As we turn the corner into the second half of a Premier League season, excitement begins to unfold at both the top and bottom of the league. With most of the attention centred around the race for the title, the drama at the foot of the table can be overshadowed. However it is in the midst of this scrap for survival in which the Premier League is at its greatest. It has to come to that stage of the season where relegation candidates step forward and life in the Championship becomes a very real prospect for the bottom few.
There’s only eleven points separating Stoke City in 9th and the tip of the relegation zone, so you could argue that all sides below Mark Hughes’ men are in danger. Going by this season’s form and performances so far I would say that there are only five sets of fans with reason for concern: two of this season’s promoted teams in Middlesbrough and Hull City, alongside Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Swansea City.
Having recently appointed new managers, Swansea and Crystal Palace have the potential for a winter revival. Particularly Palace, the Eagles’ new boss Sam Allardyce is more than a trained hand in escaping the drop; and with rumours he’s keen to bring his Sunderland saviour Jermaine Defoe to Selhurst Park, things are looking positive for the South Londoners. If ever there was a player-manager combination to keep a team afloat, it’s Allardyce and Defoe.
Swansea on the other hand, have turned to the relatively inexperienced (in the Premier League that is) Paul Clement. His only previous top flight position saw him win the title in 2010 as Chelsea’s assistant manager; a fine achievement but it’s worlds apart from the task at hand for the remainder of this season. This survival inexperience could prove costly, as it has done for so many Premier League managers before him (see Remi Garde, Aston Villa).
As Palace could thrive from the possible signing of Jermaine Defoe, Sunderland would struggle to score enough goals if they lose the focal point of their attack. David Moyes endured a tough start to his Black Cats career but has since found patches of form, largely down to the top class all-round forward play Defoe has to offer. The veteran striker has notched up 12 goals so far this season, a rare feat for a player in the relegation zone. In contrast to their fellow battlers, Sunderland have built a strong CV in beating the drop, they’ve finished two or fewer places above the relegation zone in four of the last eight seasons. Part of me thinks that their luck may have run out, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the likes Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson drag them over the line once more.
For two of this season’s new boys, Middlesbrough and Hull, the first half of the season didn’t exactly go to plan. Middlesbrough, despite being in the best position out of these five relegation candidates, look completely lifeless. Epitomised by marquee summer signing Alvaro Negredo’s tendency to go missing for games at a time, they Teesiders have lacked consistency in their performances and always falter when they concede the first goal. This comes down the robust style of their manager Aitor Karanka. The 43 year-old excels at frustrating his opposition, grinding teams down and snatching a 1-0 win on the counter. However, his side often find themselves trailing with no concrete plan as to how they are going to overturn games. Spirited fight backs are a trademark of teams who manage to make the great escape, and are something that Middlesbrough are yet to find, that’s why they may just slip into the bottom three when the nerves kick in come April/May.
As for Hull City, they are surely at this stage of the season the favourites to go down. They have shipped the most goals and have only won four games in twenty-one. Mike Phelan didn’t have much joy in his first managerial role and was subsequently replaced by Marco Silva in December. The Portugese was largely unheard of when he arrived from Olympiakos; Hull fans will be optimistic that they’ve found the perfect man to keep them afloat. Unfortunately for them, the problems don’t solely lie in management. Their squad is simply not good enough. The flashes of brilliance are few and far between, and usually only provided by Scottish international Robert Snodgrass. They lack an out-and-out goal scorer, a solid centre back pairing and at least one electric winger. They must bring in a solid signing or two while the transfer window remains open or their fate is more or less sealed.
With all of these factors taken into account, I believe the key ingredient to survival is experience. The experience in the Sunderland and Palace ranks should be enough to see them keep hold of Premier League status for at least another season. This will see the unfortunate trio of Boro, Hull and Swansea relegated to the Championship for the 2017/18 season, much to the dismay of their respective fans.