Football is, with the exception of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, a game of fine margins. This has particularly been the case at the wrong end of the Premier League season where, at various times, as many as twelve clubs have considered themselves to be at some risk of the drop. The success or failure of a football team is multifactorial, a confluence of various strengths and weaknesses, in recruitment, coaching, motivation and medical care. The more successful (or less wretched) sides are those who, as a club, are able to best perform on those key tenets of footballing success.
This season’s Premier League has been a curious one both at the top, where a single team has dominated from the off, and at the bottom, where a couple of wins or defeats combined with other unfavourable results has had the potential to drag a team to relative safety or into the mire. It is here that those small margins are most pronounced. The majority of the clubs involved have taken the obvious route to change during the campaign, sacking the incumbent and hiring new managers, and in some cases it has been successful. Claude Puel lifted Leicester from the mire, whilst Sam Allardyce and Carlos Carvalhal stabilised Everton and Swansea respectively. No single individual is as impactful on a football team as its coach, which is why it has been so curious that clubs have been unwilling to pay player transfer type fees to release managerial targets from their contracts until the last couple of seasons.
All of the sides at the bottom have a multitude of weaknesses but what is most striking looking at the table today is that none, from Newcastle United in 13th to bottom placed West Brom have a fit, reliable striker. To a degree in other areas of the pitch a team can make do and mend, concentrating play as much as possible on their strongest areas. Perhaps none do so to the same degree as Crystal Palace, whose utilisation of the attributes of winger Wilfried Zaha as a creative outlet is so pronounced that they have not won without him on the pitch since September 2016, a frankly staggering statistic. So unhealthy is that state of affairs that it will be some achievement if Roy Hodgson’s side beat the drop.
Regardless, there can be no area of weakness more pronounced and debilitating than at centre forward. Even as Leicester toiled under Craig Shakespeare there was an expectation that a new coach could improve the side immeasurably simply because there is sufficient attacking talent there in Mahrez and Vardy to score goals. At Everton, newly monied but still learning how to operate in the land of the wealthy after decades of relative poverty, the highly costly summer transfer window was a disaster, creating an unbalanced squad with jigsaw pieces that simply didn’t fit together. Most damaging was unquestionably the sale of striker Romelu Lukaku and the subsequent failure to adequately replace him, an omission which appeared to pass the legions of pundits and journalists, declaring their summer spend a triumph, by. Ronald Koeman’s team were then unsurprisingly powder-puff when the Premier League got under way. After the Dutchman was fired, Sam Allardyce facilitated a bounce in performance which pulled the Toffees clear of trouble, before that initial adrenaline surge subsided and the team settled back into old ways. To their credit, the club reacted by buying Turkish international striker Cenk Tosun from BeÅŸiktaÅŸ in January and after a short period of acclimatisation the powerful forward is showing his worth. Four goals in three games have contributed to the accumulation of six points Allardyce badly needed to keep the fans off his back.
It is, however, the failure to address their goal scoring issues that leaves me fearing for Stoke and Southampton. The former have only one win and seven goals in their last 14 games and started Saturday’s home defeat to Everton with 37 year old Peter Crouch as their attacking focal point. After a bright start Jese has faded into obscurity, Mame Biram Diouf has only 23 goals in 128 games and Saido Berahino has failed to register in his 27 appearances for the club. Defensive issues have dragged them further under water, but without goals the team have nothing to build upon.
The hiring of Paul Lambert, whose Aston Villa were without doubt one of the least effective teams going forward this writer has ever seen in the Premier League, also appears to have been an act of folly. Stoke have creativity in the likes of Shaqiri and Joe Allen, but no way of turning that potential into goals. Without the prodigious work ethic of a side like Huddersfield, The Potters have very little on their side to suggest they can turn the tide.
Southampton have suffered as much as any side from a lack of a forward focal point to turn midfield creativity into goals. Like Stoke, their recent recruitment has sometimes been patchy and the sale of Virgil Van Dijk has left a dearth of quality at the back. Up front, however, has been the biggest issue. Aside from a brief mid-season spell when Charlie Austin was fit, The Saints have had no one of any quality to provide with service. Manolo Gabbiadini has lost his early spark and shooting boots and is more of a compliment to a team than a vital cog around which an attack can be built. The club identified the obvious in January, but with the Van Dijk money pocketed, providing the funds to add real quality, they appeared to panic. Southampton paid Monaco nearly£20m for Guido Carrillo, a 26 year old Argentine striker with height but almost no goal-scoring pedigree whatsoever. He left Estudiantes in 2015 having netted less than a goal every three games in an average league and saw that drop to almost one in five in Ligue 1. Monaco, doubtless, could not believe their luck when the now departed Mauricio Pellegrino came knocking. Without a goal in his first eight appearances, Carillo looks to be neither an effective finisher nor target man and whilst his teammates lifted their game to overcome Wigan in the FA Cup quarter final on Sunday his struggles continued against League One opposition. The signs that he can offer what the club need to beat the drop are not good. Right now he appears to be the anti-Tosun, no pedigree, no all-round game, no clinical edge. Now in the relegation zone for the first time this season after Crystal Palace’s win at Huddersfield, The Saints will have to pray that new manager Mark Hughes can tighten up a leaky back line and inspire the undoubted creative talent at his disposal as he did at half time in Lancashire. They still have hope, but it may rest on improved defensive solidity rather than a flurry of goals.
It is curious given the relative importance of the centre forward in the modern game and the ongoing shift away from a classic 4-4-2 formation in English football that so many clubs have failed to adequately address the need for a high class player in what is arguably the most important outfield position in today’s game. Everton have lost a season of progress partially through their tardiness in replacing Romelu Lukaku, while Brighton have profited hugely from a fit and firing Glenn Murray. From Newcastle downwards, the lack of a goalscorer could yet contribute hugely to relegation. The margins are narrow, but with neither an adequate defence nor an effective goalscorer Stoke look in real trouble. Southampton have more craft and talent, but took a punt on a striker which looks to be predictably failing. Both are left praying for an injury to Wilfried Zaha or the collapse of one of those above them. With the money currently earned by Premier League clubs giving them a considerable advantage in recruitment over most of their continental rivals the funding is there for a clever club to recruit a good quality striker, whether from at home or abroad. Given the importance of the position in the modern game the failure to do so is negligent at best. In the case of three clubs it will cost them their place in the Premier League and it will be difficult to have sympathy for the established top flight sides who drop into the Championship. The likes of Southampton, Stoke, West Brom and West Ham have simply become complacent, neglecting the most important areas of the squad, and in football complacency more often than not gets what it deserves.
Who will beat the drop? Check out the latest Premier League odds at Fansbet
By Richard Cann
Follow Richard on Twitter @RichardCann76