Treading Water

The bottom. The frightful bottom.  Let’s take a break from focusing on the top of the table and highlight the unprecedented struggle this season to stay afloat. In all my years I haven’t seen a relegation scrap quite like what we are witnessing this go round.

At this rate, any three of eleven teams could legitimately get relegated.  It essentially breaks down to whoever wants to stay up, has the invitation. The top 6 looks settled (the teams, not their eventual positioning of course). 7 and 8 are set to be a Burnley and Leicester throw down (although with Riyad Mahrez turning into a stropping schoolboy boycotting playing football matches over Leicester not letting him join Manchester City, who knows what will happen). And 9 all the way down to LAST PLACE is up for grabs separated by a mere eleven points!

Crystal Palace were in the toilet bowl. And some bugger had made contact with the flush. “Curtains” was a commonplace phrase being sung throughout London (it wasn’t but probably was). They looked lost and now have rattled off two draws and two wins in their last 5 matches. Add that to only losing twice in the last two months of 2017 (to Tottenham and Arsenal at that) and drawing with Manchester City to end City’s historic winning streak. That form takes them out of the relegation zone and into 14th. Far from safety but with a modicum of control and trending positively upwards. O, ye of toilet bowl fame.

Huddersfield were the golden children. Praise be! They seemed to be on course to prove every pundit wrong by staying in the Premier League. Heckers, they were battling for European places. David Wagner was being linked with every single vacant managerial position. Cue five straight losses and they are now second from bottom, drowning.

Swansea sat at the foot of the table for seemingly ever. Essentially the whole season and have been in the relegation zone otherwise. The flush hadn’t been interacted with, it had been bloody well dunked on. But look here! They’ve found some form and have earned eight points from their last 4 matches to finally lift themselves out of danger on goal difference. New manager Carlos Carvalhal and his hall of fame analogies working some magic in Wales.

Stoke City started brightly. They defeated Arsenal and drew with Manchester United early on. The Potters would snag a couple more victories after that. But then it all sort of dried up. Three wins (and no offense, but against Swansea, West Brom and Huddersfield; all in or around the relegation zone) since late October to today, with three losses in their last 5 tilts has them floundering badly in 18th. All to do.

I could go on.

No one outside the top 8 is safe from the drop. And while I would like to put this down to the enormous amount of parity in the British game (that is somewhat true with respect to the giant revenues each team now piles in bringing quality signings with them), I believe it is more intelligent and prudent to focus on the general level of inconsistency amongst all the sides.

No team this season has remained consistent. And if they have, not for long enough stretches. That goes from below Manchester City at the summit on down. And it shows. It is this cavalcade of inconsistency which makes it more or less impossible to predict who actually will be relegated. No team has shown that they have the mettle to string together performances and assure safety. Strikers have lacked form across the board. They aren’t scoring often enough. Besides Harry Kane, who would start in any lineup around the globe, I can’t think of one number 9 I could all out rely upon right now. The middle tier striker has gone missing. #TAKEN4

Leicester and England striker Jamie Vardy has 12 goals at a clip of a goal every 181 minutes. I’m sorry but that’s not that impressive, particularly for a star of that caliber. Glenn Murray of Brighton has 8 goals at a clip of a goal every 176 minutes. Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson has 7 goals with a goal per 164 minutes. Again, these are the heights, the leaders in their field this season, and the most important people you are relying on to get you points. It isn’t good enough!

Defences, too, have not delivered. They have been porous and frail, many times utterly futile. No one back line is formidable. There is not a back two or three combination that strikes fear into any attacker’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s hope: Burnley have only conceded 23 goals. Ben Mee alongside either James Tarkowski or Kevin Long have been more than adept. Besides Manchester City scoring 4 and Tottenham scoring 3 against them, the Clarets have been staunch. That doesn’t really matter much if you’re not scoring, but they have been impressive at the back. Which is not the norm this season. Some of the goal differences on show are appalling: -27 Huddersfield, -26 Stoke, -16 Everton (who boast Michael Keane, Ashley Williams and now Eliquiam Mangala in their ranks, who didn’t help, incidentally, in shipping five goals against Arsenal last weekend). Liverpool have conceded 31 goals, Arsenal and Leicester 35. Watford have conceded 45 goals, West Ham 46. If I told you the usually disciplined and hard nosed Stoke City have conceded 52 goals, would you believe me? Of course you would, they’re terrible.

Simply put, no one has really been that magnificent. And because of that we find ourselves in this spastic season of constant whiplash where one or two victories lifts a team out of the relegation zone. Only for us to find them back in there a week or so later. And due to the tightness down below, clubs are only encouraged to sack flailing managers just to gamble on getting a few results that sometimes come with hiring new blood (see Palace, Watford and Swansea to a degree, but not West Ham or Stoke so much).

With such inconsistency on show, the teams staying up will be those going on a streaky run of form late on. The crux of the season is now. The time to pounce and make your move is now. Bigger clubs are off hiatus and getting back to their European knockout endeavors. Domestic cup ties and replays begin to clog the weeks. The lower clubs will start to see rotated squads facing them and they need to capitalize. Even a point will do. This race will come down to single points and goal difference. And will surely last until the final match day. Clubs need to stay organized (keep your shape and cool against a top side who will dominate possession) and stay focused (going down a goal or two doesn’t mean anything anymore…create a chance, hope for the best and then keep applying pressure). Every game is massive now. These inconsistencies breed unpredictability. Anything can happen (just see the end of the recent Liverpool/Tottenham match or Watford scoring three goals in the last 10 minutes versus Chelsea). Just hold your nerve. The teams that do that, you will come to find out, will survive.

It’s a spectacle for the fans. In a season where the champion was crowned within three months, this monumental topsy turvy war for survival and safety in the league delivers a plot line worth meticulously following. Those who stay will deserve it.

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