The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. Next, we turn to the relegation battle.
The most stirring celebrations of the 2017-18 Premier League season were not trophy celebrations. They were survival celebrations. They were Huddersfield Town’s, after an improbable draw with Chelsea that clinched another year of top-flight football.
With the title race done and dusted by March, last season’s drama was at the bottom of the table. And a quick glance at 2018-19 odds would suggest that’s where it’ll be again. Bookmakers give only one team a 20-percent-or-better probability in the title race; they give six different clubs such a probability to go down. Just two exceed one-in-eight title likelihoods; 11, according to the bookies, have at least a 12.5 percent chance to get relegated.
The “bottom” of the Premier League table is as bloated as ever. Betting markets project the gap between sixth and seventh to be wider than the one between seventh and 20th. The relegation battle, therefore, is as unpredictable as ever.
So who’s going down? Rather than answer that question with foolhardy conviction, we’ll do so by tiering the 14 teams that could realistically get dragged into a fight for survival.
Tier 1: Should be safe
Everton — The Toffees have a strange squad, but a slightly less strange one than last year’s. They have significantly more money than anybody else outside the Big Six. Most importantly, their new manager, Marco Silva, is at best one of the sharpest in the Premier League and at worst Not Sam Allardyce.
Leicester City — The lone case for Leicester as a relegation candidate is, “Riyad Mahrez was an all-world attacking catalyst and his now-former employers will be impotent without him.” But the first clause there is a stretch, and the second doesn’t necessarily follow from it. The Foxes have fewer flaws than any of the Other 14. Their summer business has been shrewd. They should steer comfortably clear of the drop zone.
Crystal Palace — Palace, October through season’s end, was the Premier League’s seventh-best team. Its Expected Goal differential (xGD) was plus-11.4. Manchester United’s, by comparison, was plus-2.1 throughout those same seven-and-a-half months. So, uh, yeah, Roy Hodgson’s side will be just fine.
Tier 2: Wide range of possible outcomes
West Ham — On one hand, West Ham is out here signing dynamic Champions League playmakers, intriguing defenders from Brazil and France (and Fulham), and Jack f’ing Wilshere. On the other, it’s still West Ham. Manuel Pellegrini is a major upgrade on David Moyes in the technical area, and the revamped squad should keep West Ham well clear of trouble, but last year was putrid. The club, from the top down, might just be toxic. Don’t rule out everything going south.
Wolverhampton Wanderers — Newly-promoted teams are by nature relegation candidates. But Wolves are a newly-promoted team in name only. Their Championship roster likely would have slotted into the Premier League’s mid-table. The top-flight version currently has six players with Champions League experience and a seventh who’s been to the semifinals of the Europa League. How the heck is that possible? That’s another Premier League XI column for another day. (Wednesday, specifically.)
Southampton — The Saints had no business getting dragged into the basement scrum last year. The worry is that when they did, they strayed from The Southampton Way and won’t be able to get back on track. The squad is comfortably league-average. But Mark Hughes is a departure from the blueprint at St. Mary’s. He’s a leader in the sack race clubhouse, simply because he’s not very good at his job. There’s a non-zero chance Southampton gets sucked into incessant survival mode like Swansea and Sunderland before them.
Fulham — Fulham looked like a Premier League team during a 23-match December-to-April Championship unbeaten run last year. Then it won the promotion playoff. Now it’s bought former Barcelona target Jean Michael Seri and England international Alfie Mawson; shored up its rearguard with a defender and goalkeeper from the continent; and loaned World Cup-winning winger Andre Shurrle from Borussia Dortmund. Perhaps most importantly, it’s managed to hold on to 18-year-old sensation Ryan Sessegnon. This doesn’t look one bit like a bottom-three starting 11.
But between adaptation to the rigors of the top flight and the jelling of new signings and questionable depth – an often overlooked concern – there is plenty that could go wrong. And that’s why Fulham probably belongs in Tier 3 instead …
Tier 3: Danger
Brighton — Brighton is in the process of penning the latest chapter in How To Turn A Championship Team Into An Established Premier League One. It has struck a balance between overhaul and fatal frugality, sticking with its foundation but supplementing it with quality. Last summer’s signings – Pascal Gross, Mat Ryan, Davy Propper, Jose Izquierdo – seemed to stem from intensive, analytically-driven scouting, and they panned out. This year’s additions – Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Yves Bissouma, Bernardo, Leon Balogun – appear to follow the same blueprint.
With all of that being said, though … this was a 15th-place team through and through. And until we see the next wave of savvy signings integrated, it still is. One or two missteps could drag it down into the danger zone.
Burnley — It’s impossible to explain Burnley in a paragraph, but one strange dynamic is telling: The Clarets not-so-secretly don’t even want to be in the Europa League. It’s maddening. But it’s the truth. They see European competition not as an opportunity but as a hinderance – a distraction that could compromise their survival fight. Which is to say that even the club itself knows last year was a fluke. Even Sean Dyche knows his team isn’t very good. It somehow finished seventh despite scoring less than a goal per game. Its underlying numbers predict steep regression, and a slide into the bottom half seems likely. But given Dyche’s track record, a slide into the bottom three is unlikely.
Newcastle — Rafa Benitez is the best Premier League manager outside the Big Six. He’s also been given every reason to jump ship by Newcastle’s muppet of an owner, Mike Ashley. Ashley has turned the club into a scientific experiment, designed to answer the question: How little can one invest in a Premier League squad while still maintaining top-flight status? With Benitez, the answer is “very little.” The worry, however, is that the question could become, How long can a club refuse to pony up before a Champions League-winning manager bolts? If Ashley crosses that line and Rafa leaves, the Magpies could be in trouble – though some of their bargain-bin summer business has been useful.
Watford — Given how much turnover there’s been at Vicarage Road, Watford’s recurrent subpar sufficiency has been remarkable. It’s endured four managerial changes, and there’s enough talent in midfield and attack to extend it another 12 months. But there are also enough aging contributors and defensive concerns to make Hornets fans fret.
Bournemouth — Eddie Howe’s squad still looks like that of a bottom-three straggler. But the manager himself is both tactically and psychologically astute. That’s one reason Bournemouth has been untroubled by the drop two seasons in a row. The other, however, is an astounding penchant for late goals. The Cherries recovered 21 points from losing positions last season. They scored 21 of their 45 goals from the 70th minute onward, and eight from the 88th minute onward. Viewed one way, those numbers are products of a Howe-fueled team spirit. Viewed another way, if its games lasted 87 minutes last year, Bournemouth would’ve gone down.
Tier 4: Odds-on
Huddersfield Town — Huddersfield was a heartwarming story, its survival a “miracle” in the words of its own manager. It was also the second team in Premier League history, and the first since 1996-97 Leeds, to scored 28 or fewer goals and (somehow) still stay up. And neither their underlying numbers nor their roster suggest the Terriers will get much better. Calling another rise above the bottom three “miraculous” would be a bit of a stretch, but Huddersfield is going to need nine more months of heroic efforts.
Cardiff City — Cardiff was built – by grizzled English manager Neil Warnock, the Football League’s promotion king – to succeed in the Championship. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, built to avoid tumbling right back down to the second-tier. The roster is ragtag, the soccer effective but hard on the eye. The defense could be resilient. But goals are going to be very difficult to come by in the Premier League. The upper echelons of the sport have passed his long-ball tactics by. Ditto for Cardiff’s level of play.
Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Tuesday: Is Liverpool closing on City?
Tuesday: What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers
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