With just over a month of the season to go, the Premier League relegation battle is seeming more and more like a two-team scrap. Sunderland and Middlesbrough are ten and six points adrift of safety respectively, albeit with a game in hand over the two teams directly above them, while in form Crystal Palace also have a match to spare over Swansea City and Hull City and a four-point advantage from the latter in 17th.
Indeed, at a time when teams at the bottom, fighting for their lives, are often seen as unfavourable opponents, Sunderland (7), Boro (14) and Swansea (5) are on the longest winless streaks in the league. The rest of the teams in the top-flight, then, will already be contemplating which players from the teams that may well be relegated deserve another chance at this level.
The following are four players that will be among those most sought after and the clubs that could well come calling should their respective sides drop into the Championship.
Hull City: Harry Maguire
The Tigers certainly seem to have the most fight in them at present of the four sides scrapping for points at the bottom but Marco Silva’s side are by no means safe.
One man who has done more than most to ensure that a side that most felt were doomed before the campaign even began – and certainly by the time of the new manager’s appointment – might stay afloat is Harry Maguire.
His rise has been quite remarkable, failing to get a sniff under Steve Bruce or Mike Phelan when all were fit and available but very much becoming Silva’s first choice. The 24-year old was handed the captain’s armband in a goalscoring six-pointer against Boro and he has been a huge positive for the Tigers this season.
Maguire looks like a real lumbering centre-half. But he is actually a cultured and forward thinking defender. Committed at the back and unsurprisingly dominant in the air, it’s his ability on the ball that has attracted the likes of Everton. The Toffees need a long term replacement for Phil Jagielka and Maguire fits the bill. Both began their careers with Sheffield United and Jagielka was also known for his composure in possession as a youngster.
It may seem trivial for a defender but the Hull man has completed the most dribbles of any centre-back in the Premier League (23). Indeed, his ability to alleviate pressure by other means than just hacking the ball clear like his teammates has been crucial to the Tigers’ survival chances and, regardless of whether they beat the drop or not, they are sure to field calls for Maguire.
1️⃣1️⃣ – Christian Eriksen has joined Kevin De Bruyne & Gylfi Sigurdsson at the top of the assists chart pic.twitter.com/VOmrj1NFrD
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 8, 2017
Swansea City: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Swansea have some gifted footballers but none come close to Gylfi Sigurðsson‘s quality. If the Swans are relegated there will be an almighty scrap for the Icelander’s services this summer.
The playmaker will be keen to prove he is capable of playing at the top level having failed to make the impact he would have wanted at Tottenham Hotspur, with Mauricio Pochettino even stating that he would have been ‘perfect’ in his system.
A return to White Hart Lane seems unlikely, though that’s the calibre of team that Sigurðsson is capable of adding to. Liverpool will need greater depth next season with a return to Europe and injuries to Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané during the campaign have exposed their lack of options at times. Sigurðsson, however, will be keen to avoid a bit-part role from his next inevitable move.
The 27-year old leads the league in assists, alongside Christian Eriksen and Kevin De Bruyne with 11, but has scored more goals than either (8) in a side that could easily have been in Sunderland’s position without him. Indeed, Sigurðsson has had well over twice the number of shots of any teammate (99), ranking third for efforts on target in the whole of the Premier League (43).
It is his chance creation that is most pivotal to Swansea though, and perhaps most attractive to what will be a long line of suitors. A total of 68 key passes is among the league’s top ten players and when you consider Swansea’s next highest figure comes from Wayne Rutledge, with 25, it becomes even clearer how far above his team-mates Sigurðsson is in terms of invention.
Middlesbrough: Ben Gibson
Earning an England call-up last month, albeit as a result of an injury to Chris Smalling, it’s clear that the future is bright for Ben Gibson even if Boro’s looks pretty dismal right now.
The 24-year old has been a strong performer in a side that has needed him to adjust to Premier League football immediately and is one of only seven Premier League outfielders to have played every single minute for his side this season.
Gibson is a considered defender, avoiding rushing into tackles and preferring to try and keep a solid shape at the back, which has been decisive in Boro’s season so far. If it weren’t for a very strong defensive record, given their woes at the opposite end of the pitch, the Teesiders would have been relegated by now. They’ve conceded fewer goals (37) than Liverpool and Arsenal and a full 30 fewer than Swansea, owing much to their young captain’s maturity.
Gibson may not have completed many tackles or made too many interceptions this season but by remaining calm and organised he’s conceded just 0.5 fouls on average and been dribbled past just 0.2 times per game. The latter is a feat that only one centre-back to have made 20 or more appearances this season can better, so interest in his services is understandably high.
A move to a top-six club would be too soon for a player with just one season’s top-flight experience under his belt. But the likes of West Ham United and Southampton, who are both in need of defensive reinforcements, should certainly be monitoring his situation. Virgil van Dijk, who is a Liverpool transfer target, is expected to leave the Saints meaning Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens would be the only remaining centre-backs. Gibson has the ability to play out from the back (85.1% pass accuracy) that would suit Saints’ approach.
Well done Pickers! ? #PFAAwards
— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 13, 2017
Sunderland: Jordan Pickford
While top scorer Jermain Defoe is certain to get another chance at the top-flight once Sunderland are relegated, it’s the man at the opposite end of the pitch that is attracting the interest of the league’s top teams – although he has ruled out a move to rivals Newcastle United.
Jordan Pickford was announced on this season’s PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist this week and it was little more than the league’s busiest goalkeeper deserved for his attempts to delay the inevitable.
An average of 4.9 saves per game is comfortably the highest of keepers with ten or more appearances. Fellow England hopeful Tom Heaton (4.1), of Burnley, is his closest rival. What’s more impressive and pertinent is his save success rate having been called upon so often. A figure of 73.5% ranks third in the Premier League this season and a look to the bottom of the list highlights the side in most need of a player of Pickford’s ability and promise.
Claudio Bravo is not first choice at Manchester City but his save success of just 52.5% from the shots on target he has faced hammers home Pep Guardiola’s need for a new number one. Willy Caballero has proven a decent stand-in for the time being but City undoubtedly need a keeper they can rely on in the long-term – just as they did with Joe Hart, who appears to have no future at the club.
At 23 Pickford is the strongest young English keeper to emerge since the former City number one made his move to the Etihad. As such, he’d be a logical replacement.
However, key to any interest on Guardiola’s part will be a goalkeeper’s distribution, and that could prove a stumbling block. The youngster’s ability to play out from the back is all but unknown given Sunderland’s reluctance to do so. But that shouldn’t deter City and the rest of the league’s big hitters from making a move this summer.