As Dean Smith would no doubt testify, being a Premier League manager is a precarious business. The now former Aston Villa manager headed into the international break this time last year having racked up five victories from seven matches, including the famous 7-2 thrashing of then-champions Liverpool. Yet 12 months on and having only just guided his boyhood club to their highest finish for a decade, Smith was abruptly shown the door on Sunday afternoon following an awful start to the new campaign and a record that shows Villa have secured only 11 league wins from 35 matches in 2021.
A few hours earlier – just as Eddie Howe was taking his seat to watch Newcastle’s draw against Brighton prior to his confirmation as Steve Bruce’s replacement on Monday – it had been Daniel Farke’s turn to face the music despite leading Norwich to their long-awaited first victory of the campaign to move briefly off the bottom of the table. After a short hiatus the Premier League’s sacking season seems to be back in full swing.
Smith’s departure from Villa after a run of five successive defeats meant the number of managers who left their posts last season has already been surpassed, with Xisco Munoz and Nuno Espírito Santo, from Watford and Spurs respectively, the others to have succumbed. Of the Premier League’s current bottom five only Burnley’s Sean Dyche remains in situ from the start of the season.
By contrast last season it took until 16 December for the first manager to lose his job when Slaven Bilic was fired by West Brom after they had earned a 1-1 draw at the eventual champions, Manchester City, with Frank Lampard, Chris Wilder and José Mourinho the only other casualties by the time it ended in May. The absence of supporters at matches making their antipathy known – as no doubt played a significant role in Nuno being replaced by Antonio Conte at Spurs after just 10 matches – due to Covid-19 restrictions for the majority of the season can perhaps explain why clubs were less eager to wield the axe last season. Normal service now appears to have been resumed.
At this rate with less than a third of the season gone, we could even be on course to beat the Premier League high of 15 managerial changes (including caretakers) during a season that occurred in 2017-18. Yet while Frank de Boer infamously set a record that year after being dismissed by Crystal Palace having lost all four league matches and scoring no goals, it will take something extraordinary to surpass a record season in which almost half of the division make a mid-season change.
Unsurprisingly after his team’s meek surrender in the Manchester derby on Saturday, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the odds-on hot favourite to be next, followed by Everton’s Rafael Benítez – for obvious reasons now that a promising start has faded – and Claudio Ranieri of Watford in the hottest of hot seats. But aside from those three, it is debatable which other clubs may be tempted to take drastic action barring a disastrous loss of form.
Southampton did not fire Ralph Hasenhüttl after either of the 9-0 defeats they suffered under him and an unbeaten run of four matches has lifted his side to 13th. Leeds and Brentford supporters are devoted followers of their respective leaders Marcelo Bielsa and Thomas Frank and both will be expected to last the course. Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace revolution that has transformed an ageing side under Roy Hodgson into a vibrant team capable of outplaying Manchester City also means he has probably guaranteed a stay of execution if things suddenly go wrong.
Dyche’s Burnley made a slow start to the season yet the victory over Brentford and subsequent draw against Chelsea showed that the longest-serving manager in the division remains as dogged as ever. The new four-year contract he signed in September should take him past a decade in charge having succeeded Howe in October 2012.
Elsewhere, Mikel Arteta will face a true test of Arsenal’s progress next at Anfield but the Spaniard has shown remarkable resilience to revive their fortunes given he looked extremely vulnerable after their disastrous start, while Bruno Lage has made an impact at Wolves following the departure of Nuno. Graham Potter’s stock continues to rise at Brighton and, in David Moyes, West Ham have finally found what they were looking for.
That leaves untouchables like Thomas Tuchel, Jürgen Klopp – whose contract also expires in 2024 – and Pep Guardiola, with the City manager signed up until the end of next season for now. But maybe Brendan Rodgers, who is coveted by numerous other clubs and has shown loyalty to his current employers, could be in the mix given the previous propensity of Leicester’s owners to pull the trigger? A run of kinder fixtures after they face Chelsea following the international break could be crucial for their hopes of building on last season’s FA Cup triumph.
Of course, Solskjær already knows what it is like to be sacked mid-season after suffering the consequences of a poor start to the Championship season in 2014 having been relegated with Cardiff a few months earlier. The Norwegian has somehow limped on at Manchester United, despite embarrassing home defeats against their two biggest rivals in the space of a fortnight, and appears likely to be in charge for the trip to Watford as things stand. But, as Smith and Farke discovered, sentiment stretches only so far and Solskjær would be well advised not to take anything for granted.