Newcastle United have brandished their new cheque book and immediately the odds on retaining Premier League status have shifted in the Magpies’ favour.
The battle for survival in the top flight is looking more and more like a four-way fight, with Norwich City, Burnley, Newcastle and Watford now all adrift of Leeds United.
Toon were odds on to go down at the turn of the year, but after the acquisition of Kieran Trippier for £12million from Atletico Madrid and Chris Wood from Burnley for £25million, they have bounced back.
Striker Chris Wood was signed by Newcastle United from Burnley for twice his market value
Newcastle’s decision to trigger the release clause in Wood’s contract with Burnley is a frightening show of strength for the other teams in the bottom four.
Recruitment analysts Ai Abacaus calculated the striker’s market value at just £12M prior to his move, based on a model that compares an array of factors, including age, top-flight, European, international experience, performance, appearances among many others.
The odds have swung in favour of Newcastle United after they flexed their financial muscle
Newcastle United: 5/4
Norwich City: 1/20
Newcastle are now 5/4 for the drop, with the bookies confident their rivals are heading to the Championship.
There is the promise of more to come at St James Park, too, with the consortium led by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, the world’s richest football club owners, reportedly pushing hard to secure centre back Diego Carlos from Sevilla at a reported cost of £28M.
And that’s just to prepare for the crunch clash at home to Watford on Saturday. There are still eighteen days to go before the January window closes.
No wonder the odds have swung in Toon’s favour. Money talks, and the bookies are listening. But the relegation battle will not be decided on a betting slip.
A lot will depend on the results the relegation rivals achieve against each other and they all have plenty of opportunities to steal points.
Newcastle, for example, still have to travel to Burnley, Norwich and Leeds, after they host Watford this weekend.
Tantalisingly, given Chris Wood has just crossed the divide, Toon are at Turf Moor on the final day of the Premier League season. An occasion when Burnley fans will no doubt hope to down a few pints of schadenfreude, if their fate is not already decided.
Sportsmail assesses the prospects, hopes and fears of the bottom four.
Analysts say Newcastle need players like Wood who can hit the ground running straight away
Newcastle’s determination – and desperation – to beat the drop is clear in signing Chris Wood from Burnley.
Newcastle paid double what Wood was worth. He was valued at £12M by independent recruitment analysts this week, but Newcastle triggered a release clause of £25M to get their man.
The deal was driven by chief scout Steve Nickson and Eddie Howe and bankrolled by the petro-pounds of the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF)
Eddie Howe has seen two new arrivals at St James’ Park, with more players expected to follow
Compared to their rivals, this is a staggering demonstration of financial strength, which looks certain to be repeated in the hours, days or weeks ahead.
Newcastle’s new owners are pushing hard to secure more players and it is tempting to believe that will be enough to secure survival.
But analysts are quick to point out that while having better players in your squad helps, it is no guarantee of success, or staying up.
The Magpies’ recruitment team are working hard to find the right tactical fit and there is a clear pattern developing in the acquisition of Wood, who can hold up play, bring in the full backs and finish at close range, and Trippier, whose attacking instincts and delivery can realise the striker’s potential.
Those two look excellent acquisitions.
The challenge of the January window is to land players who make an immediate impact and with Newcastle’s predicament in the relegation zone that is more important than ever, if they are to prosper.
Kieran Trippier has already signed for the Magpies in a £12m transfer from Atletico Madrid
‘It is not a given,’ said Andy Forrester, recruitment analyst at Ai Abacus. ‘The question is will signings settle quickly and hit the ground running? That is why focusing on players who have played in the Premier League is less of a risk.
‘When you look abroad, there are factors fans often overlook. Human factors like is there someone else in the team who speaks their language, have they played with any of the squad before, are they of a similar age and can they deal with the culture shock? These things all have an impact.’
Newcastle United are looking for a new centre back and Sevilla’s Diego Carlos is reported to be a target
Analysts believe language, in particular, is a key factor, for January signings. A player who does not speak English faces a challenge to be effective from day one because at the elite level there is no time to think about what they want to say, it has to be instinctive.
‘A defender has to communicate about ‘holding the line’, ‘stepping out’ or telling a full back to ‘tuck in’,’ said Forrester. ‘These are things they have to pick up quickly.
‘There is so much expectation on transfers to work quickly, but this is not Football Manger.’
Newcastle are believed to be using one of a handful of companies that use models powered by artificial intelligence to assess the likely impact of a signing, in terms of points earned.
These systems require huge data banks and the simulations and can take days to complete as they compare past performance, playing style, tactical fit, among a myriad of other metrics.
Even so, they are not fail-safes and the picture becomes more complex the more signings that are made.
Wood told a reporters he was in his ‘comfort zone’ at Burnley, prompting reaction from fans
Despite the pitfalls of recruitment, Forrester, who is a Newcastle United fan, believes the Magpies will prevail.
‘They do not need to beat every team, they just need to better the results of the teams around them,’ said Forrester.
‘They have to be better than three teams. They are already better than Norwich so it is Burnley and Watford and the signing of Wood was as much about taking him away from Burnley.’
Best Hope: Chris Wood
Newcastle’s best hope may have only just arrived. Defenders are going to be important in their survival bid, given they have conceded 42 goals already this season, and only Norwich have let in more.
However, goals are vital to survival and with Callum Wilson injured, the new £25m man, Chris Wood, will be expected to bag them. He is now vital to beating the drop.
As a minimum, the teams at the bottom must beat those around them. Three of Newcastle’s four remaining fixtures against the bottom five are away, which may increase the challenge.
The Hornets are not going down without a fight.
Manager Claudio Ranieri, widely regarded as one of the nicest men in football, has got his game face on and Watford are tooling up.
The biggest factor in the Hertfordshire club’s favour is the continued presence of Emmanuel Dennis in their squad as they go into a defining week, which sees them play Newcastle, Burnley and Norwich inside seven days.
Claudio Ranieri has his game-face on as Watford dig in and prepare to fight for survival
Dennis was expected to join up with Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations, but an administrative error by the national team gave Watford the choice of whether to release him, or not. They did not.
It is a huge boost. Dennis is a contender for the bargain buy of the season, costing just £3.6m from Club Bruges.
In 17 appearances, he has eight goals and five assists, meaning he has contributed to 59 per cent of all Watford’s goals in the Premier League this season, well ahead of any other player in the relegation dog-fight.
In addition to the retention of Dennis, Ranieri has made a big call on Danny Rose. The left back has been told he is surplus to requirements and will not play for the club again, after arriving only seven months ago.
Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis is the most in-form forward among the bottom four teams
The Italian boss wants to be sure that everyone in the camp is ready to fight for him and the club, but he clearly did not feel that way about Rose, who was reportedly disillusioned with Ranieri’s methods.
At the same time, Watford have been busy in the transfer market. While all eyes are on the Magpies, the hornets have actually stolen a march on their rivals and have three new players in already.
Watford have signed defensive midfielder Edo Kayembe, 23, from Belgian side Eupen on a four-and-a-half-year deal, left-back Hassane Kamara, 27, from Nice and experienced central defender Samir, 27, from sister club, Udinese
Recruitment may have been sparked by the need to cover absences resulting from those players who did have the paperwork in place to go to the Afcon in Cameroon.
Danny Rose has been told by Watford he is surplus to requirements at Vicarage Road
Midfielder Imran Louza, forward Ismaila Sarr and defenders Adam Masina and William Troost-Ekong are all away with their national teams
In their absence, the aim is to tighten a fragile defence, which has conceded 36 times in the league, including three or more on four occasions, while Dennis fires Watford to safety.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Watford’s survival plan, however, is that Ranieri is still there to oversee it. After six defeats in six Premier League games, following their uplifting win over Manchester United, many expected Watford’s trigger-happy owners to take out the boss.
Best Hope: Emmanuel Dennis
The Nigerian is the most in-form forward of the four clubs fighting for survival. Dennis is crucial to Watford’s hopes. Any hangover from the disappointment of missing out on the Afcon, or injury, could prove fatal.
What a week for Watford. With games against the bottom three, away to Newcastle and Burnley, before hosting Norwich, this week could arguably be described as an 18-pointer.
Sean Dyche has spoken many times of Burnley’s ‘strong jaw’ and they need that now more than ever.
Improving form earlier in the season has given way to some poor performances, when the Clarets have succumbed to painful and important defeats at Leeds United and Newcastle.
An FA Cup reverse at home to Huddersfield Town has only deepened the gloom at Turf Moor.
There is no doubt Sean Dyche and his team will fight for their Premier League survival
With the surprise departure of striker Chris Wood, the Clarets have now been caught with the equivalent of a right-hook, which they never saw coming.
There are mixed feelings among Burnley fans about Wood’s departure. He has struggled for goal-scoring form this season, netting just three in the top flight, and some frustration has crept in.
Wood’s declaration that he was in his ‘comfort zone’ at Turf Moor has not surprised some of those who have seen him labour this term. And there is a view that a smart piece of recruitment to replace him might just invigorate a disappointing campaign.
However, the news Wood was destined for a Premier League relegation rival and uncertainty over who Burnley could bring in has shocked the majority of supporters and with good reason.
Chris Wood is a loss, he has scored more top flight goals for Burnley than anyone else
Wood is a proven goal scorer and in the context of the Claret’s Premier League stay, he is verging on prolific. Playing centre-forward for Burnley in the top flight is a tough gig and over the four seasons he has ploughed a furrow up top for the Clarets, Wood has done very well.
He has scored 49 Premier League goals in 144 appearances, more than any other Burnley player. The fact is he will be missed.
But it would be wrong to write Burnley off. Dyche and his players are good in a scrap. There is nothing to lose now and that is a situation that might just suit them.
Despite leaking some uncharacteristically soft ones this term, the Clarets have conceded fewer goals (27) than any side in the bottom half of the table.
But Maxwel Cornet has wowed and encouraged fans with his flair and top-class finishes
They have also put in some typically dogged performances, not least a recent 0-0 draw at Wolves (during which Wood was substituted and went off in a huff), they held West Ham and stole a point at Chelsea.
Just one win is a worry, but they have lost fewer than any of their rivals, so there is something to build on. The challenge, as ever, is scoring goals and that just got harder.
Initially, the responsibility will fall to Jay Rodriguez and Matej Vydra, who have one goal and two assists in the Premier League between them this term. Ashley Barnes is yet to return from injury. Burnley-born Rodriguez is already written into the East Lancashire club’s folklore. If he fires them to safety now, he should be getting a stand named after him.
The cavalry arrives with the return from the Afcon of Ivorian, Maxwel Cornet, 25, who is the bright spark in Burnley’s season to date, scoring six stunners in 10 appearances.
Burnley will be looking to local boy, Jay Rodriguez, to find his scoring touch in weeks ahead
If the Ivory Coast go all the way to the Afcon final he will miss the next four games, including Watford at home. However, in April Burnley travel to Norwich and the Hornets, before hosting Newcastle in what may yet be a fight to the death on the last day of the season.
Dyche has always promised Burnley fans that the minimum expectation is there will be ‘sweat on the shirt’ of every player. If the Clarets go down, you can be sure they’ll be fighting all the way.
Best Hope: Maxwel Cornet
The Ivorian plays with a freedom and ease that eludes other Burnley players. But the industrious nature of the Lancashire side appears to be the perfect platform for Cornet. If the Clarets cut out mistakes, which hurt them at Leeds and Newcastle, the stage is set.
A win at home to Watford on January 18 feels crucial for Burnley, not just for the points but the belief it can bring. Following that, they meet Norwich and Watford in April, before Clarets’ fans ‘welcome’ back Chris Wood for the Turf Moor showdown with Newcastle.
The Canaries were never going to bet the farm on staying in the Premier League despite frustration at their weak surrender last time they were in the top flight.
Hard on the heels of winning the Championship last season, sporting director Stuart Webber moved quickly to manage expectations.
‘You can spend £120m net and get relegated. That’s been proven more than once,’ Webber told the BBC in May.
Norwich boss Dean Smith will benefit from the return of a full squad after injuries and illness
‘We can’t go all in now just to try to stay up for one season because, if we get relegated, we’re in deep, deep trouble.’
In fact, Norwich did spend money – around £55M – offset by the sale of Emiliano Buendia to Aston Villa, but two of the most expensive signings in their history have failed to hit the heights.
Winger Milot Rashica, 25, has one assist in 14 appearances after his transfer from Werder Bremen and forward Christos Tzolis, 19, has rarely managed more than 45 minutes since his move from PAOK in Greece.
The Canaries, with 10 points from 20 games, have played more matches than the other relegation contenders. They sit three points behind Watford, who have two games in hand.
Only six sides in Premier League history have accumulated fewer points than Norwich at their stage of the season.
There is still time for new boss, Dean Smith, to make an impact, but it is beginning to feel like Norwich’s young team will not have enough, again.
Youngster Christos Tzolis is yet to find his feet and form in the Premier League this season
The Canaries were flying, relatively speaking, in November, winning 2-1 at Brentford before former manager Daniel Farke was dismissed. Smith won his first game in charge, a 2-1 win over Southampton, and they claimed a draw at home to Wolves and away to Newcastle.
Since then, they have lost six Premier League games in a row and taken a few batterings along the way.
Injuries and Covid have hurt Norwich, but they have also exposed the club’s lack of depth to perform consistently at this level.
Scoring just eight goals, the lowest total in the top flight, and conceding 44, the most in the league, so far this season, tells its own story.
Canaries striker Teemu Pukki has struggled to replicate his Championship form in the top flight
Clearly, they will have to find goals from somewhere to survive. But their main threat, Teemu Pukki, is yet to flourish in the top flight in his second attempt.
The Finnish international netted 29 goals in the Championship in 2018-19, but just 11 in the Premier League the following season as Norwich went down with 21 points and a goal difference of minus 49.
Pukki then scored 26 in the Championship last season, but has only five to his name in the top flight this time around, from 19 appearances. To be fair, it is hard to find the net in a struggling team and it is notable just three others players have registered a Premier League goal.
Some say Norwich needed to commit more to the Premier League this time around and if they do go down, it will be for a fifth time, a league record.
However, it is a case of once bitten, twice shy for the Canaries. Norwich know well the perils of living beyond their means.
Aston Villa’s Emiliano Buendia was key player for Norwich last season and his coming into form
The club came close to ruin after relegation from the Premier League in 1995. They managed to survive with co-owners Delia Smith, the celebrity chef, and her husband Michael Wynn Jones at the helm. There is no appetite to risk that again.
Back in May, Webber expressed his admiration for Burnley for building year-on-year to create a sustainable Premier League club.
Ironically, the thrifty pair may yet go down together.
Best Hope: Dean Smith
Confidence has suffered in another torrid season at Carrow Road and the Canaries have looked distinctly fragile. However, this month, Dean Smith has been able to recall five players including goalkeeper Tim Krul and captain Grant Hanley after a Covid outbreak. With a full squad, Smith can bring his experience to bear and at least stabilise the team – step one in the Great Escape.
Norwich have opportunities to improve their position. They still have to travel to Watford and Leeds and will host Burnley and Newcastle.
10 Key Games in Premier League Relegation Battle
Newcastle v Watford
Burnley v Watford
Watford v Norwich
Leeds v Newcastle
Leeds v Norwich
Norwich v Burnley
Watford v Leeds
Norwich v Newcastle
Watford v Burnley
Burnley v Newcastle