Survival best secured early
Is there such a thing as securing safety too soon? The millions on offer for each of the 20 teams at the start of each Premier League campaign is now almost symbiotic to each club’s prospects that relegation from it – in the most extreme cases – could threaten your club’s very existence.
Cementing top-flight status for a handful of clubs is as good as winning the title. The sooner it is done, the better.
Minds can rest easy, players contracts can be negotiated, transfer targets identified, budgets finalised and books balanced. The manager, his staff and players congratulated on a job well done.
There is another school of thought, though.
Let’s look at the cases of West Bromwich Albion and Watford, to use two examples. Two teams, both in the top half of the table (West Brom eighth, Watford 10th), who secured their survival with some six or seven games remaining.
The concern (and I use the word loosely) is that, with their futures secured, the players’ intensity in training and matches will drop, the small details to gain an edge over opposition not scrutinised to quite the same degree and supporter numbers dwindle with little excitement to be found in mid-table.
West Brom are 14 points behind seventh-placed Everton and, before last night’s encounter with Manchester City, 19 points behind Manchester United in fifth, the sole Europa League place up for grabs via the league.
Short of winning their five games, they will likely finish closer – in points – to the relegation places, of which they enjoy a 13-point cushion over 18th-placed Swansea City, than they will challenge the established order.
Similarly Watford hit 40 points, the mark historically seen as the benchmark for safety, with a 1-0 win against Swansea on April 15. Their following fixture, against relegation-threatened Hull City, ended in a 2-0 defeat to a team that played the majority of the match with 10 men.
It is only logical with the pressure that comes with ensuring safety that efforts would wane once it was secured.
To answer the question more in depth though we must first examine each team’s goals at the start of 2016/17. Save for Leicester City, the soon-to-be deposed champions of England, the aim of West Brom and every team below Watford in the table will have been survival.
Some critics may say that lacks ambition, but many have flown too close to the sun and scorched their wings. Since the first Premier League in 1992/93 only six have contested every season. Of those that have chased unrealistic dreams, Leeds United nearly went out of existence while Wimbledon did and eventually rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons. Manchester City and Southampton both dropped two divisions before emerging as Premier League forces.
Blackburn Rovers, the 1995 champions, look set to contest the 2017/18 season in its third.
This is the reality of the Premier League. Even perennial top-four finishers Arsenal are in danger of missing out on Uefa Champions League qualification, but the worst they will do is finish seventh.
That means ostensibly 10 places are up for grabs to secure safety. So, is there such a thing as securing it too soon?
No. Because while West Brom and Watford may have little to play for, Hull, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Sunderland would swap places with them in a heartbeat.