Newcastle, Aston Villa feel the pain of treading water in the Premier League
For Newcastle United, it may yet be too late. With 10 games of the season remaining and the rest of the Premier League pulling away, the club's power brokers finally emerged from their torpor and finally did something. They sacked Steve McClaren, as they must have known they would have to months ago, and appointed Rafael Benitez in his stead.
Benitez's job, essentially, is to elicit Champions League form from a team that has looked for months like it belongs in the Championship. After their narrow, hard-fought and much-improved defeat at Leicester, Newcastle have nine matches left to save their skins. As a minimum, they must win four, possibly five of them, to have any hope of sending Norwich and Sunderland down in their place. If not, oblivion beckons.
Should the worst happen and Benitez is unable to turn base metal into gold, it will do no good concentrating on what the Spaniard might have done differently. It won't help to point the finger of blame at the players, to say they might have scored more goals or kept more out, that they could have played better or tried harder. There might be an illusory catharsis on offer from bemoaning and berating McClaren, but even that would be attacking one of the symptoms, not the cause.
No, if it is too late for Newcastle, it is because of something else entirely, something that stands as a salutary lesson for every other club in the Premier League. If it is too late for Newcastle, it is because they, like Aston Villa and Sunderland, have been guilty of a lack of ambition. They are living, falling proof of what happens when a club is infected by stasis.
It took a week for Newcastle's chief executive, Lee Charnley, to persuade Benitez to take the job -- and the risk -- at St James's Park. In the main, the conversations they held didn't centre on money: how much he would be paid; how much he might expect as a survival bonus; and how much he might have to spend if the worst is averted. Instead, the focus was on something a little less tangible. It was centred on ambition.
Benitez -- rightly or wrongly, depending on how you think of him -- sees himself as a Champions League coach. He does not want to work for a club who are content with what they are. He wants to work for a team trying to win things, trying to compete, trying to improve. Just trying, in fact, to do anything.
For almost a decade, Newcastle have tried to do nothing except stand still. That is all Mike Ashley's regime has really wanted: to be a Premier League club, safely ensconced in mid-table, not running the risk of the Europa League or taking a cup competition too seriously in case it diverts them from their main objectives of safety, security and access to the millions of pounds they are due in television rights. They have bought players so they can sell them on for a profit, and so that they might buy more and sell them on too.
All of that furious activity has been dedicated only to treading water. The problem with that, of course, is that the Premier League is a shark, forever moving forward. It is full of teams trying to improve themselves and ameliorate their station. Southampton have their young players; Stoke boast a squadron of European Cup winners; Swansea have their philosophy; and you have West Ham and Everton and West Bromwich Albion and whatever sorcery is at work at Leicester.
While Newcastle were devoting all of their energies to standing still, all of those teams were catching and overtaking them. It is just a few years since Newcastle would have considered themselves what, perhaps, Southampton are now: the team just outside the elite, best placed to capitalise on any errors. Not anymore. They are England's Sunday drivers, trapped in the inside lane, happy just to be on the same road as all of the cars around them put their feet to the floor.
It is the same story at Aston Villa, where Randy Lerner decided he did not have to invest to keep the television rights rolling in. It is the same story at Sunderland, who could not quite bring themselves to believe there was not a shortcut. And it is a story that might yet end with all three of them getting their comeuppance. They tried to stand still, and they ended up falling behind.
Newcastle now seem to have realised the error of their ways. It is safe to assume Benitez would not have taken the job if he had not been persuaded by Charnley that the club will match his ambitions, provided they can stave off relegation over the next two months. They have promised they will spend as much as they did under McClaren -- £80 million, give or take -- to allow him to reshape the squad and make sure this does not, or at least should not, happen again.
Their story, though, contains a truth that every other side in the country should heed. Standing still is the same as falling behind, and it doesn't just apply at the foot of the table but at the other, more glamorous end too.
Arsenal have spent a decade happy with where, and what, they are. They might not have fallen, not yet at least, but they have failed to profit from the travails of others; as their traditional peers have stumbled, others have accelerated past them. Arsenal are a fixed point in a world of blurred movement, a constant among the change.
And then there is Manchester United, so devoted to endless growth off the pitch, yet so content to merely allude to excellence on it. They too have stopped searching for ways to improve, assuming instead that their reputation and their history will carry them through. They have fallen victim to the tendency to believe that what you are is what you always will be, just as Liverpool did 25 years ago. They started treading water too. For all the frenzied activity since, they have yet to find the speed of old.
None of those sides are about to suffer a fate quite as serious as that which certainly awaits Villa or which may yet befall Newcastle. But United and Liverpool have already suffered relegations of their own -- from contenders for the Champions League to contenders for the Champions League places -- and, if Tottenham and West Ham and Leicester continue their progress, there is no reason Arsenal cannot go the same way.
The symptoms are different, but the cause is the same. Whoever you are, wherever you are, stasis is a killer.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.