Staff Writer Tom Woods discusses the Premier League's most important sub-plot: the sack race, and why this season's version is set to be greater than ever.
It was a shame to see Frank Lampard lose his job this week. No one likes seeing a genuinely likeable and hard-working guy shoved out of their dream job by a dodgy Russian oligarch, but Frank probably shouldn’t have had the job in the first place. The decision to hire him seemed to be based more on sentimentality than a rigorous analysis of a very solid but by no means exceptional season at Derby County. His inexperience showed clearly at Chelsea, as illustrated by recent admissions from players about his sub-par man management and lack of tactical instruction that went beyond telling his men to “express themselves”.
The general reaction to the news has been predictable: the same dreary lines about football being a results business and claims that Chelsea’s star-studded squad “just needs some time”. What I’ve found shocking however, is the lack of discussion about how this is only the second managerial sacking in the Premier League this season. Stats on this online are strangely only accessible through Wikipedia and questionable backwaters but they make for (what at least I found to be) fascinating reading. By this time (28th January) last year, there had already been seven sackings in 2019-20. The year before that eight, the year before that eleven, and the year before that a whopping thirteen. One has to go back to the rather anomalous 2005-6 season to find the most recent time when only two managers had faced the chop by the last days of January. Since then, top-flight managerial changes have hit double digits every single season, meaning fans are faced with the news that a boss has been axed roughly every month. This managerial merry-go-round and its apparent recent demise poses some serious questions for fans, players and technical staff alike. Should the UK’s top clubs be funded and run by shady billionaires with questionable motives and even more questionable bank accounts? Are potential managerial geniuses being scared away from the profession into less daunting avenues? Is it possible this trend of fewer managers getting the boot can last? All much-discussed and intriguing matters that cut to the core of the modern game no doubt. For me however, there is a bigger issue at hand here: the sack race is very entertaining and I don’t want it to diminish into the background.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth about a lot of Premier League football: it’s usually a bit boring. It’s my belief that one should avoid watching too much of our first division. The beautiful game can start to lose some of its magic when watched over and over in such a regularised format as the Premier League. Sure, watching your favourite team after a long day is always a treat, but when you’re a neutral, games end up dull affairs suffocated by negative tactics. It’s got even worse this season. Pandemic fixture lists have left most clubs facing up to around seven matches in the space of under four weeks this month and it’s taking a serious toll. Top sides are struggling without their talismanic stars, while the rest of the clubs are suffering from fatigue, resulting in blunt, lethargic displays. In these tough times we need some excitement, and football can bring us that excitement. Is that not why the government chose to allow it to resume, even through a national lockdown?
Where is this entertainment value going to come from? It’s simple: we need talking points, and there is no better talking point than the sack race. The first casualty of this season, Sam Allardyce taking the reigns from Slaven Bilic at West Brom, is a classic case. West Brom weren’t an interesting team before Big Sam took over. They seemed doomed to relegation having picked up a very unremarkable seven points from thirteen games. The only matter of intrigue in their games was wondering how many goals they would concede. Then, almost out of nowhere, Allardyce swoops in for the job and scrapes a few decent results including a resilient 3-2 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Big Sam reignited the conversation about West Brom and relegation and brought an extra flavour to the league through talking points. Can an atrocious-looking West Brom get out of jail and continue to frustrate the big boys? Has Big Sam lost his touch? It’s always fascinating to see what happens when a new manager comes in. Even if it’s only short-term, they tend to squeeze a good amount more energy out of the players and reinvigorate stars who fell out of favour with the old regime. In this vein, I’m once again excited to watch Chelsea with the arrival of Tuchel. I want to see if Havertz and Werner can begin to justify their humongous price tags. I want to see if Tuchel can inspire a charge for a top four finish. So many fascinating elements of the game to discuss, all spurred by the departure of the men in the top jobs.
Do not fear, however, as it seems that the decline of the sack race isn’t going to last. Premier League clubs are still largely under the same supposedly brutal ownership and with so many smaller clubs upsetting the now-antiquated concept of a fixed top six, it’s unlikely trigger-happy owners will tolerate many more slip-ups. There’s probably going to be quite a few more managerial casualties in the next months and these will bring on more glorious talking points. I do not rejoice in Lampard’s failure and I will not rejoice in the demise of other bosses this season. However, with Frank’s severance package of “just” £2 million described as relatively measly by Premier League standards, I think they’ll probably be okay without my sympathies.