Sizing Up the Premier League's Relegation Scrap

Six teams are in danger of going down, but three will survive a drop to the Championship that's catastrophic both financially and competitively. Here's how the race looks entering the home stretch.
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Now that Liverpool has clinched the Premier League title, Champions League qualification and relegation are the most important matters yet to be decided in England’s top flight. Being sent down to the Championship will be especially crushing this year for clubs that are feeling the economic crunch caused by the coronavirus pandemic and will sorely miss the millions of pounds paid to Premier League teams each year as part of television rights deals.

There are five clubs with at least a 32% chance to be relegated and another that's not fully out of the woods yet, according to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model. Which ones may be left wishing that the English FA had followed France and the Netherlands' example by canceling the season and suspending relegation? Let’s take a look at how each club is shaping up, in current table order entering Tuesday.

Brighton

15th, 33 points, -7 goal differential

Restart Form: 2-1 win vs. Arsenal (H), 0-0 draw at Leicester City (A)

Remaining Matches: Manchester United (H), Norwich City (A), Liverpool (H), Manchester City (H), Southampton (A), Newcastle (H), Burnley (A)

Reasons for Optimism: The Seagulls have soared out of the break, picking up their first win of 2020 at home against Arsenal to resume their campaign before managing a draw at third-place Leicester. Those sorely needed results likely saved their season. FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 1% chance of being relegated, as they’re now six points above the drop zone with a far superior goal differential to their competitors.

Brighton boasts the best defense among the relegation pack with 41 goals allowed. Among clubs outside the top five, it also ranks first in passes and possession after transitioning to a more progressive style under first-year manager Graham Potter. Its last couple results show that it may be well-equipped for any remaining match, especially without fans involved in away games to disrupt their possession-based system.

Reasons for Pessimism: Three of the club's next four matches are against teams in the top five, with the other being against 20th-placed Norwich. If it emerges from that run with at least three points, Brighton fans should be able to breathe easy. If not, then things could get dicey. Potter doesn’t yet have the most technically skilled players to carry out his ideal attack, and Brighton could struggle to break down the two compact sides that finish out their fixtures in Newcastle and Burnley.

X-Factor: Center back Lewis Dunk ranks first on the team in passes (1,945) and clearances (95) and second in interceptions (44), goals (three) and assists (three). The 28-year-old also has the most yellow cards (nine), which is a pretty fun statistic for a club captain to lead his team.

Prediction: 15th with 39 points. For the fourth straight season, Brighton appears poised to finish between 15th and 17th. 

Watford

16th, 28 points, -20 goal differential

Restart Form: 1-1 draw vs. Leicester City (H), 1-0 loss vs. Burnley (A), 1-3 loss vs. Southampton (H)

Remaining Matches: Chelsea (A), Norwich (H), Newcastle (A), West Ham (A), Manchester City (H), Arsenal (A)

Reasons for Optimism: The Hornets looked to be in deep trouble during the first half of the season after firing two coaches by Dec. 1, when they had just eight points after 15 games. But the team has improved since Nigel Pearson was appointed, taking 19 points from 16 matches, including a rousing 3-0 defeat of Liverpool in late February that ended the Reds' 44-match unbeaten run and is still the only loss the champions have suffered in the league this season.

The advanced metrics say the Hornets have been the unluckiest team in the attack, with a -10.01 difference between their expected goals (39.01) and actual scoring output (29). On the other side, the Hornets have kept nine clean sheets this season, the most among the relegation pack.

Reasons for Pessimism: The club’s most dynamic playmaker, former Barcelona winger Gerard Deulofeu (four goals, five assists), ruptured his ACL during the win over Liverpool. The Hornets haven’t won again since.

Starting forward Andre Gray was dropped from the lineup for the match against Southampton on Sunday after reportedly hosting a 20-person birthday party attended by two other Watford players, breaking shutdown rules. That doesn’t speak well to the club’s mentality. Perhaps the 3-1 loss it endured will snap everyone back to attention.

X-Factor: Club captain and leading scorer Troy Deeney (six goals) is the face of the club, providing a steely edge up front and setting the tone with his physical play. His return from injury at the end of November is a major reason why the Hornets recovered from their early malaise. With him in the lineup, Watford has averaged 1.15 points per match. Without him, that figure drops to just 0.58—a pace that’d put the club at the bottom of the table.

Prediction: 16th with 35 points. The looming run against Norwich, Newcastle and West Ham appears to be an excellent opportunity to gain nine points. Even seven should be enough to secure safety.

West Ham

17th, 27 points, -19 goal differential

Restart Form: 0-2 loss vs. Wolves (H), 2-0 loss vs. Tottenham (A)

Remaining Matches: Chelsea (H), Newcastle (A), Burnley (H), Norwich (A), Watford (H), Manchester United (A), Aston Villa (H)

Reasons for Optimism: Opportunity. There are five "six-pointers" left between the bottom six teams, and three involve West Ham. If the Hammers don’t make it out alive, they’ll be ruing missed chances against their fellow bottom dwellers.

On paper, the Hammers have the quality to survive and depth that should benefit them amid the crowded fixture schedule. Club legend Mark Noble (five goals) leads an impressive stable of midfielders including Argentine national player Manuel Lanzini, speedy Brazilian Felipe Anderson and Pablo Fornals, who was on Spain’s 21-U European champion team last year. Michail Antonio and Issa Diop provide a strong backbone in attack and defense, respectively. Top scorer Sebastien Haller (seven goals) is a force to be reckoned with in the air, leading the Premier League in aerial battles won (206) by nearly 50.

Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski is recovered from a hip injury, and the Hammers lost eight of 11 matches in his absence as backup Roberto made a couple laughable mistakes that led to goals and his eventual exit on loan.

Reasons for Pessimism: David Moyes, who rescued West Ham from relegation after a midseason appointment two seasons ago, was hired to do the same in December. This stint hasn’t gone as well.

The club is in the same spot in the table it was when he took over for Manuel Pellegrini. Moyes was hired to instill a hard-nosed, defensive identity, but the Hammers have arguably become worse on that end. They’ve dropped a league-high 22 points from winning positions and haven’t kept a clean sheet since Jan. 1, winning just one of 12 league matches since that date. They’ve only managed one point all season after falling behind, the worst mark in the league aside from Norwich and a reflection of Moyes’s less than stellar reputation as an offensive mind. They haven’t picked up a point on the road since before Christmas, a streak spanning seven matches–the club’s longest such run since 2006. Set-piece specialist Robert Snodgrass (five goals, five assists) may miss the rest of the season with a back injury.

Even though this squad is too talented to be in a relegation battle—the club had top-six aspirations for this campaign—there’s somewhat of a cursed aura about the season, as evidenced by the ugly tie-breaking own goal in the loss to Tottenham last week.

X-Factor: Talented 21-year-old defensive midfielder Declan Rice, a reported Chelsea transfer target, has racked up the fourth-most tackles (94) in the league and is tied for third with 65 interceptions. He also leads the Hammers in passes. The youngster may have to lead a tightening up of the defense while also initiating possessions.

Prediction: 18th with 34 points. West Ham fans are familiar with defying the notion of being “too good to go down,” as the 2002-03 campaign ended with a supremely skilled club falling through the trap door despite tallying 42 points, a record that still stands. Most pundits are saying their fate may come down to the final match against Aston Villa, but in truth it'll likely need to get results against Newcastle, Norwich and Watford before that to avoid a similar fate.

Norwich City and Bournemouth are in danger of being relegated

Bournemouth

18th, 27 points, -21 goal differential

Restart Form: 0-2 loss vs. Crystal Palace (H), 1-0 loss vs. Wolves (A)

Remaining Matches: Newcastle (H), Manchester United (A), Tottenham (H), Leicester (H), Manchester City (A), Southampton (H), Everton (A)

Reasons for Optimism: Eddie Howe is easily the most well-regarded manager fighting the drop. Ever since Arsene Wenger left Arsenal, he’s been the longest-serving active manager in the Premier League, having rescued Bournemouth from the depths of League Two and overseeing three promotions since first joining the club in 2009. He’s a master tactician who’s been flexible in employing eight different systems this season to help his squad adjust to varied opposition.

Left back Diego Rico (65) and defensive midfielder Phillip Billing (59) have the most combined interceptions of any teammates in the division. Add them to proven talents such as Nathan Ake, Joshua King, Callum Wilson, Jefferson Lerma, Lewis Cook and Harry Wilson (plus the return of David Brooks from injury), and you may have the most gifted roster among this group.

Reasons for Pessimism: Ryan Fraser, often Bournemouth’s most creative force (team-high four assists), is sitting out the rest of the season because he doesn’t want to risk injury with his contract due to run out at the end of June. The Cherries undoubtedly have the toughest remaining fixture list, facing three of the top five and none of the bottom six. They haven’t kept a clean sheet since December, haven’t won any of their last six games dating back to Feb. 1 and have lost 15 of 20 Premier League matches after an encouraging start to the season.

X-Factor: King has become Bournemouth’s all-time Premier League leading scorer (42 goals) since it was promoted to the top flight for the first time in 2015. With Fraser gone, he’s tied with Lerna for the team lead in assists (two). A crunching tackle from Crystal Palace’s Gary Cahill injured King’s ankle, forcing him off right as the season resumed and causing him to miss the Wolves clash. But the injury wasn’t as bad as initially feared, and King is in contention to make the squad going forward.

Entering the break, the Norweigian led the Cherries in dribbles attempted (5.4 per 90 minutes), dribbles completed (2.5) and chances created in open play (1.4). But he’s only scored four times this season after never scoring fewer than six goals in Bournemouth’s four other EPL campaigns. Can King find his prior form and keep up the smallest club in the top division?

Prediction: 17th with 35 points. All seven of Bournemouth’s wins this season occurred when the Cherries had 45% possession or less. They still get to play three clubs they’ve already beaten (Manchester United, Southampton, Everton) in that fashion, and boast the talent and coaching acumen to beat Newcastle—a team that’s outplayed its dreadful advanced metrics—at home, too. 

Aston Villa

19th, 27 points, -24 goal differential

Resart Form: 0-0 draw vs. Sheffield United (H), 1-2 loss vs. Chelsea (H), 1-1 draw vs. Newcastle (A), 0-1 loss vs. Wolves (H)

Remaining Matches: Liverpool (A), Manchester United (H), Crystal Palace (H), at Everton (A), Arsenal (H), West Ham (A)

Reasons for Optimism: Villa has scored the most goals (36) of any relegation-threatened side. That’s largely thanks to 24-year-old squad talisman Jack Grealish, who leads the team in goals (seven), assists (six), passes (1,196), shots (57) and even yellow cards (eight) for good measure. He’s the best player in danger of finishing in the bottom three, though he’d likely be bought by a club more worthy of his talents—Manchester United is reportedly in hot pursuit—if that comes to pass (and perhaps even if it doesn't). 

The club showed its potential with an inspiring run to the League Cup final that saw them top heavily watered-down versions of Wolves and Liverpool before taking down Leicester City in the semifinals and finally succumbing to Manchester City.

Reasons for Pessimism: Aston Villa has the worst defense in the league (60 goals allowed) despite boasting England national defender Tyrone Mings (Premier League-leading 44 blocks). Both starting goalkeeper Tom Heaton and defender Wesley Moraes, the club’s record signing, suffered season-ending injuries during the same match in January. Villa has given up at least three goals nine times compared to just five clean sheets. Perhaps assistant coach John Terry should hop in at center back alongside Mings? Whatever wisdom he’s imparting to the players doesn’t seem to be sticking. The club's attack hasn’t been good since league play resumed either, with just two goals in four games. 

Villa has only tasted victory in the Premier League once since the calendar turned, a January triumph against fellow struggler Watford. It's played one more game than most of its relegation rivals after restarting the schedule with four games in 11 days, a pretty tough task that manager Dean Smith lamented after the loss to Wolves on Saturday. Up next is Liverpool, whom the Villans will have to hope are hungover from celebrating the Premier League title—not counting their League Cup victory over a Leicester side that didn’t start Jamie Vardy, they don’t have any wins this season over full-strength teams currently in the top half of the table.

X-Factor: The easy pick here is Grealish, but box-to-box midfielder John McGinn is also worthy of mention here. McGinn, a Scottish national player, was expected to miss the rest of the season after injuring his ankle in December, but he regained fitness over the break and could help take some pressure off of Grealish on the attacking end while also providing defensive energy. 

Prediction: 19th with 32 points. This club, which finished fifth in the Championship last season before winning the promotion playoff, just doesn’t have enough firepower to consistently compete in the Premier League, even with Grealish. If he leaves in the transfer window, it may be a while before this storied club is back in the top flight. 

Norwich City

20th, 21 points, -31 goal differential

Restart Form: 0-3 loss vs. Southampton (H), 0-1 loss vs. Everton (H), 2-1 FA Cup loss vs. Manchester United (H)

Remaining Matches: Arsenal (A), Brighton (H), Watford (A), West Ham (H), Chelsea (A), Burnley (H), Manchester City (A)

Reasons for Optimism: It beat Manchester City earlier this season! Finnish forward Teemu Pukki has 11 goals, the most of any player in the relegation battle!

Reasons for Pessimism: That victory was in September. After scoring six goals in Norwich’s first five matches while earning Player of the Month Honors in August, Pukki has netted just five in Norwich’s last 26 Premier League clashes. The Canaries have been in last place since losing to Aston Villa, currently in 19th place, on Boxing Day. They haven’t won back-to-back games all season. Despite putting forth their best efforts to be an attacking side, their 25 goals scored are the fewest in the league and they haven’t secured a single point after falling behind. Their 56 goals allowed are the second-most.

X-Factor: Pukki. While his 11 goals are impressive, his 10 big chances missed are also the most of any player in the relegation battle. He’ll need to go on a tear for the Canaries to have a prayer of staying up.

Prediction: 20th with 26 points. The Canaries are better and more entertaining to watch than the average last-place Premier League side. But they haven’t been able to grind out results against fellow strugglers, having only gained 4 out of a possible 21 points in matches against the five clubs above them. That’s a recipe for relegation. This would be Norwich’s third one-and-done season, behind only Crystal Palace for the most in Premier League history.