With the halfway point of the Premier League season fast approaching and the heavy Christmas fixture schedule likely to do its usual work of leaving a group of teams adrift in the relegation battle, the next few fixtures could shape the campaign...or at least the transfer window.
Heading into the first weekend of December, at least six teams toward the foot of the table have real concerns going into 2022, with two of the bottom three of those - Newcastle United and Burnley - meeting on Saturday. An unexpected victory for someone is probable across the course of the next month, but if any side fails to pick up a solid number of points across the six games to come before the January sales, they could quickly find it tough to attract new talent and be facing a very long road back to safety.
Here is a look at the state of play at the bottom, the fixtures those sides have coming up and who seems most likely to be in danger of being left playing catchup after the turn of the year.
Quite simply, it doesn’t take much of a conclusion to suggest the Magpies might be the most desperate club for the January window to open, even without the context of their vast new wealth. They are winless and, after the all-important weekend clash against the Clarets, have a horrid run of games to contend with before the start of the new year.
Burnley (h), 4 Dec
Leicester (a), 12 Dec
Liverpool (a), 16 Dec
Man City (h), 19 Dec
Man United (h), 27 Dec
Everton (a), 30 Dec
They have, of course, the considerable buffer of spending power on their side, which might - depending on who they decide to sign with a head coach in place for five weeks, no director of football and no as-yet apparent football-wide strategy in place - account for an extra four or six points across the second half of the campaign.
More optimism will hinge on Eddie Howe’s ability to get more consistent offensive performance levels out of his current crop, who have undeniable attacking traits and yet have often this season been asked to defend extremely deep and for extended periods - with predictable outcomes.
Newcastle have seven points after 14 games; if they get beyond 12 by the time the window opens it will probably be a very positive surprise.
Like Newcastle, the weekend is a huge one for Sean Dyche and his side, but unlike their basement rivals, they have other winnable games on the horizon.
Newcastle (a), 4 Dec
West Ham (h), 12 Dec
Watford (h), 15 Dec
Aston Villa (a), 18 Dec
Everton (h), 26 Dec
Man United (a), 30 Dec
There is still a calmness from within the club over their position and results, having only recently achieved their first victory of the campaign against Brentford.
And from the outside, the perception still appears to be that the Clarets fall into the ‘too good to go down category’ after several seasons grinding their way to top-flight finishes of varying degrees of impressive progression. But the same has been said of other teams before, and is being said of the likes of Leeds above them this year. They cannot all be too good for the drop; wins have to come with more regularity or it will quickly become panic mode for whoever remains below the dotted line.
Other than the weekend encounter with the only team below them, the clashes with Watford and Everton at Turf Moor might be the games they highlight as must-win.
The Canaries are suddenly on a four-match unbeaten run, three coming since Dean Smith took over - though they’ll feel they should have taken two extra points after playing against 10 men of Newcastle for 80 minutes in midweek. The upcoming games could be very hit-and-miss in terms of opposition cohesion and quality, given the next three have all just changed managers too.
Tottenham (a), 5 Dec
Man United (h), 11 Dec
Aston Villa (h), 14 Dec
West Ham (a), 18 Dec
Arsenal (h), 26 Dec
Crystal Palace (a), 28 Dec
Norwich looked as though they were already consigned to the drop a month ago, so to be off the bottom and a win (albeit a 14-goal one) away from safety is already a big positive.
But beware the drop-off which comes a month or two after a new boss’ arrival; they need to keep finding ways to pick up points along the way in a similar style to grinding out a point against current high-flyers Wolves. If they can do that a few more times through to the new year, and can add a more resilient recruit at one end or a more clinical capture at the other, they could still feel they have a chance to upset the odds.
The flip side of the argument is that if they don’t, and with Burnley expected to improve and Newcastle having the funds to make sure they do, the Canaries could yet find themselves adrift even if they do improve their own average points haul.
Claudio Ranieri has had a reasonable initial effect on the team, but Watford remain worst-placed to suffer if any of the bottom three improve significantly. The biggest bonus here: they are outscoring all their rivals at the bottom, both in recent weeks and across the season as a whole. Don’t be surprised if that’s a telling factor come matchweek 38.
Man City (h), 4 Dec
Brentford (a), 10 Dec
Burnley (a), 15 Dec
Crystal Palace (h), 18 Dec
Wolves (a), 26 Dec
West Ham (h), 28 Dec
It’s notable that the Hammers will play a significant role in matters at the bottom over the next month, appearing in three of these upcoming fixture lists. That will affect the top-four race as well as the bottom-three battle, of course.
Just above the bottom four, a few more teams could perhaps be pulled into the relegation contenders if results don’t go their way. But Southampton don’t have an outrageously bad run of December games; they’d expect to pick up wins along the way. So too will Aston Villa, who have started well under Steven Gerrard and whose December starts tough, but eases up somewhat. Everton, hammered in the derby by Liverpool, have another couple of tough games soon to come against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, but it’s those games against Burnley and Newcastle before the turn of the year which could see them either dragged into the group at the bottom or quickly pulling away again.
It might be another matter altogether at Elland Road.
Marcelo Bielsa says the win over Crystal Palace in midweek allowed his team to “breathe again” after one victory in six beforehand, but they might well need to make it back-to-back three points this weekend given the run they face thereafter.
Brentford (h), 5 Dec
Chelsea (a), 11 Dec
Man City (a), 14 Dec
Arsenal (h), 18 Dec
Liverpool (a), 26 Dec
Aston Villa (h), 28 Dec
That’s the current top four all in succession, with Leeds not exactly free-scoring this term and only five points above the relegation zone.
Unless Bielsa can overcome the injury absences and inconsistent showings his side have been battling against, they will be another of those who might need to turn to the January market for a minor refresh.
One month until the transfer window opens; one month in which we’ll get a lot closer to knowing which sides face a huge struggle for survival.