Since parachute payments were increased for the 2014-15 Premier League season only one out of four teams promoted as playoff winners have stayed up – Huddersfield this season. The other three have all been relegated with point totals definitively behind the magic 40 point mark. Given the relatively poor record of those on the whole who win promotion through the playoffs, it begs the question: which of Saturday’s finalists stands the better chance of not taking the trip back down?
Promotion through the playoffs is naturally riskier business than automatic promotion, with the teams by definition having performed poorer in their promotion winning season. In this same span the team promoted as champions has never gone straight back, and the other team winning automatic promotion going 50-50. The Premier League is more competitive than ever, with increased international TV rights money narrowing the gaps within the bottom half. Newcastle, promoted as champions, finished in 10th with 44 points, only 11 clear of the relegation zone. Just a couple of seasons ago this would have only been enough for 14th place.
The key to staying up really is winning games and scoring goals. This sounds obvious but isn’t the route most teams take. The maths is simple: 3>1. 5 teams in the bottom half this season finished with 16 losses, the difference between Crystal Palace in 11th with 44 points and Southampton in 17th with 36 is those 4 more wins Palace achieved. Middlesborough last season lost fewer games than teams that finished in little danger, but were relegated with little surprise due to winning a dreadful 5 games. Too many teams attempt to stay up by being difficult to beat, but with the strengthening of the Top 6 and the flattening of the rest of the table, this is just too inefficient an approach.
Think of it this way, the average teams in 17th and 18th in the table over this four year span are basically only separated by three points. The way to get these extra three points is actually trying to score goals. Getting battered by one of the top 6 away four out of five times and winning the other is exactly the same as scraping out draws at three of Old Trafford, the Emirates, the Etihad, Spurs’ new stadium, Anfield and Stamford Bridge. Then if you are trying not to lose against teams with similar or more marginally better talent and then seeing if you can nick a goal you are limiting your returns. If you aim to win and come up short due to a late goal or a decision going the wrong way you draw or you still win, if you’re aiming to draw you now lose.
This all sets up the question of who is better positioned if they go up, and whether the winner at Wembley could even be the second best equipped out of the promoted teams. Assuming whomever wins makes their January loan forward signing permanent, Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham and Lewis Grabban for Villa, there is a clear difference in the attacking quality of the two squads. If anything this seems almost ahead of schedule for Villa, with a mix of younger prospects and aging pros. Villa stumbled somewhat down the stretch, losing 4 out of their last 10 games, which is to be expected from a squad comprised of players at either end of their career.
Fulham came alive after Mitrovic arrived, the Serb playing a key part in Fulham going unbeaten from the 16th December until the final day of the season. This run is in another way more representative of Fulham’s season, with the loan acquisition of Matt Targett allowing them to play Ryan Sessegnon in a more advanced position. That run and the play that produced it, piloted by well-regarded manager Slaviša Jokanovic, would portend good things for their potential fate next season. Fulham finished the season with the second most goals in the league, behind the superagent Jorge Mendes-fuelled Wolves with 82. Both options would be somewhat well equipped to attempt to repeat this year’s feat of no promoted teams being relegated. The possible stumbling block seems more likely to be Cardiff in many ways.
Whilst Cardiff were promoted automatically, their approach lends itself much more to failing to stay up next season. Nuno and Jokanovic both play a more aggressive and entertaining style that would lend themselves well to getting those 38 points and surviving next season. Neil Warnock on the other hand, plays more in the traditional British mould, trying to counter off two banks of four. Their only player to hit double digits is Calum Paterson, a natural right back who played some games in midfield, so this is likely to regress up a division. We know that Junior Hoilett has been a serviceable winger in the relegation battle before however in 2018 that may not be enough. Kenneth Zohore offers some promise but he simply may be too isolated. This approach with the sort of largely prime age squad that Cardiff have is enough in the Championship to win most of your games, however at the next level the margins are too reduced to make it workable. This means that Cardiff are at the most risk of the promoted sides, regardless of who wins on Saturday, in part as you can assume Warnock will want more “proven professionals” this summer, and Marko Grujic is returning to Liverpool with Aron Gunarsson’s future up in the air still.