The home straight: Questions for the Premier League’s bottom five

Matt Stead


Will anyone help Defoe with the goal burden?
The date of December 17, 2016 might hold little relevance to Sunderland fans at first, but it was a landmark moment in a troubled season. The 1-0 victory over Watford on that blustery Saturday afternoon was the only Premier League win they have secured this season without Jermain Defoe either scoring or assisting a goal. England’s next great hope has played a direct part in two-thirds of the Black Cats’ 24 league goals, which is a bit silly.

Patrick van Aanholt struck that goal against Watford; the left-back who departed in January is Sunderland’s joint-second top scorer. Defoe needs some help.

Will their returning duo rescue them?
That Sunderland’s next fixture falls on April Fool’s Day is no coincidence, for the identity of said ‘returning duo’ on whom their survival hopes could rest seems like some sort of sick joke. But it cannot be denied that there are few more burly shoulders to rest an aforementioned goal burden upon than those of Victor Anichebe, while Lee Cattermole adds the ‘Britishness’ so demanded by the manager in recent weeks. Sunderland have simply played better with Anichebe available, while Cattermole is preparing to pull up his socks, tuck in his shirt and get stuck in.

Can David Moyes win over the fans?
The revelation that hopeful and hopeless David Moyes will remain Sunderland manager next season, whether the Stadium of Light is host to Chelsea or Fleetwood, presents a rather strange but increasingly real possibility. The Black Cats have contrived to avoid relegation in each of the past four seasons by employing a revolving door managerial policy; none of Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat or Sam Allardyce lasted more than a season and a half. Yet it could be that the manager who opens the Championship trap door and ushers them through is the one actually Sunderland retain to oversee the rebuilding process. And in terms of favour with the fans, Moyes is perhaps the least popular of the lot.



Can Steve Agnew earn the permanent manager’s job?

The same predictable names were mentioned. Nigel Pearson was tipped as the favourite. Alan Pardew was perfecting his interview technique. Alan Curbishley, as ever, was available. But it was the assistant of ousted Aitor Karanka, Steve Agnew, who was handed the Middlesbrough reins. “I hope he’s here this time next year or the year after,” said chairman Steve Gibson. Time to repay such a striking show of faith.

Will anyone score a bloody goal?
With 20 goals from 28 league games this season, it does not require a tactical mastermind to identify Middlesbrough’s weakness. If the anti-Man City’s current rate of scoring continues, they will end the season with just 27 goals. Sixteen sides have scored 30 goals or fewer in a single 38-game Premier League season; only three have escaped relegation. Time to evoke the spirit of Manchester City (2006/07), Sunderland (2001/02) and Leeds (1996/97) – although none of those sides scored fewer than 28 goals.

Can Adama Traore be trusted?
Quite how Middlesbrough are even mired in relegation trouble is anyone’s guess. Among their ranks they have a former Barcelona winger, courted by Chelsea in the winter, who was once dubbed by one of the game’s great tactical minds as “a bit of Messi and a bit of Ronaldo”.

To be kind to Tim Sherwood, that assessment sounds almost reasonable when you consider that only three players have completed more dribbles than Adama Traore (110) this season, despite the winger starting just 13 games. Harnessing his talent could be the secret to survival.



Hull City

Can Marco Silva be persuaded to stay?

His appointment was ridiculed, his previous record questioned and his chances of success dismissed, but Marco Silva has given Hull City a fighting chance in this, the oddest of odd seasons. The Portuguese was brought in on an initial six-month contract after the removal of Mike Phelan, and has clearly earned the opportunity to prolong his stay as manager. But the 39-year-old’s reputation has only been enhanced since moving to the KC Stadium. Can the Hull fans persuade him to stay, even in the case of relegation?

Can they continue to maximise home advantage?
Since Silva was appointed on January 5, Hull have won three of their four home Premier League matches, drawing the other. In that same time period, they have drawn one and lost four of their five away games, scoring just one goal. Context is key of course, and trips to Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton have not helped that record, but their form at the KC Stadium has to be supplemented with results on the road.

Their next away game? On April 8, when they travel to Manchester City.

Is a two-striker formation the way forward?
Fortune favours the brave, and Silva displayed plenty of courage in Hull’s last home win before the international break. In a crucial game against Swansea, the Portuguese started with his favoured 4-3-3 formation. With the scores level at the hour mark, he sacrificed one of his three central midfielders, Alfred N’Diaye, for Oumar Niasse, pairing the loanee with Abel Hernandez and leading the line with two strikers. The forwards combined excellently, Niasse scored twice, and three points were secured. The temptation to repeat the experiment will be difficult to resist.




Is it possible to stay up with that defence?
With 63 goals conceded from 29 league games this season, it does not require a tactical mastermind to identify Swansea’s weakness. Paul Clement has overseen improvement in defence, but their current rate of conceding under his management is still two goals per game. If that continues, they will end the season having conceded 81 goals. Twenty-seven sides have conceded 70 goals or more in a single 38-game Premier League season; only three have escaped relegation. Time to evoke the spirit of West Brom (2010/11), Wigan (2009/10) and Wimbledon (1995/96) – although none of those sides conceded more than 79 goals.

What will come of the forum with the owners?

‘All parties are keen that this should be a productive evening with the emphasis on looking forward and hearing directly from the majority shareholders their views and future plans for the Club.’

So read the statement from the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust website, the story being that American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien would address fan questions for the first time since their summer takeover. The forum will take place in April, and the future direction of the club – survival, relegation and everything in between – must be clarified. Progress on the pitch is often unattainable without clear planning off it.

Can Sigurdsson serve his and the club’s best interests?
If Swansea do suffer the unthinkable, then a place at the top of this list can be reserved for Gylfi Sigurdsson. He is producing performances worthy of a top-six club while plying his trade three points clear of relegation. Regardless of the club’s fate, he will surely depart at the end of the season.

He has scored eight goals. He has created 62 goalscoring chances – as many as Wayne Routledge (25), Fernando Llorente (21) and Kyle Naughton (16), Swansea’s second, third and fourth most productive players, combined. He leads the Premier League charts in both assists (11) and distance travelled (318.2km). Get you a man who can do both, as almost every top-flight manager will be thinking in the summer.


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Crystal Palace

Can Big Sam get Christian Benteke firing?

It felt like a match made in heaven. Never before had Sam Allardyce been handed a £27million hose on any of his previous firefighting assignments. But that was the case when his post-England career started at Selhurst Park, with a shiny new Christian Benteke wrapped up perfectly for him. Of course, that will be the same Benteke who has scored one goal and assisted zero in 11 Premier League games under the new manager. Allardyce must make Christian a believer again.

Can they survive their run-in?
Ordinarily, a four-point lead with a game in hand over 18th place would render any side safe. Not so for Palace. The south Londoners face each of the top six, as well as resurgent champions Leicester, in their final ten games. Selhurst Park will welcome both Burnley and Hull before season’s end, but relying on a full quota of points from those fixtures would be negligent. Palace might need to spring at least one shock to stay up.

Which players, if any, will earn a new contract?
The contracts of nine Crystal Palace players are set to expire this summer, more than any other Premier League club. Each member of that particular nonet are fighting for their futures; they must show their worth to the Selhurst Park cause. As it happens, we can’t see many surviving the summer cull, but a few impressive performances could change everything.


Matt Stead