With a little of Round 28 now in the books, the English Premier League enters its defining stage. Although the title race looks as good as over with Chelsea having a commanding lead, it’s a very different story at the bottom with a number of teams still fighting for survival.
Swansea manager Paul Clement has claimed that there are nine sides involved in the relegation dogfight, however with both Watford and Burnley seven points clear of the drop a lot would need to go wrong for them to be sucked into danger. Indeed, for the purposes of this piece, I have decided to look at the seven teams that are yet to go beyond 30 points and see who is best placed to stay up.
We’ll start by setting a base of where the bookmakers believe teams to be. With three teams on 27 points or more (Bournemouth, Leicester and Swansea), it’s not overly surprising that of these Bournemouth now have the longest odds for the drop at 14.00. Leicester are at 9.00 and Swansea have sunk to 4.70 after their weekend defeat.
The bottom four teams are more evenly spread, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that the bookmakers have decided on their bottom three, with Sunderland (1.17), Middlesbrough (1.34) and Hull (1.82) all odds on to be relegated. It’s not a major surprise given that the first two are six and three points from safety, respectively, where Crystal Palace currently occupy the magical 17th spot and can be had at 2.96.
Now let’s take a look at some of the data supporting these odds, as well as some more subjective factors that could play a part, digging into whether there could be value in backing one of the four teams currently sitting outside the bottom three to ultimately go down, or if the current trio are indeed doomed.
To start off, we’ll look at each team’s attacking output and conversion rates, to see who comes out on top in terms of having the firepower to shoot their way to safety. A first glance at the table shows that Bournemouth have scored the most goals of any team in the bottom seven, hitting the net 40 times:
What is perhaps interesting about Bournemouth is that despite being the top scorers, Josh King was the first player to hit double figures with his weekend hat trick against West Ham. On the contrary, as was the case last season, Sunderland find themselves very heavily dependent on Jermain Defoe, who has scored 58% of their league goals this season (14/24) to again beg the question of just where they would be without him. As a general statement from the table above it is clear that goals are a very valuable currency, with the four leading scorers not in the bottom three.
Breaking it down a little more with the use of StrataData, we can see which teams are creating chances and indeed the general quality of chance they are fashioning:
The data shows that five of the teams are actually creating at a similar level, before a notable drop off towards Middlesbrough and Sunderland, who are unsurprisingly the two lowest scorers in the league. Once again we see that the current bottom three are the worst placed of our seven, making it hard to make a case for any of them to survive. What is perhaps surprising is the quality of chances that the teams are creating.
Leicester are third on the list of overall chance creation, but in actual fact over half of their chances fall into the “Fairly Good” (~8% conversion) and “Poor” (~2% conversion) categories. While this is actually the case for all teams, as could perhaps be expected, the quality of chances does indeed correlate with attacking output. Bournemouth are the leading scorers in this pack and have created more “Superb” chances (~75% conversion rate) than any of the other teams, belying their spot in the middle of the chance table. Naturally, the better the chances you are making, the greater the chances you have of scoring and, in turn, remaining in the Premier League.
The table makes worrying reading for Middlesbrough, who have created the second fewest chances overall, while also notably fewer “Great” (~40% conversion) and Superb chances with a paltry 10 over the course of the season! They come bottom in all of our chance categories aside from “Good” (~15% conversion) and Poor, meaning it’s hardly a coincidence that they are really struggling for goals and that their top scorer Alvaro Negredo has mustered just six this season.
So, we’ve seen that there is a general correlation between the quality of chance creation and league position, but how does this stack up in terms of actual conversion rates?
Chance conversion across the board generally falls in line with expectation, as better conversion comes with the better chances. It’s notable that Bournemouth are the only team to have passed up a Superb chance and that they have the worst conversion from Greats, although from “Very Good” (~25% conversion) openings they are leading the way, suggesting that their ability to score from lesser opportunities may stand them in good stead in the relegation fight. It could also be argued that in this case they are over performing, meaning that if they stop taking lower quality chances, they could find themselves as a real candidate for relegation, and at 14.00, there is potential value to be found there.
Middlesbrough have the steadiest line out of all seven teams, showing that when they create, they are doing a reasonable job of scoring, but they have the problem of actually fashioning openings in the first place. Sunderland and Hull are relative underachievers once again, being towards the lower end of the scale with regards to converting, suggesting that their fight to avoid the drop could indeed be a futile battle, making their positions as two of the favourites for the drop justifiable. Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea all find the net with more efficiency when they would be expected to, tucking away their better chances to really improve their prospects of survival.
Overall in terms of attacking output it would appear that the bottom three are where they are for a reason, while Bournemouth should still be looking nervously over their shoulders given their poor conversion rates from the better chance types.
So let’s focus on the defensive side of the game now, looking to see if frailties in this area could catch up to those currently outside the bottom three to level the playing field a bit.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Swansea (61 conceded) and Bournemouth (54 conceded) sit outside of the relegation zone but have two of the poorest defensive records of those at the foot of the table, Hull (54 conceded) sitting level with Eddie Howe’s men. This does give some weight to the belief that the best way to stay away from trouble for these two sides is to play more offensively, as they are currently clear of danger.
On the other hand, Middlesbrough actually have the fifth best defensive record in the entire league. Having shipped just 30 goals all season it’s pretty clear where their problems lie and why they are struggling at the foot of the table. They have made no secret about their desire to be well organised, with Aitor Karanka seeing this as the best way to stay clear of danger, but given their dreadful attacking output, one mistake is currently proving costly in terms of points and has left them with a big task on their hands to stay up. They have drawn more games than anyone else (10), while even Sunderland and Hull have won more matches than their four, which is the lowest total of any team in the league. Had they managed to turn even half of those draws into wins, they could easily be looking at a comfortable mid-table position at present, but as it is, they are staring down the barrel at an instant return to the Championship. At odds of 1.34 there appears little faith that this record will improve in the final few games.
So what does this mean in terms of defensive output? Similar to the attacking rates, let’s see how each team stacks up in terms of chance creation against:
Once again we find that the data doesn’t lie, with Sunderland and Hull giving away considerably more chances than their opponents, suggesting that they are placed correctly in the bottom three. Interestingly, Middlesbrough, who have by far the best goals conceded record out of the seven teams, are just middle of the road when actually giving away chances, suggesting that a mixture of poor finishing and good goalkeeping may be disguising a more deep rooted problem overall. They have given away fewer chances compared to Leicester, but the quality of those chances is actually higher. Bournemouth and Swansea, with their more expansive styles of play give away chances of greater quality, but at a lower frequency overall, meaning they are conceding more as opponents are punishing the better opportunities they are allowed.
Crystal Palace, who have been in relegation trouble for most of the season are going along nicely in both the attacking and defending columns, so if Sam Allardyce can get his squad gradually more motivated and organised, which he appears to be doing, they have a great chance of avoiding the drop.
In terms of conversion against, let’s see if anybody really stands out:
From a defensive standpoint it’s no real surprise to see Middlesbrough propping up the other six teams in the majority of categories. They’ve conceded from just one of three Superb chances, whereas Bournemouth have conceded every single time their opponent has opened them up for a Superb chance, nine times in total. What is perhaps most interesting is that overall, Sunderland and Hull have better defensive conversion rates in most areas than Crystal Palace, Leicester and Swansea, but the sheer volume at which they give away chances will naturally see them concede more eventually.
Once again Bournemouth’s numbers don’t look particularly encouraging here, giving away the most goals from Good to Poor chances, indicating either poor goalkeeping, or a little bit of bad luck along the way. Either way, they are in the spotlight for the wrong reasons defensively and those odds of 14.00 to go down are starting to look mighty tempting.
So aside from statistics, what other factors could come into consideration if looking to make a trade on the relegation run in?
There will inevitably be injuries that crop up and some will affect clubs more than others, while changes in management are also not out of the question, though with four of the seven clubs having already made a move in this area it does look like the current batch of managers will be left to battle it out until the end of the season.
Hull and Sunderland have been hurt by numerous injuries since the start of the season, though in Hull’s case it has more often than not been fringe players who have missed playing time. In Sunderland’s case, the issues have been far graver, with key figures Kirchhoff, Cattermole, Anichebe and Watmore all having spent long spells out, as well as having to contend with injuries to Pickford, who has emerged as the first choice goalkeeper, on top of a host of other shorter term problems. It’s not a major surprise that they have struggled for results, with David Moyes having to piece together a team that is far from what he would consider full strength for much of the campaign.
The rest of the teams have been impacted far less by injuries, only losing fringe players for extended periods, though it is worth noting that for a second season running, Bournemouth have lost Callum Wilson, their best striker, to a season ending knee problem. Keeping players fit and healthy can naturally have a major impact on any success, one need only look at Leicester last season and Chelsea this as proof. One dreads to think what could happen to Sunderland’s already bleak prospects of staying up should Defoe pick up an injury, though the same could be said at Swansea if Sigurdsson or Llorente became unavailable. There is a more even spread of talent among the other clubs at the bottom, none relying on individuals quite so heavily.
Momentum at this stage of the campaign can also play a major role, as those stuck in a rut could find themselves quickly running out of games to turn things round, while one win can quickly turn into two or three, as Swansea and even Crystal Palace have begun to find out. Middlesbrough are currently on the longest winless run at 10 games, which could make it more of a mental battle against the drop than actual ability. Bournemouth will have received a major boost from their gritty draw at Man Utd with 10 men and subsequent win over West Ham, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
The final point to consider is the strength of the run in for each team. Coming up against top opposition could limit their chances for points, while games with each other at the foot of the table are key. Looking through each team’s fixtures, this is the average league position of opposition in the final rounds:
It seems that Sunderland have the softest run in, but they will be meeting all of their relegation rivals bar Crystal Palace during this time, while Palace themselves have the tougher end of the draw, coming up against opposition mainly in the top half of the table. Middlesbrough and Bournemouth are closest to average with their fixture strength, which could make their meeting five weeks before the end of the season very crucial indeed.
Taking everything into consideration, it looks quite clear that Sunderland and Hull are still heading for the drop, while Swansea, Leicester and Crystal Palace could have just enough to pull clear and survive for another season. The real battle appears to be between Middlesbrough’s defensive efforts, and Bournemouth’s attacking quality. The value is with Bournemouth at 14.00, though it’s hard to make a case for Middlesbrough to stay up when they are scoring at a rate of 0.7 goals per game, a desperately poor output that means conceding even once a game almost rules out any prospect of winning!
It is likely to be a battle that goes right down to the wire, but on current form and having looked at everything, my personal opinion (for what it’s worth) is that Middlesbrough look the much more likely candidates to drop into the Championship.
Alec Payne (@Payney3)
*All odds and data correct at the time of writing