What are the team’s principal weaknesses? It is easy to identify the side’s defensive problems, so chronic over the latter stages of Alan Pardew’s tenure and immediately confronted by Sam Allardyce. But the real issue remains the lack of confidence which has infected this squad over the past 13 months. As Allardyce pointed out, he has not been charged with reviving a side who had stuttered mid-season. Palace have been unravelling since December 2015, when they were outside the Champions League places only on goal difference. They have been haemorrhaging ever since, with the steady erosion of self-belief over time ensuring every setback these days – however small – tends to see shoulders slump, discipline drain away and defeatism flood back in.
What gives hope that they can avoid the drop? Principally, Allardyce’s record. He has never been relegated from the top flight and has said there is a greater depth in quality within this squad than he found when arriving at his previous salvage operations, with Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland. He also has a transfer window in which to operate and co-owners who recognise the urgent need to invest.
How important will January deals be to their chances? Pivotal. Allardyce has acknowledged that, given the damage inflicted upon this team by 14 months of underachievement, new faces are required just to offer a fresh approach. “I’ll need new players to lift the place,” said the manager. “That’s what I did at Blackburn and Sunderland, bringing in players to recover the situation.” Some in the ranks will probably never revive their careers at the club, and the need to stiffen a quaking defence is obvious.
Which two individuals hold the key to their survival hopes? Christian Benteke would appear to set Palace apart from some of the others scrapping against the drop. The Belgian’s brace in midweek – his first goals in seven games – took his tally to 10 for the season since his £27m arrival from Liverpool and, as a player who tends to score in bursts, his return to form could kickstart a revival. Yet he requires service, meaning Palace’s most incisive player, Wilfried Zaha, must return from the Africa Cup of Nations fit and in form.
Owners, players, managers: where does the division of blame lie? If the worst happens then the hierarchy may ponder whether too much faith was invested in Pardew given how the team’s league form had petered out so miserably over the second half of last season. The desire to develop the team’s style of play, from counterattacking to possession-based, was well-meaning, but so few clubs have achieved such a switch successfully. Stoke, perhaps the best example, were far more established in the Premier League than Palace when they instigated the change under Mark Hughes. The suspicion is Palace were simply not ready for revolution.
If the worst comes to the worst, are the club set up for the Championship? Not really. It is hard to believe players such as Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, Scott Dann, Yohan Cabaye or James McArthur would consider second-tier football, and the core of the team who took Palace into the top flight are either gone or going. The ambition and investment would remain, but demotion would probably provoke colossal changes and no guarantee of a swift return. DF
What are the team’s principal weaknesses? Lack of top-quality strikers. Significant shortage of strength in depth and quality cover in a series of key positions. Insufficient pace.
What gives hope they can avoid the drop? Robert Snodgrass’s talent and ability to score and create goals. Excellent team spirit. A bright beginning to life under their new manager, Marco Silva. Encouragingly Silva seems to, so far, have revived the influential but latterly underachieving Tom Huddlestone. Maybe the former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos coach really is the new José Mourinho.
How important will January deals be to their chances? Much hinges on keeping Snodgrass. Not to mention how well Oumar Niasse and Evandro, newly arrived from Everton and Porto respectively, settle in. The £10m sale of Jake Livermore to West Brom represents a gamble which could yet prove costly while no one can be sure what impact Omar Elabdellaoui, who has arrived from Olympiakos, might make.
Which two individuals hold the key to their survival hopes? Snodgrass and Abel Hernández. Can Silva cling on to the former and coax goals from the latter?
Owners, players, managers: where does the division of blame lie? Firmly with the owning Allam family and, in particular, the vice chairman, Ehab Allam, who now runs the club on a day-to-day basis and seems anxious to sell it. Their failure to strengthen a skinny, injury-hit and newly-promoted squad last summer led to Steve Bruce’s despairing resignation and Mike Phelan’s gallant failure to keep the team out of the relegation zone before his sacking this month. Allied to a controversial membership scheme, which abolished concessions for children and pensioners, this transfer market parsimony has prompted a rift with fans. The resultant atmosphere at the KCom stadium is now somewhat toxic and hardly helps the team. The Allam family’s hitherto unsuccessful hunt for a buyer has created an air of stasis.
If the worst comes to the worst are the club set up for the Championship? After two promotions to the Premier League in the past four years the nucleus of Hull’s squad is Championship hardened and would not find relegation a real culture shock. At around £48m their wage bill is among the smallest in the top tier and, given the riches provided by the latest television deals, the club is expected to end this season with its balance sheet showing a healthy profit which could help fund another promotion push. Yet until a takeover actually happens – almost certainly easier said than done – the future remains opaque. LT
Played 21 Points 15 Goal difference -20
What are the team’s principal weaknesses? Where to start? General lack of creativity. No midfield playmaker. Acute shortage of attacking cover for Jermain Defoe. Defensive weaknesses, particularly at centre-half and right-back. Over-dependence on Defoe for goals. Insufficient pace.
What gives hope they can avoid the drop? Past experience: they specialise in annual 11th hour, narrow escapes. Defoe’s goals. The sense that Middlesbrough, Watford and, possibly, Leicester could yet get sucked into trouble too.
How important will January deals be to their chances? Difficult to say. Sunderland’s £73m wage bill is close to breaching Premier League remuneration cap rules, the club is up for sale and its gargantuan debt dictates David Moyes has limited room for manoeuvre. Signing the new faces he craves – negotiations with Norwich for Robbie Brady are ongoing and Everton’s Phil Jagielka also features on the shopping list – will involve offloading players from a slender squad badly affected by a raft of long-term injuries. While Moyes would be happy to lose Wahbi Khazri he is keen to keep Lamine Koné and Jordan Pickford. But the fear is that any dealings could prove cosmetic as the four or five new recruits surely required to secure survival appear unlikely to materialise and, given the side’s enduring struggles, it will not be easy to attract potentially transformative individuals to Wearside.
Which two individuals hold the key to their survival hopes? Defoe and Victor Anichebe. Moyes must pray he can keep his highly effective attacking double act fit – and ensure Defoe is not sold this month.
Owners, players, managers: where does the division of blame lie? Of the 46 players signed since 2009, Sunderland have sold only three – Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet and James McClean for a profit – so Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Moyes must all shoulder varying shares of managerial responsibility (Allardyce is exempt from criticism as he bought well last January) but the overriding blame rests with Ellis Short, the owner. Admittedly Short’s regular cash injections have kept the Wearsiders afloat but his penchant for seeking quick fixes rather than long-term solutions – not to mention delegating too much responsibility to the hapless former chief executive Margaret Byrne – has backfired badly. Meanwhile certain players must accept culpability for considerable underachievement.
If the worst comes to the worst are the club set up for the Championship? Yes, in the sense all player contracts include relegation clauses, reducing wages by 40% in the event of losing Premier League status. Yet, broadly, no, as the club are currently around £140m in debt and their squad does not look remotely good enough to challenge for promotion in what has become an extremely competitive second tier.
It does not help that, Koné and Pickford aside, they are not exactly awash with first-teamers with high resale values. LT
Played 21 Points 15 Goal difference -26
What are the team’s principal weaknesses? Look at the goals-against column. Swansea have conceded 49 after 21 matches, putting them on course to equal the Premier League record (89 goals) for a 38-game season, which is held by the Derby County team that finished bottom in 2008. Paul Clement vowed to put that right through organisation, yet Swansea’s head coach also needs new personnel, notably an experienced central defender. Swansea had one in Ashley Williams and have not replaced him.
What gives hope that they can avoid the drop? The fact that Swansea have been so poor yet are still only one point adrift of safety is one source of encouragement. Clement’s arrival followed by a flurry of signings, with the promise of more, is another. Beyond that it is hard to feel optimistic, especially when three of the next five matches are away against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. Every home game feels like must-win territory.
How important will January deals be to their chances? Absolutely crucial. The squad Clement inherited is not good enough to stay in the Premier League, which is why there has been so much activity this month. Luciano Narsingh has signed from PSV, Tom Carroll has joined from Tottenham Hotspur and Martin Olsson has been recruited from Norwich at a combined cost of close to £15m. Swansea still need an injection of pace up front and a commanding centre-half.
Which two individuals hold the key to their survival hopes? Gylfi Sigurdsson would be one without question. Sigurdsson has scored five and set up six of Swansea’s 23 Premier League goals and the Icelander is the club’s most influential player by a distance, even if he has gone off the boil a little lately. As for the other, much depends on whether Fernando Llorente stays fit and if Narsingh, a Holland international, can make an instant impact.
Owners, players, managers: whee does the division of blame lie? Take your pick. Huw Jenkins, the chairman, is culpable in part. It was a flawed decision to give Francesco Guidolin the manager’s job last May and an awful error of judgment to miss out on signing Joe Allen. Recruitment, in short, has been woeful. The owners cannot be absolved from blame – Bob Bradley’s appointment was a mistake – and then we come to the players, far too many of whom are not good enough.
If the worst comes to the worst, are the club set up for the Championship? Swansea would cope from a financial point of view and Clement accepted the job knowing he could be working in the Championship next season. Yet there is no escaping the fact that relegation would be a disaster for Swansea, for the reason Alan Curtis outlined when caretaker manager – there is no guarantee a club with their resources would return to the top flight any time soon. SJ
By: Dominic Fifield, Louise Taylor and Stuart James