Crystal Palace, Swansea City and Hull City. David Moyes. Three of the bottom four have changed manager this season (Swansea have changed twice), yet one man remains. The man at the club who have built themselves a whole relegation-avoiding model based on changing manager around this time of year and driving towards safety. That man is the heavily-Vined Scotsman, David Moyes.
Sunderland escaped what looked to be certain doom with a couple of victories back in November and performances, for the most part, have improved since then. Moyes needed that November joy to save his job and, despite remaining in the relegation zone, the former Real Sociedad manager looks set to keep his job for the foreseeable future. Changing managers for clubs at the bottom of the Premier League table is now an annual tradition, often seen as a final roll of the dice by boards who are short of other ideas on how to fix the team.
This season for Sunderland, for instance, a change in manager would unlikely make much difference. Like with Hull and Swansea particularly, glaring weaknesses in their squad are the reason they are struggling so gravely, not poor managerial choices. Each club needs to reinforce during the January window, but Moyes – who has been vocal about the need for signings – does not have the funds to sign any players that could make a meaningful short-term contribution. Sunderland are feeling the pain of poor squad management over the longer term.
While a change in the dugout may well reap rewards for Swansea, Palace and Hull, Sunderland have shown support for Moyes so far. Maybe they can’t afford to pay him off, maybe they really, really do not have any idea who else they could appoint. Or perhaps the Sunderland decision-makers are fully aware of the squad’s shortcomings and are respectful of the fact that Moyes has even kept them in the hunt for safety.
That is not to say that this Sunderland squad is considerably weaker or shorter on talent than any of their nearest rivals, but the Black Cats have looked a better organised unit even in defeat for the most part. Howlers like the defeats to Swansea and Burnley still loom over the early months of Moyes’ tenure, but his side also frustrated Chelsea, snatched a draw with Liverpool and beat the champions in early December. Moyes’ teams have always been good at playing the underdog role, though, and his challenge in 2017 is to make sure that his side pick up the points they are expected to take.
As the riches attained for each year of Premier League football grow ever higher, the pressure to avoid relegation is greater than ever. That puts managers under time constraints and the demand for immediate results is insatiable. Moyes managed to ride out the push for his sacking earlier this season and has kept Sunderland in with a chance of safety. Many – including myself – had written the Black Cats off before Halloween had even passed.
In many other Premier League seasons, this Sunderland side would be cut adrift at the bottom of the table. Yet, thanks to Moyes’ management and the startling difficulties of other clubs, Sunderland could yet pull off another great escape from the perils of the Championship.
They may yet resort to their ‘sack the manager’ policy for safety and it might work. Paul Clement, Marco Silva or Sam Allardyce could rejuvenate their teams and drag them into the comfort of mid-table. Keeping Moyes is no sure-fire way for Sunderland to survive, but it is a testament to the good work he has done with very limited resources. Whatever the outcome, Moyes’ North-East tenure should be remembered for what it is: making do, not underachieving.