With the 2018/19 English Premier League season about to enter its final phase, time is running out for the teams who occupy the bottom half of the table. For some, the calming waters of mid-table banality will be reward enough over a 38-game season, while the opportunity to play former EPL clubs like Hull, Swansea, Wigan, Stoke, QPR and Birmingham is fast becoming a reality for others.
The casual fan, one reared on the soothing tones of NBC Sports over the last five years, may think that the EPL is basically run for the benefit of the Big Six. And that casual fan is not too wide of the mark.
Almost inevitably, the live games shown on NBC each week will feature at least three of the big fish. The rest of the league will be relegated (no pun intended) to the subscription service that NBC introduced after a couple of years of free football hits. This gameweek, for instance, every Big Six team will be on TV live and direct, although Arsenal will have to suffer the ignominy of playing Huddersfield on CNBC (stands for Consumer News and Business Channel, BTW).
With that in mind, this quick recap/review of EPL Gameweek 25 will take a look at the clubs struggling to stay afloat for at least another financially lucrative season. And, just for fun, we will highlight why being marooned in the middle of the table is not necessarily a bad thing.
Show me the money …
Since the Premier League was introduced to our collective consciousness in 1992, 49 clubs have competed for the millions of dollars that success can bring. Some 27 years later, only six teams have never dropped into the apparent black hole of lower tier football – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs.
Every other team that has played in the top flight has flirted with or succumbed to relegation. Even the financial behemoth that is Manchester City has played at a lower level, although it is worth noting that this was well before a Middle Eastern government/legitimate investment vehicle bought the club in 2008.
When you consider the financial rewards that staying in the EPL can bring, it becomes very obvious that dropping into the old Second Division is something to be avoided.
In the 2016/17 season, for instance, each EPL club received a flat participation fee of over $45 million. This fee excluded additional payments for TV broadcasts (both domestic and international) and the “merit bonus” for their final position. Burnley finished 16th that year, avoided the drop and were rewarded with nearly 12 million for putting their fans through the relegation wringer.
Staring into the abyss …
With 13 games left to save their EPL future, there are probably eight teams that can consider themselves part of the relegation battle.
Huddersfield and Fulham are already adrift at the bottom of the table, netting 11 and 17 points, respectively, so far this season. Both teams have struggled for goals this season, and Huddersfield have only found the back of the net 13 times in 25 games. A 5-0 defeat to Chelsea in EPL Gameweek 25 is a sure sign that the writing is on the wall, and to a goal difference of -33 doesn’t help.
Fulham are not much better. Despite spending over $150 million in the summer, they were forced back into the transfer market in January to bolster their squad. That worked briefly, a 4-2 win over Brighton in Gameweek 24 providing a small ray of sunlight. This was followed by a 2-0 loss to Crystal Palace five days later. Which sort of sums up Fulham’s season.
Cardiff City round out the bottom three with 22 points, and can consider themselves unlucky to have bought a striker who – sadly – never got the chance to pull on the shirt. Time will tell if the death of Emiliano Sala will be the defining memory of their season, but they are the most likely of the three to escape the trap door.
Burnley remain out of the relegation places with 24 points, which means that Huddersfield and Fulham need to start getting their act together sooner rather than later. In fact, there are three teams on 24 points – Southampton and Newcastle are the other two clubs that could be back in the relegation zone before too long. With that in mind, Southampton’s home game against Cardiff in EPL Gameweek 26 is a proper six-pointer.
Best of the rest
The fight to stay up is normally confined to the bottom half of the table, and the table never lies.
Crystal Palace and Brighton, for instance, are nowhere near safety – often defined as a minimum of 42 points – and have 26 and 27 points, respectively. Only six clubs have more than this benchmark after 25 games and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out which six.
Both Palace and Brighton have had – to date – inconsistent seasons, with the latter probably happier with their performances so far. On paper, Crystal Palace are not a bad team and they have already pulled off some shock results, including a 3-2 win over Manchester City during the Festive Fixtures. The problem for Palace is that football is played on grass, not paper.
Brighton, on the other hand, are coming off the back of EPL games against Liverpool and Manchester United. Five out of their next six games are against the teams that are below them, so this should provide Chris Houghton’s boys with the necessary incentive to pull themselves clear of the drop zone.
Summer is only 13 games away
The legendary Derek Smalls once described his role in Spinal Tap as being between the fire of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tuffnell’s ice, with the bass player stating that he was “somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”
That evocative description sums up the teams who are both not in the relegation dogfight (yet) and nowhere near the race for Champions and Europa League. West Ham, Leicester City, Bournemouth, Everton and Watford are all marching towards the 42-point safety net, while Wolves in 7th are still nine points behind 6th-placed Arsenal.
All of these teams can probably award themselves a C+ for their efforts so far, although Watford and newly-promoted Wolves have far exceeded expectations. West Ham and Everton, on the other hand, will have expected a far better season after 25 games, with the latter team becoming a poster child for how spending money doesn’t automatically guarantee a return to elite status.
On their day, all of the teams in mid-table can beat anyone.
The old adage that clubs not involved in the title race or the relegation scrap were just waiting to put their towels on the beach at the end of the season. Those days of just seeing out the campaign are not really reflective of how important it is to finish as high as possible, especially when you take into account the merit payments that the EPL doles out at the end of each season.
The next round of fixtures will see a couple of teams play each other – Watford vs Everton, for instance – but the other mid-table clubs face teams that are either challenging for the title or craving the relative comfort of the position that these clubs currently enjoy. Which means that the towels can not be packed away just yet.
The ones to watch
As we have mentioned before, the next round of fixtures is basically a standard week. With the exception of the Man City/Chelsea game, the rest of the games are likely to cement the gap at the top even further and give us a reasonable idea of who will be the first team to get relegated.
The smart money is on Huddersfield, who are going to have to work their collective socks off if they want to repeat the miracle escape they achieved in 2017/18. That has to start with a good result against Arsenal. Fulham, despite the largesse of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, also look doomed (at home to the Solskjaer Revolution in Gameweek 26), but there is still a lot of football to play.
As for the rest of the bottom feeders, Cardiff are probably going to go straight back down again, although if I was a Burnley, Southampton or Newcastle fan I would probably spend the rest of the season wearing trousers that don’t show stains.
Ultimately, the English Premier League has always been a marathon, not a sprint, but time is running out for those clubs who are still waiting to lace their shoes. And we all know that time is not always a friend to those in need.