Historically there has always been a pleasing unpredictability about the Premier League’s relegation battle but the increasing financial divide in English football has seen a pattern begin to emerge. Most seasons, including two of the last three, two of the newly promoted teams find they don’t have the resources to survive the drop and are joined by a Premier League mainstay that tumbles down after years of stagnation.
The monetary aspect to this is indirect. All Premier League clubs have the means to sign a decent standard of player, but the widening gap between those in the top eight(ish) and the rest has created a tactical necessity for relegation-threatened sides to play on the back foot, absorbing pressure for long periods before counter-attacking when opportunities arise.
This makes the transition from the Championship more difficult than it used to be, and generally speaking two out of three are unable to dramatically alter their playing style from expansive and attacking in the second tier to cautious and defensive in the first.
As for the established Premier League side that collapses, the financial divide is also to blame. For clubs like Bournemouth and Swansea City a ceiling is hit and, treading water for years, it is inevitable that things go stale and the bottom falls out.
This year, that club could well be Crystal Palace, while out of the three promoted clubs Watford and Norwich City are in the worst position. Here is our pick of the most likely clubs to go down – and why it’s worth backing a 19/1 relegation treble.
Too much pressure on Watford forwards to survive
The main reason we are backing Watford and Norwich to go down is that the competition is unusually strong; Brighton, Southampton, Burnley, Wolves, West Ham, and Aston Villa are all far too experienced, competent, and talented to drop below the late-30s.
Watford, never a club of stability, will be victims of this. Manager Xisco Munoz only arrived in December last year and catapulted the Hornets into the automatic promotion spots thanks to direct attacking football that relied heavily on the ingenuity of wingers Ismaila Sarr and Joao Pedro. Scoring 22 goals between them, the trickery of these two in Xisco’s 4-3-3 will be crucial to their survival hopes.
But the chances are slim, not least because the Pozzo family will undoubtedly sack Xisco as soon as the going gets tough. Should he fail to implement a more conservative style of football that uses the pace of Sarr on the break Watford will be in big trouble – with no margin for error. A fairly disappointing summer so far only adds to the concern, although 23-year-old striker Emmanuel Dennis and former Nantes midfielder Imran Louza are good signings.
The only ray of hope for Xisco is a relatively tame start to the season, with Aston Villa, Brighton, Wolves, and Norwich among their opening five games. Fail to win at least two of these and Watford are probably done.
Cantwell & Buendia losses mean a repeat of 19/20
Daniel Farke has taken Norwich City back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, winning 97 points and plenty of plaudits along the way. But there’s just one problem: Norwich were just as impressive and entertaining in 2018/19, and indeed the signs point to a repeat of their most recent Premier League appearance.
In 2019/20 Norwich were far too expansive in their build-up play, looking hopelessly porous between the lines as Farke’s attacking instincts saw his team exposed again and again. Their entire campaign was summed up in their opening day 4-1 defeat to Liverpool: ambitious, entertaining, plucky, and naïve.
However, Norwich conceded 21 fewer goals last year than in their 2018/19 Championship-winning season thanks to a sturdy centre-back partnership of Ben Gibson and Grant Hanley, while Oliver Skipp solidified central midfield. Signing Billy Gilmour on loan from Chelsea is an upgrade on the Tottenham midfielder.
But ultimately Norwich will still look soft compared with their Premier League rivals, particularly with Emiliano Buendia gone to Aston Villa and Todd Cantwell seemingly going the same way.
These two contributed 43 goals and assists in the Championship last season. Norwich will be rudderless without them.
Vieira is the wrong man to lead a rebuild
Crystal Palace are taking a huge risk by trading in the safe conservatism of Roy Hodgson for a more possession-based approach under Patrick Vieira. The former Arsenal midfielder has been implementing a considerably more gung-ho approach in pre-season, with lots of positional rotation, some aggressive overlapping full-backs, and detailed passing out from the back.
Palace, of course, have a painful scar from the last time they tried to shake up their tactical style – and there is a good chance this experiment will be almost as bad as Frank de Boer’s brief spell in charge at Selhurst Park. Palace just don’t have the players in midfield to play in a progressive style, and while Vieira has made some very good signings – Michael Olise, Marc Guehi, and Joachim Anderson sum up a smart shift in transfer strategy – there isn’t enough quality to ditch the defensive mentality.
Vieira is also the wrong choice to rebuild the team. He enjoyed success as manager of New York City FC but struggled at a higher level in France, where over two-and-a-half years his Nice side went backwards. They were often a confused mess of a team as Vieira’s trial-and-error approach saw the formation and team selection change from game to game.
If his vision at Palace lacks clarity they will go down. Eberichi Eze’s injury feels like the final nail in the coffin.
Brentford & Newcastle could struggle
The only real rivals to these three are Brentford and Newcastle, but the former has all the hallmarks of a well-run club capable of springing a surprise while the latter has enough quality in the final third to scrape over the line.
Brentford have a Sheffield United feel to them, and Thomas Frank’s attractive football ought to be enough to steal unlikely points and lead to a surge up the table at some stage of the season. His flexibility and eye for detail will keep opponents guessing, suggesting an explosive start to the season and enough points on the board to avoid the drop.
As for Newcastle, the fans might be extremely unhappy but Steve Bruce will continue to grind out results when it matters. He can probably afford to amass nine points fewer than last season and still finish 17th.