Premier League Restart – The Preview (Part Two)
Moving down to look at the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table, Jamie Braidwood evaluates the chances of the so-called “lesser” teams as many face the fight against relegation.
Three consecutive wins prior to the Premier League’s suspension in March means that Crystal Palace are sitting in a healthy position in the table, and are 12 points clear of the relegation zone with nine games remaining. Like many of the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, Palace have struggled for goals this campaign – only Norwich and Newcastle have scored less this season. Roy Hodgson’s side have been in desperate need of a consistent goalscorer in recent years, but with the club unlikely to invest in solving that problem in the upcoming transfer window due to the economic impact of Covid-19, Palace will have to come up with other solutions.
Now that his desired move away from south London is unlikely to materialise for some time, star winger Wilfried Zaha must improve upon his goal return, and remind the league why he was valued as highly as £80 million at the start of this season. The 26-year-old has scored just three times this campaign.
Having been appointed Everton manager in late December, Carlo Ancelotti had just 11 league games in charge before the Premier League season was suspended. It is clear that Everton expect to be a club that challenges for the European places, and while there is too much ground to make up over the run-in, Ancelotti essentially has a nine-game preseason to prepare his side to go again next campaign.
The former AC Milan and Real Madrid boss will have been encouraged by the performances and progress of young forwards Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, but will be desperate to get Italy striker Moise Kean up to speed following a difficult first season in the Premier League. Ancelotti must also work out how to fix Everton’s poor defensive record – a task made harder due to the season-ending injury recently suffered by Yerry Mina.
Newcastle’s lockdown period was dominated by fresh takeover talks, with a £300-million deal involving a Saudi Arabian-led consortium reportedly close to completion. Suddenly, Newcastle were linked with Mauricio Pochettino, as well as big-money moves for stars such as Edison Cavani and Philippe Coutinho. But, in typical Newcastle fashion, progress has stalled, and doubt has been cast over whether the takeover will actually happen.
Instead, as the Premier League resumes, Newcastle fans must return to reality, with Steve Bruce still in charge and Jonjo Shelvey still their top scorer with only five goals. The club require just a few more points to be clear of the threat of relegation, and when that is secured, Bruce should be given a lot of credit for guiding such a mediocre squad to safety.
Ralph Hasenhüttl was rewarded for his side’s excellent response to the 9-0 home defeat they suffered against Leicester back in October when he was given a four-year contract extension during lockdown. The fact that it also came off the back of a poor stretch of form for the Saints prior to the league’s suspension speaks volumes that there is genuine belief in Hasenhüttl’s long-term plan and style of play, which emphasises high pressing and quick counter attacks.
Southampton look clear of the drop, but could get sucked in if results in the four games against the teams below them don’t go their way, while star man Danny Ings will be looking to add to his 15 Premier League goals so far this season.
With only six wins so far this season, Graham Potter’s side have been pulled into a relegation battle in his first season as Brighton manager. Although they have the most points out of the Premier League’s bottom six, Brighton were in the worst form prior to the league’s suspension and are the only team in the division yet to win a game in 2020.
Their remaining fixtures are also a concern, with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City all to come at the Amex Stadium, and with no home support to spur them on.
Clearly, with the amount of money invested on attacking players and the move to the London Stadium, West Ham expect to be doing a lot better than battling against the drop. But with nine games remaining and David Moyes parachuted in to steady the ship, even before lockdown the club had accepted the reality of having to scrap for their Premier League survival.
It has been suggested, however, that the club might actually be one of the few teams who benefits from the behind-closed-doors environment, as the atmosphere, or lack of it, at the vast London Stadium is often said to hinder the team’s performances. In the Bundesliga, Hertha Berlin’s results at the similarly dreary Olympiastadion have improved slightly with the absence of fans, so perhaps we will finally see the best of Felipe Anderson, Sebastian Haller, and Pablo Fornals as an attacking unit once play resumes. West Ham also face Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa in their final four games, so things could get very interesting if they don’t get their act together soon.
A stunning 3-0 win over Liverpool aside, Watford’s upturn in form since hiring Nigel Pearson had started to plateau prior to the Premier League’s suspension.
Perhaps the break came at the right time, because although Watford have been in a mess all season, they have shown moments of resurgence since Pearson’s appointment – and are, after all, mostly the same squad that spent most of last season in the top half of the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final. Their chances of survival will be determined by their effort and whether their exciting forward Ismaïla Sarr is clinical enough in front of goal.
Bournemouth’s spell in the Premier League has been defined by streaky stretches of form, which seem to lurch unpredictably between good and bad. This season, however, has been more bad than good, and their position of 18th owes much to a five-game and four-game losing streak earlier in the campaign. Eddie Howe’s side cannot afford to enter such a slump once the Premier League returns, with their top flight status in grave danger for the first time since promotion in 2015.
Home fixtures against Crystal Palace and Newcastle will be crucial to their chances, especially considering it comes before a tough stretch of four games against Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester City. The return of David Brooks for the first time this season is a plus, and Howe will be desperate for the young forward to click back into gear with Callum Wilson, Josh King and Ryan Fraser – an attacking unit that performed so well at times last campaign.
The return of John McGinn should ease the attacking burden that has been placed on the shoulders of captain Jack Grealish ever since the Scot suffered a serious ankle injury earlier in the season. Grealish has been excellent on the pitch this campaign, but there perhaps isn’t another team in the Premier League whose attacking output has been so reliant on one player. As Grealish started to tire prior to the league’s suspension in March, Villa slumped to four straight defeats in the league, while also losing the Carabao Cup final to Manchester City.
With McGinn and Grealish back in tandem, Villa will be less one dimensional, although the absence of a recognised striker remains an issue. As is the fact that six of Villa’s ten fixtures are at Villa Park, where they will be without the loud home support of the Holte End.
Even as they are rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table, six points adrift of safety, Norwich continue to claim plenty of admirers. Norwich play brave, technical football, and the fact that two of their five league wins so far this season have come against second-place Manchester City and third-place Leicester shows that Norwich are a high-risk, high-reward side. But with time running out, it is crucial that Daniel Farke’s side start winning more consistently, starting with opening home games against Southampton and Everton.
It is too late now for Norwich to change their style of play, so the pressure will be on striker Teemu Pukki and creators Emiliano Buendía and Todd Cantwell to deliver the numbers that they have manage to produce at times this season, but just not quite regularly enough. Fail to grab a win against either Everton or Southampton, and Norwich could lose hope quite quickly.