Sur­vival best se­cured early

The National - News - Sport - - COMMENT - sluck­ings@then­

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.

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