Premier League Relegation: Burnley's big price too good to ignore
Alex Keble assesses the relegation battle and picks out his three picks for the drop, including two estbalished Premier League clubs...
The Premier League relegation battle was shaken up over Christmas thanks to big wins for Aston Villa and Southampton, Watford's new manager bounce under Nigel Pearson, and alarming declines at Newcastle, Burnley, and Bournemouth.
Perhaps order is being restored; we're seeing a regression to the mean for Newcastle and Burnley - many pundits' favourites for the drop at the start of the campaign - and a balancing out for Watford and Southampton, whose squads surely aren't among the three worst in the division.
With just six points separating 19th from 11th, and clubs slowly but subtly sliding towards the drop zone, this is a very good time to place some outside bets on the relegation battle; the market tends to pretty volatile and skewed towards whoever currently occupies the bottom three.
Here's a rundown of the eight main contenders:
Norwich - 1.14 (Exchange)
It is very difficult to put forward a case for Norwich to survive the drop. The story of their season is a typical one in the modern era, a valiant attempt to play aesthetic football but sadly with Championship standard players. Going down will not be a failure, but it does feel inevitable.
The club are currently on an eight match winless streak in the league, a period defined as much by profligacy in the final third as defensive vulnerability. For a team looking to play expansive possession football, Norwich's inability to create chances for Teemu Pukki is particularly alarming. For all Todd Cantwell's obvious talent, there just isn't enough quality for Daniel Farke's side to stay up.
Aston Villa - 1.91 (Exchange)
Season-ending injuries to Tom Heaton and Wesley, plus an extended lay-off for John McGinn, explain why Villa are now second favourites for the drop despite winning two of their last three games. Dean Smith has shown plenty of naivety this season tactically and so it doesn't seem likely they will cope without so many key players.
Then again, Jack Grealish is the best player in the league outside the 'Big Seven', to coin a phrase, and more than capable of winning games on his own. Villa are too open at the back and too aggressive going forward, with problems in both full-back positions. However, their recent switch to a 3-4-2-1 offers genuine hope, having solidified central defence.
If they sign a couple of good players - a striker and a winger in particular - then Villa will be fine. Don't back them until the end of January, when we will have a much better idea of their health.
Bournemouth - 2.58 (Exchange)
Normally Bournemouth's runs of bad form are sharply followed by winning streaks, which is perhaps why few people have seriously considered them as relegation candidates up until this point. But there is something worryingly different about the slump this time, not least that Eddie Howe's side have only won two of their last 15 in the league - against Chelsea and Man Utd.
They are strictly a counter-attacking side now, as those wins against big teams show, which is hugely problematic now they are in the bottom three; Bournemouth will lose the majority of their relegation six-pointers, further damaging confidence. The threat is very real.
Watford - 2.88 (Exchange)
Pearson has picked up ten points from his first four games in charge of Watford, and that will likely be enough to keep them up. The quality in the centre of midfield has returned, which gives Watford a strong foundation given the new manager's methods - compressing the space between the lines and defending aggressively - is in line with the coaching this squad has received for several years.
Stability is back, while Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr - with two goals and an assist in his last four - offer a potent threat on the break. It won't be pretty, but Watford will keep scraping narrow wins against fellow bottom-half clubs and break the 40-point barrier.
Newcastle - 3.65 (Exchange)
There was always a feeling that Steve Bruce was riding his luck in the first half of the season, when Newcastle would win dull matches via a scrappy goal scored by a centre-back. Four defeats from their last five feels a more accurate reflection of the quality in this squad, and as Joelinton continues to struggle it's hard to see where the goals will come from.
The wheels have started to come off. Newcastle still need 15 points from 17 matches to hit the 40-point mark, which is by no means a given. However, Bruce's ultra-defensive tactics mean a Sean Longstaff-led midfield can probably bore-draw its way to safety.
Burnley - 5.20 (Exchange)
People aren't talking about Burnley as a serious relegation candidate, which is why their odds remain long, and yet Sean Dyche is in serious trouble after three successive defeats. The Clarets are only four points off 18th and increasingly look stale, coming to the end of a cycle having had the same players and system for several years.
The manner of their defeat to Villa should ring alarm bells. There is far too much pressure heaped on Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, who have scored 14 of their 24 league goals, and neither player looks confident at the moment. The football is tired, and since Burnley are incapable of taking points against big teams they will need to secure big wins against other relegation candidates. That doesn't look likely after Villa.
West Ham -6.00 (Exchange)
David Moyes is a decent manager who will make sure West Ham perform to their ability, which is frankly a lot better than the bottom three. Issa Diop, Declan Rice, Felipe Anderson, and Sebastien Haller is a strong spine; had Lukas Fabianski (now back to full fitness) not been injured then West Ham wouldn't even be in the conversation. They'll be fine.
Southampton -10.00 (Exchange)
Ralph Hasenhuttl has found a formula that works, playing a counter-attacking 4-4-2 that gets the best out of Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse. There is more than enough energy in Oriol Romeu and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to get 15 points from 17, which is all they need after a superb Christmas run.