How on earth is Dean Smith still in charge at Aston Villa?
The Telegraph reported that the 4-0 hammering by Leicester City had left him fighting for his job, prior to the Premier League postponement debacle, but in truth the 48-year-old is lucky to even get this far.
After all, this is a manager who has generated a net spend of just under £140m since promotion and boasts one of the Premier League’s form players of the season in Jack Grealish – the 11th-best performer in the division this term according to Whoscored.
With a potent attacking weapon like the English midfielder, one would assume a simple equation of Grealish plus the creation of a study defence (something not only a massive transfer budget but also the expertise of assistant manager John Terry should be able to more than aid him with) would equal a relatively comfortable standing in the Premier League.
Instead, Villa are second-bottom, having conceded the second-most goals of any side in the league.
So, how does someone like Smith, a manager seemingly failing in the face of copious resources, manage to cling on until mid-March? By this time last season, Fulham – who coincidentally also produced a net spend of over £100m in a bid to avoid relegation – had already sacked Slavisa Jokanovic and Claudio Ranieri.
Villa’s run to the League Cup final has likely been a factor – for a club with such a prestigious history of trophies yet such a lengthy spell without one, the board were always likely to stay loyal while silverware was a genuine possibility.ul
But sometimes it’s important to look at a wider context too, and what’s most intriguing about the clubs fighting it out at the bottom right now is how most of them have stuck rather than twisted this season.
In fact, just two teams in the bottom eight – Watford and West Ham – have made sackings this season and perhaps even more pertinently, no team in the bottom three has dispensed of their manager either.
The significance of that should not be overlooked, because if Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa keep their incumbents and finish the campaign in the bottom three, it will be only the fifth time in Premier League history no relegated club has sacked a manager midseason.
And if we were to exclude the last two instances when that happened – 2008/09 when Newcastle made two managerial changes as Kevin Keegan and Joe Kinnear both resigned, and 1997/98 when Palace changed Steve Coppell’s role to Director of Football and temporarily employed Attilo Lombardo as player-manager – the run would go all the way back to the first two seasons of the Premier League.
Suddenly, the lense in which we view Smith’s situation at Villa widens to the whole of the Premier League rather than just a single club – for a top-flight that has seen hire-and-fire become virtually ingrained over the last decade, the current situation is certainly unusual.
Reasons why remain a matter of debate, but we have already discussed the Premier League’s sudden lust for prodigal sons in managerial positions and the sudden shift towards free-flowing, more entertaining brands of football.
As a Villa fan overseeing a side that actually ranks a respectable 12th for goals scored this season, Smith certainly falls into that category, as does Eddie Howe at Bournemouth. And while Daniel Farke may not have a playing history at Carrow Road, we can easily substitute that in for the amount of credit he has in the bank after gaining promotion last season, once again combining it with the refreshing verve in Norwich’s style of play.
It does seem managers who create a more expansive way of playing are being given the time to right their own wrongs these days, and perhaps the best example of that currently in the Premier League is Graham Potter.
At this point last season under Chris Hughton, the Seagulls were four points better off and three points clearer of the relegation zone, yet talk of Potter getting the axe, or even talk of the club making a mistake in sacking a predecessor who produced better results, remains scarce – even at this impromptu break in the season.
But perhaps there is another underlying factor too, in quite simply the lack of evidence to suggest sackings guarantee anything. In the six seasons preceding this one, 13 of the 18 relegated clubs made at least one sacking en route to going down, while the average number of managerial departures for the bottom three was a lofty 2.8.
Compare that to the previous six-year period, and the average number of sackings was just 1.2, with 11 clubs out of the 18 clubs deciding not to pull the trigger. Perhaps, in addition to a penchant for expansive football and managers with a direct connections to their clubs, a concern over whether sackings and all the upheaval that comes with them are actually worth it has entered the Premier League consciousness.
Aston Villa, in this respect, remain the barometer. Once normality resumes in the Premier League, they’ll provide the biggest tell of how owners and chairmen view the age-old dilemma of sticking or twisting when threatened with relegation.
If Smith can stay in the job long enough to oversee a Villa relegation, in spite of spending £140m and having one of the Premier League’s biggest talents in Grealish, then clearly something within the Premier League psyche has changed.
Whether that’s wiser or worse on the part of the 20 clubs involved is another debate altogether.