A Week In Football: Misery Business – a look at how this year’s relegation battle is shaping up

This blog earlier predicted that unlike the previous heroics of Southampton, Swansea and Norwich etcetera, that this season’s three promoted teams would struggle and be the prime relegation candidates. As with all predictions, it has been made a mockery of, with Hull and Cardiff, at least until this weekend, setting about to life in the Premier League with an overachieving vigour. Crystal Palace have been much more predictable, only avoiding the foot of the table thanks to the ineptitude of Sunderland and the recently departed Di Canio. Instead of Hull and Cardiff, it is two of last year’s great performers that have found themselves dragged into the murky depths of relegation battle in the Premier League’s early rounds; West Brom and West Ham. This weekend has seen a return to normality, with the true relegation concerns starting to emerge.

The loss to Newcastle made it three Premier League losses in a row for Cardiff, their early form dissipating as the season progresses and the Welsh side begin to drop down the table. Cardiff have achieved only one clean sheet all season and have been hardly prolific this season either. If history has shown anything it is that to survive in the Premier League, a team must have either an abundance of goals or a stingy defence, ideally both. Cardiff have neither. Whilst neither completely dry up front, nor hugely leaky at the back, the Bluebirds seem somewhat below par in both departments. Through the centre is where Mackay’s side are strongest, but seem completely lacking out wide and unless Mackay can begin to coax some quality service for his forwards, Cardiff’s season will only continue to decline.

Hull are more of a conundrum. Currently sitting in eighth, a cursory look at their squad would say that the Tigers are overachieving. With no standout striker, it is no surprise that Hull’s great start to life in the Premier League has been fuelled by fine margins. However, Livermore and Huddlestone, both summer signings have formed a formidable midfield partnership in front of a decent defence. So far, the recently christened Hull City Tigers have had enough smatterings of attacking quality to eke out results, continuing on these narrow margins all season will be difficult however, and the bore draw with Aston Villa is evidence that livewire Robbie Brady will be a big miss whilst he recovers from a hernia operation. Crystal Palace’s future is much easier to predict and it certainly features competing playing in the Championship. Outspoken Ian Holloway has toned down his rhetoric recently and will have hopefully come to the realisation that a team facing relegation need their manager focused and attentive, motivating his squad, not making excuses, complaining about refereeing and getting himself suspended. Poor defensively, offensively and any other department one wishes to examine, Palace’s problems are not hard to identify, fixing them is another matter. The squad Holloway led to promotion was not good enough for life in the Premier League, especially without now-Manchester United reserve Wilfried Zaha, and although the Bristolian did go on a little summer shopping spree, it was obvious no one chose to remind Holloway that quality is more important than quantity.

As the Usual Suspects seem to be on the slide, it is obvious that other sides are determined to put their early season flirtations with relegation places behind them. West Bromwich Albion started the term looking like a team whose knowledge of where the goal was had left with former loanee Lukaku. It took Clarke’s men four games to score a Premier League goal, and with the Magpies lurking in the table’s lower reaches it was unclear where the goals to drag West Brom out of a dogfight would come from. The answer came in the form of two fast and tricky forwards with a low centre of gravity and an elegant Frenchman; Sessegnon, a deadline signing from Sunderland has very quickly found the form Di Canio accused him of lacking and he has struck up a dangerous relationship with England under-21 striker Saido Berahino, both fed by Morgan Amalfitano who has been a revelation on loan from Marseille. A momentum building win over the hopelessly hapless Sunderland was followed by that huge victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. This weekend’s more than deserved draw versus Arsenal has seen West Brom properly pull away from the drop, as Clarke’s men start to look more like the side that was so impressive last term. Another side for which goals have been have been a problem is West Ham. With Andy Carroll perennially injured and Maiga simply inept, West Ham lacked a cutting edge in the season’s early fixtures. However, with Big Sam going all continental and opting to use a ‘false nine’ in a striker-less system as West Ham overcame a run of bad to turn over Tottenham at White Hart Lane this weekend. Goals from midfield will be key if West Ham are to avoid sliding back down the table, so Allardyce will be glad to see Ravel Morrison finally combining his undeniable talent with a modicum of maturity, as the troubled Manchester United graduate is finally letting his precocious ability make the headlines.

Apart from the promoted sides, even at this early stage of the Premier League season, it is obvious that it will be a long and difficult year for Sunderland and Stoke. There has been optimism in the Potters’ camp this term; a win last week against Norwich would have marked Stoke’s best ever start to a Premier League season. However, a point against Manchester City and two wins versus the useless Palace and the then toothless West Ham covered up what were largely poor performances by Stoke. Much has been made of a change of style under Mark Hughes, but any changes have been largely superficial, when it comes to the final ball Stoke are still opting for long balls and crosses into a target man. The problem with this is that despite flattering to deceive at times, Kenwye Jones is a poor player and the goals aren’t going in, with Stoke slumping to losses at Norwich and Fulham. The alternative to Jones as a target man is Peter Crouch, but the former England man has lost his way lately and whilst Stoke have been floundering up front, their infamous defensive solidity has not been as infallible as it was under Pulis. Stoke have looked at their best this term when the like of Adam, Ireland and Arnautovic have been given the freedom to play. Adam and N’Zonzi make a solid midfield partnership, and as well as playmaker Ireland, Stoke have some decent wingers to provide some quality service for the forwards, of which Arnautovic looks the only one likely to put the goals away. The problem is that Hughes seems reluctant to commit to this more fluid, patient attacking approach, maintaining a target man and often letting his side revert back to route one. This compromise looks dangerous and make no mistake, Stoke are in real danger this season.

Last and least, in terms of points anyway, are Sunderland. Having undergone a complete squad overhaul, the Black Cats’ success this term was always going to be dependent on whether or not Di Canio’s host of new signings were able to gel quickly. In the early matches, the side obviously hadn’t grown familiar enough with each other and Di Canio’s firebrand style that last term seemed to galvanise the team for a survival battle was now deemed divisive. The sacking of Di Canio has seen an upturn in performances. There is definitely more unity under interim coach Kevin Ball who seems to be doing a good job of bedding in the players Di Canio bought who obviously have great quality. It was only the fantastic starting debut of young winger Adnan Januzaj that prevented Sunderland pouring more misery on Manchester United manager David Moyes, with the Black Cats deserving of a result. What now remains to be seen is if Sunderland can continue to improve and now start to turn performances into points. Kevin Ball has impressed thus far and giving him the manager job permanently could help create some much needed stability, continuity and consistency. The danger now is that the Sunderland board bring in yet another new manager and cause further disruption to a squad that is just beginning to show some continuity.

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