Friday, January 28, 2022

Premier League: The Race For Survival

The race at the bottom of the Premier League table became far more interesting over recent weeks. Norwich City, long considered a lock to go down, shocked most observers by putting together back-to-back wins before entering the winter break. The six points moved the Canaries out of the relegation zone for the first time this season and rekindled hope in East Anglia. Should Manager Dean Smith save the Canaries this season, it might rank with Leicester’s jaw dropping escape from the relegation zone during the 2014/15 season which, of course, paled next to Leicester’s first and only Premier League title just a year later.

The Canaries, however, will not be counting their chickens just yet. Norwich’s recent victories came over two struggling clubs in Everton and Watford which have been slowly sinking in the table. Josh Sargent’s brace versus Watford was an anomaly in an otherwise goalless season for the American striker. The managers of both Everton and Watford were fired immediately after the horror of losing to lightly regarded Norwich. The Canaries should be applauded for not giving up on their season and launching a win streak following six straight losses. To be sitting safe after scoring just 13 goals in their 22 matches to date is remarkable. Ultimately that lack of production, however, is likely to pull them back down.

Watford and Everton have now joined the battle to avoid the three bottom places in the table which have been occupied much of the season by the Canaries, Newcastle, and Burnley. Burnley is in an unusual position, having played four fewer matches than the currently safe Canaries. Sean Dyche’s club have been in the Premier League for seven consecutive seasons and have a roster populated with several cagey veterans who have survived previous relegation battles under Dyche. The roster is not deep, however, and will be tested by the congestion created by rescheduled matches. There is also little pop in attack where the club has surprisingly moved veteran striker Chris Wood on to rival Newcastle. Things look grim for the Clarets despite their additional points opportunities versus relegation rivals.

Newcastle has added Wood and former Spurs and Atletico Madrid defender Kieran Trippier to their roster and may not be finished doing business in the January window. With motivated ownership and five points from their last three matches before the break, Magpie prospects look a bit brighter.

Watford’s inevitable drop into the relegation zone occurred with the result of their final match before the break which put a depressing exclamation point on a run which has seen the Hornets lose 11 of their last 14 matches. The short tenure of one-time Premier League champion manager Claudio Ranieri was a depressing failure mercifully ended. Defense has been the primary issue for Watford, only Norwich having conceded more goals, and the club now looks to former Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson to implement his pragmatic principles and discipline which effectively kept the Eagles safe in recent years. The defensive personnel at Watford are worse than Hodson had to work with at Palace, however, and cavalry is unlikely to arrive this window. The Hornets are in trouble.

Everton, currently four points clear of the drop zone, could be joining the survival struggle as their own troubles continue to mount. A flawed roster has lost 10 of its last 13 matches. The Toffees are spending this window trying to identify a successor to fired manager Rafa Benitez. The technical director of the club, Marcel Brands, was shown the door weeks earlier. The Everton Board and ownership are reportedly at odds over the managerial appointment. Wayne Rooney has declined interest in the manager post. A rumored candidate remains Frank Lampard, former Chelsea manger. Despite the turmoil and roster holes, the Toffees remain a better team on balance than those below them in the table. A Lampard appointment would generate much needed enthusiasm and excitement on Merseyside.

Everton and Newcastle, with more backing from their ownership, should stay up this season. Newly promoted Norwich and Watford are likely to return after just a season to the Championship. Sadly, Burnley’s longer run in the league under charismatic manager Sean Dyche would also seem to be ending.  

The Premier League Returns From Winter Break on February 5th.

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