Should Premier League bottom three have stuck rather than twisted with no succession plan?
It’s been a busy season for revolving doors in the Premier League but at the bottom many of these managerial changes have made little difference.
So is that it, then? Are things finally starting to settle? There’s still plenty of time for all of this change, but the bottom three in the Premier League really do look like they could be the bottom three come the end of the season. Leeds United and Leicester City slipped into the relegation places after losing at Manchester City and Fulham, while Everton and Nottingham Forest hauled themselves out with wins against Brighton and Southampton. The Saints themselves are now only hanging onto their Premier League place in a purely mathematical sense.
There have been 40 Premier League managers this season, a new record and a sign of the cold, blind panic that has spread across so many clubs over the last nine months. But has this high attrition rate had a positive or negative effect on the clubs? The evidence would seem to suggest that it hasn’t. The current bottom three have burned their way through ten managers or managerial combos this season – yes, I’m including the Mike Stowell and Adam Sadler era at Leicester, which lasted eight days and took in home defeats against both Aston Villa and Bournemouth – and the results have been at best mixed.
Sam Allardyce came surprisingly close – certainly closer than anyone expected – to getting a tune out of his Leeds team at Manchester City, but in reality we learned very little about their prospects. For one thing, City played as though their minds were elsewhere and wasted a number of chances which, if taken, would have put a very different shade upon their win. And secondly, whether the result had been good or atrocious, Manchester City are a Premier League outlier. How much is it possible to learn from playing a team that is expected to put a hatful past you, whether they do so or not?
Leicester City had a mini-revival under new manager Dean Smith with a win and two draws from their matches against Wolves, Leeds and Everton, but then shipped five goals at Fulham when they really couldn’t afford to be doing that against anybody. And Southampton have only added six points to their tally since Ruben Selles was confirmed until the end of the season after their disastrous Nathan Jones experiment, all of which raises the question of whether they might have been better off had they stuck with Ralph Hasenhuttl in the first place.
The other two of this Infamous Five have followed different paths, but to similar ends. Nottingham Forest, whose owner Angelos Marinakis has built a fearsomely itchy trigger-finger in his other role as the owner of the Greek club Olympiakos, kept faith with Steve Cooper, giving him a new five-year contract as a show of faith and issuing two public statements confirming that they had no intention of getting rid of him, although one of these did come with a sufficient number of thinly veiled caveats to make you wonder whether it might have been written by Don Corleone.
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And then there’s Everton, who had to get rid of Frank Lampard. We all saw it. They had to. Relegation fire-fighter Sean Dyche replaced him, and although talk has continued of the club’s impending relegation, his record has actually been pretty decent. Everton have only lost six out of their 15 Premier League matches since he was appointed at the end of January, and all six of those defeats have come against teams in the top half of the table, and with three coming in his first five matches.
There haven’t been many wins under Dyche – just the four – but there have been a lot of draws, and at this stage of the season every single point is critical. And that’s before we even mention their 5-1 win at Brighton, a result and performance so startling that the morning after the match it still feels as though we may have all had some form of collective fever dream.
There’s still plenty of room for Forest and Everton to slip back below the dreaded dotted line. The gap remains just two and three points respectively – it is perhaps a reflection on how tight things have been down there all season that these look like cavernous gaps – and one or two wins elsewhere might yet set hearts on the banks of the Trent and the Mersey a-flutter again.
Similarly, there remain escape routes available for at least two of the bottom three, although the likelihood of Southampton pulling off some sort of great escape when they have 24 points and have three matches remaining seems slim, to say the least. Leeds are at home against Newcastle, away to Wolves and at home to Spurs. Sam Allardyce will be looking at those last two fixtures and thinking that points can definitely be taken from them. And Leicester play Liverpool, Newcastle and West Ham, with Dean Smith fully aware that the Fulham result which saw them crash back to earth followed a decent run of three matches from which they took five points.
The bottom five have all had decisions to make and have followed very different paths. Nottingham Forest arrived in the Premier League in unprecedented circumstances, with an entirely new squad of players. In light of this, the decision to keep faith with Steve Cooper made perfect sense. At a time of enormous upheaval, the club may well have decided that they simply couldn’t afford any more change behind the scenes and that integrating a new manager with a group of players who barely knew each other could be playing with fire. Everton made the change they needed to make and have given themselves a chance that they simply did not have had under Sean Dyche’s predecessor.
There is little evidence to suggest that treating the managerial position as a revolving door makes a significant difference unless it’s handled skilfully. Aston Villa have flourished under new management and Wolves have pulled themselves comfortably clear, but Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui are both extremely experienced and skilled coaches with strong reputations. The same could be said for Roy Hodgson, though most analysis seems to have fixated on how old he is instead. There is a normal churn of new managers throughout the course of a season, and these are replacements which have worked.
But of those bottom three, is there any case to be made that these clubs are doing better now than they would have been under the managers with which they started the season? The answer is a resounding ‘no’, and the answer to all of this seems to be that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Leeds and Leicester both sacked theirs with no apparent plan for who would replace them and were then forced to go for whoever was available and would accept the position. Even Chelsea, although insulated from the likelihood of a real relegation battle this season, have suffered for all their uncoordinated island-hopping since falling out with Thomas Tuchel at the start of September.
At others – including, to everybody’s considerable surprise, Everton – a decision was made, a replacement who fit a certain profile was pursued, and the result was an appointment who fitted into a broader plan. And that’s before we even touch on the small matter of the cost of all these replacements, a cost that can be justified if a club can stay in the Premier League, but which will look like considerably more of a headache should they go down.
It shouldn’t even need to be said, but the key is to be proactive rather than reactive, to have a plan and to stick to it. Have a vision for what you want the club to be, and find the appropriate pieces to put that jigsaw together. Hold your cool, even though the pressure that comes through media and social media following a defeat can feel intolerable. Some clubs have managed that this season, and others haven’t. It may be no coincidence that those clubs now occupying the bottom three places in the Premier League are among those who’ve veered the furthest from anything resembling a succession plan.
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