With the race for the top four and the relegation dogfight set to be among the closet in Premier League history, February is shaping up as a season defining month for many teams.
We take a look at some of the crucial fixtures set to determine who finishes where in 2017/18 and where they will be playing their football in 2018/19.
Saturday February 10 – 16:30 Wembley Stadium
Spurs v Arsenal
Tottenham are backing up after a controversial 2-2 draw with the Liverpool last Sunday, and also have the visit of Newport in the FA Cup on Wednesday before facing their bitter north London rivals.
Of course a lot is always at stake when these two meet but after Arsenal found some form with a 5-1 hammering of Everton last time out – the stakes are higher than usual.
There won’t be room for both these teams in the top four and if Spurs can win this one they will go seven-points clear of the Gunners with just 11 games to go.
If Arsenal can do the business however they will be just one-point behind Tottenham and back in the hunt for Champions League qualification.
The Gunners looked buoyant with new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan enjoying their new surroundings against Everton and maybe Arsene Wegner can conjure up one last great escape act.
Prediction: Spurs 2 Arsenal 1
Sunday February 25 – 18:05 Old Trafford
Manchester United v Chelsea
With Alexis Sanchez’ arrival seemingly giving United a new lease on life they look to have one of the three remaining top four spots locked up.
But Chelsea are in free fall – and may have a new manager by the time this match arrives.
A loss here for Chelsea could be the death-knell for their top four chances while a win for United might just keep alive their faint hopes of catching City. Or make sure of their Champions League place for next year.
Prediction: United 2 Chelsea 0
Thursday March 1 – 23:45 Emirates Stadium
Arsenal v Manchester City
The second of two huge matches for Arsenal in the month and another must win if they are to stay in the hunt for the top four.
City have begun to look human in recent weeks with a loss to Liverpool and a draw to Burnley and if they take their foot off the gas at the Emirates if might open the door for Arsenal to re-enter the top four and United to re-enter the title race.
Expect lots of free-flowing football, high levels of skill and lots of goals. Last one to score loses.
With just seven points separating last place and 12th, no less than nine teams currently in a relegation scrap: West Ham, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Newcastle, Swansea, Stoke, Hudddersfield and West Brom.
In February there is the opportunity for many six-pointers – with three points for the winners putting them closer to safety and the losers closer to the Championship. Here’s our picks:
Saturday February 10 – 19:00 365 Stadium
Stoke v Brighton
Stoke are currently in the bottom three while Brighton are three points ahead. A win for the visitors would take them closer to safety while a loss for the hosts would plunge them deeper into peril.
Brighton had a morale boosting 3-1 winner over West Ham last weekend while Stoke slumped to their first loss under new manager Paul Lambert – 2-1 at Bournemouth.
Lambert must lift his troops against their fellow strugglers – or Stoke will look even more like a candidate for the drop.
Sunday February 11 – 16:00 John Smith’s Stadium
Huddersfield v Bournemouth
The Cherries are on a stunning run of form, unbeaten in their last five, including wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Stoke. Eddie Howe’s team will be very confident of a win at the Terriers who are on a completely contrasting run on form – losing their last five.
Huddersfield were impressive early on in their first Premier League campaign since 1971/72 but David Wagner needs to stop the slide now or the Town are going straight back down. Another win for Bournemouth and they can start planning for another year in the top flight.
Prediction: Huddersfield 1 Bournemouth 2
Saturday February 24 – 19:00 Vitality Stadium
Bournemouth v Newcastle
The first of three relegation clashes on a day that could come to define who stayed up and who went down in season 17/18.
Bournemouth at home will be heavily favoured to chalk up another win against a limited Newcastle line up. Rafa Benitez will have to dig deep into his bag of tactical tricks to get a result but the best The Magpies could do is a draw – and that may not be enough at this stage of the season.
Saturday February 24 – 19:00 Amex Stadium
Brighton v Swansea
The Swans have pulled off some super-human results since miracle worker Carlos Carvalhal took over with wins over Liverpool and Arsenal pulling them out of the bottom three.
But if Swansea are to survive then they need to keep winning games like this one.
At the worst the Swans can afford a draw but a loss to Brighton here would see the Seagulls chances of survival greatly strengthen while Swansea may slide back into the bottom three – so important is every match between the bottom nine in the run in.
Saturday February 24 – 19:00 The Hawthorns
West Brom v Huddersfield
This shapes up as another life and death struggle for the two sides currently bottom and second bottom in the premier league.
West Brom had some promising glimpses with a win over Brighton and a draw with Everton before losses against Man City and fellow strugglers Southampton saw them slip back in the mire.
While Huddersfield as noted above had lost five in a row prior to the visit of Bournemouth.
At this point in time both these sides look increasingly strong prospects for the drop and to pull themselves out of the bottom three one of them must win this match – but the most likely result is a desperate scrappy draw that won’t help either team.
Chelsea‘s 4-1 loss to Watford on Monday night came after a 3-0 defeat at home to Bournemouth in midweek, marking this the first time since 1995 that the Blues have lost by three goals in back-to-back games. Of course, that means that owner Roman Abramovich has never seen such poor form, and thus it’s no surprise that there are suggestions the notoriously trigger-happy Russian could sack manager Antonio Conte.
Conte led the team to the Premier League title last season, and as of now he’s likely to keep his job, but the drastic collapse in form he’s overseen is shocking.
But, as captain Gary Cahill said after Monday’s loss, that’s partly down to the players as well. Here are five underperforming stars who have cost Chelsea this season.
The Chelsea captain’s form has visibly dipped this season, after he’d been a bulwark during the title-winning campaign. Statistically, his tackles won per 90 minutes are higher this time around (1.13 to 1.09) – but, significantly, so is his tackles lost stat (1.31 to 0.96). And as those numbers show, unlike last season, this year he’s losing more tackles than he’s winning over the course of a full game.
Cahill fails to pass the eye test, as well. While ostensibly he’s actually made fewer errors this season, sometimes you can see how that stat belies the truth. On Monday night, for example, Cahill was partially at fault for all four of Watford goals, without actually contributing a statistical “error”. He was slow to read the pass that completely took him out of the game for the Hornets’ penalty, and then backed off and looked too scared to put a tackle in for Watford’s next three goals. The indecision in situations which require a defender to take command is costing Chelsea.
It would be difficult to find a worse 30-minute display than Tiemoue Bakayoko‘s on Monday. He misplaced four of the 12 passes he attempted, and was dispossessed seven times. Time after time, his first touch let him down – and twice, it led him into poor tackles. Both times, he saw a yellow card, and thus Conte’s preferred midfield enforcer was sent off having done little by way of enforcing or playing as a quality midfielder.
It’s understandable that the Frenchman would struggle in his first season in the Premier League, and it’s quite likely that next season onwards, he’ll be a better player. But Monday night’s performance was a culmination, not an aberration – Bakayoko has been poor on multiple occasions, and his play has affected N’Golo Kante’s form as well.
While Pedro often gets the nod over Willian, with the prevailing wisdom from Conte this season seemingly that the Spaniard is more reliable, the facts don’t back that up. Across the board, the Pedro of this season is worse than the Pedro of last season. Fewer goals scored, assists, and chances created per 90 minutes, and although his passing accuracy as a percentage has gone up, he’s playing fewer successful passes – which means he’s either playing less risky passes, or his overall involvement has gone down.
Significantly, his assists and chances created stats this season are also lower than Willian’s, which means Conte’s faith in him seems unjustified.
Alvaro Morata came to Chelsea with a lot of hype, and it was justified – his scoring record with Real Madrid was phenomenal, and the criticism that a lot of his goals came against weaker teams was offset by the fact that he’d scored in the latter stages of the Champions League, including in a final.
But after a strong start to this season, Morata hit a slump that he has not been able to overcome, so far. He hadn’t scored in his previous six games before picking up an injury late last month, and that’s after he’d already had a six-game goal drought once before in the season. In fact, since scoring a hat-trick against Stoke in September, he’s found the back of the net just six times in 24 appearances.
This is the most surprising. David Luiz was the linchpin of Conte’s three-man defence, the player that made the switch to a back three work and thus was instrumental to Chelsea’s title run. Six months later, and there was even talk that he could be shipped off to Arsenal as part of the deal that brought Olivier Giroud to Stamford Bridge. That didn’t happen, of course, but Luiz had already been dropped from the squad before that.
He’s played only 10 of the 26 Premier League games Chelsea have had so far this season, and while he’s missed some through suspension and injury, it’s clear that Conte lost faith with his star defender. Like Cahill, Luiz is losing more tackles than he’s winning this season (2.47 to 1.18 per 90 minutes), although that was true last year as well – but the difference has become starker. He’s also made more errors, as the inconsistency that plagued his first spell at Chelsea has returned.
With 12 games of the Premier League season remaining, two of the teams promoted from the Championship last summer are outside of the relegation zone – and second-bottom Huddersfield Town (only in the relegation zone on goal difference) are hardly cut adrift without a hope of surviving.
In fact, this year’s battle to avoid the drop could well be one of the most closely-fought in recent memory. Just seven points separate bottom of the table West Brom and West Ham – in 12th.
The gap from the Baggies up to Burnley in the heady heights of seventh is only 16 points. To put that into context, the gap from sixth-placed Arsenal to runaway leaders Manchester City seems gargantuan, at 24 points, with the Gunners on 45 and City on 69.
Although Sean Dyche’s side are more likely to be dragged into a relegation dogfight than a battle for the title, let’s just assume that the sides below them inside the top 10 – Leicester, Bournemouth and Everton are safe. Let’s also rule out rule out Watford in 11th.
This is only the eighth time in 26 seasons that all three promoted sides have hit double figures after 10 games.
All three – Brighton and Hove Albion, Newcastle United and Huddersfield – showed encouraging signs early on.
David Wagner’s Terriers lost just once in their opening six games. After going three games without a win, Chris Hughton’s Seagulls have won four and lost just three of their last nine. Newcastle won three straight games after losing their opening two while Rafa Benitez has overseen just two defeats in their last eight.
Believe it or not, if Brighton (13th), Newcastle (16th) and Huddersfield all managed to beat the drop this season, it would not be the first time that has happened in the Premier League era. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the second. Of the Premier League’s 25 seasons, all three promoted teams have stayed up the following campaign twice – Fulham, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn in 2001/02 and QPR, Norwich and Swansea as recently as 2011/12.
And, you have to go back 20 years to find the last (and only) time all three went down – Bolton, Barnsley and Crystal Palace, in 1997/98.
Here, Matt Jones assesses the nine teams who could all still go down:
WEST HAM (12th)
The Hammers have found their way of late, their recent defeat to Brighton a first loss in their last six games. They’ve finally seemed to have settled in their new home of the London Stadium and have scored more goals than any of the teams below them (32). The big worry for David Moyes is the alarming rate in which they’re conceding. The 46 goals they’ve let in is level with Huddersfield and only worsened by Stoke (52).
Survival rating: 8/10
The Seagulls are flying high in 13th, something that seemed unlikely as they started the season poorly, losing four of their opening seven games. Of all the teams to come up they looked the most ill-equipped to survive. But they’re resilient and have conceded less goals (35) than any of their rivals, while Glenn Murray (eight) is 15th in the league’s individual scoring charts.
Survival rating: 7/10
CRYSTAL PALACE (14th)
A horrendous start to the season saw the Eagles plummet down the table as they lost their first seven successive games. A 5-0 hammering at Manchester City on September 23 saw them become the first side in English professional football history to lose their first six games without scoring a single goal. They’ve only lost twice in the last 15 though and have quality – Yohan Cabaye, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha – in abundance.
Survival rating: 8/10
Shorn of their star names after years of perhaps over-achievement, peddling their riches has finally turned Saints into paupers this season. Unbeaten in their last four but patience is already wearing thin with Mauricio Pellegrino who replaced the pragmatic Claude Puel midway in the summer. Lost rejuvenated Charlie Austin to a long-term injury while Manolo Gabbiadini has struggled in front of goal, but should have enough quality, especially in midfield, to survive.
Survival rating: 5/10
Have arguably the most talented manager of all the teams in the lower half of the table in charge, but the discord that exists between Rafa Benitez and owner Mike Ashley shows no signs of dissipating. You can’t help but feeling the Spaniard is managing with one hand tied behind his back. A losing run of eight games in nine at the end of 2017 saw them spiral downwards. The biggest concern is do the players have the stomach for a battle?
Survival rating: 4/10
The club has been run farcically behind the scenes for a few seasons now. It spoke volumes Wilfried Bony was brought back despite the fact he hadn’t undergone a pre-season, pinning their goalscoring hopes on teenage Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham and having no time to bring in any players after selling Gylfi Sigurdsson in the final throws of August. Carlos Carvalhal, in fairness, has started to turn things around as the Swans have climbed out of the bottom three. But 19 goals is equaled only by Huddersfield.
Survival rating: 4/10
STOKE CITY (18th)
Mark Hughes was finally sacked after a humiliating FA Cup defeat to Coventry at the start of January, but Stoke fans would hardly have been inspired by the choice of replacement in Paul Lambert. Have lost nine of their last 14 but have form for beating the sides around them. Only West Ham (32) and Southampton (28) have scored more goals (26), but the Potters have worryingly conceded 32, six more than anyone else.
Survival rating: 2/10
Nicknamed the Terriers which is appropriate as after an encouraging start to life in the big time, they have been dragged by the leash into the relegation mire. The worry for David Wagner is they’ve scored the joint least amount of goals (19) and have shipped 46 – only Stoke have conceded more, with the worst goal difference of the bottom nine teams (-27). You know they’ll scrap, but will it be enough?
Survival rating: 3/10
WEST BROM (20th)
The Baggies have been on a rapid sloping trajectory since the end of last season, with long-serving Tony Pulis sacked in November. Alan Pardew came in but his appointment hasn’t had the desired effect of bouncing the Baggies back up the table as they sit bottom. Amazingly, West Brom have only won three times all season, twice as few as anyone except Southampton (five). Worryingly, they’ve won just four of their last 36 Premier League games.
Survival rating: 2/10