As we move into the second half of the 2023/24 Premier League season, there is still much football to play and points to be won. At the top of the table, we have a wide-open title race with the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City all with a strong shout of being crowned champions come May.
At the bottom of the table though, there seems to be much less uncertainty over what will happen. Very few people are giving rock-bottom Sheffield United any hope of survival and the situation is not markedly better for Luton or Burnley. Does this mean the relegation battle is already settled though, or will we see some movement in the bottom three over the next few months?
At the halfway mark in the season (Luton have only played 18 matches) this is the state of play within the betting:
So, the three newly-promoted sides all find themselves trading at an odds-on price to head straight back down to the Championship. There is even an odds-on price (5/6) when backing the three in a relegation trio (any order), such is the bleak outlook for them.
Bearing in this mind, is it fair to say the relegation battle is effectively over with only half the season played? Although we are expecting the current bottom three to go down, the gap between them and the teams around them is not so great that a turnaround is entirely out of the question.
All teams above 14th are on course to break the fabled 40-point barrier (if they haven’t already), which is a total that virtually guarantees safety. It would be a real surprise to see any of them dragged into the relegation battle at this point, especially when closer to 36 points will likely be enough to secure Premier League safety.
Looking at the table in isolation you may think the relegation fight is far from settled. Luton, who have that game in hand, could move up three places should they manage to win that fixture. Why then are they trading at such a skinny price to face the drop? The simple answer is that the teams above them all look significantly better. Everton’s league position is artificially low due to their 10-point deduction. Without this, they would be comfortably midtable and they have been playing extremely well since receiving the penalty.
Although it is early days, Forest already look an improved side under Nuno Espirito Santo. He was very unlucky to taste defeat on his debut and then oversaw an excellent away win at Newcastle. Crystal Palace find themselves on a troubling eight-game winless run but they have been competitive in all of the matches and often punished by some very late goals. Although they are not firing on all cylinders, there is no major cause for concern yet, especially with Eberechi Eze back from injury.
The last team to mention is Brentford, a side that has lost six of their last seven matches. Quite tellingly, their one win in this time came against Luton and it was a match they dominated. Luton’s goal in the 3-1 game flattered them, while the Bees could have added more. The form of Thomas Frank’s men is concerning but Ivan Toney is back from his ban very soon and his return will be massive given how much of a goal threat he is.
This sums up why none of the bottom three are fancied to avoid playing Championship football next season. If one of the trio are to pull off an unlikely escape though, which one is it most likely to be?
To their credit, United have looked better since Chris Wilder returned as manager. Already he’s overseen a 1-0 win over Brentford, a hard-fought draw away at Villa (ending the Villain’s 15-game league home winning streak) and was desperately unlucky to lose to Luton. It took a huge goalkeeping blunder and two own goals to see the Blades walk away with nothing that day.
So, while there is some small cause for optimism, the Blades simply do not have a squad that looks capable of managing to get 35+ points. Avoiding the drop would be such a huge overachievement with the players Wilder has at his disposal. They have some decent attacking players but the defence (and goalkeeper) needs a complete overhaul as they are on course to concede almost 100 goals.
Vincent Kompany’s Burnley took the Championship by storm last season, becoming just the sixth side in the history of the competition to record over 100 points. The slick passing game that served them so well last year though just has not worked at a higher level. Kompany has tried to stick to the same tactics but so often Burnley have ended up losing the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch.
Not only this, but the Clarets have struggled to progress the ball into dangerous areas, something they did so often in the Championship. They have only managed to create 19 big chances and their total of 18 goals scored is the second-worst in the division. Kompany does not have the personnel for a radically different plan B either, meaning it is hard to see their situation changing much.
Out of the current bottom three, Luton appear to have the best chance of securing safety. Not only do the Hatters have the most points but they appear to be playing with some real belief. Their first two matches back in the English top flight saw them lose by a three-goal margin but this has not happened again and all but two losses have been by a single goal.
Back-to-back wins either side of Christmas gave their survival chances a real boost but their away form is a concern. They were beyond fortunate to walk away from Bramall Lane with all three points and this represented their first win on the road. A team can get by with few away points if their home ground is a fortress, and admittedly Kenilworth Road is showing some signs of that. You can expect the Hatters to collect more points at home, just probably not enough to keep them up.
How Often Do All Newly Promoted Sides Face Immediate Relegation?
History is one thing that may give fans of the current bottom three some hope. Only once in Premier League history have all the newly promoted sides gone straight back down again. This sole instance occurred in 1997-98 when Barnsley, Bolton and Crystal Palace headed back in the direction they came. While very much a rarity, it is also unusual for all of the newly promoted sides to look this weak. Unless one of them can make some very shrewd signings in the January transfer window, our money is on there being a repeat of the 97/98 season.