By Ben Fleming
As the hectic Christmas period approaches, many eager eyes will be drawn to the top of the table.
Manchester City look ominous and unrelenting in their pursuit to retain the Premier League but unlike last year, they face a serious challenge in Liverpool, whose development under Klopp has left them ready and waiting to pounce on any mistake by Manchester City and capture their first League title since 1990.
However, whilst the battle at the top of the table rages on, a compelling story is brewing at the bottom of the table.
As the gulf between the top and the bottom of the table grows, many more teams find themselves sucked into the relegation scrap. Eight points separates the bottom eight teams, at the time of writing, and hence, the battle of the bottom is developing into one of the more exciting and potentially dramatic in years.
As one shall see, the key to Premier League survival is pragmatism and the ability to evolve a side; the teams who let their squad and tactics become stagnant and predictable will inevitably find it hard to survive.
Promoted teams are always seen as favourites for relegation.
Just as the gap between the top and the bottom of the table has widened, the explosion in TV rights money has created a mammoth divide between the two divisions and anyone making the step up has to adjust fast or face the immediate prospect of returning to the second tier.
Wolves have quite superbly bucked this trend and have created an attractive brand of football under their Portuguese manager, Nuno Espírito Santo.
Over the summer, they brought in experience in the likes of João Moutinho, Rui Patrício, Raúl Jiménez as well as Adama Traoré, who adds a dynamic and unpredictable element to their attacking line to add to a squad that was already capable of competing in the Premier League.
Despite faltering slightly in recent weeks, they look set to thrive in the league, with their new faces playing a key role.
Fulham, despite having entered the league with lofty ambitions and spent £100m, have struggled to find a settled eleven.
They have conceded thirty-three goals, leaving them languishing at the bottom of the table and making Jokanović the first victim of the relegation dogfight with Ranieri named as the new manager of the West London club.
The desire of Fulham to build a philosophy of attractive football under Jokanović was admirable and worked in the Championship, the sheer number of new signings and the increased quality of opposition meant it was going to be difficult to emulate such form in the top flight.
Ranieri should bring a more pragmatic and defensively sound approach, which will prove more effective in the long term and should secure them safety and while it may not please all their fans.
Fulham’s willingness to adapt quickly could well keep them in the top flight, something infinitely preferable than getting relegated due to an ideological commitment to an unsuccessful brand of football.
The other team to secure promotion was Cardiff, and despite many labelling them as favourites for relegation, the Welsh club have surprised many and key wins over Wolves and Brighton in recent weeks have provided hope to many fans, that Cardiff could pull off a miracle and remain in the league.
However, Cardiff’s lack of investment in the summer may come back to haunt them. Their current squad represents no major improvement from that seen in the Championship last year and crucially, a distinct lack of premier league experience and I fear Cardiff may struggle to remain afloat in the league.
The other teams who often get dragged into a relegation dogfight are promoted teams who survive their first season.
Those clubs often succumb to the effects of “second season syndrome”. Symptoms include failure to evolve as a side after a successful first season, leading to predictability, teams figuring out how to beat you and ultimately, relegation.
Both Huddersfield and Newcastle showed early symptoms of “second season syndrome” given their surprising lack of big summer transfers.
In the case of Newcastle, this is perhaps to be expected given their current situation with their owner, Mike Ashley, and fortunately, they have the experience and tactical nous of Rafa Benitez to act as the perfect antidote, something which should see them survive the drop in my eyes.
Huddersfield don’t have the same issues to blame for their lack of ambition in the transfer market and this might ultimately come back to cost them.
They scored the fewest goals in the league last year (28), and yet signed no-one with Premier League experience up front and as such have only scored 10 this season, the lowest in the league.
Tactically, Wagner has made no attempts to evolve the side, relying on his high-octane gegenpressing system which, despite providing a promising start last season, has been nullified by many teams in the division.
Such predictability and lack of evolution of the side makes it hard to look past the Yorkshire club as favourites for relegation.
On the contrast, Brighton, led by the unassuming yet astute Chris Houghton, have quietly gone about their business and currently find themselves in tenth place.
The summer signings of Bissouma, Bernado and Montaya have all added extra quality to the side and have slotted seamlessly into the starting eleven, whilst Florian Andone, brought in from Deportivo, looks to be a superb option off the bench for Murray, and in time will undoubtedly replace the veteran English striker.
Needless to say, such recruitment is diametrically opposed to the two teams above and shows a real desire to progress the team in a technical and tactical sense, which will ultimately give them a great chance of survival.
The final teams to look at are Crystal Palace, Burnley, and Southampton, who have in recent years, established themselves as regulars in the Premier League.
As aforementioned, however, failure to evolve and progress a side runs the risk of stagnation and thus relegation.
Burnley had a remarkable season of overachievement last season, culminating in their qualification for the Europa League playoff rounds.
However, despite this, their summer transfers and subsequent opening to the Premier League showed no desire to evolve the side after a successful season.
They don’t need to start trying to play like Man City- far from it, but Dyche should have recognised teams were going to figure out how to unlock Burnley’s defence eventually and he doesn’t seem to have a plan B.
If results don’t start to improve, Burnley may be best served to replace Dyche and bringing in a fresh outlook to the club, or they could find themselves dragged into a relegation scrap.
The same can be said for Crystal Palace, who finished eleventh last season but have made been found out in an offensive sense, and the lack of goals are particularly worrying for Palace.
Southampton have been steadily declining over the past few years and seemed to have abandoned their progressive tactics and recruitment seen under Pochettino and Koeman for Mark Hughes, who despite keeping them up last season, signified a regression in the club’s vision.
However, with the arrival of Ralph Hasenhüttl, the former RB Leipzig manager, their form could be about to change, given Hasenhüttl’s and great track record when it comes to exceeding expectations. His high tempo football, much like Klopp’s at Dortmund should see Southampton end this period of stagnation and return to their previous heights, seen under Pochettino.
The sheer number of teams in touching distance of the relegation zone means that this year’s relegation battle could be very intriguing and dramatic. However, it is undoubtedly clear, as demonstrated in this article, that those willing to adapt and be pragmatic will survive whilst those who don’t seek change will be destined to stagnation and potential relegation.
Photograph: John Candy via Flickr