Move over Manchester City versus Arsenal. This weekend’s relegation battle between Everton and Leeds United is as big as any Premier League fixture gets.
Title showdowns are all about glory. The stakes are higher for the future of two huge clubs who cannot afford to drop into the championship.
Relegation from the top division was once viewed as a sporting calamity. Now it is regarded as a financial disaster, clubs unable to cope with the possibility of being denied the Premier League’s wealth. England’s top flight is Europe’s Super League.
The immediate consequence for any side fighting near the bottom is fear and panic, five of the bottom six having already sacked managers this season. Twice, in Southampton’s case.
Every top flight club likes to present itself as working to a plan, their analysts and strategists taking calculated decisions before hiring and firing staff. But when reality bites and they edge closer to the drop zone, the biggest calls are dictated by emotions, be it of supporters and media demanding change, or the owners’ anxiety when looking at the league table.
The number of dismissals is such that it has reached the point where every club should have a shortlist of replacement managers ready at the start of every season.
Such contingency plans are logical and necessary given the diminishing time span of managers’ careers at one club.
Eight of the 20 Premier League clubs have made a change this season. Eight did so last season, too. Given this trend, it would be negligent and naive of any football club to believe their manager will last the full campaign. The football industry and economic impact of 'failure' has created this managerial turnaround. Clubs must react accordingly.
Having a back-up is not disrespectful. It's good business
One of the most hypocritical accusations in the game is that it is inappropriate for a board to undertake a recruitment process behind their existing manager’s back.
Having a back-up option is not disrespectful. It is good business. To suggest otherwise is ignorant. Are we to believe a manager’s agent is not constantly on the lookout for a bigger and better club for their client during the good times?
The surest sign of a well-run club is when they decide to act to replace the coach and announce the replacement before the next game. It has to be that way. Sporting directors are employed to have an eye on the long-term in readiness for such emergencies here and now.
As a football fan, I would expect those in positions of power at my club to have a managerial shortlist ready at a second’s notice, not to be scrambling around as soon as a vacancy emerges.
Anyone disagreeing should ask if strikers ought to feel undermined when the chief scout is negotiating with an agent about buying another goalscorer? Or any player when they know the club is watching players in their position?
It is strange so few clubs look ahead, Leeds and Southampton the latest examples after sacking Jesse Marsch and Nathan Jones and leaving themselves open to the accusation they have made a knee-jerk response to poor results.
In Southampton’s case there is some excuse given they could not have anticipated it would go wrong so quickly for Jones, although in retrospect he was a poor appointment.
Leeds, however, have known for months that Marsch’s position was in jeopardy given the team’s generally poor form.
For them to be going into a fixture as potentially defining as that at Goodison without a permanent replacement shows they are still unsure of the right path, even if caretaker Michael Skubala eventually gets the job full-time. The uncertainty should make their supporters more nervous, whatever the merits of Marsch’s sacking.
One theory about Leeds is they have made their recruitment process trickier as they are looking for a coach who will be able to work with players accustomed to the same formation and style as Marcelo Bielsa and Marsch. One of the attractions of Marsch was that his high-pressing game had similarities to his predecessor.
Doesn’t the fact that both managers have been sacked in the last year suggest they should be open to taking another path?
Leeds’ run of nine games without a win is currently the worst in the Premier League. They have the third worst defence, and only one other side (Leicester) loses more points when in a winning position. On the flipside, whenever you watch Leeds they look capable of scoring and creating goals – Wilfried Gnonto has been very impressive. They have scored 12 more goals than Everton, and, like Goodison Park, the atmosphere created at Elland Road is a significant weapon.
If Leeds can find a coach who will prevent them from giving away so many goals, they will have a good chance of survival. In some respects, Dyche would have been a strong candidate to replace Marsch, but I suspect there would have been a debate about whether he was the ‘right fit’. The same could be said of Southampton.
Another myth which has grown in popularity is that a managerial shortlist makes no sense if it includes those with vastly different tactical approaches. This was used to criticise Everton when they interviewed Bielsa and Dyche.
Premier League footballers ought to be able to play whatever formation the manager asks. It could be that some squads and situations are already more suited to others. Everton should be grateful Bielsa said no, for example, as Dyche’s methods are more appropriate for a team of limited ability in a relegation fight.
If the Leeds board believes their squad can only survive with a manager who will impose a similarly attacking approach to the popular Argentinian, they are unnecessarily narrowing their search.
Psychologically, Saturday will have a huge bearing on which team escapes the bottom three. The fight is between a side that can score but gives away too many, and another which will be more solid defensively but struggles to hit the target.
The Arsenal versus City game was rightfully billed as the most influential yet in the title race. Even though Arsenal still have a game in hand, there is a general feeling that City have all the momentum.
It will be the same for whoever emerges victorious at Goodison. For Everton to get out of the relegation zone after the fixture list Dyche was given on his arrival will be huge.
Whatever my criticism of how Everton are run, they ensured their new manager was in place within days of Frank Lampard leaving. That gave Dyche time to prepare a team for Arsenal, securing a valuable three points. If Leeds lose this weekend, they will regret not being similarly swift to find Marsch’s successor.