Gerrard? Lampard? Moyes? Decisive days ahead will decide Premier League sack race

An animated Steven Gerrard on the touchline

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Even before this season began, the Aston Villa players had noticed something different about preparation. The management staff have a private instagram account that the squad all follow, and it used to be filled with tactical ideas and clips from training. That was at least until this summer, and the departure of Michael Beale.

Since then, the posts have been a lot less frequent. A connected criticism has been that Villa’s tactical set-up is a lot less sophisticated. It may be unfair, perhaps even premature, but it does speak to the idea that it was Beale who did the team shape and Steven Gerrard who did everything around it.

Villa have consequently been easier to get at. The players are still adapting to a new approach.

At West Ham United, who go to Aston Villa this weekend, it’s been the opposite. The players know all of the tactics far too well, to the point it’s all gone stale. David Moyes’ defensive system has never been that enjoyable for the squad, but they were obviously fully invested in it when everything was going well. Now, there’s a growing sense they need something fresh.

That isn’t to say they need a new manager, since some of this is the sort of grumbling that just evaporates once a team starts picking up points.

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That is precisely what both Gerrard and Moyes need to do, though, in a Villa Park fixture that already comes with considerable pressure.

They’re not the only ones.

One of the elements that has only accelerated an exhilarating start to the 2022-23 Premier League has been that over a quarter of managers – some of them the biggest names – are already under real scrutiny. There’s so little breathing space, or any sense of just seeing how things go at a formative stage of the season with so many variables.

All of the matches already matter an awful lot.

You only have to consider the importance of Demarai Gray’s late goal for Everton against Nottingham Forest. The outlook for Frank Lampard would have been so much worse without it, but it’s not like one point from a possible nine is much better. Saturday’s trip to Brentford now represents one of those classically awkward fixtures in that, even though they are a good Premier League side, you don’t get much credit for beating them but get a lot of criticism for losing. Brendan Rodgers meanwhile isn’t getting much credit at all now, because he’s been dropping points in even worse ways. Leicester City look stale in every sense. Ralph Hassenhuttl might have been in the same situation but for his Southampton side’s 2-1 comeback against Leicester, and his own resolve. This is about the fourth time in the Austrian’s St Mary’s career that his team have been expected to tailspin only for Hassenhuttl to coach his way through it. There is constant noise the players don’t like the way he talks to them, but it clearly brings responses.

Ralph Hasenhuttl enjoyed a crucial victory over Leicester

It wouldn’t take much for the pressure to ratchet up again, though, which is the same for visiting manager Erik ten Hag this weekend.

That limited room for error is what is really significant about all this. While none of these clubs are currently sounding out alternatives, boardrooms aren’t deaf to fan unrest. It has been loudest at Villa Park.

This is why these fixtures, this early, already feel so big. We are talking about potential knife-edge matches in burgeoning managerial careers. Would Gerrard’s career be as successful as many have hoped if sacked now? Would Lampard’s? Look at Rodgers, meanwhile. It isn’t too long since he had justifiable designs on being the next Manchester City manager. Hassenhuttl was at one point seen as the best coach outside the big six. Maybe he still is, and the pessimism was just a reflection of how bottom-half clubs can’t keep persevering on the same path if they keep selling.

That doesn’t necessarily change boardroom ambition, though.

It would at this stage be passe to make a wider point about how Premier League clubs are far less patient than they used to be. That’s well known, even if people might now struggle to name the sole manager who was sacked in the competition’s first ever season, amid so much 30th anniversary fanfare. (It was Ian Porterfield at Chelsea).

Mid-season sackings

1992-97

22

https://sports-life-news.com/nba/olympic-hero-caught-with-1-2m-of-meth-had-post-elite-competition-depression/

1997-02

27

2002-07

26

2007-12

28

2012-17

38

2017-22

37

A place in the Premier League is worth so much that clubs can’t afford the risk of waiting, especially when that very economic structure has created a season where up to 10 clubs could realistically go down. It’s still 17 years since we’ve seen a sacking in August, after the season has started, mind. With five changes – and Newcastle United responsible for three of those – it is the least bloody month, even after May. But might even that shift in the next few days?

The Premier League’s August changes

Peter Reid, Manchester City, 1993-94

Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle United, 1998-99

Ruud Gullit, Newcastle United, 1999-2000

Paul Sturrock, Southampton, 2004-05

Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle United, 2004-05

Gerrard so far has the full backing of Aston Villa, particularly Christian Purslow, but the noise from fans has added to uncertainties around his managerial ability. Put bluntly, it’s difficult to know how good he is as a coach. The success at Rangers came as Celtic went through their worst spell in recent history, and Gerrard benefitted from Beale. Villa’s recruitment has since then been expensive but erratic, requiring better shape.

Some within the club believe it is just a case of adaptation to circumstances, and insist Gerrard has the fortitude to turn this around. Others have questioned unnecessarily destabilising decisions like the manner that the popular Tyrone Mings was dropped.

A personnel issue has caused a similar issue in the West Ham squad, with Tomas Soucek’s attempts to look elsewhere reflecting a dissatisfaction over the wage structure. It doesn’t help that Moyes himself is so notoriously indecisive over transfers, which has fed into an uneasy atmosphere. It’s also hard to know when the first win comes from if West Ham drop points this weekend, given they then play Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. The negative momentum could very much have started.

We do very much know one thing, though. The Scot has already drastically overperformed at West Ham, deserves a lot of patience, and is also one of the few managers in the division who has proven he can dig teams out of those circumstances.

We can’t say that about Rodgers, for all his many qualities. The Leicester manager is currently having to figure out a new team, with problems at every turn and a general sense of staleness. Key figures like Wesley Fofana are not playing and expected to leave, with little talk of replacements. It is understood the Leicester hierarchy want to see more impact from Rodgers with what he has, before committing to expenditure. That rarely works out well, and only adds to the uncertainty, but not only as regards faith in the manager. With Leicester’s King Power owners still being affected by the hits to the duty free industry from Covid, there are increasing murmurs about a potential sale.

Lampard could sympathise with Rodgers there, if he didn’t have his own issues. The former midfielder does at least have significant backing from the club and the fanbase, having guided them out of relegation trouble last season.

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That isn’t indefinite, though, especially with a “wild card” like majority owner Farhad Moshiri.

Lampard needs points. The only consolation is that he’s one of many, and most have to face each other in the next few weeks. They can’t all lose, but all the matches now matter.

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