Leicester, Leeds, Nottm Forest, Bournemouth, West Ham, Everton, Wolves and Southampton all find themselves within five points of one another at the bottom of the Premier League and in danger of dropping into the Championship next season
There are eight teams in the Premier League race for survival – so which three will not be able to escape the drop?
With the Premier League in full swing again after the World Cup, the division’s bottom eight sides remain separated by just five points. A couple of good results could ease relegation fears but any poor run of form for any of those clubs could see them deep in the mire.
So who is most at risk of dropping down to the Championship? Here are the runners and riders from a competition no club wants to win come May 28.
13. Nottingham Forest
Goal difference: -19
Next six games: Bournemouth (A), Leeds* (H), Fulham (A), Man City (H), West Ham (A), Everton (H).
Forest’s return to the Premier League after a two-decade absence looked certain to be short-lived after winning one of their opening 11 games.
A huge turnover of players in the summer and a predominantly new squad was always likely to prove a significant challenge for Steve Cooper, but his persistence and Forest’s patience has begun to pay off.
A run of 14 points from eight games has lifted them off the bottom of the table and after escaping the relegation zone with a first away win of the season at Southampton, Cooper’s side secured back-to-back wins for the first time this season by dispatching Leicester 2-0 on January 14.
Cooper: This still isn’t a turnaround yetNottm Forest manager Steve Cooper after their 2-0 win over Leicester:
“I don’t see it as a turnaround. Not yet. We’ve got so much work to do, and that’s the exiting bit. We’re starting to show a little bit of potential, but we know we have to be obsessed with getting better every single day.
“That was our first back-to-back Premier League wins, and that’s important but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have the right attitude preparing for next week’s game with Bournemouth.
“That has to be the obsession this year, because it’s such a new group and we’re catching up on so many things, we have to be obsessed with improving every day in every way. It’s good to win a couple of games, but for me we need to get back to the training ground and work even harder now.”
Goal difference: -7
Next six league games: Brentford* (H), Nottm Forest* (A), Man Utd* (H), Everton (A), Southampton (H), Chelsea (A).
Leeds are yet to win in their four Premier League matches since the World Cup, drawing two and losing two, and sit two points above the drop.
The Whites have lost fewer games than any other side in the bottom eight, but only four wins all season has been a source of frustration for Jesse Marsch, who has said more than once his side have deserved more than what they’ve got.
Leeds’ poor form on the road has hindered their hopes of moving up the table. They have taken the joint-fewest points (5) away from home in the Premier League and although they have scored 11 on their travels, more than everyone in the bottom eight plus Chelsea, conceding more than two goals a game on average has cost them badly.
Analysis: ‘Special’ Gnonto can give Leeds hope Zinny Boswell:
When Leeds forward Wilfried Gnonto was born in November 2003 Ashley Young had just made his professional debut for Watford. He scored off the bench against Millwall that day.
Fast-forward 19 years or so and the two were pitted against each other at Villa Park. The 37-year-old veteran winger turned full-back tasked with keeping the teenage Italian quiet.
Young was busier than anyone else on the pitch as Gnonto terrorised him down the left wing. Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, who coached Young for England, picked out the head-to-head before the game and was particularly moved by Gnonto’s performance on Friday Night Football.
“I’ve not seen a player like Gnonto at that age understand the game as well as he has for a long, long time,” said Neville on co-commentary. “I’m massively impressed with what I’ve seen. Absolutely brilliant. So mature in his decision-making on the ball.”
Despite Young winning more tackles than anyone else on the pitch and a game-high eight duels, it still felt as though Gnonto had the edge in the individual battle. He wasn’t shy on the physical side of things, either.
Leeds were impressive overall but a blunt instrument in the final third. Gnonto saw to that with his side two goals down. First outmuscling Young before beating two men and setting up Patrick Bamford for an easy finish.
“Gnonto, you little beauty,” said Neville after the goal. “Young gets done by the youngster. The composure, the class at the end, which so many young players don’t get right. This lad is really, really special.”
Leeds now find themselves in a perilous position after seven games without a win. Gnonto might have to grow up even quicker to help drag his side out of a relegation scrap this season.
The 19-year-old can give Leeds fans hope in a dark moment.
Marsch: There’s no panic
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch after their 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa:
“It’s the best complete performance we’ve had as a team. Obviously, it’s frustrating given the fact points are at a premium right now and you look at the table and there’s stress in that situation but if we can play like this, then I think we have something to build on.
“For me, we were really unlucky not to come away with more. If we play like that more often, we will get more points.
“There’s so much to play, we’re not even halfway through the season. There’s no panic, it’s just really trying to kickstart the way that we want to play.
“I would take more losses and good performances because it can help really push us forward to be the team we want to be.”
Goal difference: -7
Form (most recent first): LLLLWW
Next six games: Brighton (H), Aston Villa (A), Tottenham (H), Man Utd* (A), Arsenal (H), Southampton (A).
Leicester’s resurgence pre-World Cup has vanished with four defeats since the Premier League resumed.
A narrow loss at Liverpool was not unexpected, but since then the manner of their 3-0 home defeat to Newcastle, and limp losses to Fulham and now Nottingham Forest has put Brendan Rodgers’ future very much in the spotlight.
Rodgers has called for new arrivals in the transfer window, and Leicester’s travelling fans made their frustrations clear to the board in that latest defeat at the City Ground, but midway through January there are no signs of incomings at the King Power Stadium so far.
Rodgers: There’s a long way to go this seasonLeicester manager Brendan Rodgers after their 2-0 loss at Nottm Forest
“It’s like earlier in the season, we have to continue to work hard to find the solutions. This was a great opportunity for us, we felt good at half-time without being in front. Then we started too slowly and lost that concentration which allowed them the opportunities in the game.
“There’s a long way to go. It’s a long season, we haven’t played well consistently since we started back, we have to find the solutions again and keep fighting. This club is always the same – when we sign a player, you’ll know about it but until then we’ll continue to work hard and look to our next game.”
Goal difference: -15
Next six league games: Man City (A), Liverpool (H), Southampton (A), Bournemouth (H), Fulham* (A), Tottenham (H).
The mood has shifted around Wolverhampton with the arrival of Julen Lopetegui and the results which have already followed, bringing renewed belief to Molineux and helping them finally jump out of the bottom three.
Four points from games against Everton, Man Utd and Aston Villa have been followed up by a crucial victory over West Ham to lift them above their relegation rivals and allowed them to look up the table, rather than down.
There is still work to do in the Black Country, but Lopetegui has spoken of his hopes of adding to Wolves’ squad in January and with additional strength in depth, there is genuine hope the club can put painful memories of the first half of the season behind them.
Lopetegui: We’ve deserved better results
Wolves manager Julen Lopetegui after their 1-0 win over West Ham:
“We’ve deserved better results in previous matches, but today it was important to get three points – although it is only three points. When we win, we lose, it’s the same.
“We’re going to have in front of us a long run of tough games so we have to keep going until the last minute [of the season] to achieve our aims. This is my vision for this season.”
Goal difference: -23
Next six league games: Nottm Forest (H), Brighton (A), Newcastle* (H), Wolves (A), Man City* (H), Arsenal (A).
A toothless performance at Brentford on January 14 added a fourth consecutive defeat to Bournemouth’s poor run of form since Gary O’Neil’s permanent appointment was confirmed.
The Cherries have now picked up only three points since October 15 and O’Neil’s honeymoon period is well and truly over with his side shipping 19 goals across their last eight games and showing no signs of stopping despite the World Cup break.
Trips to in-form Wolves, Brighton and Arsenal and home games against Newcastle and Manchester City present a tough challenge for O’Neil to improve things in the immediate future, with Bournemouth now a point above the relegation zone and having worse goal difference than any of the sides beneath them.
O’Neil: Players are still committedBournemouth boss Gary O’Neil after their 2-0 loss at Brentford:
“I thought the players were fully committed and gave everything. They worked their socks off but we lacked quality and cutting edge. I didn’t think there was much in the game against a good side. We’re a bit short on the bench at the moment but the players gave everything.
“What I saw is that the players were fully committed. They were ready to go against a physical Brentford side. I didn’t think we looked like a side struggling to commit to what they’re trying to achieve.”
18. West Ham
Goal difference: -10
Next six league games: Everton (H), Newcastle* (A), Chelsea (H), Tottenham* (A), Nottm Forest (H), Brighton (A).
After an FA Cup win over Brentford and a draw at Leeds which could’ve easily been more, there was a chance for West Ham to turn things around ahead of a trip to Wolves – but it never transpired.
Another loss extended the Hammers’ winless run in the Premier League to seven games, with six of those matches ending in defeat.
David Moyes was favourite to be the next Premier League manager to be sacked over the Christmas period as consecutive top-seven finishes have raised expectations around the London Stadium, as well as a summer of big spending.
If things don’t improve soon, Moyes could be in big trouble – and a home game with fellow strugglers Everton next up appears crucial.
Moyes: We don’t score when we need to
West Ham manager David Moyes after their 1-0 defeat at Wolves:
“You’re under pressure in all of the games. Today was a big game and they’re really tight. There isn’t much in them. We have to try to change that 1-0 defeat into a 1-0 win, if we can.
“It wasn’t a hugely bad performance today. It wasn’t that we didn’t play that well, what we’ve found this year is that we’ve not been able to get the goals when we should. We probably made enough chances today to do so.”
Goal difference: -11
Next six league games: West Ham (A), Arsenal (H), Liverpool* (A), Leeds (H), Aston Villa (H), Nottm Forest (A).
The pressure is on Frank Lampard, the favourite in the Premier League managerial sack race, given the teams they have lost to just as much as their seven-game winless run. Defeats to Leicester, Bournemouth, Wolves and now Southampton have put their relatively solid start to the season firmly in the past.
Owner Farhad Moshiri pledged his support to Lampard in the run-up to that Saints defeat but now that only goal difference separates Everton from the bottom of the league, things are getting ever-more serious.
Time is not on Lampard’s side to tighten a defence that has conceded 14 goals in its last six games, and a trip to West Ham next up is a must-win.
Analysis: Onana Everton’s only bright sparkSky Sports’ Nick Wright:
On a miserable afternoon for Everton at Goodison Park, during which Frank Lampard’s side slumped to a fifth defeat in six Premier League games to a backdrop of fan protests against the club’s board, there was one player in blue who deserved better.
Amadou Onana was outstanding at the heart of Lampard’s malfunctioning team, his well-taken header from Demarai Gray’s corner looking like it might haul them to a victory they so desperately needed before their second-half capitulation.
Even then, though, the 21-year-old continued to shine, his performance ultimately earning him, and only him, the applause of the otherwise furious home supporters as he made his way down the tunnel.
The statistics underlined the breadth of his contribution.
Onana’s goal was one of three shots – he was a persistent threat in the Southampton box – and his distribution was consistently impressive, the Belgian completing 36 of his 39 passes, his 92 per cent accuracy rate the highest of any Everton player.
There was impressive off-the-ball industry, too. Premier League tracking data showed Onana covered more ground (10.5km) than anyone else on the pitch, while he also won the most duels, coming out on top in 12 of the 15 he contested.
His blend of physical and technical attributes makes him a thrilling talent, even in the circumstances of Everton’s malaise. On this evidence, he is their best hope of turning their season around.
Lampard: No question over effort of teamEverton manager Frank Lampard after their 2-1 defeat to Southampton:
“There’s no question about the effort or passion of the team. Two teams fighting it out with a lot of tension in the game. It wasn’t a beautiful football match, it was more about spirit and effort.
“They get their two goals – the quality of James Ward-Prowse. We have to take responsibility. We have to do better. Our home form shows where we are in the table.
“It’s a difficult time, we know that. My job is to prepare the team to try and get the right result. We didn’t do that – we have to look at the reasons why. It was a stressful game, a tight game.
“When you take this job you understand the nature of it. We want to get things right. While I’m here I’ll try and do the best thing for the team.”
Goal difference: -17
Next six games: Aston Villa (H), Brentford (A), Wolves (H), Chelsea (A), Leeds (A), Leicester (H).
Things might be finally looking up for Southampton. Three wins in a row, albeit two in the Carabao and FA Cups, have restored some confidence to St Mary’s and a mammoth result, a 2-1 win at Everton on January 14, has brought Nathan Jones’ side back into the pack.
Three of the Saints’ next six games are against teams also in the relegation dogfight, and though the pressure is still on as much as ever, Southampton are now only two points from safety and survival finally appears a realistic prospect again.
Analysis: Ward-Prowse’s influence so crucial for SaintsSky Sports’ Laura Hunter:
Southampton’s shining light. Their beacon of hope. The captain who leads by example, while illuminating the middle of the park with his creativity, tenacity and incredible workload. He is their set-piece saviour.
He could have gone elsewhere in the summer – offers have been tabled during multiple transfer windows. But he has stayed, demonstrating the kind of loyalty that seldom exists in Premier League circles – sometimes to his own detriment.
The midfielder missed out on England selection for the Qatar World Cup. It would be speculative, perhaps even naive, to suggest Ward-Prowse would have been a shoo-in were he not playing for the league’s worse side (statistically). But the burden he assumes at Saints is surely holding him back.
He’s scored six goals in his last nine appearances in all competitions – today he overtook James Beattie’s record for away goals scored for Southampton (28). His importance to this side cannot be overstated, nor his inevitability from dead ball situations.
“For me, he is the best technician in the Premier League,” Jones said post-match. “The best thing is his humility…and desire to do well for Southampton Football Club”. It was a performance that even prime Lampard, circa 2011-12, would have been proud of. The Everton boss also noted his immense “quality” after the game.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine where Southampton would be without him – sliding ever closer to the Championship, you would assume.
Jones: It’s been a massive week
Southampton manager Nathan Jones after their 2-1 win at Everton:
“It has been a big week after the Forest defeat and the negativity surrounding that. Three competitions, three wins – massive, massive week.
“We had to really dig deep today they were a very physically strong side – very direct. It reminded me of a Championship game really. Once we got to grips with that I thought we were the better team. A dream week, really.
“To get the goal straight after half-time was key. When you see a team give you everything that’s what you want as a manager.”