Any three from nine – breaking down the closest Premier League relegation battle in years

So, Crystal Palace. They’re OK, aren’t they? Twelfth in the table and three points off the 30 mark with 12 matches to play. Many a club would ordinarily swap places with them.

Except Palace are precisely the reason why the bottom end of the Premier League has people talking. Yes, they are best-placed of the nine teams who might go down this season but they are drifting like almost nobody else. It is two and a half months since they won a game, any game, and their goals in that time total five. Their last three fixtures have come and gone without a shot on target, the first time that’s ever been recorded in the Premier League. The sound coming from Selhurst Park is that of a project hitting the wall.

Naturally, the focus of attention has turned to Patrick Vieira and it could be argued that changing head coach is the only strategic card Palace have left to play. They are not quite outliers among the bottom nine because Leicester City and West Ham United have so far resisted managerial deckchair-shuffling too but there has rarely been a year when so many teams felt more unsafe or more trigger-happy. Five points is the gap from 12th to 20th and all of the sides involved are looking for solutions, a way out of the crush.

Relegation battles in the Premier League follow predictable themes and narratives but they are very rarely as tight as this. By this stage of a season, the typical scrap is narrowing down to a smaller clutch of protagonists, all of them scrambling to avoid becoming collateral. Only in 2011 has the gap between 12th and 20th dropped as low as five points from the start of February onwards, and it has never been smaller. If the levels of tension feel extreme then they genuinely are.

It is not a coincidence that in 2011, two sides — Birmingham City and Blackpool — were relegated on the last day and both by a single point. It might be telling too that 2010-11 was the last time any club needed 40 points to stay up; once the heralded target to avoid the drop but in reality, three of four more than that is needed in the average year to fend it off. Wigan were 20th in early April and 16th at the death, helped by three wins from their last five games. It became a season in which the odd result at the bottom of the table led to dramatic shifts in position, so closely-fought that final-day drama was inevitable.

As a rule, once teams get into March, rankings in the Premier League are generally well-established and less prone to sudden surges or clubs dropping like a stone. But the 2022-23 season could comfound history slightly in the sense that a team as high as 12th with the final international break coming find themselves in the bottom three after the last ball is kicked. Were Palace more secure in 12th, there would be little to be gained from changing manager now. And as it happens, history shows that a change of manager now can be a fool’s errand anyway.

Of the five clubs inside the bottom nine who have sacked at least one head coach already, it could be argued that only Wolverhampton Wanderers have seen their decision work to good effect. Wolves went fairly early, dismissing Bruno Lage after eight matches, and they have not had cause to repent on a hasty decision at leisure. They were bottom three when Lage was sacked. Julen Lopetegui, Lage’s successor, has them 13th now and, from his 11 league fixtures in charge, has accrued 1.5 points per game. That sample size is just about big enough to give some indication of what is to come and Wolves, perhaps, will feel most confident of all the clubs in this scrap.

Bournemouth sacked Scott Parker in August, replaced him eventually with Gary O’Neil and — despite beating Liverpool last weekend — are still in the bottom three. Southampton gave up on Ralph Hassenhuttl in November, on Nathan Jones in February and are at the foot of the table. Leeds are just three league games into Javi Gracia’s tenure as replacement for Jesse Marsch but, despite earning four points from those matches, have fallen to 19th. And once the Premier League reaches spring, it is statistically difficult, if not quite impossible, for a change in the dug-out to effect major positive difference on the pitch.

The Athletic went back through Premier League records to study the impact of sackings meted out by clubs in March, April or May — the business end of a season and the last chance saloon. A small number of the dismissals were immaterial in a competitive sense. As an example, Harry Redknapp left West Ham United with one game to go in 2001. Roberto Martinez did likewise from Everton in 2016. In both instances, their clubs were safe and broader change was afoot, meaning the decisions were wrapped up in longer-term ideas. Put simply, neither departure was down to the pressure for an overnight upturn in results.

But clubs who have sought an overnight upturn — and there are plenty of them — have tended to fare badly. Whether relegation is a threat or not, a switch of manager so late in the season rarely does anything to improve league position. Sunderland in 2006 are a perfect example: sacking Mick McCarthy in the first week of March while they were down in 20th, losing seven of their last 10 games and finishing 20th. And there were Sunderland again in 2002: sacking Howard Wilkinson while they were bottom of the league, losing all of their last nine matches and failing to climb a single place.

Reading with Brian McDermott in 2013, Middlesbrough with Aitor Karanka in 2017, Danny Wilson at Sheffield Wednesday back in 2000; very few dismissals change for the better the course of a campaign which is already riddled. No decision worked out worse than Norwich City dispensing with John Deehan with five games of the 1994-95 season to go — a decision that achieved nothing but pain. They lost four of those matches under his replacement Gary Megson and dropped from 14th to 20th.

Indeed, of the 39 managerial changes from the start of March onwards in the Premier League era, just seven have led to a higher final league position than the club in question held at the time when they switched coach. Kevin Keegan passing the reins at Manchester City to Stuart Pearce in 2005 prompted a jump of four places and gave us the spectacle of David James playing up front against Middlesbrough on the final day, but the most anyone else could deliver was improvement by a single league position. It is something of a warning for Palace, Leicester and West Ham. Even if faith in the man in the dug-out is diminishing, the boat might well have sailed.

David James, in an outfield shirt and goalkeeper shorts and socks, takes on Middlesbrough in 2005 (Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Brendan Rodgers at Leicester and David Moyes at West Ham have the benefit of credit in the bank, of records showing better levels of performance during previous spells in the same jobs. Vieira holds a shorter track record at Palace and what the board at Selhurst Park might tell themselves at this late stage is that a fresh voice could at least stop them going backwards. With no wins since December 31 and their goalscoring in stasis, it is hard not to ask where and when the next win is coming.

In Palace’s case, they do not need to climb the table. They merely need to hold their position and there are examples in the past of a change of coach stabilising an under-pressure dressing room. Peter Reid replaced Terry Venables at Leeds in 2003 with the club 15th and ended the season with the club 15th, but it was regarded as a success on his part. Leeds feared that Venables would drag them further down and Reid gave them another year in the Premier League, albeit with relegation to come 12 months later. An unavoidable fact is that in certain instances, managers are only ever part of the problem at failing clubs — and sometimes not the crux of those failings at all.

It is possible at this point to make an argument for each club in the Premier League’s bottom nine staying up. It is also possible to make an argument for each of them going down. Palace, for all their underlying stats, have a three-point cushion over 18th place and a lot of teams below them. Wolves look steady but play Leeds and Nottingham Forest either side of the international break and if there is a moment where they are most likely to get dragged to serious trouble, that is it. Forest are appalling away from home, with one win and four goals scored, but seem to fancy themselves at the City Ground. Everton are competing more under Dyche but two of their wins, over Arsenal and Leeds, were achieved with a combined open play expected goals output of below 2.0, and they are senselessly short of forwards.

Leicester, meanwhile, are joint bottom of the form table with Leeds and Palace since the end of the World Cup and when they don’t win games, which rarely happens, they tend to lose them. West Ham are badly underperforming on xG (35 versus the 24 goals actually scored) which might give Moyes some hope but they are due to play five of the sides in the bottom nine before the season ends, an emotionally-heavy haul of six-pointers.

Bournemouth look like a minor miracle, consumed by a myriad of stats that could easily have seen them all but relegated already. No side concedes more goals, produces fewer efforts on goal or allows more shots against them but there they are, kicking in 18th. Leeds have not been in the habit of winning all season but Gracia has shown a tactical brain and his initial points per game return has them headed for 39. And Southampton? They have taken seven points and three clean sheets from four matches under their third manager of the season, Ruben Telles.

Try as you might, there is no calling this yet and with Southampton at home to Brentford tonight while Palace head down the A23 to Brighton, it is possible that the spread will get even closer before anyone escapes the pack. In 2011, there was a moment in injury time on the last day, before Roman Pavlyuchenko scored for Tottenham against Birmingham City, when Birmingham had 40 points in the live table and were going down by the soul-destroying margin of goals scored alone.

Get ready for someone to say “hold my beer”.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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