It has been an open and exciting Premier League season to date but with the title race and relegation battle increasingly looking like foregone conclusions, we could soon be forced to focus all our attention on the race for the top four. As many as eight clubs can be said to be competing for three Champions League qualification spots, and there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns between now and the conclusion of the campaign.
Unfortunately, the two other key narratives might already be over. At the top, Manchester City are five points clear of the chasing pack with a game in hand on the sides around them. And at the bottom, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United are all cut adrift and in grave danger of the drop, justifying our pre-season relegation predictions.
It has, up to now at least, been a season to forget for all three sides. They have won only seven games between them – the same amount as Newcastle United in 17th. They have scored a combined 50 goals, which is just one more than Manchester United. Out of a total of 68, Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United have lost 44 games.
Fulham are currently the closest to escaping the relegation battle. There has been much praise for their improved performances of late and some of it is deserved. Yet Scott Parker’s side have not won a Premier League match since November 30.
Parker has certainly made Fulham harder to beat, but they have not been effective enough in the two boxes. Last Saturday’s scoreless stalemate with West Ham United was their ninth draw of the season. A failure to turn more of those into wins is proving costly.
West Brom, another promoted side, have been even more disappointing. That should not come as too much of a surprise given their minimal expenditure last summer and their underwhelming end to the 2019/20 Championship season.
Even so, Baggies supporters probably expected Sam Allardyce to make more of an impact. The one-game England manager has pulled several clubs out of the relegation battle in the past, but he has not yet been able to work his magic at The Hawthorns. It is alarming that a manager renowned for his ability to tighten up a backline has overseen a run of 28 goals conceded in his 10 games in charge. Remarkably, that is the joint-most a team has conceded after a manager’s first 10 Premier League matches, alongside Danny Wilson at Barnsley, Nigel Adkins at Southampton and Slavisa Jokanovic at Fulham.
Sheffield United are the team rooted to the foot of the table after 23 matches. There has been little to cheer for Blades fans so far this season, although talk that Chris Wilder’s men could amass fewer than Derby County’s record low points haul of 11 has proven premature.
United are a touch unfortunate to find themselves 12 points adrift of safety. They may have lost 18 games, but 13 of those have been by a one-goal margin. The fine margins have gone against them this term, although a lack of firepower is a big part of the reason for their precarious position.
We have seen some miraculous escapes from the relegation battle in previous Premier League seasons, and nothing can be ruled out this time around. It would, however, take a superb spell of form for any of Fulham, West Brom or Sheffield United to drag themselves out of the mire.
Frustratingly for all three, the clubs they are trying to catch have experienced significant upturns of late. Crystal Palace won two games to pull themselves clear of danger before losing two more this week. Newcastle have stopped the rot with two wins in their last three outings. Brighton & Hove Albion have triumphed in three of their last five. All but one of Burnley’s seven victories have come in the last three months.
A consequence of this is the probable increase in dead rubbers towards the end of the season. Safe from the relegation battle but unable to qualify for Europe, the majority of bottom-half sides could find themselves with little to play for. Burnley vs Newcastle sounds even less appealing than usual when there is nothing on the line.
Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United, meanwhile, cannot afford many more slip-ups. The relegation battle is not over just yet. But the way things are going, we should not expect any final-day drama at the bottom of the Premier League.
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