All is not well this holiday season in the bottom half of the Premier League table, but there’s reason for hope for some of the clubs who live south of the cluttered top seven chase.
Who is trending up and who has reason to dread the remainder of the 2020-21 season?
The campaign is little more than 1/3 in the books, enough to get a feeling for a team’s fate but not enough to know much of anything (Yes, even for Sheffield United).
[ MORE: Klopp rues draw, West Brom’s formation ]
Let’s take a look at the bottom-8 teams in the Premier League, those with 18 points or less after 14-15 games. Could Leeds, Wolves, or West Ham join the fight? Anything is possible but let’s keep it easy this Sunday.
Points pace: 49
The silver lining of other managers turning down Newcastle before Steve Bruce accepted the reins at the club he supported as a child is that the affable and well-traveled manager was pragmatic enough not to change much of the system that Rafa Benitez installed at St. James’ Park.
The problem now is that Bruce’s team has gone from a talented, well-drilled, counter-attacking unit to one that is without a midfield system. If Jonjo Shelvey is out, there are so few ideas how to get the ball from its back to its talented attackers.
And when Shelvey and those attackers are out, as Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson were Saturday at Man City, the race is run before it starts.
Newcastle is also suffered from a COVID-19 outbreak that’s left Saint-Maximin and Jamaal Lascelles on the sidelines this month, but had papered over the cracks with luck and a series of fortuitous League Cup schedule that Bruce mangled at Brentford after beating Blackburn 1-0, Morecambe 7-0, and Newport County in penalties.
“There’s been a lot of criticism of the way we limped out of the cup, so the one thing you need is a response,” Bruce said, via The Chronicle. “We had a bad week, but some of the mass hysteria, in my opinion, was unfair. A lot of it was not right, in my opinion. I’m probably going to say that, but that’s my opinion on it.”
Newcastle’s been a bit unlucky in their own end but that’s been balanced by good fortune in the final third (see: Eric Dier’s ‘handball’ late at Spurs). They are bottom four per-game in shot attempts, yellow cards, possession, passing percentage, shots conceded, and tackles.
Between Wilson, Miguel Almiron, Saint-Maximin, Ryan Fraser, and — yes — even Joelinton, there is too much attacking nous for this side not to be organized in a mid-table manner. The sky is not falling and there’s no need for “mass hysteria,” but Bruce better recognize that his affable nature has been carrying him through some lean performances. Complaining about his treatment is only going to send him out the door.
Points pace: 46
So much of what the Eagles do rides on Wilfried Zaha, though Eberechi Eze is a delightful talent and Christian Benteke has improved in recent weeks.
But the Eagles have conceded 10 goals while scoring none in their last two matches, the expected numbers not much better at 1.34 xG and 7.45 xGA.
Last season, Palace went winless from Dec. 28 to Feb. 8 and didn’t win after June 20 through the end of Project Restart. The only wins were four in-a-row over Newcastle, Brighton, Watford, and Bournemouth.
The Eagles are 12th in goals despite the league’s fifth-worst shots-per-game. They are allowing the sixth-most shots and are seeing just 44 percent of the ball.
Roy Hodgson’s men see Leicester and Sheffield United at Selhurst Park before meeting Arsenal, Man City, West Ham, and Wolves (Wolves are also on the docket in the FA Cup). There’s a very forgiving February, but could those fixtures be six-pointers by then?
Points pace: 28
Scott Parker’s side has become a snarling one. The Cottagers only loss since beating Leicester on Nov. 30 was at Man City, since drawing Liverpool, Brighton, Newcastle, and Saints.
Fulham’s taken and allowed the 10th-most shots, far from terrible, and have allowed four goals in two matches after conceding 19 in the first 11.
Then there’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who looks like the star he was at Marseille and Valencia and not the one on a bad ankle in Fulham’s 2018-19 relegation season.
You could easily argue that Fulham has been unlucky in front of goal and — beyond that — its poor penalty record might be the only reason it is not mid-table.
Aleksandar Mitrovic missed in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United, Ivan Cavaleiro missed in a 3-2 loss to Everton, and Ademola Lookman failed with a cheeky attempt at the death in a 1-0 loss to West Ham.
There’s obviously more to those results than missed pens, but 15 points is clear of the bottom three.
Points pace: 43
Look — This is very much relative to their awful standing on the table and not their standing as a perpetual European contender, but the Gunners are not a relegation candidate and have never been one (Yes, even before beating Chelsea 3-1 on Saturday).
The Gunners probably weren’t two goals better than the Blues and are still likely to lose 1 of every 2 matches against Chelsea, but their team performances prior to the weekend weren’t nearly as bad as many think (especially considering elite finisher Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s struggles to finish and all of the red cards).
Arsenal had superior expected goals in its 2-1 loss at Everton, its 1-0 loss versus Burnley, its 2-0 loss to Spurs, and its 2-1 defeat by Wolves.
There are still some very poor numbers. Arsenal has been outshot 143-111 in open play. And 10 of their 15 goals came in four games (three of which were played by the first weekend of October).
But Arsenal is still a top four passing team who is yet to get major minutes out of one of the most complete midfielders in the world (Thomas Partey) and isn’t getting average expected finishing. Europe? Probably not unless they win the Europa League, but relegation talk is silly.
West Bromwich Albion
Points pace: 20
Difficult to put the Baggies anywhere but trending up after drawing Man City and Liverpool for two different managers in two weeks time. Shoulder shrug emoji?
The Baggies’ sacking of Slaven Bilic was rash and their hopes for survival will depend on Jims and Joes more than Xs and Os, with all due respect to what Sam Allardyce will provide the Hawthorns’ faithful following Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool.
The timing of the firing was head-scratching given the Baggies’ fixture list. So many times we’ve seen clubs change managers with a promising run of fixtures ahead. West Brom, under-talented at the back, waited until Bilic had led a draw versus Man City, then invited Allardyce to take charge for Villa, Liverpool, Leeds, and Arsenal.
We’re surprised Big Sam didn’t say, “I’ll be there on Jan. 3, fellas,” though it could be argued the Baggies would rather let Allardyce implement his system while taking lumps that were likely coming anyway. Now, he has a Liverpool draw at Anfield under his belt and can point to being the last manager to beat the Reds there. So, shows what we know.
Allardyce’s first game saw a red card and a PL-worst 0.04 expected goals produced at home in a 3-0 derby loss. His second outing was Sunday’s draw, where he kept Matheus Pereira mostly rested for Leeds and still got an assist out of him off the bench.. That’s battle stations stuff, and a result against a Marcelo Bielsa side which has mostly handled its business against fellow strugglers would be huge.
Sheffield United (cause there’s nowhere to trend but up)
Points pace: 5
There’s no way to put shine on the worst start in Premier League history, as Blades have just two points through 15 matches and one came because Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic took a bad penalty.
But we’ll try: Blades have three goals from open play compared to their xG number of 10.49 (There’s no such luck for the xGA, which is pretty much spot-on). They’ve won the xG battle in losses to Everton, West Brom, Leeds, and Aston Villa.
Chris Wilder has thrown up his hands a bit, because most of these players helped Blades zip up into the European picture last season.
“I will take the criticism away from some of the younger players, but my main men and experienced players, which is the bulk of this squad, are nowhere near consistently the standard they have produced in the past,” he said, via Yorkshire Live.
It’s not over yet, but it could be soon. Blades will have to take points from their next three: Burnley, Palace, and Newcastle.
Burnley (cause they are the statistic defiers, again)
Points pace: 35
We’ve put a lot of numbers here but you might as well not bother with them when it comes to Burnley.
Sean Dyche’s men chew up your numbers, spit them back at you, and then punch you in the face.
Burnley is back at the bottom of the goal table and not far from there in shots and possession. They’re passing at a league-worst 72 percent due to focus on sending the ball from their own end to the moon in the hopes that Ashley Barnes or Chris Wood turn the space debris into golddust.
The Clarets finished 16th, 7th, 15th, and 10th in their previous four PL seasons despite an average goal differential of minus-12. They’ve twice-lost 20 games and stayed up. Might as well bet on them doing it again.
Why? I have no idea. Grit, I guess.
Brighton (cause they are the anti-Burnley)
Points pace: 33
We wrote about the hopeful leveling out of their 2019-20 bad fortune before the season.
It hasn’t happened, and Joe Prince-Wright summed up their season succinctly after the Seagulls did the same in a 2-2 draw at West Ham on Sunday.
Brighton is sixth in possession, seventh in shots, ninth in expected goals for, fifth in expected goals against, and 11th in passing percentage.
They have taken points from five of eight away fixtures but won zero at home (four draws).
So take all of the above and Graham Potter’s well-drilled unit is two points clear of the bottom three.
And this game is Brighton's season in a nutshell. Dominated large chunks of the game. Didn't take chances. Conceded from a set piece. Draw or lose when they should have got more. #WHUFC 2-2 #BHAFC #WHUBHA
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 27, 2020