Transfer window can save Premier League's strugglers from relegation
The 2018-19 Premier League season has a markedly different feel from 2017-18. This is a campaign of identities, of philosophies, of ideologues.
The change has been evident at the top, where Chelsea's Maurizio Sarri and Arsenal's Unai Emery have stamped their authority upon their sides with remarkable speed. In midtable, Everton finally have a clear playing identity under Marco Silva, and Watford appear more settled under Javi Gracia.
But the pattern is also evident among bottom-half sides, which is the biggest transformation from last season. In 2017-18, the Premier League's weaker sides boasted plenty of attacking talent but little in the way of a cohesive style. The three relegated clubs -- West Bromwich Albion, Swansea and Stoke -- offered the likes of Salomon Rondon, Jay Rodriguez, Daniel Sturridge, Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Tammy Abraham, Xherdan Shaqiri, Eric Choupo-Moting and Peter Crouch. These are players capable of providing a moment of magic, or scoring semi-regularly. Behind them, though, it was difficult to deduce much of a plan.
This time around, the situation is different. The three promoted sides -- Fulham, Wolves and Cardiff -- have little attacking firepower. Only the Fulham duo of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Andre Schurrle are comparable to the aforementioned players. Cardiff have few attacking threats worth mentioning, while Wolves' performance from goalkeeper to midfield has largely been excellent but their lack of finishing has prompted their recent poor run of form, which came to an end with the win at home to Chelsea.
Yet it's easy to grasp these sides' general idea, and the same can be said about almost every team in the bottom half. Rafael Benitez's Newcastle are quick, compact and sometimes dangerous on the break. Huddersfield are energetic and good at pressing. Crystal Palace are organised and narrow and break into the channels. Burnley are based around direct balls. Perhaps the only exception is Southampton -- and, sure enough, they've taken action by firing Mark Hughes, who struggled to implement a clear game plan, and appointing Ralph Hasenhuttl, who promises to bring high-tempo, aggressive pressing football. Everyone has an identity.
In fact, among the bottom-half sides, only Fulham (Mitrovic, seven) and West Ham (Marko Arnautovic, five) possess a centre-forward who has scored more than four goals.
On one hand this shouldn't be much of a story -- worse sides are scoring fewer goals. But it's not simply that they're scoring less than better sides, it's that they're scoring less than they should from their number of chances. Based on expected-goals statistics (xG), Cardiff and Newcastle should have scored five more goals, Wolves and Crystal Palace seven more, and Southampton no fewer than nine more.
A lack of goals in itself sometimes suggests a lack of creativity, but a lack of goals in relation to xG figures indicates a lack of finishing quality. The obvious solution for these five sides, then, is to sign another striker when the transfer window opens in January.
English clubs have traditionally relied far too much upon the January transfer window to provide a midseason boost, overlooking structural issues. The most dramatic January transfer windows usually involve a mass exchange of strikers. The 2011 window, which involved interconnected moves featuring Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, on a day when Liverpool had already signed Luis Suarez, was a classic example.
Last January featured, effectively, a triangular deal between Arsenal, Chelsea and Dortmund involving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi. Other strikers on the move in January included Jurgen Locadia, Cenk Tosun, Alexis Sanchez, Islam Slimani, Andre Ayew, Sturridge and Theo Walcott. It's debatable whether any of these players improved the fortunes of their new sides.
But this year seems right for these clubs to be investing. Perhaps they will be fighting over the same strikers, but realistically they're in very different situations.
Cardiff don't have much spending power, and you suspect they could look to get a loanee in. Manager Neil Warnock surely needs extra firepower -- whether a target man to play his part in Cardiff's long-ball game, or a runner to provide extra mobility. Beggars can't be choosers, and Warnock will be desperately trying to find a proven player at this level.
Newcastle's spending depends almost entirely upon the ownership of the club, with Mike Ashley still supposedly considering selling up. A potential new owner might be keen to invest immediately, to get supporters onside and increase the chances of Premier League survival. More than any other English club, Newcastle have a proud tradition of prolific strikers.
Wolves are in a different situation because Raul Jimenez, while somewhat lacking goals himself despite netting against Chelsea, has played an effective role at laying on chances for runners from deep. If anything, Wolves lack a goal-scoring winger rather than a striker. Diego Jota's goal against the Blues was his first of the season. He needs to provide more over the next month, or might find himself replaced.
Crystal Palace, meanwhile, know that Christian Benteke will return from injury around Christmas, and may feel it's worth persevering with the Belgian. After 15 goals in his debut campaign in 2016-17, Benteke was absolutely wretched last season, missing a staggering number of presentable chances, but his track record over his Premier League career suggests he could come good again. Using Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha up front, with Benteke the Plan B, seems most likely.
And then there's Southampton, whose finishing has been the most problematic. Saints seem less likely to invest: Danny Ings started the campaign excellently, and after a brief injury layoff should return this weekend. Manolo Gabbiadini and Charlie Austin might get fresh opportunities under the new regime, while Michael Obafemi has had a good impact when handed chances and might be suited to Hasenhuttl's energetic style. Last January's dreadful mistake in signing Guido Carrillo might also dissuade them from dipping into the January window.
The emphasis upon transfer spending, and "having a good window," has become somewhat overblown, and last season's fight against relegation was more about having a clear playing style, which is why Huddersfield stayed up ahead of more expensively assembled sides.
But this time around, there's a serious lack of striking quality among those battling relegation. It seems unlikely we'll see many more managerial changes, and therefore astute business in the winter window might prove the difference between survival and relegation.