Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Battle for Premier League Survival

Manchester City is chasing Arsenal for the Premier League title. Tottenham Hotspur is barely holding on to the final Champions League spot. The real drama this season, however, is at the bottom of the Premier League table where an unprecedented number of teams are fighting to return to the league next season. A distinct chasm exists between 11th place Aston Villa and 12th place Crystal Palace where 11 points separate the two clubs, widening to 14 points should Aston Villa win its game in hand. From Palace on down, however, is a distinctly different story. The Eagles are a mere four points better than bottom of the table Southampton. Seven other teams lie between the Eagles and Saints within that four point margin and all nine clubs are in danger of relegation from the league for the 2023/24 season.

The tension and panic are evident in the many managerial changes that have been made. Six of the nine clubs have changed their manager in the hope of changing the season’s trajectory. Two managers with extensive Premier League resumes, Brandon Rodger at Leicester and David Moyes at West Ham, remain under increasing pressure. Nottingham Forest has stood behind manger Steve Cooper who guided the club to promotion last season. Time will tell whether that was a good move as things remain tricky for the Trees.

Crystal Palace made perhaps the most panicked move of the season last week when the Eagles sacked Manager Patrick Vieira to bring back 74 year-old former Eagle manager Roy Hodgson. Hodgson rescued the Eagles from a bad situation when Frank De Boer had the Eagles in a tailspin back in 2017. Hodgson successfully instituted defensive discipline and the Eagles went on to survive that season. This time, however, the Eagle aren’t bad defensively. The problem is a lack of goalscoring, and Hodgson’s style of play promises little improvement in that department. Hodgson also failed miserably in taking Watford down last season. Not all is lost for the Eagles who have a favorable upcoming fixture list but all eyes will be on chairman Steve Parish to see how his gamble on Hodgson works out.

Wolverhampton is level on points with the Eagles and is also tied with Crystal Palace and two other clubs for the lowest number of goals scored this season. Wolves pulled the plug on manager Bruno Lage earlier this season and have pegged their hopes to former Sevilla manager Julen Lopetegui.

Leeds also moved for a Spanish manager in an in-season change. The Whites dismissed Jesse Marsch and put Javi Gracia, who had a previous stint with Watford in the Premier League, in place. Leeds is currently tied on points with Everton and Nottingham Forest, all three clubs one point behind Crystal Palace and Wolves.

Everton’s replacement of Frank Lampard with former Burnley manager Sean Dyche has borne success to date for the Toffees. Dyche, no stranger to relegation battles from his time at Burnley, has lifted the Toffees out of the relegation zone since his appointment. Forest, meanwhile started the season miserably and then improved as ownership expressed confidence in manager Steve Cooper. The Tricky Trees, however, have stumbled of late in losing three of their last four matches and have not actually won a match since the first week of February.

Leicester and West Ham are next on the relegation roll call and are the two clubs perhaps most surprising to be in this mess. West Ham particularly, has too strong a roster to be in its current 18th place position which would send the Hammers down were the season to end today. How it all went wrong for manager David Moyes after two successive seasons of European qualification, is somewhat mystifying. Hammer fans believe Moyes’s overly conservative approach is holding the Hammers back from realizing their potential.

Leicester’s roster, while showing some degradation for a lack of investment in recent years, still boasts players such as James Maddison and Harvey Barnes who should be able to keep the club above the drop zone. Even amidst the failures of this season, Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers is still so well regarded as to be a rumored possible successor to Antonio Conte at Tottenham Hotspur.

The bottom two teams in the table, and considered by many to be odds-on favorites to drop from the league, are Bournemouth and Southampton. The Cherries entered the season with Scott Parker in charge. Parker looked at his newly promoted side, didn’t like what he saw, and erupted to the press about the poor quality of his roster. He was sacked after just four games of the season and has just been sacked again after less than 90 days in charge of Belgian club Brugge. Interim manager Gary O’Neil has soldiered on to keep the Cherries in the hunt for survival but Parker wasn’t all that wrong about the quality of the Bournemouth roster. Southampton, meanwhile, is on its third manager of the season as the cellar dwelling Saints desperately search for a survival formula. Ralph Hasenhuttl was first sacked and replaced by the strange choice of Nathan Jones. The thin resume of Jones did not bode well and his temperament and poor decision making quickly alienated supporters. Jones was sacked after seven losses in his eight matches and replaced by Ruben Selles. Selles’ credentials might also be questioned as he navigates his first senior team appointment. The young manager, however, has been well received by Saints players and supporters. Two victories and three draws in Selles first eight matches has Southampton battling with a puncher’s chance to survive the season. The Saints haven’t drifted far from the other clubs in the relegation race and are currently a mere two points from safety.  

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