The third international break is looming large, and the Premier League is still to see a managerial casualty. There is a growing feeling that is about to change.
A lot has changed since the inaugural season, when it wasn’t until February 1993 that Ian Porterfield was dismissed as Chelsea boss.
The months between October and December have become the most common period when sackings have been made. Five of the 10 managerial departures mid-season in 2017/18 took place between these months, with all five taking place at clubs in 17th place or lower at the time. But it hasn’t always resulted in success.
In fact, West Brom, Swansea and Stoke all changed managers between November 20 and January 6 but all three clubs ended up being relegated.
Conversely, by the time Pulis lost his job at The Hawthorns (November 20), Roy Hodgson had stepped in for Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace (September 12) while Leicester had already replaced Craig Shakespeare with Claude Puel (October 25).
David Moyes had taken over from Slaven Bilic at West Ham (November 7), and Everton were close to finally finding a replacement for Ronald Koeman, sacked on October 23.
The reason for the length of time it has taken for a first managerial dismissal this time around is largely due to the Premier League table quickly resembling the natural order. No club can claim to be grossly underperforming given the circumstances.
But the first managerial sacking will reverberate around the boardrooms at all clubs involved in the relegation battle, a case of who blinks first, but never has having a contingency plan been so important.
The case of Swansea during the 2016/17 season, when Francesco Guidolin was replaced by Bob Bradley only for Paul Clement to take over by January is the prime example that strikes fear into many owners.
Hull replaced a newly-appointed manager in the same season, with Mike Phelan lasting until the New Year before Marco Silva’s arrival. The Portuguese was unable to keep the Tigers up, but he earned himself a move to Watford.
By virtue of the panic which comes with missing out on the millions in TV revenue, we now see a strategy, with managers offered contracts on a short-term basis, in arrangements that suit both parties.
Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace and Everton, David Moyes at West Ham, Carlos Carvalhal at Swansea, Paul Lambert at Stoke and Mark Hughes with Southampton. The threat of relegation is leaving boards with two options.
With Moyes and Allardyce available and with track records of keeping clubs up, they represent the premium option, commanding high wages, and control on transfers even on short-term deals.
Both have rebuilt their reputations, but the other option is those who have a point to prove – the unglamorous, the tarnished or the unknown. Lambert fell into the first of these categories while Alan Pardew certainly falls into the second after failing at West Brom.
Clubs perennially in precarious positions don’t afford managers time to develop their philosophy, and the knock-on effect is that players are beginning to expect a change of direction when results nosedive with the autumn leaves.
What has been the upshot of a change in approach at boardroom level?
We are now seeing record numbers when it comes to just how wretchedly bad some sides start seasons before the ultimate consequence is dished out. Newcastle moved out of the relegation zone after a first win at the 11th attempt.
Huddersfield ended a seven-month wait for a win against Fulham, scoring a first goal at home in 658 minutes – in typical fashion, it was later credited as an own goal.
Both they and Newcastle won courtesy of goals from set pieces. Cardiff lost again at home while Crystal Palace lost a seventh game already this season at Chelsea, yet they sit 14th in relative mid-table obscurity.
Southampton ended a 505-minute wait for a goal when Danny Ings struck a first-half penalty at Manchester City. To reach the modest sum of 50 goals scored this season, according to Opta’s Duncan Alexander, Hughes’ side would have to take 1,129 shots, so poor is their finishing. They had 450 shots in total last campaign.
Boards are responding to the way players feed off the notion that it takes a lot more money to overhaul an entire squad than change the manager. The lack of intensity from Fulham players who know they face a relegation wage drop was startling.
Now, we see a different, short-term strategy where firefighters masquerade as managers, knowing that they are likely to be those being put out either at the end of the season or not long into the next.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham weren’t expected to struggle after a record-breaking transfer window, but Monday night’s 1-0 loss to Huddersfield left them at rock bottom.
The chaos and uncertainty which reigns at Craven Cottage can also be felt at St Mary’s, where Southampton manager Hughes is reportedly one game away from the sack.
Hughes became Saints’ fifth permanent manager in the past five years only in May but defeat at home to Watford this Saturday could prove the final straw.
He announced his “affinity” with the club was the main driving force behind his decision to agree to take charge of the strugglers last March on a temporary basis, but the club were then warned about extending their association with him longer term.
While it is still early, it would appear the sack race among sides directly involved in a relegation battle can be condensed to five, possibly six, runners and riders.
Huddersfield’s David Wagner works under an owner in Dean Hoyle who has gone on record to state he will not be sacking the German this season, regardless of whether or not they survive relegation.
Therefore, we could have ruled out that possibility even before a performance against Fulham that was full of blood and thunder, and a clear demonstration that everyone at the John Smith’s Stadium are pulling in the same direction.
The on-goings at Burnley, who have conceded 13 goals in their last three games, has been viewed as a regression to the norm following last season’s freakish seventh-place finish, where no fewer than 12 games were won by the odd goal.
Their defensive solidity has evaporated, with the very same partnership of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee who kept 12 clean sheets last term having had their rear-guard breached on four or more occasions already in four of the 11 games to date.
“This is the norm where we expect Burnley to be,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. “What they did last season was off the scale, so it was never going to be the same.”
Sean Dyche has rarely come under pressure during his six years at the club, even when Burnley went straight back down in the 2014/15 season. Their immediate return vindicated the board’s decision to keep the faith.
But can Dyche be ruled out of the sack race? Right now, I’m not so sure. After the highs of last season, Carragher assessed how certain players now feel they can move on from the principles that have served them so well, choosing the wrong options on the ball.
Their Europa League exertions can no longer be used as an excuse, while the blame can hardly be placed at Joe Hart, who has made 50 saves this season – five more than any other goalkeeper.
The minority still who feel Dyche has taken the club as far as he can would argue that the same core group of players for the last three seasons now need a new voice with a change in philosophy to freshen up Turf Moor.
The feeling at Burnley is that if things persist as they are, chairman Mike Garlick will continue to back Dyche long into the season, meaning the obvious candidates to bring new ideas and an injection of confidence may have already taken up positions elsewhere.
Burnley could yet become a victim of their success if a ruthless approach isn’t taken. When the late Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha sacked Claudio Ranieri in February 2017 – nine months after winning the Premier League title – it was met with strong criticism.
But the Foxes were one point above the relegation zone with 13 matches remaining, and there was a distinct possibility of their fairytale success having an unwanted ending. On a smaller scale, Dyche is currently eating into the credit he has amassed for last season.
By next February, if Burnley remain perilously close to the bottom three, you wonder if a mutual parting of ways will also be in everyone’s interest.
Aside from the exceptions that can therefore be made for both Burnley and Huddersfield, no manager from Crystal Palace down is safe – although in the case of Newcastle, it remains more a case of the club not being safe from their manager walking away.
Only six teams have conceded fewer goals than Rafa Benitez’s Magpies – the top four, Wolves and Watford – which is likely to form the basis for achieving a third straight season in the top flight.
Teams are having to improve just to stand still, but Newcastle are treading water under owner Mike Ashley, merely existing from one season to the next.
Will Watford’s model become the norm?
The mediocrity of many teams below the top six means Watford’s model of hiring and firing has never looked so healthy under Javi Gracia.
The Hornets failed to even score in any of their eight away games under his stewardship last season, but the Spaniard is now overseeing a squad playing with any such shackles unclipped by four straight wins at the start of this campaign.
Cardiff are a hard sell for any perspective manager, even without Neil Warnock’s regular robust dismissal of his side’s chances of survival.
You feel if owner Vincent Tan genuinely believed the club could stay up, he would’ve sacked Warnock already – possibly before a ball was even kicked.
The likelihood is that the south Wales club will look to example of Burnley four seasons ago in the hope that a year in the top flight will in the long-term help them come back stronger, but not so many owners can live with the uncertainty of slipping back into the fiercely competitive Championship.
The question of when to sack has in many cases become more crucial than who to appoint. Each season, there are many examples of clubs surviving one managerial change, but never has a Premier league club survived two.
What are the obvious trigger-points for sacking a manager?
- Haphazard team selection
- Struggles despite investment in squad
- Waning attendances
- Club representing an attractive proposition
- Upcoming fixture list
The five reasons above alone place Jokanovic on borrowed time at Fulham, despite a public vote of confidence from chairman Shahid Khan and his record of having guided the club to promotion only six months ago.
A sense of momentum was built then, aided by a consistency in team selection. The Serbian picked the same back four and goalkeeper for the final 15 games of last season as promotion was secured via the play-offs.
Twelve summer signings to the tune of £100m-plus spent has led to too much competition, with Jokanovic responding from one setback to the next by merely trying to find another solution in terms of personnel.
Maxime Le Marchand’s return to the defence at Huddersfield was the 19th alteration to the back four by Jokanovic in just 11 games – and his time is all the more precarious given Fulham’s status as a London club.
As it stands, he ticks many boxes in the race to become the first manager to be sacked, but there is also the question of giving any potential successor a decent set of fixtures with which to start.
Fulham face Liverpool this Saturday, by which point Jokanovic’s fate may have already been sealed, but the fortnight that follows before their next fixture screams a time for change.
After the international break, the west Londoners are at home to fellow strugglers Southampton – a perfect ‘first fixture’ for both should a new man be drafted in.
“I remain confident,” Jokanovic said after the defeat in Yorkshire. “Part of the job is in the hands of my players, part of the job is in my hands, but part of it is in the board’s hands too.”
Khan sacked Rene Meulensteen just 11 days after the Dutchman received the “100 per cent backing” of Khan in 2014. The omens aren’t good for Jokanovic, whose likely departure could trigger a domino effect.