It’s quiet in the Premier League right now. Too quiet. By this stage of the season, football managers should be an endangered species, especially in the English top flight and even more especially given that the dramatic rise in global TV revenues has only heightened the terror of relegation. But as Christmas approaches, only one manager has left his position: Swansea City’s unfortunate Francesco Guidolin. And even his demise can at least be partly explained by the arrival of new owners.
This isn’t normal.
Last season, Dick Advocaat was the first to go, leaving Sunderland on Oct. 4. He was swiftly followed that evening by Brendan Rodgers, who was sacked by Liverpool. By the time Christmas arrived, the tally was up to five, with Tim Sherwood (Aston Villa), Garry Monk (Swansea) and, of course, Jose Mourinho (Chelsea) all axed.
The season before that, three managers went before New Year’s Eve. Tony Pulis walked out on Crystal Palace 48 hours before the football season even began. His replacement Neil Warnock went two days after Christmas and Alan Irvine was sacked by West Bromwich Albion on Dec. 29.
In 2013-14, the managerial merry-go-round was even more brutal: Sunderland’s Paolo di Canio was gone before the end of September, Ian Holloway walked away from Crystal Palace in late October and four managers went in December alone. Martin Jol (Fulham), Steve Clarke (West Bromwich Albion) and Andre Villas-Boas (Tottenham Hotspur) left before Christmas, with Malky Mackay (Cardiff City) joining them two days after.
But this year, one of football’s most venerable cliches, “the dreaded vote of confidence,” is fashionable again. It is dreaded, of course, because it traditionally arrives just a few days before the axe. But not always.
Former chairman of Manchester United, Martin Edwards, always backed Sir Alex Ferguson before the conveyor belt of trophies clicked into life. Sir Bobby Robson was frequently reported to be on the brink of the sack from Ipswich Town in the 1970s, but owner John Cobbold consistently supported him, memorably telling local journalists that the only time there was a crisis at Ipswich was when they ran out of white wine in the boardroom.
In 2016, both Slaven BIlic and Alan Pardew have been given their votes of confidence over the past two weeks, and while the situation can always change, often very swiftly, you would expect both men to have a couple more games in them at the very least.
Insiders at Swansea (currently 18th) have scoffed at the idea of Bob Bradley losing his job quickly. Given that Hull City’s ownership appear less than committed to the project, Mike Phelan is probably safe. David Moyes is currently showing the rest of the Premier League how it’s done, so he’s fine too. That just leaves us with Leicester’s Claudio Ranieri to consider, and that sort of talk would ruin Christmas for everyone.
So what’s going on? Why haven’t we seen the traditional winter cull of managers? In England, bets are frequently placed on the future of managers. And the bookmakers are aware that something is amiss.
“It’s very unusual,” SkyBet Football Trader Paul Lowery told ESPN FC. “This time last year we were already on to our fifth version of the ‘next manager to leave’ market. I’d say it’s largely random variance, although there are some explainable variables.
“For example, the managers of the arguably underperforming teams like West Ham and Leicester are coming off fantastic seasons that have bought them some time with owners and chairmen. A lot of the teams are roughly where they expected to be, with the exception, perhaps, of the two aforementioned teams and Swansea, who have already made one change.”
For the bookmakers, the manager market can be highly volatile, but periods like this, when teams can rise and fall rapidly, can also be very rewarding.
“It hurts from a specials markets point of view in the sense that we lose the opportunity to offer markets on ‘Next Manager of X Team,'” said Lowery. “However, a more stable Premier League is an easier one to compile odds for, so we return some benefit in that respect.”
“If Bob Bradley were to go next, we would also be hit, but with the American connection at Swansea, he may well be given the extra time he needs. The money for him has dried up over the last week. Everyone is interested in Bilic right now. Nearly 70 percent of the total [next manager to leave] bets placed since Saturday have been for him.”
The League Managers Association has always tried to protect its members, working tirelessly to both support them and highlight the difficulties of the role. Its chief executive, Richard Bevan, believes that the ability of the managers is what has brought about this disconcertingly calm period.
“The quality and profile of managers in the Premier League is undoubtedly world class,” Bevan told ESPN FC. “Therefore clubs will be reluctant to lose individuals of proven experience without allowing them adequate time to demonstrate their ability.”
So are we heading into a new and more stable era of football management? Or are we just witnessing a new form of panic, a paralysis born out of a fear of making the situation even worse?
“Who can say?” says Lowery. “I’d imagine there might be a run in January with clubs wanting to give their new manager the opportunity to spend money to turn around their fortunes, but if teams consider to perform roughly to their projections it could take until 25 or so games in before the relegation strugglers really being to panic.”
With the price of failure so much more expensive than at any prior point in the history of the game, you suspect that the Premier League will soon reach a breaking point. And then, like startled birds, perhaps more clubs will take evasive action.
Either way, surely it won’t stay this quiet for much longer.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.