On the first of May this year, with between two and three Premier League games left of the 2017/18 season, it was genuinely possible for any club in the bottom half of the division to have be relegated within a fortnight. Just six points separated Southampton in 18th from Crystal Palace in 10th, and the extra game left to play for everyone from 18th to 14th meant nobody was safe.
It was an extraordinary situation, and one interpreted at the time as an example of the wealth divide between the elite and the rest; as an insight into the growing existential crisis among middling clubs that, drifting aimlessly without long-term goals, had ended the concept of ‘mid-table’. This, we all thought, would be the new norm.
Instead we enter October with three clubs in serious danger of being cut off from the rest, denying us a serious relegation battle next Spring. Newcastle United, Huddersfield Town, and Cardiff City are all without a win after seven matches of the 2018/19 season, all three have just two points and all three are marred in the relegation zone by three clear points.
By comparision, last season just three points separated 19th from 14th after seven matches, with Crystal Palace the anomaly on zero points – and clearly in a rough patch that wasn’t going to last the whole campaign. Only Palace were yet to win a league game and every team looked genuinely competitive. The same cannot be said this time around.
Newcastle are widely expected to improve simply because Rafael Benitez is their manager, and it’s worth noting that the Magpies have already played Tottenham Hotpsur, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal, a nightmare start that suggests calmer waters are ahead. There is still a danger that Benitez will grow weary of Mike Ashley’s inability to sell the club (and unwillingness to invest in transfers) and walk away before the season is out, but unless the Spaniard leaves Newcastle can expect to battle right through to May for their survival.
The same cannot be said for Cardiff or Huddersfield. The former were promoted last season using a tactical model that simply doesn’t work in the Premier League, Neil Warnock’s brand of brutal direct football good enough to build momentum for a promotion push but nothing more. England’s top division has simply moved on, and without significant investment over the summer Cardiff were always destined for the drop. Following another disappointing defeat at the weekend – at home to Burnley – there are genuine fears that Derby County’s record-low points tally of 11 in 2007/08 is under threat.
Huddersfield play a much more modern, brave, and commendable style of football but sadly they don’t possess the technical quality to compete. Their survival last season, following promotion against all odds via a penalty shootout after finishing sixth in the Championship, was nothing short of miraculous. David Wagner deserves tremendous credit for keeping them up, and yet in reality they have been playing at a relegation standard since September 2017. After a stunning start to the campaign, winning seven points from the first three matches, Huddersfield then won just 30 from the remaining 34.
And so all the signs point to almost certain relegation for Huddersfield and Cardiff, a situation that shouldn’t embarrass or upset either set of fans. Both have drastically overachieved to make it this far on their small budgets.
However, it does mean that the Premier League will surely be denied another interesting relegation battle when as few as three clubs battle to avoid 18th. Bournemouth’s coherence, Watford’s surprisingly strong showing, and the monetary strength of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham has helped reinstate the Premier League middle class. Palace are too good to struggle for much longer (going by Roy Hodgson’s outstanding record since his appointment) while West Ham United are unlikely to fail to reach the 40-point mark.
Consequently it is hard to see any club other than Brighton, Newcastle, or Southampton drop out of the league. Thankfully, it looks like we could get a genuine title challenge this season, but if we don’t then there could be absolutely nothing left to play for in May 2019. A shock revival from Huddersfield and Cardiff is in every neutral’s interest.
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