LONDON (AP) – Boardroom goodwill toward English Premier League managers during the pandemic appears to have run out.
Only four lost their jobs in the league last season, a small number by modern day standards.
Perhaps it was down to a lack of ostensible fan criticism while games were played in empty stadiums. Or maybe the economic implications of firing a manager while club finances were being severely hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
Those days seem to be long gone.
A spate of sackings — five in little over a month — means three teams will be playing their first games under a new coach when the Premier League resumes this weekend after the latest international break.
Steven Gerrard, a great of the league as a player with Liverpool, is back in it as manager of Aston Villa. Eddie Howe returns after 18 months out of management, having been selected as the man to lead the Saudi-backed era at Newcastle. And then there’s Dean Smith, who was fired by Villa only to take a job six days later at last-placed Norwich.
Antonio Conte will be taking charge of only his second Premier League match at Tottenham. Another Italian, Claudio Ranieri, is only four games into his tenure at Watford.
Meanwhile, the manager who has had the most heat on him in recent weeks — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — is still in his job at Manchester United, though a defeat at Watford on Saturday could leave the club’s hierarchy with little choice but to act.
Former United and England striker Michael Owen sees a downside in that, though.
“Only problem is, all the best ones (managers) are currently in jobs so good luck finding replacements,” Owen wrote on Twitter. “I can see another couple going this side of Christmas too……”
One thing Solskjaer and the five recently hired managers have in common is their teams’ defensive records, which are among the worst in the league.
Norwich, Newcastle, Villa and Watford — in that order — have conceded the most goals this season, unsurprisingly leaving them in the bottom five in the standings alongside 18th-placed Burnley, whose manager, Sean Dyche, appears in no danger of getting fired given he signed in September a new contract until 2025.
Not that that will stop Howe going on the attack at Newcastle, continuing the philosophy he favored when at Bournemouth and the style of play adopted by Kevin Keegan’s so-called “entertainers” at St. James Park in the 1990s.
“I’d love to emulate some of their incredible attacking football,” Howe said, words which would have immediately endeared him to Newcastle’s fans. “That was a beautiful team to watch. I’d love to give the crowd some similarly special memories.
“My Bournemouth teams always tried to be on the front foot. And I’m not going to come here and be a different manager. It’ll take gradual steps but my training will certainly be very different and, ultimately, I want to see the type of football that entertains. I think that’s what Newcastle fans want, too.”
They’ll want winning football, too. After all, Newcastle is the only team without a victory after 11 rounds, leaving it tied with Norwich on five points — five from safety.
Howe’s first game in charge will be at home to Brentford, while Gerrard also gets to start his tenure with a home match as Brighton visits Villa Park.
His links to Liverpool will forever follow him around and he has been widely tipped as a future manager of the club for whom he played 710 matches. But Gerrard was keen to stress on Thursday, at his presentation as Villa manager, that his focus was purely on his new team.
“Everyone knows around the world what Liverpool means to me,” he said, “but the focus and my commitment is very much on Aston Villa. I’ve said I’m all in, and I promise the supporters that’s the case.”
Smith struggled to get Villa — the club he has supported all of his life — going this season after a reorganization of the team following the sale of its captain and star player, Jack Grealish. That is Gerrard’s immediate task.
As for Smith, he finds himself at a club faring even worse than Villa, albeit one coming off its first win of the season just before the international break when Norwich beat Brentford 2-1.
“Yes, it hasn’t been the greatest of starts, hence why I’m sat here,” Smith said this week, fresh off a trip to New York in between switching jobs, “but if you look at the teams who we had to play early on, it was tough.
“The win against Brentford was a big thing for the players. It should give them confidence to go on now.”
And unlike Howe, Smith’s priority is fixing his new team’s defense, starting against Southampton on Saturday.
“We want to make defensive organization and structure stronger,” he said. “I think there’s enough quality. … We won’t go away from the type of football that the club has been known for, but fans should expect to see an organized, hard-working team who won’t leave anything out on the pitch.”