Premier League

Relegation XI capable of challenging the top six

 • by Andrew Gibney
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The Premier League relegation scrap has been extremely competitive this season. While West Bromwich Albion are almost certain to go down, the two that join them in next season’s Championship are far from assured.

Any team from Brighton & Hove Albion in 13th place to Stoke City in 19th could feasibly find themselves in the bottom three come the end of the campaign. But this is not to say these sides are short on quality.

In a tough division, each one of these teams boasts some serious individual talent. Here, we at Football Whispers have picked an XI from their squads that could hypothetically challenge at the top of the Premier League.

Manager: Chris Hughton

Hughton has done an outstanding job with Brighton & Hove Albion this term and deserves to be on manager of the season shortlists. He has crafted a genuinely tough-to-beat outfit and looks set to keep them in the Premier League. Because of that, he has been chosen to lead this team of relegation candidates, meaning his favoured 4-2-3-1 system will be in place.

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski

Fabianski has been imperious for a struggling Swansea City side, averaging 2.77 saves per 90 minutes played. He has also succeeded with 99 per cent of his attempted claims, while his 59 per cent distribution accuracy is among the best you will see towards the bottom of the division.

Alongside excellent reflexes, the Pole is an experienced customer who is comfortable playing the ball out from the back. This capability would be crucial to any team – like this hypothetical one – hoping to make a serious push at the Premier League’s top six.

Right-Back: Cédric Soares

Cédric is among many Southampton players to have suffered an underwhelming 2017/18 campaign, with almost all of his key defensive and offensive numbers down on last term. However, he remains unquestionably the best right-back among the league’s relegation battlers.

The Portuguese has averaged 0.79 key passes per 90 minutes, which is a respectable quantity for a full-back. His ability going forward is one of the primary reasons he makes this team, and it could also secure him a spot in his country’s World Cup squad in the summer.

Centre-Back: Alfie Mawson

For quite some time, Mawson has been viewed as one of the best young English centre-backs around. This view was given further credence when he was called into Gareth Southgate’s national team squad for the recent friendlies against Holland and Italy.

This season has been the 24-year-old’s finest since he joined Swansea. Not only is he an astute ball-player, but he is surprisingly commanding in the air, winning an exceptional 66 per cent of his aerial duels.

Centre-Back: Lewis Dunk

Brighton’s centre-back partnership of Dunk and Shane Duffy has been fundamental to their survival-chasing campaign so far. Both have shown themselves to be rock solid defensively and in the air, but it is the former who has caught the eye more on the ball.

With a superb passing range over long distance, the 26-year-old has made 0.32 key passes per 90 minutes – a remarkable record for a centre-back in a team that averages just 46 per cent of ball possession. If he continues to play this well, he could soon join Swansea’s Mawson in the England squad.

Left-Back Arthur Masuaku

Masuaku is almost more of a winger than a full-back, which explains why he has completed an incredible 4.16 dribbles per 90 minutes. No other full-back considered for this XI gets anywhere near that sort of productivity going forward; indeed, in the entirety of the English top tier, only Eden Hazard and Wilfried Zaha average more.

West Ham United’s switch to a back three with wing-backs has enabled the 24-year-old to show his true attacking colours and, if he can avoid more silly red cards like the one he received for spitting at Wigan Athletic’s Nick Powell, he can become a formidable Premier League force.

Central Midfield: Oriol Romeu

Within a central midfield duo, it’s usually a requirement that at least one of the two can defend. And, when it comes to the relegation candidates, no team possesses a defensive midfielder quite as efficient as Romeu.

The Spaniard’s class continues to shine through despite playing for a beleaguered Southampton side. He has averaged 1.83 interceptions and completed 83 per cent of his passes – all sound numbers given the circumstances. Meanwhile, only four players in the league have averaged more tackles than the former Barcelona youth.

Aaron Mooy celebates vs Newcastle

Central Midfield: Aaron Mooy

Mooy was one of the key figures in Huddersfield Town’s promotion to the Premier League, and he is likely to play an equally integral role in their survival attempt. The Terriers are far from home and dry with six games left to play, but the Australian couldn’t have offered much more.

With four goals and three assists to his name, he has had a direct hand in just under one third of his team’s league goals. He has also averaged 1.5 key passes per 90 minutes. From a central midfield position, those statistics are worthy of recognition.

Right Wing: Pascal Groß

Only six Premier League players have created more chances than Gross this season. Sit comfortably, because those players are as follows: Mesut Özil, Kevin De Bruyne, Cesc Fábregas, Alexis Sánchez, Eden Hazard, and Christian Eriksen.

The 26-year-old playmaker has been Brighton’s under-the-radar influencer, supplying and endless stream of scoring opportunities thanks to his needle passes and accurate crosses. A call up to the Germany national team is within the realms of possibility.

Attacking Midfield: Manuel Lanzini

When he’s on top of his game, it’s difficult to comprehend quite how Lanzini isn’t playing for a top six Premier League side.

The lithe Argentine has, over the last few years, established himself as a graceful and imaginative presence in attacking midfield for West Ham, earning covetous glances from the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool in the process.

This season he has been close to his best, at least when he has been on the pitch. Fitness issues aside, he has been one of the most consistent dribblers in the league, averaging 2.5 per game.

Only seven players average more. Should he star for Argentina at this summer’s World Cup, expect more clubs to chase his signature.

The Premier League relegation threatened XI

Left Wing: Wilfried Zaha

Only Chelsea’s Hazard has averaged more dribbles than Zaha’s four per game in the Premier League this season, a record that underlines just how effective the Ivorian-born winger is when driving at opposition defences.

His combination of flair, ingenuity and pace make him Crystal Palace’s only consistently potent attacking threat. As Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold found out recently, the prospect of stopping the winger one-on-one in full flight is nigh on impossible.

Striker: Marko Arnautović

West Ham’s decision to splash out £20million on Arnautović last summer left many scratching their heads. Sure, he was gifted, but he was also seriously individualistic and, at 28 years of age, had little upside. His early displays seemed to justify the doubt, but he has looked a changed man since moving up front.

David Moyes’ decision to shift the player into a central role at the top of his 3-4-3 system was a potential season-changer. The Austrian has hit seven goals and set up a further two in nine outings in his new position, including a brace against Southampton and his old Stoke manager Mark Hughes.

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