Although the football itself has arguably never been so wild and frantic – a consequence of the Premier League’s all-in obsession with hard-pressing and press-resisting – there is an unusual calm about the narratives unfolding at the one-third point of the 2023/24 campaign.
Wherever your club sits in the table it feels justified, knowable, and, in its own way, grounded. That does not preclude a dizzying early Tottenham Hotspur rise or the current four-way title challenge extending through the winter, but for all the goals and the weirdness – most it from Chelsea these days – the Premier League table makes sense.
That is surely why we enter the third international break without a single managerial change so far, compared to five at this juncture last season (albeit with a few more games on the board as the Premier League scrambled to get through them before Qatar 2022). Everyone is where they are expected to be. What’s the point in changing?
This might appear to contradict the irrefutable fact of the Premier League as an eye-popping, narrative-churning machine, but the paradox is easy enough to explain. None of it feels like stasis because until the final table is drawn the margins between the clubs in each section will remain small enough for everyone to dream.
Nevertheless there are more congealed clumps, less room for surge or crisis, than at any point in recent memory. That is especially true when it comes to the relegation battle.
After 12 rounds last season seven points separated bottom (Nottingham Forest) from ninth (Liverpool). This year it’s 13 points (between Burnley and West Ham). Last year top-half Liverpool were five points off the bottom three. This season Fulham, down in 16th, have an even bigger gap than that – six points – between themselves and 18th-place Luton Town.
The biggest contributor to the stalemate in the dugouts is the ostracising of the promoted clubs, all of whom already carry an air of resignation that helps their respective managers cling onto their jobs – and naturally protects those simmering bottom-halfers from talks of crisis and culling.
But it goes deeper than that. The traditional ‘Big Six’ have been joined by Newcastle, Aston Villa, Brighton, and West Ham in a clearly-impenetrable top ten, which more or less ends the ambitions of those below and makes managerial changes pointless. The mid-tier Premier League clubs have never seemed more locked, safeguarded from danger but without any chance of breaking a ten-team pack that are benefitting from rich owners and European competition.
That doesn’t mean it will be long before the first manager falls. Erik ten Hag is the most likely because, despite winning four of the last five, Manchester United have benefited from a very kind run of fixtures and have only just scraped through them while still playing football devoid of tactical identity.
Another dip is just around the corner, and with Jim Ratcliffe expected to be in charge of football operations within a couple of weeks it won’t take much for the toxicity to return and the new part-owner to pull the trigger, especially with Hansi Flick, Zinedine Zidane, and Graham Potter among those out of work.
Odds correct at 1200 GMT (14/11/23)
Last manager to go was Julen Lopetegui, who left Wolves on 08/08/23
Indeed the Ratcliffe investment, being relatively minor financially, is expected to encompass a significant culture shift, and clearly the easiest way to signal the redirection is a change of manager.
But beyond United, there isn’t much on the horizon, because even when it comes to the current bottom three it is hard to see how sacking the manager would really make sense.
Rob Edwards has done brilliantly at Luton, who were everyone’s tip to finish bottom, and until they are cut off completely his job should be safe. Then again Nathan Jones, who took Luton from League Two to the Championship in two spells at the club, is a free agent and his name will be floated if things become substantially worse.
A similar thing is already under way at Sheffield United where rumours of a return for Chris Wilder had been building steam, and yet Paul Heckingbottom has just won four points from the last two matches, including an impressive 1-1 draw at Brighton. Again, static: there is no reason to assume things will shift significantly over the next month at least.
Burnley are the most likely, if only because their recent success at Premier League level makes residing in the relegation zone less palatable to the board. Their decision over the future of Vincent Kompany is the ultimate test – the first real test, in fact – of their commitment to transitioning Burnley from Dycheian football to something more aesthetic.
Sack Kompany and reinstate the tried-and-tested methods (Sam Allardyce might be keen), or trust the process and allow Kompany to take Burnley down and back up again, as Sean Dyche was allowed to do as Burnley manager between 2013 and 2016. The former is more likely considering how comfortably Burnley are beaten in the vast majority of matches, and yet time still appears to be on Kompany’s side for now.
There would be seven more Premier League sackings in 2022/23 after those first five through to mid-November. The season before that, there were six before November was out. But in the three years previous, between the months of August and November, there was just one manager change on average.
From that perspective it is the last two seasons that have been anomalous, not the current one. Nevertheless the Premier League table in 2023/24 has calcified into four distinctive blobs, making the usual sack race all-but obsolete.
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