The relegation battle appears to be between seven teams, with a seven-point gap already opened up between Cardiff in 14th and Brighton one place above them. Here are the reasons for the bottom seven to be optimistic. And why they should fear the worst…
Why they’ll stay up: Neil Warnock’s strategy is neither new nor sophisticated, but it is proven to get results. The Cardiff boss has assembled a group lacking the quality of many of their relegation rivals and one which has seen less of the ball than any other Premier League team, but few sides will out-graft the Bluebirds. It may be unkind to label their squad as Championship standard but Warnock’s players are all hungry to prove themselves at this level. That will go a long way in a relegation scrap against better-quality opponents who can’t match their application.
Their survival will be built upon their home form. Cardiff have won three off their last four on their own patch and they sit in the top of half of a Premier League table based on home results. They have, though, already hosted four of the other six relegation contenders.
Why they’ll go down: Cardiff have gathered some momentum in recent weeks following a wretched start but that could come crashing down over Christmas. Their home form is crucial but their two games at the Cardiff City Stadium see Man Utd and Tottenham arrive in south Wales. There are also trips to Watford, Palace and Leicester.
As reliable as their home form is, Warnock’s men have been dire on the road. Fulham are the only other side yet to win away. Only one side has scored fewer goals and their best striker is a right-back. So yeah.
Why they’ll stay up: Rafael Benitez. He can’t perform miracles but getting Newcastle into the top half at the end of last season had St James’ Park wondering what he could do with a basket of bread rolls and a couple of battered cod.
Rafa has been working with one hand tied behind his back ever since he arrived on Tyneside and his presence is the only thing between the Toon Army and mutiny. But Benitez will get on with the job of making the best of what he’s got and, in such circumstances, the quickest way to improve any team’s prospects is to make them hard to beat. Only six sides in the Premier League have kept more clean sheets and their defensive record is that of a top-half team.
Newcastle are a streaky side and they could do with some confidence-rebuilding wins in the coming weeks before a Christmas programme which looks as tough as their start. Four points against Huddersfield and Fulham before Christmas would take them halfway to 34 – the minimum required for survival last season. This term it seems unlikely those who stay up will need much more.
Why they’ll go down: It’s a good job their defence is solid, because up front they are as limp as a soggy copy of the Chronicle. Only Huddersfield have scored fewer goals this season.
Newcastle are unbeaten against four of their relegation rivals but they’ve beaten only one of them and goalless draws against the others sum the Magpies up. Mike Ashley is unlikely to open his wallet in January so Benitez will have to make the best of what he has got, all the while teams around them look to strengthen.
Why they’ll stay up: Palace missed an opportunity to push on in the summer when they were content to spend only £10million, despite losing Yohan Cabaye and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Roy Hodgson paid cash for only one player, Cheikhou Kouyate, who has formed a solid partnership with Luka Milivojevic. That adds another layer of security to a goal better protected by Wayne Hennessey and a stubborn back-four.
And at least Hodgson and Palace managed to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha. The attacker so often looks like he can win games on his own for the Eagles. Which is handy…
Why they’ll go down: Despite Zaha’s threat, Palace are still woefully short in attack. It took them until December before they scored their first goal at Selhurst Park from open play. The Eagles are 10th for chances created but third-bottom when it comes to shot conversion. Christian Benteke’s return isn’t likely to right that wrong.
That home form is a concern. Two of their three wins have come on the road and at least the Eagles are in the habit of turning over the teams around them, with Fulham, Huddersfield and Burnley all beaten. But Hodgson has to find a way of making Palace a less welcoming place for visitors.
Why they’ll stay up: This is the same squad playing the same way which earned a European place last season. They almost certainly overachieved but not so much so that this term’s results can be considered a more accurate assessment of Sean Dyche’s side.
Burnley based their defensive game last season on restricting the quality of chances. They were happy to allow shots – the second highest number in the league – but their organisation and shape meant that Ben Mee and James Tarkowki were generally in place to block them. If their defence was penetrated, Nick Pope was fielding most of whatever came though. This season, Burnley’s opponents have been treated to better opportunities more regularly, with Joe Hart earning praise for his performances, despite Dyche’s side conceding an average of two goals per game compared to one per game last term.
Being one to accentuate the positives, Dyche will emphasise that this defence has proved it is capable of vast improvement. Burnley need to see it, sharpish.
Why they’ll go down: Of course, there is a chance that Burnley’s defence so spectacularly over-performed last season that they will find it impossible to achieve similar levels.
But Dyche will be more concerned at what is going on at the other end. Burnley have created by far the fewest number of chances in the Premier League – 15 fewer than the next worst-performing attack. Dyche wanted a wide man in the summer to improve the supply line and though the Clarets are in the top half for shot-conversion rate, they simply are not creating the number of chances to compensate for the deterioration in their defence.
So Burnley currently have a leaky defence and an attack that is being starved of service. At least one of those problems needs to be remedied swiftly.
Why they’ll stay up: Town demonstrated they have what it takes to survive in the Premier League and it seems little has changed. The Terriers have retained their spirit under David Wagner and since their first win on Bonfire Night, their form hasn’t reaped the points it has perhaps deserved. They gave Arsenal a fright last weekend.
Town’s strength is in defence. Four of their relegation rivals have conceded more goals than the 27 Town have allowed – and a third of those were in the first two games against Man City and Chelsea. Since August, Wagner’s men have been harder to beat, but…
Why they’ll go down: They can’t score goals. Even Newcastle have netted three more than Wagner’s men and prior to the defeat at Bournemouth last week, they were the only side in the Football League yet to reach double figures.
Laurent Depoitre and Steve Mounie have shared the front man duties but between them they have mustered two assists. Their 10 goals have come from midfield or their centre-backs. The stats show Town are failing to make chances and those they are creating are not being taken – they have the lowest shot-conversion rate in the top flight.
Why they’ll stay up: Saints are off the bottom only on goal difference but at least they have been decisive in their response to a dire start. Mark Hughes is gone and in his place, the club have appointed a manager with a track record of improving teams quickly at both ends.
Christ knows they need improving. Saints have won only once this season and though they have kept a credible four clean sheets, too often they have been the masters of their own downfall. No side has made more errors that have led to goals, as Ralph Hasenhuttl saw for himself when Jannik Vestergaard gifted Cardiff victory in the new manager’s first game. In attack, they have created the fifth-highest number of chances but their conversion rate is the second worst. Improving their finishing is a simpler task than increasing creativity.
Training under the Austrian coach is already said to be ‘far more intense’ than it was under Hughes and Hasenhuttl is getting his message across. We can expect to see a different Saints side after the New Year – one that should survive if it stops shooting itself in the foot and begins turning draws into victories.
Why they’ll go down: Hasenhuttl can only work with what he has got and the former RB Leipzig boss needs to mastermind improvement across the board. They only escaped relegation on the final day last season and failed to significantly strengthen in the summer despite spending £56million. Around the dropzone has become their natural habitat.
Hughes chopped and changed with nothing he tried having the desired effect. Hasenhuttl’s methods are vastly different to what the Saints players are used to and his changes will take time.
Why they’ll stay up: We’ll be honest: it doesn’t look good, for the reasons stated below. The only positive thing we can say about the state of affairs at Craven Cottage is that they have got a proven Premier League manager in with time still to turn things around.
Fulham signed 12 new players in the summer and it is hard to believe that some of them won’t offer more as they settle in. Their two biggest signings, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Jean-Micheal Seri, have briefly demonstrated that they are far better players than they have shown so far. They simply have to improve as they become more accustomed to the demands of the Premier League.
Why they’ll go down: Fulham were widely credited for their summer recruitment but too many signings made too late in the window have failed to make the desired impact. Jokanovic chopped and changed the formation of his team and those playing within it but there was no sign of improvement before the Cottagers pulled the trigger.
Most worrying of all is the insight offered by one of their veterans. In October, while doubting his team-mates’ ‘grit and determination’, the USA international said: “There are not enough guys who want it, who want to fight for each other, for themselves, for the club.”
Claudio Ranieri can tweak tactics but there is little any manager can do with a squad which lacks the minimum levels of desire and appetite required in the top flight. Given the Italian was bemoaning the absence of exactly those traits during the defeat at Man Utd last weekend, it seems little has changed.