Greatest dogfight ever: The relegation battle

Four points separate mid-table Sunderland from rock-bottom West Bromwich, meaning the relegation battle has never involved more clubs. Nick Harris reports
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It's official – the Premier League has never been as closely contested. Outside the usual top four, teams are more closely matched than in any previous year. In particular, the battle to avoid relegation is on course to be tighter than ever.

The key statistic? Just two points separate the club in 11th place, Sunderland, from Blackburn at the top of the relegation zone, while the gap between Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion in 20th place is four points.

Never in the era of the 20-club Premier League have these margins been so small. Thus the "six-pointers" start here even though it is not yet December. This weekend alone there are three of them, with six of the clubs in the bottom 10 paired against each other. Stoke, who are 15th in the table this morning with 14 points, host West Brom, on 11 points, today.

Tomorrow, Tottenham, in 19th place with 12 points, host Blackburn, 18th with 13 points, before Sunderland (11th, 15 points), host West Ham (14th, 14 points). Wins for any of the lower-placed sides will see them leapfrog their opponents.

All three teams occupying the relegation slots know they could be out come Monday. All 10 clubs in the bottom half know they could be in a relegation berth after the weekend. And yet just one win could mean a leap up the table by as many as eight places for some.

With five defeats from their last six games, West Brom's manager, Tony Mowbray, can be forgiven his hang-dog look and yet as he said yesterday their cause is far from lost: "We are within touch. If we were to win the next two games we would probably be in the top half of the table."

Blackburn's Paul Ince said: "With the league the way it is at the moment, everybody is beating each other. One win can push you up to half-way, and against Spurs and then Portsmouth we'll be looking to get points on the board."

The tightness of the table is unprecedented. Fulham, in 10th, are just six points from a Champions League berth and the same margin off the bottom.

Our accompanying "Never tighter" table shows in more detail how the Premier League is much more closely contested than ever. Whereas two points separate 11th and 18th now, and four points 11th and 20th, last season those equivalent margins were 10 and 12 points. On average in the last 13 years – since the Premier League has had 20 clubs – those margins have been seven points and nine points.

In previous seasons, at least one side looked down already. A year ago it was hapless Derby, on six points. Sunderland (with five points in 2005) and Sheffield Wednesday (five in 1999) were among other early nailed-on losers. But this season West Brom's 11 points mean eight clubs are in their sights with a win.

Few managers have more experience of fighting Premier League relegation battles than Dave Bassett (below). None has done so with so many different teams. He managed Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and Leicester City in peril, and told The Independent that the current situation can only be a good thing, for fans and managers alike.

"Nobody's adrift at the bottom, and that means no room for complacency above," he said. "Your top clubs have all the best players and the title is between that small group but the rest are scrapping for all the other places. No manager can sit there and believe they're comfortable. The bottom teams are by no means condemned, while if anyone thinks clubs like Hull and Everton can't still get dragged into it is kidding themselves. It's more equal than ever."

There are several theories why. One is that this is just a quirky year with minnows punching briefly above their weight and bigger clubs – namely Tottenham and Newcastle – blipping.

Another is that the three promoted clubs – Hull, Stoke and West Brom – have arrived in the division better prepared than previous newcomers, for whatever reasons; technical, managerial or financial. "They've come up with a mentality to give it a go," Bassett believes. "Look at Hull against Man United recently. They obviously went in trying to win. They're looking to be positive and it's paying off."

Statistics only partly support the notion of the promoted trio doing better than in previous years. Combined, they have 46 points so far. While the equivalent tally was 27 a year ago, it has typically been in the high 40s, and was 55 seven years ago, and 53, 48 and 46 the three seasons before that. But at least this year's trio, unlike in previous years, are all in touch with survival.

A third theory is that teams across the board are playing more adventurous football. There have been fewer draws this season (27) than at the equivalent stage for a decade. A year ago there had been 35, and in 2004 as many as 42. Most teams, it seems, are going for wins.

A fourth theory is financial, namely that as each club's coffers are being boosted fairly equitably in absolute terms by the League's £900m-a-year broadcast revenue, so relative wealth disparities decrease.

"The whole league is levelling up in terms of quality, which in turn is leading to more competitive matches with greater unpredictability in results," says a Premier League spokesman.

Bassett prefers a simpler explanation altogether. "Outside the big four there are no outstanding teams," he says. "Look at Fulham, not one world-class player. Same at Stoke, West Brom, Everton, Wigan, you name it. Tottenham have got players but haven't done it yet. Newcastle, they're just bang average. It's all quite even, and showing."

41: The magic number, Reach it, or swing

Our prediction for the number of Premier League points that will be needed for safety this season. The average over 13 seasons has been 37. But a) this season is much closer than average; b) generally, points needed for safety are higher when the bottom club is doing relatively well after 13 games, as this season. The only reason our prediction is not higher is Sunderland's relatively low 15pts in 11th, indicating "cannibalisation" of points among strugglers.