging by the season so far – a break with no happy end, though.

That just leaves Saints, Potters and Magpies.

Southampton have lately ended a 12-game winless streak that pushed them deep into the relegation zone. Unfortunately, the massive, 3-2 comeback at Hawthorns was only their fifth league victory this season and they remain heavily endangered, with a lot of precarious, away fixtures around the corner. So far, the club stood by Mauricio Pellegrino and seems ready to pay for it, no matter the price. Bold move – to say the least.

Stoke, useless away from home and boasting the worst defensive record in league, are in an even worse spot. Their board was clearly late to sack Mark Hughes and probably wrong to replace him with a boss like Paul Lambert. The former Villa manager will now search for the way to get points from grounds like St. Mary’s, Emirates, Anfield or Liberty Stadium. Who knows – maybe that last one visit, in May, will decide the teams’ fate?

Shaqiri and Diouf sealed Stoke’s last win over Swansea. They’ll need one more of these…

Newcastle salvaged a point at Selhurst Park and… that’s about it for the positives. The team is desperate for a goalscorer and a creative midfielder – so desperate that once Chelsea loanee Kenedy stepped on the pitch, he immediately became Toons’ leading player. In view of a rather unpleasant calendar, Rafa Benitez’s task is fairly simple: beat Southampton, Huddersfield and West Brom at home or go back to Championship.

At the moment, there’s just no way for me to separate those three sides. It’s a race of who loses the last shred of hope first; who gets lucky first; who collapses first. In case no one does – let’s just remind ourselves of the goal differences that may come into play on 13th of May: Huddersfield -27; Stoke -26; Swansea -18; Everton and West Brom -16; Palace -15; Brighton and West Ham -14; Newcastle -12; Southampton -10; Watford -8; Bournemouth -7.

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