The Premier League’s Relegation War Has Gone Nuclear
9:28 AM EDT on April 5, 2023
On Tuesday, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest played a supremely entertaining Premier League match. Both teams attacked with purpose and ferocity, dynamic young players and battle-tested veterans expressed themselves all over the field, and the final result, a 2-1 victory for Leeds, was decided by world-class solo goal from Luis Sinisterra:
You see a game like this, won by a goal like that, and it's hard to believe that the two teams involved currently find themselves in a desperate battle against relegation. Stranger still is the fact that Leeds can credibly be described as a relegation candidate while it sits in 13th place in the Premier League table. Even after collecting three points on Tuesday, Leeds remains just two points ahead of the club it just beat, which currently sits in 17th, only four points clear of the very bottom of the table.
Relegation fights occur at the end of every season, but they never look quite like this. There are currently nine teams crammed into the bottom of the table, separated from each other by no more than seven points. Four of those teams are currently level on points with 27, and the two teams immediately above and below that block are separated by three points.
It's not just that so many teams are currently toiling under the threat of relegation that makes this season particularly wild, but the fact that any three-team combination could still end up going down. By the time most Premier League seasons tick over into April, at least one truly dreadful team has seen itself cut off from the rest of the pack, doomed to never escape the relegation places. For example, around this time last season, Norwich City was 12 points from safety and all but guaranteed to go down. This year, bottom-dwelling Southampton could rip off short run of positive results and rise six places in a blink.
That no team is safe means that no team can afford to relax, or plan to grit its way into survival by playing conservatively and banking on teams below them continuing to eat shit. Points are harder than ever to come by, wins are needed, and bravery is required. This is how you end up with games as entertaining as Leeds-Forest was, and as wild as Monday's match between Everton and Tottenham was. In that game, 10-man Everton went down 1-0 in the second half, and proceeded to spend the rest of the game pressing and attacking Spurs as if they were the ones with an extra man. All that fight eventually earned them a ridiculous equalizer from center back Michael Keane.
A lot of things have to break just right in order for this many teams to be so tightly clustered at the bottom of the table so late in the season. It takes Everton and Southampton failing to stop the steady organizational deterioration that's robbed them of their mid-table status; it takes Leicester and West Ham, two clubs that finished in the top 10 last season, being unable to break out of their unexpected malaise; it takes the three newly promoted teams refusing to play the role of temporary visitors. There's a more macro explanation for a how a season shapes up like this, though, and it's this: the Premier League is a fucking monster. A league in which objectively great players can be found playing on the worst teams, and in which even the "poorest" clubs in the league can afford premium talent, is a league that leaves zero margin for error.
There was a time when mid-table teams could rely on pedigree, and the meek nature of newly promoted clubs, to maintain their position in the league, but these days clubs tend to come charging out of the Championship with their fangs bared, spending aggressively on both player recruitment and organizational structure. A team in the league's middle tier is forced to choose between staying complacent, and watching one of the hard-charging newbies zoom past, or trying to keep up by taking big swings in the transfer market, only to have those moves not pan out, putting the club in an even worse position than if it had just stood pat. Leicester is currently suffering through the former scenario, while West Ham has been afflicted by the latter.
This sort of volatility greatly raises the stakes of relegation itself, too. The financial penalties that come from falling out of the Premier League always hurt, but they deliver less of a sting to clubs that are prepared to receive it. Yo-yo clubs like Watford and Burnley are built to comfortably slide between divisions every few years, but a club that has not previously been conducting business as if relegation were a possibility can find itself in serious financial trouble should it end up dropping. If, for example, Everton was to get relegated, there is a very real chance that the club's financial situation would become so untenable that it would cease to exist.
What all this adds up to is a fantastic viewing experience. The competition at the bottom of the table, combined with the jostling for position that is still happening at the top, means that basically every Premier League game is incredibly meaningful for both teams participating. There are no middling teams dutifully playing out the string from a position of safety deadening the last few weeks of the campaign. There are only teams fighting for trophies and places in European competitions, and teams fighting for their (in some cases literal) survival. Top to bottom, this league is the best show in town. All the proof you need is in the fact that the most boring and meaningless game of this past week was between Chelsea and Liverpool.