2017-18 Premier League DARTS, Week 36: Reflections on the relegation battle

FC Yahoo

Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday or Tuesday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …

The 2017-18 Premier League will be remembered as the year of Manchester City. As the year of Guardiola. But it will also have another legacy: it will be remembered as the year – or at least the first year – of the sack.

The past eight months have been perilous ones for managers in England’s top flight. By the time the 2017-18 season is out, more than half of the league’s 20 clubs will have made changes at the top. There have already been 10 sackings. There will likely soon be more. And the sheer volume of turnover provokes one simple question.

Why?

Because pressure to stay in the Premier League, driven by the financial rewards of top-flight status, is at an all-time high. And the number of clubs whose top-flight status was tenuous at one point or another this season was at an all-time high.

All but one of the so-called Other 14 flirted with the drop zone. And all but two of the Other 14, newly-promoted sides excluded, axed managers. The result was a topsy-turvy relegation battle that only recently offered clarity, but that remains unresolved.

So with two weeks remaining, here’s a look at that relegation battle – at the clubs who’ve avoided it, and at those still stuck in it. Each of the Other 14 gets its own mini-section, ordered in line with the current table, with point totals as of Monday morning in parentheses.

1. Burnley’s black magic (54)

Back in August, on paper, the Clarets were one of the worst teams in the Premier League. They were relegation favorites. Eight months later, they’re on their way to the Europa League.

Huh?

Yep, we’re still as stumped as you are. Burnley has outperformed both its talent level and its underlying numbers for the third year running, and this time around more than ever before. Both stats and human eyes expect Sean Dyche’s side to come back down to earth next year, especially with grueling European travel a source of worry as much as a reward. But it’s impossible to overlook the Clarets without lauding Dyche, and admitting to the efficacy of his more-nuanced-than-you-think defensive tactics. Their success has been astounding.

2. Everton trudged its way to mid-table (48)

Everton was dreadful this season. All season. With Sam Allardyce or without him. Don’t let the splits – 36 points since Big Sam was appointed, more than Arsenal – fool you. Even under the veteran Englishman, per Understat, the Toffees had the fifth-worst defense in the Premier League (Expected Goals-wise). And they weren’t leaky due to talent or experience deficiencies. They were disjointed because throughout the campaign, they tried to be something they weren’t.

The club approached the summer and the season as if it were poised to break into the top six. It splashed cash around carelessly and irrationally, and built a squad of highly-regarded players who didn’t fit coherently into a plan. Allardyce at times solved problems by bunkering in defensively. But that solution didn’t jibe with the club’s summer spending, which ranked among the 10 most lucrative in the world. So he tried to play like England’s best; he tried in-vogue styles; but he just didn’t have the requisite personnel, and the result was a shambles. A big offseason re-think is necessary.

3. Leicester is the real best of the rest (44)

Leicester has regressed to its mean, which is somewhere in between its miraculous title-winning level of 2015-16 and its relegation-flirting level of 2016-17. It was the only Other 14 team with a positive Expected Goal differential. Its results and performances under Claude Puel suggest it should be the favorite for seventh place next year.

4. Newcastle pulled itself out of trouble in 2018 (41)

The Magpies lost just twice – to Manchester City and Liverpool – between December 30 and April 15 because … well, because Rafa Benitez is a really good coach. His squad was strong by newly-promoted standards, but lacking compared to many of those below Newcastle in the table (looking at you, Southampton and Stoke). He got the best out of it, and then some.

5. The odd case of Crystal Palace (38)

Let’s go back in time for a second. Let’s go back to October. Specifically, to the October international break. Coming out of it, at the season’s two-month mark, Crystal Palace had zero (0) points. It had zero (0) goals. It was already on its second manager, but Roy Hodgson wasn’t faring much better than Frank De Boer had.

Six-and-a-half months later, Palace is safe, and it’s not entirely clear what was behind the turnaround. On one hand, Hodgson overhauled the approach to better suit his personnel, and it has worked. On the other, Palace has mid-table talent, and its performances under De Boer weren’t all that bad. Results were bound to normalize because luck was bound to normalize, and both have. Palace was always good enough to recover and cruise to safety, regardless of who was in charge.

Or there’s this: Palace has lost all nine games it has played without Wilfried Zaha. In 27 with the exhilarating winger, it has picked up 38 points. Project those “with Zaha” numbers out over 36 games, and Palace is in eighth place, on 51 points, six behind Arsenal. In once sense, that’s Zaha reliance, and it’s a problem. In another sense, it shows that this is easily one of the 10 best outfits in England.

6. Bournemouth’s late heroics (38)

Bournemouth’s underlying numbers look like those of a team in over its head, bound for the Championship. But it has mastered the art of the late goal. It has …

  • Won 18 points from losing positions.

  • Scored 19 of its 42 goals (45 percent) from the 70th minute onward; those goals have been worth 20 points.

  • Scored seven goals – one-sixth of its 42 – from the 88th minute onward; those seven have been worth 10 points.

In fact, if Premier League games lasted only 87 minutes, Bournemouth would currently be in the relegation zone, level with Southampton on 32 points, behind on goal differential. But its end-game heroics have propelled it to a 7-11-7 record in games decided by one goal or fewer; those 32 points will keep it in the top flight for another year.

7. Watford’s instability (38)

Since securing promotion to the Premier League in the spring of 2015, Watford has gone through five different managers. It’s been plagued by instability, short-term thinking and knee-jerk reactions. Of course, that mindset has kept the Hornets in the first division. But firing a manager every time he hits a poor run of form, or every time he displays a nagging imperfection, is not a recipe for sustained success.

8. Brighton’s blueprint (37)

Brighton provided a blueprint for staying true to a successful Championship core, but supplementing that core with shrewd signings who can help achieve Premier League survival. The likes of Anthony Knockaert, Glenn Murray, Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have proven capable; but Brighton wouldn’t be safe it it weren’t for Pascal Gross, Jose Izquierdo, Davy Propper and the rest of a strong class of summer acquisitions.

9. West Ham isn’t out of the woods (35)

We can talk about the future and the behind-the-scenes turmoil at a later date. For now, let’s talk about how West Ham isn’t quite in the clear. There’s a very realistic scenario where the Hammers lose their three remaining games – at Leicester, vs. Manchester United, vs. Everton – and get jumped by Southampton and Swansea. The good news is that Huddersfield, also on 35 points, might not win either, and its goal differential is five worse than West Ham’s.

10. Huddersfield’s terrifying run-in (35)

David Wagner has done a lot with a little. But his Terriers have only picked up 11 points in 2018. They overachieved early, and have now regressed. They’ve lost nine of their last 14. And their three remaining opponents are Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. Oof. Trouble.

11. Swansea’s struggles (33)

The Swans have been pretty darn poor – and increasingly poor – for four consecutive seasons now. Results obscured problems for two of the four. Once results declined, the club began cycling through managers, unaware that managers weren’t its problem; the squad was. And it still is.

Swansea is in position to survive because it has made the Liberty Stadium a fortress under Carlos Carvalhal, taking 13 points from seven home games since his appointment. It probably just needs one more win in two tries against the two foes directly below it. But this might be the worst team in the Prem. It’s probably the worst Swansea team of the club’s Premier League era. It would not be a surprise to see it slip back into the drop zone.

12. Southampton’s descent (32)

The Saints were legitimately very good for three seasons in a row. They’re a well-run club with a fruitful academy and strong infrastructure. For years, they found gems in the transfer market, sold them on for profit, and used the profits to find more gems.

But then they slipped. They missed on a few signings. They missed on one manager, then strayed from their ways amid the panic of a relegation scrap. They have still been plenty good enough to stay in the Premier League, both in terms of talent and output. But they were hopelessly uninventive going forward under Mauricio Pellegrino, and now are a bit of a mess under Mark Hughes.

Saturday’s win over Bournemouth was massive, and Southampton is absolutely capable of winning two of its last three (at Everton, at Swansea, vs. Man City). And frankly, the Premier League will be better off if the Saints do. But bad decision making has left them susceptible to bad luck, and this now looks like a 50/50 proposition.

Hughes also looks dangerously close to having had a hand in two relegations in the same season …

Mark Hughes could ultimately have had a hand in two relegations from this season’s Premier League. (Reuters)
Mark Hughes could ultimately have had a hand in two relegations from this season’s Premier League. (Reuters)

13. Stoke’s disaster (30)

There is no satisfying explanation for Stoke’s demise, other than that Hughes’ weird, misguided back three experiment, and the losses that piled up as byproducts, have broken the squad’s will. Fortunes have not improved under Paul Lambert. There is a bit more coherence, but no togetherness, and no determination.

This, on paper, is one of the 10 or 12 best rosters in the Premier League. But a defense comprising dozens of millions of dollars of center backs has somehow been the league’s second-worst. The attack runs through Xherdan Shaqiri, who has never seen a rushed 30-yard shot he doesn’t like, and who doesn’t exactly encourage teammates to get involved. Stoke’s season has been a full-blown disaster, and everyone involved has a lot of questions to answer.

14. West Brom’s self-inflicted doom (28)

West Brom’s decision to sack Tony Pulis is, without exception or doubt, the single worst decision of the Premier League season. It was grotesque. It was embarrassing. It was backwards. Ask any club in a vacuum who it would hire to navigate a relegation battle, and its first response would be, “Is Tony Pulis available?” The answer, until November, was no. Then West Brom erred, and that response wasn’t available.

West Brom had the man who has never in his 25-year managerial career suffered relegation, and the Baggies inexplicably let him go. It would have been a forgivable decision as a summer reboot. As a mid-season panic, it is unforgivable. Pulis’ West Brom was easily good enough to stay up. Pulis’ West Brom playing for a different retread manager, the clueless Alan Pardew, wasn’t good enough. And West Brom will pay millions for its costly choice.

Previous DARTS: Week 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 15 | 16 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 32 | 33 | 34

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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