Sunday, August 31, 2008

Impossible to take anything for granted in EPL


Impossible to take anything for granted in EPL


Four months after Kevin Keegan publicly worried that the English Premier League was in danger of becoming "one of the most boring but great leagues in the world"; we are being confronted with evidence suggesting he may have been overly alarmist when he made that statement.

Forget talk about the pre-eminent Big Four or Big Two; forget the fact La Liga's very top sides often produce more attractive football than that seen in England - the real measure of the EPL's success is its strength in depth.

Indeed, in replying to Keegan, the EPL's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, said: "There are a lot of different tussles that go on in the Premier League depending on whether you're at the top, in the middle or at the bottom that make it interesting."

After two weekends of the 2008/9 season, there are encouraging signs all around. Chelsea and Manchester United may look likely to dominate once more at the top but Liverpool are up there (in points, if not in terms of play) and if Arsenal and Tottenham continue to wobble, well that might finally open the top four to someone else for a change.

More importantly, in terms of the Scudamore Theory, there does not seem to be a team which will struggle as badly as Derby County did last season. By that, we mean a team which only picked up three points after January.

Many thought Hull or Stoke would be destined for something similar, but Hull had four points before yesterday's match (that's more than 10% of the total they will likely need to guarantee survival) and Stoke had three, thanks in large part to a top-quality strike from Ricardo Fuller. Sure, West Brom had none before yesterday's game with Bolton, but they look as if they will never be pushovers.

So, a good start by the new boys, but they will have to struggle all the way to make the 37 or 38 points they need. At least as long as no one gets cut adrift a la Derby it should make for the sort of competition we love to see.

What is more encouraging about the start of this season, though, is the fact that it seems to be bucking another EPL trend.

When it comes to predicting which teams will be battling for survival against the newly-promoted sides, it normally makes sense to look at the three worst survivors from last season's Premier League. Indeed, EPL history tells us that in a season when only one or none of the promoted teams has gone straight back down, seven times out of nine one of the relegation places has been filled by a team that was among the worst three survivors the previous season.

It therefore made sense pre-season to predict doom and gloom for Bolton, Fulham and Sunderland, last season's survivors. Furthermore, all three clubs finished last season with fewer than 40 points. Again, Premier League history shows that the outlook is bleak for teams that finished the previous season with fewer than 40 points.

Before Sunderland, Bolton and Fulham, 10 teams had survived with fewer than 40 points since the Premier League was reduced to a 38-match season and the majority of those also struggled the following season.

Eight of the 10 finished the next season with 42 points or below (five with 40 points or fewer), seven finished in the bottom five, four finished with fewer points than the season before, and two were relegated.

Sunderland fans especially would have had even more cause for concern, given that they are now in their second season after promotion.

Second-season syndrome is well-known and in recent years teams that struggled in their first season have found the going even tougher in their second season.

Of the last four promoted teams to survive their first season in one of the three lowest non-relegation positions, all four finished in the bottom four in their second season with two being relegated and one of the other two staying up only on goal difference.

So, what has happened to the three supposed weaklings? To start with, each pre-empted a potential struggle by spending big this summer.

Bolton and Fulham invested 10m-plus to bring in a striker, with Johan Elmander moving to the Reebok and Andy Johnson heading back to London, while Sunderland's spending spree began with Spurs cast-offs and has now expanded spectacularly to embrace the likes of Djibril Cisse, David Healey and Anton Ferdinand.

Thanks to the efforts of Bolton, Sunderland and Fulham, it looks as if everyone bar the very top teams are going to have to be on their guard to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.

With the likes of Boro, an enigmatic Manchester City and a resurgent Newcastle capable of beating anyone on their day, the only thing that looks predicable about this EPL season is it unpredictability.

John Dykes is host of ESPN's Football Focus.

No comments: