Alex Keble tactically analyses the six primary relegation candidates in the Premier League, looking back at their performances so far to predict which three teams will fall.
"The short-passing model employed at Derby has failed on Tyneside, quite possibly because McClaren recognised his players are not motivated enough to change so dramatically away from the model of his predecessor."
Until early December, this year's Premier League table was a bit of a mess. At least nine clubs were in touching distance of the dotted line and the chaotic, unpredictable nature of each week's results suggested that we could see one of the tightest relegation battles in recent memory.
This is certainly still possible, and indeed more than 40 points might be needed come May. But a disastrous month for Sunderland, Villa, and Swansea contrasted sharply with plucky victories for all of Norwich, Bournemouth, West Brom, and (briefly) Newcastle. At the halfway point in the season, the table is finally beginning to develop into a coherent shape, and those with the bravery, determination, and work-rate to avoid the drop have started to separate themselves from those few clubs hurtling towards the Championship.
Alex Neil has combined impressive tactical coaching with excellent man-management skills to create a team that looks firmly capable in the Premier League. There is a coherence in their tight defensive structure and tenacity to their attacking movement, suggesting battling Norwich will gather enough points to avoid the drop.
Wes Hoolahan's early season heroics (he created or scored six of their first eight goals) have died down, but a recent upturn in form from Nathan Redmond (42% of their attacks come down the right) and the re-positioning of Jonny Howson to attacking midfield has seen a return of the free-flowing football that defined their Championship campaign.
13 of the first 18 goals Norwich scored were the result of crosses from out wide thanks largely to Robbie Brady, with seven of these from set pieces (the most in the Premier League). But only one of their last five goals has been a crossing situation; Man United and Villa were dispatched thanks to some confident counter-attacking football. If they continue in this way (and the recent introduction of the talented Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe suggests they have the strength in depth to remain dangerous) then relegation seems highly unlikely. Norwich have only twice lost to a team in the bottom half this season - they could yet avoid relegation.
Eddie Howe's insistence on high energy, short passing football is commendably brave, but it is bringing them mixed results. Although, like Norwich, an excellent team spirit at Dean Court means a long and painful slump is unlikely, Bournemouth's haphazard results and inexperience at this level could prove their downfall.
Last season, Simon Francis and Matt Ritchie (23 assists between them) were instrumental to the success of Howe's narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, but their impact has been limited thus far. However, the remarkable energy and work-rate of Harry Arter and Dan Gosling in central midfield has remained intact. They played a huge role in the famous victories over Chelsea and Man United, making 19 tackles between them across the two games. It is this feisty attitude and fearless aggression that could keep them in the division - if only they would show greater caution against smaller clubs.
Bournemouth averaged 42% possession in those two wins, down from their overall average of 52% across the season; sitting deeper and absorbing pressure favours their spirit and key strengths, but Howe does not wish them to play in this way. They have tightened up significantly in recent weeks, but large gaps between defence and midfield continue to be exploited regularly. It will be touch and go, and though not one of my three favourites to go down it could be worth a small bet at good odds of 5/1.
The most alarming aspect of Newcastle's dreadful season is the extent to which Steve McClaren has abandoned his preferred tactical model so wilfully. Unlike Howe and Neil, who both deserve tremendous credit for trusting in their players and the system in spite of poor results, McClaren's side now play a loosely structured counter-attacking system vaguely reminiscent of the Alan Pardew days. Newcastle average the 16th most possession, the 7th most long balls, and the 2nd fewest key passes.
The short-passing model employed at Derby has failed on Tyneside, quite possibly because McClaren recognised his players are not motivated enough to change so dramatically away from the model of his predecessor. It takes dedication and belief to play attractive football, something few of these players seem to have; that Newcastle can perform so woefully against the smaller clubs but beat Liverpool in front of the cameras speaks volumes.
Sam Allardyce has simplified the tactical roles of Sunderland's players since his appointment, instigating arguably the most extreme version of 'Big Sam' football to date. Sunderland play largely in a flat 4-5-1 formation, relying upon a deep defensive shell to block the route to goal; only Leicester and West Brom attempt fewer short passes (222 per game), and only West Brom hold less possession (42.9% average).
A dreadful December highlighted the dearth in quality at Allardyce's disposal, and indeed it is difficult to see where they will find the eight or nine league wins they require. Much rests on the performances of three key players: Yann M'Vila is a talented combative midfielder whose influence at the club is growing, Jermain Defoe appears to be the only player capable of scoring, and Patrick van Aanholt is a promising player in attack.
Allardyce had recently switched to a 3-5-2 that allowed Van Aanholt to abandon defensive duties more frequently, gave Defoe the strong partner up front he needs, and reduced M'Vila's load in the middle. Even if this formation returns, it is difficult to see Sunderland scraping enough points to stay up. Their current odds of 1/5 seem fair.
Until Swansea appoint a new permanent manager there is little value in assessing their survival chances. Much will rest on their ability to recruit a striker this month; both Bafetimbi Gomis and Eder are too slow to make the runs both Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson require.
However, Wayne Routledge has flourished in short bursts, and it is surely only a matter of time before Jefferson Montero returns to form. This is a talented squad that should be easily capable of avoiding the drop with one or two new signings and the appointing of a competent manager. 3/1 is short enough, but I think the Swans will beat the drop.
There is no hope for Villa and, in truth, no need for analysis. On a 19-match winless run and eleven points from safety, Villa fans need only hope that they do not set a new points tally record this season. The four game run of Newcastle, West Ham, Norwich, and Sunderland was seen as their last chance to build some momentum. Instead, Villa amassed just two points. At 1/33, it's obviously not worth a bet, but Villa are doomed.