English premier league football and relegation

Premier League 2018: Who Can Survive the Top Flight?

3 weeks ago

The football media in the UK would have you believe that the Premier League is the toughest division on the planet; abandon hope all ye who enter.

But actually, the truth appears to be somewhat different, and we know this because of the achievements of the three promoted teams each year.

Think about it: that trio of teams that ascend from the English Championship should struggle in the top flight. They have less money (typically), weaker players (usually) and lack the experience at the elite-level of the game to compete against some of the world’s best.

Well, that’s the logic anyway.

But let’s look at the history books. When was the last time that all three promoted teams were relegated back to the second tier immediately?

That would be 1997/98, when Barnsley, Bolton and Crystal Palace all fell through the trapdoor. In the 20 seasons since then, there have been seven instances where two of the promoted teams were instantly relegated, ten times where just one of the sides came back from whence they came, and on three occasions none of the promoted outfits have suffered the indignity of immediate demotion.

So, that’s the good news for supporters of Wolves, Cardiff City and Fulham, who may now head into the 2018/19 campaign with a sense of positivity.

Of course, three teams will get relegated, so who will they be? The law of averages suggests one or two of the aforementioned sides will unfortunately fall through the trapdoor, so is there anything about them which hints at a survival tilt?

Survival Approach #1 – Spend, Spend, Spend

If you can’t beat them, join them.

One of the key tenets of the Premier League in the past decade or more has been the spending of ludicrous sums of money on world class or, occasionally, pretty ordinary players.

It’s a sign of the inefficiencies prevalent in the transfer market, but as numerous media folk have proven – including Stefan Szymanski in his groundbreaking work ‘The Numbers Game’ – the higher your wage spend on players, the more success you can expect.

On that front, you suspect Wolves are the best placed of this year’s promoted trio to survive. The West Midlanders haven’t forked out a huge amount in transfer fees so far this summer – £50 million is pocket money these days, but you know their wage bill has gone through the roof.

They’ve signed Euro 2016 champions in Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio, while Raul Jimenez has swapped the Champions League with Benfica for a potential Premier League relegation battle. Willy Boly and Leo Bonatini have signed on the dotted line full time too, and this quintet of players improves the squad significantly. Wolves, frankly, have a squad capable of achieving a mid-table finish.

Fulham have gone about things in a similar way, albeit bringing in players of a suspected lower quality. Jean Michael Serri is a fine midfielder, but you wonder what Fabri and Maxime Le Marchand bring to the party. It’s one thing spending money, it’s another to spend it well.

The Cottagers are £40 million down this summer and yet have they markedly improved their starting eleven? The jury is out on that one.

Cardiff are taking a different, slightly less risky approach. They have forked out the small matter of £30 million, but the players they have brought in – Bobby Reid, Josh Murphy, Alex Smithies and Greg Cunningham – will be on significantly less money than Moutinho and co.

That suggests the Bluebirds are future-proofing themselves for an instant return to the Championship; if they do, they will at least have a stronger starting eleven in the second tier, and they thus have a ‘free hit’ at survival like Burnley did back in 2016/17.

Survival Approach #2 – Come Together

Football fans of a certain vintage will remember the Wimbledon team of the late 1980s.

The ‘Crazy Gang’ won an FA Cup and finished inside the top-10 of the First Division (now the Premier League) despite being fairly low on quality. They were a physical outfit who were happy to bleed for the cause, and the tag of over-achievers followed them around throughout their successful run.

It goes to show how cohesion and unity can trump skill and ability at times, and Burnley have showed that the underdogs can still have their day in the past two seasons by a) surviving and b) thriving in the top tier despite minimal resources.

You suspect that morale won’t be that high at Wolves, what with an almost 50/50 divide between English and Portuguese being spoken in the dressing room. But will it matter? They at least have the quality to prove that maybe you don’t need to be close buddies to succeed.

On the flipside, Fulham and Cardiff should both have that famous crazy gang spirit. The Cottagers went through the rigmarole of the play-offs last season, and that has a fantastic knock-on effect of bringing together a set of young men who go through such an emotional rollercoaster.

And Cardiff are managed by Neil Warnock, a man who prides himself on the collective unity of his players. If they don’t muck in they are shown the door, and the success he has had in management is down to his ability to get a disparate set of individuals singing from the same hymn sheet.

Survival Approach #3 – Home Comforts

The foundation of Burnley’s unlikely escape in 2016/17 – they were odds-on to be relegated, remember – was their home form.

The Clarets only lost seven times at Turf Moor all season, and crucially five of those defeats came against the ‘big six’ clubs.

Ergo, they took points off all of the teams around in the relegation race, and ultimately that proved to be the difference between caviar and champagne at the Emirates Stadium and pie, chips and mushy peas at Griffin Park.

Brighton, Newcastle and Huddersfield finished eighth, ninth and sixteenth in the ‘home table’ last season, and again those points accrued on home soil were the key differential between survival and an immediate return to the second tier.

The Verdict

Let’s be realistic: there is minimal chance that Wolves will be relegated this season.

The infrastructure they have put in place with Jorge Mendes ensures a steady stream of talented players from Iberia will continue to join the club, and their betting odds – 1/10 to go down, and a best price of 6/5 with bet365 to finish in the top half – give a clue as to their aspirations this term.

As for Fulham, we ask the question ‘are there three teams worse than them in the Premier League?’ They have spent money this summer, and they will have that all-important collective spirit which comes from a glorious promotion season.

But the Cottagers look set to be without Aleksandar Mitrovic, their loan star who kickstarted their campaign, and at this moment in time their price of 17/10 with Paddy Power to be relegated looks to be value.

Finally we have Cardiff, who could tick two of our three boxes in terms of unity and home advantage. They do have a similar look and feel to Huddersfield last season and Burnley a year prior to that, and while this kind of bet has a habit of leaving you looking rather silly, the 11/10 on them to stay up courtesy of Ladbrokes could hand punters a decent run for their money.

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Written by Craig Simpkin

A sports journalist with a smorgasbord of experience writing for a variety of publications, Craig is a Leicester fan hoping that England can also achieve the impossible this summer.