Premier League clubs get 'bounce' from midseason managerial changes
With Sunderland and Middlesbrough already relegated, the fight at the bottom of the table now seems to be between three clubs -- Hull City, Swansea City and Crystal Palace -- battling to avoid 18th place.
Hull's trip to Palace on Sunday is the biggest relegation clash of the season. If Palace avoid defeat, they're safe; for Hull, it's literally a must-win.
One notable feature of the second half of the season, however, has been that these three sides have all been in reasonably good form. Indeed, create a league table featuring only results from 2017, and Swansea are 9th, Crystal Palace 10th and Hull 11th. It's clear, therefore, that whichever of these sides are relegated will be paying for their sins in 2016, rather than this calendar year.
There's a common theme amongst these three, too: successful managerial changes. Between Dec. 22 and Jan. 3, Crystal Palace replaced Alan Pardew with Sam Allardyce, Swansea sacked Bob Bradley and appointed Paul Clement, while Hull brought in Marco Silva in place of Mike Phelan.
Pundits and former players continually tell us that frequent managerial changes are a fundamentally bad thing -- and it's worth remembering that these three clubs have seen too many managerial changes in recent years, partly explaining their current predicament -- but ultimately, the evidence this season suggests that a mid-season change of manager can provide a shot in the arm for those battling the drop.
Leicester's decision to put Claudio Ranieri out of his misery in February, and appoint Craig Shakespeare as his replacement, did a similar trick and it has seen them go from relegation fodder to their current position in 9th.
The sudden recovery of Palace, Hull and Swansea, though, is in stark contrast to the woeful underperformance of Sunderland, who have solidly stuck with David Moyes throughout a wretched season.
In previous years Sunderland came to rely heavily upon the "new manager bounce" -- Paolo Di Canio was appointed in March 2013 with Sunderland seemingly on the way down, but he avoided the drop. Then started the new season poorly, and was replaced by Gus Poyet in October 2013, before the Uruguayan was replaced in March 2015; Dick Advocaat had an almost identical experience to Di Canio, before Allardyce rescued Sunderland in typically impressive fashion.
It was almost like managerial change and the subsequent improvement it brought was built into Sunderland's mentality, and the fact they were forced to replace Allardyce before the season began threw their approach into chaos. (Given he lasted just one game in the England job, one wonders whether Sunderland considered re-appointing him immediately.)
The exception to the rule is Middlesbrough. They waited until mid-March before dismissing Aitor Karanka and promoting Steve Agnew, but they experienced relatively little improvement and their relegation came as little surprise.
But then, Middlesbrough's situation was very different -- and somewhat unusual. Upon Karanka's departure, they had the Premier League's joint-fifth-best defensive record, a staggering situation considering they were second-bottom at the time. The problem, of course, was that they simply didn't score enough goals, with just 19 in 27 matches.
So should Karanka have been replaced sooner? Well no, probably not. The "new manager bounce" almost always works more effectively in improving a side's defensive record, rather than their attacking output. A new manager tends to come in, fire up his players, and concentrate heavily on a structure and system which makes them hard to beat, essentially going back to basics and focusing upon clean sheets.
It's much rarer to witness a new manager introduce a radically different, and significantly improved, attacking shape to the side. And therefore Middlesbrough were always in a very tough situation, especially as concentrating more on attack would inevitably undermine their defensive record -- which is exactly what happened under Agnew.
Middlesbrough should probably have "done a Burnley." In their previous Premier League experience two seasons ago, Sean Dyche created a well-drilled, organised side that kept plenty of clean sheets but barely scored any goals. They always looked likely to be relegated, and eventually were -- but the board recognised that Burnley's lack of attacking firepower was largely because of the lack of quality individuals. They persevered with Dyche, knew he would be a perfect candidate for taking them up again and, upon their second Premier League promotion, had the financial resources to invest in better attackers, with the defensive solidity now in place. Burnley haven't ever looked like being relegated this season.
A long-term manager remains the ultimate goal for most clubs, but it's tough for those in the bottom-half to find a talented coach capable of creating an overarching philosophy, without him being poached by one of the big boys at the first sign of success.
It seems we've moved permanently to a short-termist approach in terms of managers -- Southampton's Claude Puel and Watford's Walter Mazzarri have both done reasonable jobs this season, yet it seems both may be dismissed in the summer.
Yet as the Premier League celebrates its 25th anniversary, it's worth remembering that in the first Premier League campaign in 1992-93, just one manager all season was dismissed: Chelsea's Ian Porterfield. English football observers used to ridicule the rapid manager turnover in Spain or Italy, but sacking your manager midway through a campaign has now become the default approach in the Premier League too.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.