There has never been a Premier League relegation battle quite like the 2022/23 edition. There are nine teams – Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leeds, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton – separated by just four points, with some of those teams facing as few as 10 games to save their season. Form among them is predictably patchy, but for almost the entire bottom half to be quite so bunched at this stage of the season makes for a more compelling relegation run-in than we’ve ever seen before.
Here, we’ve taken a look at the teams at risk of relegation and decided to focus on the positives for each. We have highlighted one good, impressive or reassuring aspect of each team’s play to give a little hope to the fans that their side will avoid going down. Of course, three of the nine will drop down to the Championship, and it promises to be a captivating watch given that any of them could still go down.
A real positive for Crystal Palace so far is that they have only lost twice to the teams currently below them in the table – and both of those defeats came away from home. In their 10 remaining games, they face all eight of the teams beneath them, so there are very realistic opportunities for them to gain points.
Palace’s attacking play relies heavily on the individual ability of their talented attacking players, who drive inside or dribble through tight areas. They rank second in the Premier League in 2022/23 for one-on-one dribbles. In the moments that they pair these dribbles with penetrative off-the-ball runs to distract players or disrupt the opposition’s defence (below), Palace’s attacks looks much more threatening. They are the league’s joint-lowest scorers, but their expected goals return of 28 – compared to the 22 they have scored – suggests this team should score goals in the remaining fixtures if they continue to commit players to the opposition box under the returning Roy Hodgson.
Five of Wolves’ seven league wins have come under Julen Lopetegui, who took over in November when they had just two wins from 15 games. In the victories under the Spaniard, Wolves have shown their tactical flexibility, using four different formations to adapt to their opponents – and they even won at Southampton with 10 men. No matter what the structure, Lopetegui’s side has width provided by their full-backs or wing-backs. The front line stays narrow to maintain a good penalty-box presence, and they also look to receive passes between the lines from midfield (below).
Versatile central midfielders in João Moutinho, Rúben Neves and Matheus Nunes move all over the pitch depending on what the team needs. They rotate wide to create overloads and make crossing opportunities, drop deep to allow the full-backs to advance, or penetrate into attacking areas to disrupt the opposition’s defence. These intelligent players in central midfield have shown they are able to adapt to Lopetegui’s tactical changes, which bodes well for the remainder of the season.
Under each of their three head coaches this season, Leeds have consistently used a fluid 4-2-3-1 structure (below). Currently the 11th highest scorers in the Premier League, and seventh-highest for passes into the final third, Leeds’ ability to progress up the pitch – no matter the starting point of their attack – has been a key strength. Their collective ability to drive forward after a regain or find players advancing towards the final third with incisive passes both helps them relieve pressure on the defence and also immediately put pressure on their opponents. This means they can disrupt the momentum their opponents build up, and provide an attacking threat against any team they come up against.
The threat provided by Everton’s wide midfielders, Dwight McNeil and Alex Iwobi, under Sean Dyche gives cause for optimism. Iwobi currently ranks fifth in the Premier League for assists, while McNeil is in the top 20 for both attempted and successful crosses, providing consistently dangerous deliveries into the middle (below).
Dyche is currently using a 4-5-1 to ensure his team is compact without the ball and hard to break down centrally, but with Dominic Calvert-Lewin nearing a return from injury, the Everton manager could move to his preferred 4-4-2 shape. This would increase the number of bodies in the middle for Iwobi and McNeil to aim for, and Calvert-Lewin is particularly dangerous in the air. His presence could improve the team's chances of survival, and Dyche's chances of succeeding at Everton.
Steve Cooper has used a variety of different structures this season – seven, to be precise – but the 4-4-2 diamond (below) has brought him 10 points from four games against sides in the bottom half. This shape allows Forest to be compact in central areas and overload the opposition’s central midfield, but also to launch quick counter-attacks, press inwards or outwards, and get numbers into the final third. Full-backs Serge Aurier and Renan Lodi have space to advance into, and centre-forwards Brennan Johnson and Chris Wood appear to be forming a stronger connection with each game. With five of their 11 remaining games against sides in the bottom half, Cooper’s diamond shape in midfield could prove their biggest hope of survival.
A key strength of Leicester’s this season has been their ability to penetrate the last line, particularly with through balls. They are the Premier League’s ninth-highest scorers and they also rank eighth for through balls, with the midfield three of Youri Tielemans, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and James Maddison all adept at making passes to find runners in behind. With the full-backs advancing around the outside, and players such as Harvey Barnes (below), Kelechi Iheanacho and one of the central midfielders penetrating in behind, Leicester have lots of threats beyond the opposition. They may have to rely on attack rather than defence in the run-in.
The numbers suggest West Ham should be in a better position than they are. They have the seventh best defensive record in the Premier League this season, while their expected goals tally suggests that they could easily have scored 13 goals more than their current total of 24. David Moyes has persisted with the 4-2-3-1 formation with which he led West Ham to seventh and sixth in the last two seasons, largely because it provides a base from which they can launch dangerous counter-attacks.
Whenever the centre-forward drops to link, the wingers run inwards off the flanks and are supported by the number 10 (below), before the number nine sprints forward to join the attack. This is when West Ham look most threatening, and with the quality of players in their squad it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they ultimately scored the goals they need to survive.
Bournemouth have consistently managed to find joy by targeting the gap between their opponents’ full-backs and centre-backs this season. They usually do this with a penetrative run from a central midfielder from their 4-4-2 structure, or through a centre-forward moving into a wider position after a winger inverts. Vertical runs help Bournemouth penetrate beyond their opponents, and the other attackers then sprint forwards quickly to support the attack. The far-side winger, the centre-forwards and a central midfielder – often top scorer Philip Billing – provide numbers in the box to target (below). If Bournemouth can continue exploiting this space effectively, they may create chances to score enough goals, though they will need to improve in defence if they are to survive. They have conceded the most goals in the top flight so far, with 54 goals shipped in 27 games.
Rubén Sellés has been tasked with securing Southampton’s survival, and has earned five points from his five games in charge so far – including three against teams currently in the top eight. Alternating between the 4-2-3-1 seen under Nathan Jones and the 4-4-2 shape used by Ralph Hasenhüttl, Southampton have shown more purpose in their attacking play under Sellés. Like Hasenhüttl’s team, they look to penetrate centrally with direct forward runs through the middle of the pitch, and their best moments have been accompanied by lots of these runs and overlapping full-backs in support. This strategy clearly gets the best out of what Southampton’s squad has, and may give them a lifeline in their fight to stay up as long as their narrow front four (below) can provide enough quality in front of goal.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice