Untangling the Bottom Half

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The Premier League title race is as open this season as it has been for a long time. Aaron Ramsey hoisted Arsenal to the top and kept them there early in the season, with Mesut Ozil bolstering the effort. Then Manchester City emphatically scored their way into becoming the favourites in the minds of many, every home game holding the potential to explode into a festival of goals. Then wily Jose, lurking quietly but ominously over the shoulder, this week rode his ‘little horse’ to the front of the cavalry line, halting City on the way. Now even Liverpool are being touted (a little prematurely, surely) as a team capable of having a say in the title race. Four potential winners, separated by six points. And, as it is at the top, so it is at the bottom. Actually, it’s less the bottom and more the bottom half. Literally, the entire bottom half of the table, from 10th to 20th are only seven points apart. Only seven points.

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Let’s think back a few months. There was a point earlier in the season when it looked as if there would be nothing, absolutely nothing that would save Crystal Palace. Eulogies were not only prepped, they were published. After 10 games they were six points from safety, a position that no one has survived from, a historical fact mentioned in this Guardian article from November 8th. They sacked Ian Holloway and brought in Tony Pulis, and the change in fortunes has been nothing short of Pulis-tastic, an inevitable drop in average possession held per game, a defensive transformation that has taken them from leakier than Grandpa Pott’s shack to Scrooge-like levels of stinginess, and a journey up to the lower middle of the table, a sturdy 13th. The Palace revolution plays like an advertisement for sacking your manager, the results are startling. But for some of the other clubs that have shown the gaffer the door, the decision hasn’t seemed as clever. Fulham, who in November were in 18th, are now in 20th and Rene Meulensteen is looking thoroughly like a manager whose sum total of managerial experience is all of 16 days. Similarly, Pepe Mel, brought in to muted fanfare by West Brom to replace Steve Clarke, has overseen a steady slide (punctuated by the bizarre decision to sell talented goalscorer Shane Long to Hull) into the relegation zone this week.
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It can feel like this to be relegated, I know, I support West Ham United.
But the opposite attitude towards a dire situation has proven, for some, to be a wise position to take as well. My beloved West Ham, who was in freefall and playing some utterly dreadful football, has managed, with true Allardyce grit, to get 7 points out the last available 9, keeping cleans sheets in all three matches. Some credit is probably due to the owners for sticking with Allardyce, who, in the face of a relegation battle, was probably the best option anyway. So, well done Dildo Bros.

                                                      

Sunderland has certainly improved since Poyet has taken over. So too, albeit only in the one game since, has Swansea since Laudrup was sacked. Cardiff though, have not done much in the way of better results since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was lured there. Generally, the decision to sack or not sack isn’t the key difference between survival and relegation, and certainly a manager who thrives in a relegation dogfight isn’t always the person to take the club forward the next season. Also, managers who fail to resist the drop aren’t always bad managers, just look at Roberto Martinez.
This season is shaping up to be just as interesting at both ends, with no clear conclusions in either respect to be drawn yet. Sunderland has the most daunting run in, with 6 of the current top 5 still to play. Palace has the easiest, with only 3 of that same group to come. For me, Palace and West Ham look the most likely to stay up, the experience of their managers teamed with their excellent defending (the Hammers have the most clean sheets in the league!) should see them through. I worry for Cardiff and for West Brom, the Baggies in particular. Their squad looks very thin and Mel has done nothing to give the impression that he can survive the upcoming ordeal. Still, Fulham would be my favourites for the wooden spoon this season, despite their admirable recent point at Old Trafford.

Key Men for Teams Most Likely to Go Down

 
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Crystal Palace

Palace has done some eye-catching business in the window, Tom Ince being the most impressive. He may add a vital spark for them going forward but the real engine of their midfield is their Australian defensive shield, Mile Jedinak. Palace makes the most tackles and interception per game in the league, and Jedinak is the number one interceptor and the 11th most frequent tackler in the league individually. As I wrote above, Palace has the lowest amount of average possession, but only concede 13.2 shots a game on average, as few as Liverpool. This is due to Jedinak’s superb roving of that key area in front of their very deep defence, nullifying the opportunity to shoot. He is the captain and is more than capable of seeing his side to safety if he continues playing well.

West Ham

Although Kevin Nolan has singlehandedly pulled us out of the relegation zone with his back to back Man of the Match performances, and the inspirational Winston Reid returning to the defence, the key man for the Hammers has to be Andy Carroll. Against Swansea he was unplayable in the air, setting up both Nolan strikes, and generally bashing holes in the Swansea defence. Of the teams we still have to play, only Stoke and Manchester City have defenders who can compete with Carroll aerially so the Big Sam method, unattractive as it is, just might get us through with Carroll up top.

Norwich

Norwich consistently struggle for goals and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel has flattered to deceive. Gary Hooper has attempted to make up for the misfiring Dutchman, but can only do so much. Every time I’ve watched Norwich, I’ve been impressed by Nathan Redmond. Incredibly pacey and direct, he’s able to skin a fullback at any time, and is joint top for assists this season for Norwich. His finishing lets him down, the mental assuredness that is required to put chances away is something he’s yet to acquire at only 19. But his talent can spur Norwich on at the pointy end of the pitch and he can make something out of nothing.

Sunderland

The key man for Sunderland is the most obvious of all the teams at the bottom; Adam Johnson has been their star performer for the past few games, scoring, assisting and generally mesmerising crowds with his outstanding attacking play. That goal that almost was against Newcastle was genius. If he can keep up his red hot form (which was enough to win him the Player of the Month award for January) for the rest of the season, safety will not only be assured for Sunderland, but even a World Cup place for England might be available.

West Brom

The sale of Shane Long was significant for West Brom, because without him, only Victor Anichebe and Nicholas Anelka remain as striking options. Both aren’t exactly the dynamic goalscorer that Long often is. Anelka however retains that finishing instinct, and, if given the right service can still be a threat. Chris Brunt, with the most assists, as well as couple of goals this season, has arguably been the Baggies top performer. He scored a smashing goal in the loss against Villa, and my be pivotal in midfield.

Cardiff

Cardiff have a lot of individual quality in the team, Medel, Caulker and Bellamy can all carry out their respective positional tasks to a high degree when called upon. Loanees Wilfried Zaha and Peter Odemwingie inject some invention into the attack, but out of all of them, it’s Steven Caulker that gets the nod for me. He’s performed admirably for Cardiff so far this term, playing every game with intensity and aggression. Cardiff has scored nearly as many goals from set pieces as they have from open play this term, 8 and 11 respectively, and Caulker has managed 2 of the former. A few rousing performances from Caulker, as well as another goal or two would be vital to Cardiff’s chances.

Fulham

Fulham were the biggest movers in the transfer window, bringing in no less than seven new faces. They broke their transfer record to sign Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou, a fine prospect, from Olympiakos. They’ve gotten rid of Adel Taraabt, professional defensive liability, and have allowed Dimitar Berbatov to saunter sexily to Monaco. I think another new man,Lewis Holtby, on loan from Tottenham, could be the key for them. He was a surprising move to the Cottage, a quality player and one who can unlock defences. His pass for Fulham’s first against Manchester United was a peach and, although most defences won’t be as obliging as United’s, that kind of impact can win a game. With Heitinga in front of his Dutch colleague Stekelenburg (teammates from the last World Cup final) and the encouraging defensive performance against United’s crossing assault last match, more Holtby magic might just pull Fulham clear yet.

 

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