Everton boast one of the best attackers from both England (Dominic Calvert-Lewin) and Brazil (Richarlison) and haven’t been relegated since 1951. Leeds United charged to ninth in the Premier League last season and are coached by one of the most admired managers in the sport. Newcastle United became one of the richest clubs in the sport last fall and spent more than $110 million on transfers in January. Burnley have been one of the most reliable and defensively sound teams in the Premier League in the past half decade, played in Europe just three seasons ago and just added a Champions League team’s best scorer. Brentford began the season by beating Arsenal and drawing with Liverpool and are backed by both an exciting modern manager (Thomas Frank) and one of the most analytics-friendly owners on the planet (Matthew Benham).
At least one of these teams is getting relegated this season.
The Premier League might genuinely be as deep as English fans always say it is this year, rife with playing talent, managerial talent and, of course, cold, hard cash. Its depth is evident in what is becoming a pretty tight race for the last few spots in European competition, too: Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers are all on pace for between 61 and 67 points, and one will likely snare a Champions League bid.
That quality in depth becomes even more evident at the bottom. Sure, Watford and Norwich City have each offered only the slightest glimpses of hope this year, but at least one relegation spot will go to a team that has either a clear plan, clear talent or both. So let’s handicap what might be the most interesting race in English football this season.
Below are the seven teams with relegation odds of 11% or greater, per FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index. Considering the teams on this list have played anywhere between 21 and 25 league matches at the moment, we’ll use points per game and goal differential per game below as differentiators instead of raw totals.
Their situation: 0.96 points per game (16th), -0.56 GD per game (15th)
SPI rank: 63rd
Odds of relegation: 11%
Trending up or down? Down (three points in their past eight league matches)
Brentford have beaten three of the top seven teams in the table (Arsenal, Wolves and West Ham) and enjoyed a rousing draw with second-place Liverpool early in the season. Seven matches into the campaign, they were seventh (and just four points out of first) with 12 points. It was a heartwarming story for the denizens of Brentford Community Stadium.
Since then, they’ve managed just 12 more points in their past 18 matches, allowing the most goals in that span while scoring the fifth fewest. In their past six league matches, they’ve been outscored 14-3. They have struggled to live up to solid xG figures — forward Bryan Mbeumo and midfielder Christian Norgaard have turned 9.9 xG into just four goals — and despite decent defensive activity levels (their 12.4 passes allowed per defensive action, or PPDA, are ninth in the league, their 0.13 shots allowed per possession is fifth), opponents are both starting and ending more possessions in the attacking third.
If there’s good news for the Bees, it’s twofold. First, they’re pretty healthy. Defender Kristoffer Ajer is rounding into form after missing a couple of months with a hamstring injury, and the club hopes that newly signed attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen can provide much needed creativity for an attack that creates strong scoring chances (eighth in xG per shot), but not nearly enough of them (19th in shots per possession).
Second, their finishing has been almost too poor. The difference between their goal differential and xG differential is -0.47 goals per match, easily the worst/unluckiest in the league. Some progression to the mean could knock them out of the danger zone in the coming weeks, which include matches against relegation rivals Newcastle (Feb. 26), Norwich City (March 5) and Burnley (March 12).
Their situation: 1.00 PPG (14th), -0.45 GDPG (14th)
SPI rank: 66th
Odds of relegation: 14%
Trending up or down? Down (four points in their past seven league matches, though they thumped Leeds last Saturday)
Like Brentford, Everton didn’t begin the season with many issues. Under new manager Rafael Benitez, the Toffees took 14 points from their first seven matches, scoring two or more goals five times. They’ve done so only four times since, and they have the fewest points in the league (eight) since Oct. 3. After giving Benitez heavy control over the roster, the club fired him in mid-January.
They’ve gotten just four matches, 342 total minutes and zero goals from star Calvert-Lewin in that span as he dealt with first a broken toe, then a quadriceps injury. They have endured a dramatic finishing slump without him: outside of Richarlison (three goals from 2.7 xG) the rest of the team has just 11 goals from 16.3 xG. The result: close loss after close loss. In matches decided by zero or one goals, Everton are averaging just 0.6 points per game: one win, six losses, four draws. That’s the second-worst average in the league, ahead of only Watford’s 0.5.
It’s also almost unsustainably bad. Their xG differential is -0.23 per match: not great (12th in the league), but well above most of their relegation rivals. Even in the funk of the past two months, it’s fallen only to -0.30.
If progression to the mean strikes in close matches, Everton should work their way out of trouble and as with Brentford, simple good health should help. Calvert-Lewin is back in action, and even if the recent acquisitions of midfielders Donny van de Beek (loan) and Dele Alli (transfer) don’t bring transformative star power, they absolutely bring depth. Everton looked good in beating Brentford 4-1 in the FA Cup on Feb. 5, and they stomped Leeds United 3-0 on Saturday. Granted, they sandwiched a meek 3-1 loss to Newcastle in there too, but all signs point to the Toffees working themselves away from the relegation zone.
Their situation: 1.00 PPG (14th), -0.83 GDPG (17th)
SPI rank: 71st
Odds of relegation: 15%
Trending up or down? Down slightly (seven points in their past eight league matches)
The feel-good story of the 2020-21 season has found life quite a bit more difficult this time around. After surging late in the season to finish ninth in their first season back in the Premier League, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds have been beset by both injuries and counterattacks. Only two players have played in all 23 league matches, and only four have topped 1,450 minutes. Star midfielder Kalvin Phillips has made only 12 appearances, forward Patrick Bamford six. Both remain out.
The lack of continuity, star power and pure depth has been costly in both attack and defence. Leeds are as intense as ever — their 9.6 passes allowed per defensive action are the fewest in the league, and opponents are averaging just 3.5 passes per possession (also the fewest) — but they aren’t creating many attacking chances from all this effort. They are starting just 7.0 possessions per match in the attacking third (11th), and while they rank eighth in shots attempted per possession, they’re 18th in xG per shot.
Their opponents aren’t finding the same problems. They’re starting 9.2 possessions per match in the attacking third (third most) and are attempting 0.15 shots per possession (fifth most) and averaging 0.12 xG per shot (eighth most).
In their past nine league matches, Leeds have given up at least two goals seven times, including seven to Manchester City and four to Arsenal. January wins over Burnley and West Ham bought them some cushion, but their next three matches are against Manchester United (home), Liverpool (away) and Tottenham Hotspur (home).
That Leeds finally get to host Manchester United again in front of the Elland Road crowd, after so many years out of the Premier League, is fantastic. But they’ve still got some work to do to make sure they get to host the Red Devils again next season.
Their situation: 0.91 PPG (17th), -0.83 GDPG (17th)
SPI rank: 82nd
Odds of relegation: 37%
Trending up or down? Very much up (10 points in their past four league matches)
SPI is a very good measure, but it’s obviously going to be difficult to use precedent and a large range of performances to get a read for a team that changes so much, so quickly. In their first transfer window under their new owners, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the team brought in striker Chris Wood (Burnley), midfielder Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon), centre-back Dan Burn (Brighton & Hove Albion) and full-back Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid) for more than $110m combined in January. They also brought in Aston Villa full-back Matt Targett on loan.
The sudden talent infusion has had its desired effect. Trippier has scored twice and created six chances in just 317 minutes as a Magpie, Burn and Targett hinted at providing upgrades in their debuts, and while Wood has yet to score, he’s provided a huge aerial presence and centre of gravity up front. Newcastle beat Leeds, Everton and Villa by a combined 5-1 in their past three league matches, and while their relegation odds are still a little bit on the scary side, those odds were 75% at the start of January.
Trends are quite obviously pointing in the right direction, but the injury bug bit on Sunday: Trippier, so brilliant in his return to the Premier League, broke his foot in Sunday’s win over Villa. He’ll be out for a while, which could be awfully damaging considering fellow full-back Javier Manquillo was injured against Villa as well. Even without him, this is a far more talented squad than the one that didn’t win their first league match until December, and if they can pull points from upcoming home matches against Brighton and Crystal Palace and/or a visit to Brentford, their relegation odds should continue to decrease.
Their situation: 0.67 PPG (19th), -0.57 GDPG (16th)
SPI rank: 77th
Odds of relegation: 50%
Trending up or down? Up … maybe? (three draws and a solid loss to Liverpool in their past four league matches)
Sean Dyche’s Clarets are the wildcard in the relegation battle. They’ve won just once all season, and thanks in part to having played just 21 matches — two fewer than Watford, three fewer than Newcastle — due to a run of COVID-related cancellations, they are at the bottom of the table in mid-February, seven points from safety.
They’ve also played pretty well of late, and they’ve got multiple games in hand. While they could go down in predictable fashion, there’s enough talent here capable of making a run. They drew with both Arsenal on Jan. 23 and Manchester United on Feb. 8, and they looked the superior team for chunks of their 1-0 loss to Liverpool. When Newcastle lured Wood north, Burnley responded by bringing in Wout Weghorst from VfL Wolfsburg on Jan. 31. He assisted Jay Rodriguez‘s goal against Man United, and he’s bringing solid shot volume to the table for a team that always lacks in that department.
We know what Dyche wants to accomplish: he’s been around a while. Burnley limit opponents’ high-quality scoring opportunities (they’re allowing 0.10 xG per shot, lowest in the league) at the cost of creating numbers advantages going forward (they average the fewest shots per possession). They press both selectively and effectively (they start 8.2 possessions per 90 in the attacking third, fourth best in the league), and they eliminate both their and their opponents’ transition games. But the approach hasn’t generated the same close-game success as in previous years: After averaging 1.4 points per game in matches decided by zero or one goal, they’re averaging 0.7, with 11 draws, four losses and no wins.
Among their 17 remaining matches, they’ve only got three matches left against teams in the current top six. There are points on the table if they can trade draws into a few wins.
Their situation: 0.65 PPG (20th), -0.87 GDPG (19th)
SPI rank: 97th
Odds of relegation: 81%
Trending up or down? Down, down, down (two points and the second fired manager of the year in their past 11 matches)
Watford pummeled Manchester United, 4-1 (getting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired in the process), and walloped Everton, 5-2. They dominated Norwich and won a wild 3-2 track meet with Aston Villa. Emmanuel Dennis is one of the more exciting young centre-forwards in the league. There’s solid upside if you squint just right; unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of that upside lately.
The four wins mentioned above are all Watford have managed. They fired Xisco on Oct. 3, brought in Claudio Ranieri to save the day, and fired him on Jan. 24. Now Roy Hodgson has taken over to super-save the day, and his first three matches have seen one point and no goals.
Granted, Hodgson needed three matches to get rolling in his last gig at Crystal Palace: Palace were outscored 10-0 in those first three, before ripping off 25 points in their next 16 matches. Watford wouldn’t need that to survive, but if this is salvageable — if the team isn’t destined for this season’s legacy to simply be getting Solskjaer fired — then upcoming home matches against virtually every relegation rival, plus a winnable visit from a slumping Palace on Feb. 23, need to turn into points.
Hodgson’s reputation for repetition in practice and an emphasis on the basics could theoretically help to tamp down defensive breakdowns, coax more production out of Dennis and other young attackers (Ismaila Sarr, Joao Pedro and Cucho Hernandez have nine goals and 42 chances created) and allow the Hornets to snare points from the close games they play. But this will require one hell of a coaching performance from the 74-year old former England manager.
Their situation: 0.71 PPG (18th), -1.50 GDPG (20th)
SPI rank: 132nd
Odds of relegation: 87%
Trending up or down? Up, slightly (seven points in their past four league matches)
Credit where it’s due: Norwich haven’t stopped fighting. In mid-January the Canaries, managed by Dean Smith since Daniel Farke was dumped in November, had just 10 points and eight goals in 20 matches. They proceeded to pull off seven points with six goals in their next three. They outlasted Everton for a 2-1 home win, then beat a reeling Watford, 3-0, at Vicarage Road. A home draw with Palace followed, and while the schedule is currently acting downright mean — they lost 4-0 to Manchester City last Saturday, head to Liverpool this Saturday and then return to Liverpool for the FA Cup in early March — a sliver of hope has emerged: While their relegation odds are still dismal, they were even higher (93%) a month or so ago.
Some of the squad’s younger players, ineffective for much of the season, have begun to show hints of initiative. Adam Idah and Josh Sargent, both 21, are each averaging 0.37 xG+xA per 90 in this recent four-match span (Sargent was averaging 0.22 before that), and the U.S. forward even put a couple of lovely goals in the net against Watford. This team has endured just about the most miserable finishing you’ll ever see — while veteran Teemu Pukki has six goals from 5.24 xG, the rest of the team has six from 16.53. They don’t create good shots for themselves (they are last in xG per shot), and they’ve also managed to be a little bit unlucky.
Granted, there’s no salvaging the defence at this point. Norwich are last in goals allowed, 19th in xG allowed, 18th in shots allowed per possession and 19th in xG allowed per shot. They have somehow managed to rank near the bottom of the league in both allowing very long opponent possessions and allowing high-quality transition opportunities. This will likely get them sent down in another couple of months. Still, the sudden life in attack could give them a chance as they too play quite a few relegation rivals in the coming weeks: Brentford on March 5, at Leeds on March 12, Burnley on April 9, Newcastle on April 23. The hope is only a glimmer, but it’s more than they had a few weeks ago.
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