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Predicting the relegation battle: The best of the worst

Part two of our in-depth look at the bottom eleven teams in the Premier League as we head into the final third of the season.

Richard Heathcote

In our continued attempt to see if Aston Villa should be worried about the relegation battle, we're here today to look at the teams who currently sit between 10th and 15th in the Premier League. The shiniest of the turds! Or at least they are in comparison to the bottom five, who we looked at yesterday.

Crystal Palace - 8 W, 2 D, 15 L; -16 GD; 26 points

Crystal Palace began the year as the promoted team most likely to fall right back into the Championship. Their fourth match was their last until their eighteenth in which they weren't in a relegation position. I'll give you one guess as to which team they beat to climb to 17th on the table? That's right: Aston Villa! Since their 0-1 victory at Villa Park on Boxing Day, the Eagles have only found themselves in the bottom three twice. A busy January under Tony Pulis saw the club improve their chances considerably. Actually, that's a lie. Their January was pretty ineffective until the last minute. On the 31st, they brought in Jason Puncheon, Joe Ledley, Scott Dann, and Wayne Hennessey. Now, the fact that this group has considerably improved Crystal Palace tells us a lot about the club, but it doesn't change the matter at hand: they are far better positioned to secure safety now than they were on January 30.

That said, simply having Tony Pulis as their manager makes this a pretty unlikable club. I came into the season wanting to see Crystal Palace do well. I really have no idea why, but that's what I was looking for. Now, I'd be happy to do anything to get Tony Pulis and his rancid style of football out of the Premier League again. The only possible downside to Crystal Palace being relegated would be the chance that they would fire Pulis and some other Premier League club would hire him (Tony at Trafford, anyone?).

But, my personal opinion is neither here nor there. We're simply looking at what the club has to weather in their remaining matches. Unlike most clubs, they've still got 13 to play, as their match at Everton was postponed in last week's miserable weather. So they've still got that, both Manchesters, Newcastle, Southampton, Chelsea, and Liverpool left on their schedule. Newcastle and Southampton are beatable, of course, but it's hard to see Crystal Palace taking points off of the others in that list. That still leaves Sunderland, Cardiff City, and Fulham though, and simply beating those three would do wonders towards securing safety. They'd be at 35 points with those three wins, and another victory (Aston Villa at Selhurst, anyone?) would probably be enough this year. Don't look to see a draw though, as they've only had two of those this year.

Stoke City - 6 W, 9 D, 11 L; -14 GD; 27 points

Mark Hughes has quietly put together a half-decent season at Stoke City, never once seeing the club drop into the bottom three. That's better than he did last year at QPR, but about the same as Stoke saw last season. To be entirely honest, this is the club I'm having the most trouble writing about thus far, as Stoke City are just the sort of team who scream "apathy." Sure, they're a premier league side who have been as high as fifth this year (after their third match), but when your most prolific (and interesting?) player is Peter Crouch, you're a boring club.

Speaking of boring players: Stephen Ireland! He's a thing that Stoke have accepted as their own!

See what I mean? Ugh. At least Hull City have the novelty of being new to the League to help make them interesting. Stoke have Peter Crouch, who hasn't been interesting since we developed proper weather forecasting and haven't had to rely merely on the reports of exceptionally tall people.

They've got a quasi-tough run-out, but it's not one from which they should have much trouble escaping. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if they looked to be in a significantly worse position in two weeks, after they travel to Manchester City and host Arsenal. Any movement below them, and two losses will possibly put them in the bottom three. But they've still got matches against Norwich, Cardiff, Fulham, and West Brom to go. Not to mention a trip to Villa Park. Like Crystal Palace, you can probably pencil in three wins and then expect a surprise somewhere. Or a bunch of draws, since they already have 9, tied for second-most behind West Brom. 10-12 points are hardly out of the question, and even a few more wouldn't be surprising. These guys are safe, unfortunately for anyone who likes football that is interesting.

Hull City - 7 W, 6 D, 13 L; -6 GD; 27 points

You realize we're up to 13th in the table now, and we're still talking about clubs that are still very much (at least mathematically) in fear for their lives? I don't think the bunching at the bottom of the table gets talked about enough, and it gets talked about a lot. This is an absolutely fascinating phenomenon. Take a look. This chart shows the teams in order of position (1st-20th, left to right) with their current points totals:

Everything has separated itself into three tiers. Eight points separate the bottom 11 teams, eight separate 6-9, and seven separate 1-5. Between the tiers, though, we see separation that's nearly as big as the spread within the tiers themselves: nine points between 10th and 9th, and five between 6th and 5th. It's so abundantly clear where teams fall this season, and I'm not sure I've ever seen such natural classification in a league before.

Anyways, this has almost nothing to do with Hull in particular, other than the fact that they are yet another boring team about whom it's tough to say very much. And guess what? We've still got West Ham, Villa, and Swansea to talk about. Lordy. Hull have been quietly impressive in their first season in the Premier League since the 2009-2010 season, falling no further than 13th since their fourth match. I wouldn't expect that to change any time soon. Their schedule has a few bumps left (Manchester City, Arsenal, Everton), but nothing extraordinary. While their attack hasn't been amazing (25 goals, which is two fewer than Villa have, which is a really sad thing), they've had a stout defense. Their 31 conceded are tied with Manchester United for 6th-best in the league.

Their last three wins have followed an interesting, though likely insignificant pattern: win, five other results, win. If that keeps up, they should sweep their remaining West Midlands matches with wins over West Brom and Villa. Don't expect that to keep up. It's a statistical fluke. But it is interesting! Sort of. And that's really more than can be said for most things Hull City.

So yeah. Hull City. Probably safe. Not because they've been amazing, nor should they be amazing, but simply because they've been pretty darn consistent. Look for 38-40 points here.

Aston Villa - 7 W, 7 D, 12 L; -9 GD; 28 points

Do I really need to say much? You guys know this squad. They are maddeningly inconsistent: capable of beating Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller and being held to a goalless draw against Cardiff. They are better on the road than they are at home. They show bouts of pure brilliance followed by extended periods of nothing. Do you remember that this club went 451 minutes without scoring a goal at one point this season?

And the worst part is that it is nearly impossible to predict this team. Stellar performance against Liverpool and West Brom? Alright, let's lay an egg against West Ham and Cardiff. Those matches should have been six points. There is no reason for them to be anything else. And yet we came away with one.

But how's this: rather than predict Villa on a match-by-match basis, I'll say with some confidence that they've got three more wins, three more draws, and six losses left in them. Final tally? 40 points. In almost every year that's enough to stay up, and this year it could be good by a 2-5-point margin. I could be entirely wrong, but I just feel that this club will win some matches they shouldn't, botch some matches they should, and put us to sleep with a few dull draws. We're not going to be excited, but given how bad everyone below them is, I can't see Villa dropping. I really can't.

In a random side note: do you realize that Villa haven't been lower than thirteenth this season, with one exception (after the loss to Newcastle at Villa Park)? It's a team who should still be worried about relegation according to the numbers, but who have not seriously flirted with the bottom three all season.

West Ham United - 7 W, 7 D, 12 L; -5 GD; 28 points

Oh hey, the team we should have beat to begin a run of six points. A team who have gotten thirteen points in their last six matches. Sam Allardyce has probably seen his club saved from what was looking like a near-certain relegation thanks to a fantastic spell of play in the new year. They have taken advantage of clubs that they should beat (Norwich, Villa, Swansea, and Cardiff) to put themselves in a position where they can play nothing more than acceptable football for the rest of the season and still be safe. If the pattern of beating teams they should continues, West Ham will have no worries.

But it was a run of matches lost against these same bad teams that put them in a tenuous position when the year began. So who's to say the switch won't suddenly flip back and bury the Hammers? To add a little bit of stress, they've still got matches against Everton, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester City. If they suddenly start losing to teams that they should beat, things could get dicey.

Especially there at the end of the season. Tottenham and Manchester City both look as if they'll have to play this one out, and if West Ham haven't secured safety by the last day of the season, they're screwed. They'll have to travel to the Ethiad stadium to face a City team who have already scored 42 goals at home while only allowing 9. That's never going to be a win, and the visit from Tottenham the week before will also be tricky. We should know by the end of March whether or not West Ham will be worth watching. Get 10 points by then, and they should be fine. They would still have matches against Crystal Palace and West Brom after all.

Any fewer than 10 points before they take on Liverpool, though, and we'll all want to keep an eye on this club. They're mercurial, and that could really hurt or help them in the final third of the season.

Swansea City - 7 W, 7 D, 12 L; -3 GD; 28 points

Oh thank god, we've made it. But again, literally more than half of the league is still mathematically very much alive in the relegation race. That's incredible to me, in the most literal sense of the word. Swansea aren't going down though. They've been a solid club at home, and just a touch below average on the road this season.

But dammit if they aren't interesting. They've sacked (apparently by email) manager Michael Laudrup, and replaced him with a player-manger, in Garry Monk. Sadly, Monk has only played one match this year, and is unlikely to play any more. This means we won't get the joy of seeing a manager have to sub himself off or on. Nor will we get the joy of someone in a suit playing defender (shut up, I know that's not how it works but I want to imagine it that way). Alas.

They've still got a few hitches in the schedule (trips to Liverpool, Arsenal, and Everton, as well as a visit from Chelsea), but enough winnable (or drawable) matches left that 12-14 points shouldn't be a problem.


So what have we learned? Well, to my mind while Aston Villa aren't safe, per se, they certainly don't look to be in severe danger. It's not because they're doing well, mind you, but rather because everyone below them is doing terribly. It's tough to let six teams pass you in the table, especially when a number of those six are just so darn bad.

A few wins here and there would make Villa fans feel far more secure, though. And there is no better place to start than this weekend's trip to Newcastle. Come on Villa, make my 4,300 words on the relegation scrum irrelevant. Please.

Let me know what you think about the bottom eleven in the comments below! Should Villa be worried?