It is, as they say in baseball, the bottom of the ninth. Manchester City could all but wrap up the Premier League title this weekend. And at the other end of the table, something is about to give. The three-horse race to avoid the last relegation place is almost into the final furlong.
Leeds United appear to think Everton are safe but mathematically it will be one from three with two points separating those two clubs and Burnley. As it stands, only Leeds are at risk of being relegated on Sunday — not officially but barring an impossible swing in goal difference. All the same, it would not take much to alter the picture completely again.
Premier League bottom five
In no more than eight days’ time, all three sides will know their fate. The Athletic sat Everton writer Paddy Boyland, Burnley writer Andy Jones and Leeds United writer Phil Hay around a table to explain how it came to this — and to decide on who is going down.
Let’s go back to the summer — did you see this coming?
Phil Hay: Speaking as I saw it in August, there was a definite feeling that Leeds could have done more in the transfer window. They weren’t active in terms of numbers and they didn’t sign a central midfielder, which they clearly needed. But there was still a lot of underlying confidence in Marcelo Bielsa and the squad. The “second-season syndrome” thought was lingering at the back of people’s minds because it always does and I didn’t think they’d reach ninth again but they’d finished the previous season strongly and everyone had faith in Bielsa. He was as committed as ever. I have to hold my hands up and say I thought they’d be OK. Relegation wasn’t really the narrative. There was no outright sense of, “We’re in real danger of going down.”
Patrick Boyland: I don’t think anybody at Everton saw this coming, scrapping with two or three games to go. That being said, the summer was a mess and not entirely of Everton’s making. Carlo Ancelotti leaves and that’s a big surprise, even to his son who’d just signed a new lease on the house he was renting in Sefton! It created a vacuum and chaos and the product of that was the divisive appointment of Rafa Benitez. I felt there were underlying issues with the governance of the club and a squad that looked strong in some areas but really weak in others. Benitez was only given £1.7 million to spend. There’s a narrative with Everton that they’ve spent a lot of money and that’s 90 per cent true. But it doesn’t apply to the last 12 months.
Phil Hay: From a distance, though, the potential for Everton and Benitez to be a very unhappy marriage was high. Whereas at Leeds, it was extremely tight with Bielsa. I guess at Burnley it must have been the same with Sean Dyche.
Andy Jones: It was — but last season gave Burnley as many warning signs as you needed for the possibility of relegation this season. They survived comfortably in the end but partly because the three teams below them were very poor. It came down to a lack of investment over a few seasons but we had the takeover and it felt like Burnley had a decent summer. They added to the squad in areas that needed it. The faith was in Dyche. He signed that new four-year deal in September and the crowd never really turned on him but there was expectation of a relegation battle regardless. Would there be three teams worse than them? You hoped they’d have enough because of their experience but there was that worry about whether it was one season too many for a number of players.
Phil Hay: The crowd at Leeds never turned on Bielsa either. There was no real mutiny from the players with him, even though they toiled towards the end. When it comes to volatility, particularly among the fanbase, that’s been a much bigger issue at Everton, no?
Patrick Boyland: Yeah, and it comes back to the appointment of Benitez. Even before it happened there were warning signs — graffiti at Goodison…
Phil Hay: Presumably not like the murals of Bielsa in Leeds?
Patrick Boyland: Bielsa had done so much at Leeds and had so much credit in the bank. It was going to take a lot for the fans to turn on him. Benitez had lots of credit in the bank on Merseyside — just a different bank: the red one! There was very little goodwill towards him. That’s where everything germinated from, creating this feeling that the hierarchy of the club didn’t understand the fans any more. There was no leeway for him and it did turn toxic very quickly. It became so negative that performing in those circumstances was almost impossible.
So with hindsight, and knowing what we know now, was a bad season always in the post?
Andy Jones: I guess it’s different for Burnley, compared to Leeds and Everton. The expectations are different. If Burnley survive, you’d say it’s a good season overall because of the context. That’s the aim every season — ideally get to 40 points. For Leeds and Everton, 17th isn’t where you want to be. It was always going to be a bit of a struggle. The question was, could they keep going back to the well? Or will teams work them and their tactics out? I was worried for them.
Phil Hay: With Leeds, it’s not difficult to explain why this has happened. Things that people thought might catch up with the club, or catch up with Bielsa, genuinely have. The small squad size, the injuries they suffered for much of Bielsa’s time in charge and which got dramatically worse and more damaging this season — those were factors. Leeds did leave themselves exposed in the summer.
They lost three senior players — Gjanni Alioski, Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi — and signed two: Junior Firpo and Dan James. So a small squad got smaller and neither Firpo nor James have proven themselves to be good signings over the past nine months. The club didn’t get a centre midfielder and they didn’t sign anyone in January when it was very apparent they were in difficult waters. On top of that, players who played well last season haven’t been at the same level. Bielsa’s tactics were nowhere near as effective and, unsurprisingly, he stuck to his guns to the very end — even when it was going wrong. And now Jesse Marsch is struggling to get them over the line. In a lot of ways, it’s been the perfect storm and a multitude of failings.
Patrick Boyland: I anticipated an underwhelming season, largely because of the turmoil. But with Benitez, I saw him as a safe pair of hands. That’s what he was supposed to be and that was his reputation. So I expected mid-table — the same as last season. Nobody thought it would get this bad because, at the very least, we assumed Benitez would make them tough to beat and set them up for a rebuild or a reset further down the line. But despite being known as someone who puts out fires, I actually found that he created a lot of fires himself.
Phil Hay: These things snowball, don’t they? That’s how clubs get into trouble: by factor upon factor building up and causing an escalation of pressure. It’s amazing how over time, little things start to worry you — tactics, form, recruitment — and rapidly you feel as if you’re talking about a different environment, a less in-control club. It can creep up very quickly, as Leeds have found.
Patrick Boyland: We went from relative unity under Ancelotti. The fans gave him more leeway and room for mistakes because it was “we’re Everton and we’ve got Carlo Ancelotti”. Benitez was never going to get that.
Phil Hay: You could say the same about Bielsa. You really see what difference credit in the bank makes to a coach’s resistance to outside pressure. Bielsa is probably the only coach I’ve seen who could lose 7-0, 6-0 and have people say, “Ah well, live by the sword, die by the sword.” That’s the regard he was held in. Dyche must have had that support too?
Andrew Jones: Burnley won one of their first 21 games. Any other manager in the Premier League would have been sacked. The confidence and belief Dyche backed up over the years meant the questions came much later. Difficulties were expected to arise but he’d been in this situation before and when it mattered, his tactics worked. That was the feeling. They’ll get you the 1-0 wins that you need. But as the season went on, those 1-0 wins weren’t coming any more. Burnley were usually good against the sides at the bottom, dominating that mini-league. This time it’s been different, like against Leeds in August when they were 1-0 up late on and drew 1-1, plus home draws with Norwich and Watford. In the end, something had to change.
Who do you class as responsible for the struggle?
Patrick Boyland: It all stems from Ancelotti’s departure, the way the search for the replacement panned out and the decision-making right at the top of the club. But the footballing strategy has been muddled for so long. They go from Ancelotti to Benitez, a contrast of styles. That takes the creative players out of the side but then you move on to Frank Lampard, who actually wants to play football. There’s no joined-up thinking. They’re also counting the cost of the early splurge under Farhad Moshiri. They spent one fee last summer, on Demarai Gray. To push up towards Europe, it needs a lot more than £1.7 million in one window. The waste is much further back. It’s been feast and famine.
Andy Jones: Where do you start with Burnley? There’s no one person to blame. Mike Garlick, the former owner, deserves some in my opinion because of the lack of investment over the years. Then we had January, when Chris Wood left out of the blue. Someone described his release clause to me as “buried in the contract”. It was a surprise to lose him. They signed Wout Weghorst and he showed some good signs but he hasn’t had the impact everyone hoped for in terms of goals. They lost their way in terms of how they wanted to use him under Dyche. They went for Mislav Orsic in January but didn’t get him. He’d have been the winger they were after. Then there’s the age of the squad and, on top of that, Dyche’s tactics didn’t work as they had. COVID-19 hasn’t helped either. The club had a lot of postponements and played three times between December 12 and January 23. In the most intense part of the season, they hardly had a game.
Patrick Boyland: Everton have been like that; always having games in hand. It can hurt you psychologically, like the team constantly taking the second penalty in a shoot-out.
Phil Hay: Except it’s worked for Burney. I always had it in my head that they’d go down because of the build-up of fixtures — one in the hand being worth two in the bush. But actually, they’ve made those games count. Leeds haven’t spent ludicrous amounts of money but, at the same time, they have invested. My criticism more and more is that the impact of that investment just hasn’t been felt. Not enough of their signings have made a difference. Even on Wednesday, watching Rodrigo against Chelsea, I still can’t work out what he is, where he really fits or if this is ever going to work. That’s a £27-million player.
But in terms of who’s responsible, I honestly think the blame is collective and the factors are numerous: the quality of the recruitment, the size of the squad, the effect of injuries, the inability or the refusal to find ways to limit them, tactical problems, form dipping across the squad, sacking Bielsa and bringing in Jesse Marsch but finding yourselves in deep trouble anyway. Marsch was touted as having similarities to Bielsa but we’re not seeing them and the transition has been fraught. Nothing has gone right and given that Bielsa has already been sacked, it’s the board who are going to face the questions.
Patrick Boyland: I could say the same about Everton. Bielsa isn’t the only one complicit in Leeds’ form. That’s true of Benitez. It’s not all on him. You have to go above him too and also look at some of the players. Everton’s injury record is right up there as well.
Phil Hay: Did you ever have a 15-year-old on the bench, though? Not that we’re playing Top Trumps.
Patrick Boyland: We didn’t get to that point! I don’t know about you but, at various stages, I’ve been waiting for a call telling me to bring my boots to Goodison. It’s been that bad.
Has there been a stage of the season where you thought it was over for your club?
Andrew Jones: That Leeds game on New Year’s Day was the one. It felt like Burnley had to win it or at least get a draw. My biggest concern was Dyche coming out afterwards and saying “Leeds outfought us, they played with more of an edge.” That’s not what you ever heard from him. Burnley built everything on generally fighting tooth and nail for 90 minutes. That’s how they’ve beaten teams. They were already looking cut adrift by then so you knew it was serious. Also, there was that week where Leeds beat Wolves in the 91st minute and Everton beat Newcastle in the 97th minute. I went into the international break thinking, “Oh my god.” The defeat at Norwich was also a low point.
Patrick Boyland: I was confident until Everton lost 3-2 at Turf Moor. Then I felt like they were in genuine peril, for the first time. I went into the press room after and I wasn’t the only one covering Everton who looked or sounded worried. The whole atmosphere was, “Shit, we’re really in this and we’re probably favourites to go down.” Since then, it’s changed week to week. I was there as a fan when they beat Newcastle so late, thinking to myself, “They’ve got to win here.” But beating Chelsea recently was massive.
Phil Hay: I feel like Leeds are in the middle of that dejection now. And it’s only come on since the weekend when they lost to Manchester City, Burnley nicked a late win at Watford and Everton beat Chelsea. Literally a couple of weeks ago. Don’t get me wrong, Leeds have been in the mix all season but most people believed that even though it would be a tight scrape, Leeds would just about get there — particularly after they won away at Watford last month. For the past fortnight, there’s been this definite sense of creeping death. It’s horrible and it’s hard to find people in Leeds who are outright optimistic. The press box at Elland Road is right in the middle of the West Stand. People come for a chat with you and some will give you the eye at full-time to see what you’re thinking and let you know what they’re thinking. We’re all getting whiter in the face; as worried as each other.
What do you think has been the biggest turning point this season? For better or worse.
Patrick Boyland: The win over Chelsea. Not only the result but the context of what else was happening elsewhere. Everyone at Goodison got swept up in it. The attitude was: “We’re in massive trouble and you know what? We’re going to have to stick together.” The energy was incredible and that fed into the players.
Andy Jones: The sacking of Dyche. Burnley gambled on a change of voice as a last attempt to keep themselves up. The way it’s looking, it might be the right decision. Even if they go down, Mike Jackson’s been named Manager of the Month. You couldn’t have asked for much more. Would Dyche have got these results? I can say for sure but I don’t think so, not with the way things were going.
Phil Hay: It’ll be much harder either way for anyone at Leeds to say that about Bielsa. Even if they stay up, they’ll be scraping it desperately and it’ll be a moot point as to whether they would have avoided relegation regardless. Marsch is picking up roughly as many points as Bielsa was on average, so the difference hasn’t been drastic. The biggest turning point was the game I spoke about — the defeat to Manchester City. Talk about a weekend where everything goes against you.
How has the mood been on the streets?
Patrick Boyland: You have to mark this as before Lampard and after Lampard came in. Towards the end with Benitez, it got very messy. There was lots of dissent aimed at everyone: Benitez, the board, the players. That’s why sacking him was the right decision, in my view. With Lampard, there has been togetherness. The fans have stuck with the team. The change rekindled the connection with the fans and if they do scrape through, that’s what we’ll look back on.
Phil Hay: The crowd at Elland Road have been phenomenal. They’ve had so little to feed on — so few good performances — and the warning signs were there early on. There was a great piece this week by a colleague of mine, Daniel Chapman, who writes for The Square Ball fanzine. He spoke about “the delusion of thinking relegation wasn’t happening — the crowd singing louder with each goal against us.” That’s actually how it is. There’s been so little poison and it hasn’t been toxic, with the exception of Marsch’s first game where patience frayed at the edges. Put it this way, there’s one direction where the finger of blame can’t be pointed. There’s been no infighting, although if they go down it’s probably coming.
Patrick Boyland: You need delusion. Because once that goes, all hope is gone and you’re done. It seems to me that the one thing keeping Leeds alive is the feeling Elland Road creates: that something could spark.
Andy Jones: As Burnley’s plight got more difficult, the crowd here really responded. Turf Moor had got to the stage where it wasn’t that much of a fortress any more but the crowd have tried to stick with the players. Dyche was always keen to point that out. The only time it really turned a little was the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea. They were unlucky in the first half but then it fell apart and the fans got on the players’ backs. It’s weird at Burnley, though, because there’s almost this feeling that they have a shelf life in the Premier League. Therefore, at some point, they’ll go down and that creates a sense of reality. When the team need them, the fans are there.
How do you get out of this?
Phil Hay: This has to be a question for me because it’s Leeds who are in 18th. I’m starting to wonder, on the basis of the past few games and having seen how hard it has been for Marsch to move from Bielsa’s tactical plan to his own, whether he has to go back to something closer to Bielsa’s tactical system. The players were schooled in that for so long, they were so familiar with it, and the attempt to transition has been really difficult.
Maybe it does need to be 4-1-4-1 with Kalvin Phillips in the position he knows best, Raphinha wide on the right rather than deeper at right-back, a centre-forward up front. Maybe it does need the players to try and do what they did well for so long under Bielsa. It seems ridiculous to say that given Bielsa was sacked because his tactics were failing but back to basics might be the call.
Okay then. Who’s going down?
Andy Jones: I’ve got to go Leeds because I can’t go Burnley and I don’t think Everton will go down. I feel like Burnley have got the capability to match what Leeds do. That’s all they need, because of the goal difference.
Phil Hay: It’s like this. If Leeds as they were against Chelsea and Arsenal are the Leeds we get against Brighton and Brentford, then they’ll go. They won’t get out of this. But I live in hope they’ll find something extra. So I’m saying Burnley because I have to say Burnley.
Patrick Boyland: The thing that goes in Everton’s favour is the two-point buffer and a game in hand over Leeds. Plus goal difference and two games at home coming up. I’m torn over who goes down but I look at Leeds’ goal difference and wonder if that might be pivotal. I’ve got a feeling it goes down to the final day, though.
Phil Hay: Same time, same place next week, then.