Back in the bottom three, United face a crucial few weeks in their bid to have anything resembling a successful season.  How the manager could do with an Alan Pardew style November bounce.  Having watched the team home and away so far his season it’s clear that we lack the firepower required to score anywhere near enough goals to get away from the relegation zone. The one slight positive about the season so far is that aside from the capitulations at Norwich and Leicester, the team looks to have retained some of its defensive solidity from the previous manager.

No one enjoys relegation battles. I’m bored of them.  Season 12/13, 14/15, 15/16, 17/18, 18/19 & 19/20 have been predominantly been battling from relegation.  The only break from relegation battles was the season after relegation where we fought for promotion back to the Premier League and then season 13/14 where we finished a respectable tenth place but sold out best player when well placed to challenge the top 6, and ended up losing 14 of our last 19 league games. Those were the days!  I think we can now count ourselves like Coventry and Southampton of the 90’s.  Teams that were always in danger of going down, and you just knew they eventually would.  We’re like the mackems for the last decade but with slightly less empty seats. We’re experts in relegation battles, so we’ve all the experience in the world to fall back upon.

With that in mind I’ve compared the season so far to recent relegation battles from our own recent past and the recent trends in the PL:

At this stage

There isn’t a tremendous amount of value in looking at how United are doing after nine games in previous relegation seasons (unless it’s after 38 games of course).  But lets do it anyway.

United have 8 points from their 9 games with two wins, two draws and five defeats. In 08/09 Joe Kinnear’s (lol) side had two points less. Back in those days Everton and Aston Villa were regular fixtures in the top 6 and Man City were a bit shit so its hard to compare the start United had.  My own take on the season so far is that our performances against Watford, Brighton and Norwich worry me far more than the ‘difficult fixtures’ and the same can be said of 08/09.  Defeats at home to relegation rivals Blackburn and Hull, and defeat at sunderland were far more relevant in terms of what was to come than draws at top 6 sides Manchester United (European Champions) and Everton in the opening nine games.

15/16 also tells a tale of being worse off after 9 games with just 6 points gained.  United’s 9th game of the season was a major and vital 6 2 win against relegation rival Norwich City which made the picture slightly less bleak.  Again that season we had taken a point at Old Trafford, held top six finishers to be Southampton at home to a draw and thrown away a two goal lead against Chelsea (the champions but in dreadful form that would see them finish tenth).  To be fair to Steve McClaren he did genuinely had a dreadful start with Man City away, Man United away, Arsenal at home, Chelsea at home, West Ham away (challenged for a CL spot that season under Bilic) all being fixtures fans would have expected very little return from before the season started.

This season Bruce can claim to have played five sides we thought we’d get very little from and picked up six points.  That is a positive.  The other games all have caveats to a degree in that we took something against Brighton despite a serious ‘off’ day, Norwich have also beaten the champions Manchester City at home (but also shipped 5 at home to Vile) and Watford was a tight game that the team came back from a goal down in to get something.

Looking back at all three seasons in question – there is an undeniable pattern in the starts we ‘enjoyed’ that we have been in the bottom three after nine games.   It’s not exactly noteworthy that teams who get relegated start seasons very badly, but the start to this season seems to be broadly more positive than those at the same stage in 08/09 and 15/16.  We’ve more points than both at the same stage, Steve Bruce is probably a better manager than either Kinnear or McClaren and we have a much better defence than either side in 08/09 or 15/16.  In 15/16 the hammering of Norwich in the 9th game gave the ‘goals for’ column some gloss but even before that game, the seriously goal shy side under McClaren had scored more in a game less than Bruce’s side with an arguably harder set of fixtures. Kinnear’s side had scored a heady 9 in 9 despite only wining once.

Where the points come from

I think more important than the start to the season and the fixture list is examining who how our previously relegated sides performed against ‘better’ sides and where their points came from in relation to the position in the league of our opposition. Occasionally achieving unexpected results (while still taking the occasional humiliating hammering) but failing miserably to match the teams who we needed to take points off around us in the table, was the hallmark of Steve McClaren’s side.

Last season Rafa Benitez took just 4 points from 14 games against the top 7 sides in the league. Steve Bruce has already beaten that tally.  The side in 15/16 side picked up a respectable 13 points in 14 games against the best 7 sides in the league, three times what Rafa managed last season.

However last season Rafa’s side collected a massive 28 points in the 14 games against the bottom seven sides. The 15/16 side managed just 15 points against the bottom 7 that season.  The trend was clear in 15/16 – players put i more effort against ‘top sides’ and the side found it far easier to play on the counter attack at home so they picked up points. Big wins at home against Liverpool and Spurs were reactions to dreadful results the previous week, in a similar fashion to the wins against Spurs and Manchester United this season.  It should never be a worry picking up unexpected points against better teams in the league but the tactical inability of the 15/16 side to break down teams that sat deep away from away from home (and at home) saw just one win at home against the bottom four sides that season.  That stat alone probably relegated us.

08/09  saw United collect 19 points in 14 games against the bottom 7 and 8 points in 14 games against the top 7.  That’s a more ‘typical’ picture for a relegated side.  Despite only dropping two points against the sides who also went down (Boro & W Brom) we failed to get a win against sunderland, Hull and Blackburn – the three sides immediately above us.

Ultimately 08/09 is less of a barometer compare this season with as it was a season that saw four different men in the dugout (Keegan, Kinnear, Hughton & Shearer) and there is little doubt that the relegation was was a result of serious ineptitude and chaos at the club at board level.  It was also over ten years ago.  15/16 is a recent example of the typical failures of a relegated side (bad transfer activity, poor management, player disharmony) but that side proved it was capable of staying in the league with its results against the teams at the top of the table. Better tactical management and team selection against sides lower in the division would have probably kept United up that season.

The lessons to be learnt for this season is that although despite games against the ‘top’ sides costing more in ticket money for admission to SJP, the biggest games are against those around us in the league.  Rafa Benitez’s ability to have his sides take points in every single game against a relegation rival last season was imperative to the comfortable survival of the side.

When will we know how this season will turn out?

This season we’ve already failed to beat 3 sides you would imagine would be in the bottom 7, so the signs are worrying. My predicted bottom 7 (excluding NUFC) is:

  • Vile
  • Brighton
  • Norwich
  • Burnley
  • Sheffield United
  • Southampton
  • Watford

As a result there are still 11 games to get a maximum of 22 points from, but we’ve yet to see any evidence of how United will do any better in these fixtures than they did against the three sides from that list that we’ve played already.  A further worry is that even picking up 16 points from these 11 games would  leave United needed to regularly get results against the ‘best of the rest’ which already started badly against Leicester. Games against the likes of West Ham, Wolves, Bournemouth, Everton and Palace will have to go well as we seek to pick up points where we have given Norwich, Watford and Brighton positive results against us, two of them at home.

Looking at the fixture list the end of November has United travel to Vile before taking on Sheffield United, Southampton, Burnley and Crystal Palace.  If Bruce is to avoid McClaren’s fate in 15/16 these sides simply have to be beaten at home, with points being collected away from home.  if the form is indifferent or patchy against these sides history teaches us it’ll probably only be too late for this side to stay up.

Results against bigger sides cannot be relied up, its the key games against the bottom 7 sides that will determine our fate this season. We’ll know where we stand when we go to Old Trafford on boxing Day what the future holds under this manager .

How are we doing compared to other recently relegated sides?

Surprisingly well.  Of the last 9 teams relegated only West Brom had more points than us at this stage (10 to our 8) and they would have been okay if they hadn’t appointed Alan Pardew.  The last three Premier League seasons have had hopelessly cut adrift sides with no real prospect of survival as they entered the last ten games of the season (sunderland, West Brom, Huddersfield/Fulham). This season appears to be different with only Watford without a win so far.  United could really do with a stand out relegation candidate to fill one of the places by Christmas as has been the case in the last three season, but Watford and Norwich both looked like better sides than United when we played each of them this season.  One positive for NUFC is that if both of those sides continue to concede over two goals a game, its likely they’ll be relegated (Watford’s stats slightly imbalanced because of one game conceding 8 goals).

Do the managers previous relegations tell us anything?

Unfortunately, yes.  Steve Bruce’s relegation at Birmingham City in 2006 saw his side have the 11th best defensive record in the league conceding 50 goals. In his 2015 releation with Hull….had the (joint) 11th best defensive record conceding 51 goals.  That was less than Spurs that season who finished in 5th place.  Unfortunately for those two sides they scored 28 and 33 goals respectively. They seem like nailed on relegation goal scoring relegation statistics. However the Wigan side Bruce took over in 2007 scored just 34 goals…and stayed up, again conceding 51 goals,  and finished 11th with just 34 goals the following season, so it can be done on such meagre numbers.

To finish

United are all but done if we cannot produce a large number of our points this season against those immediately around us in the league.  Denying other sides points is key.  Bruce’s side hardly created a chance at home to Brighton and Watford and ultimately results against those sides will decide the teams fate.  We’re better off points wise than the last two relegations and there’s also a sense of unity around this side that was missing in 08/09 and 15/16/ with the extra bonus of defensive solidity that those two sides lacked.

The players, fans and manager should be treating the games against at the bottom as importantly impossible.  Rafa Benitez did and often was willing to face staunch criticism due to the set up against sides away from home like Southampton, Cardiff and Crystal Palace (and at home to Fulham).  There are reasons to be fairly positive about United’s chances but lots of reasons to think another relegation is on the cards.  Ultimately the sides above us look like they can score the goals and create the chances that we seem incapable of.

The next six weeks could tell us a lot more about this side and this manager than the previous six weeks….or it could confirm what many fans predicted before and after a ball was kicked this season.

Alex Hurst