There was something delicately poignant about the timing as Sam Allardyce and David Moyes were dismissed within a matter of hours of each other on Wednesday. Perhaps the ultimate motivation was to ensure neither would be in charge when the summer transfer window officially opened a day later, but Moyes and Allardyce’s destinies at the end of turbulent seasons with West Ham and Everton respectively always appeared intertwined.
Indeed, the two departures serve as a microcosm of how debasing, unpredictable and fear-loathing 2017/18 has been for almost every Premier League club outside of the top six, one where any understanding of traditional league hierarchy evaporated practically overnight and almost every team without a realistic prospect of qualifying for the Champions League suddenly found themselves pondering the genuine threat of relegation.
Aside from Manchester City’s incredible dominance, that’s what this season should be remembered for – the complete collapse of the Premier League’s middle order as we’d come to know it during the previous five years. The bottom 14 clubs were shaken up and reorganised like parts in a kaleidoscope, resulting in a strange pattern of final standing that few could have anticipated at the start of the campaign.
Underlying causes remain open to debate – perhaps the Premier League is now so equal outside of the top six in terms of financial resources that everybody ends up cancelling each other out – but the consequences are clear to see. Seven of the ten clubs to finish between 8th and 17th last term changed managers at some point during the season, and pretty much all those appointments were more defensive-minded than their predecessors, belonging to the Premier League’s revolving door of old guard who approached the relegation battle as pragmatically as possible.
Allardyce and Moyes epitomise that as well as any other mid-season arrival. Due to the move to the London Stadium and the investment of Farhad Moshiri respectively, at the start of last season West Ham and Everton were looking upwards at the top six, strategizing ways to break it up or at least expand it to a top eight.
But after worrying starts to the current campaign that had them flirting with the relegation line, the Toffees turned to the Premier League’s primary relegation expert, just as the Irons placed their hopes in proven experience rather than potential innovation – appointing a manager only trumped for Premier League appearances by Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp.
It proved the right decisions on the parts of Everton and West Ham, at least in the short term, but other members of the Premier League’s traditional middle order weren’t quite so lucky. West Brom and Stoke finished 10th and 13th respectively last season but plummeted out of the Premier League this time around. Southampton were eighth last time out but spared themselves from relegation by just a single win this season, while Swansea dropped from 15th to 18th.
In total then, this season’s bottom four have 29 top flight campaigns under the belts since their most recent promotions and have all been in the Premier League for the last five years. Those acquired advantages of longevity though – experience, financial accumulation and ability to plan long-term – eventually amounted to very little.
As more defensive-minded teams from the Championship began to enjoy much better results – and in some cases much healthier goal difference – the remainder of those outside the top six felt compelled to try and play them at their own game. The quality of football drastically regressed, especially at Stoke and Southampton, as managers turned to characters better equipped for relegation dogfights and shied away from the kind of mercurial talents that excite fans.
There is, however, an obvious paradox here. The two middle order clubs who performed best this season, Burnley and Leicester City, both built their campaigns around well-organised, defensive football. Likewise, Allardyce and Moyes turned Everton and West Ham’s seasons around following a similar mantra, and there’s no doubt the pair fulfilled their mission objectives. In fact, Moyes and Allardyce both improved West Ham and Everton’s positions by five places from the point in which they officially took over.
So why, then, are Allardyce and Moyes both out of the job when they’ve performed so competently despite only having a midseason window to work with, during perhaps the Premier League’s most competitive relegation battle of all time that has engulfed clubs that appeared amongst the most secure outside of the top six just a few years ago? The statistics prove that if both were given a full 38-game season in charge, Everton and West Ham would have finished in better positions than their eventual standings.
But that highlights why an era in which the majority of the Premier League have been paralysed by defensive football could well be coming to its abrupt end. There’s little question the overall quality of games has drastically dropped this year, particularly games against the top six, and there has been a result swell of dissatisfaction amongst supporters, especially at West Ham and Everton. More than anything else, that’s played a key hand in Moyes and Allardyce’s departures – Toffees and Irons supporters expressing their frustrations at not just the playing style, but the lack of ambition it has come to represent.
Not that such concern is exclusive to the relegation battle; we’ve seen it at the Premier League’s summit too, where Manchester United’s achievements have been downplayed because Manchester City and Liverpool, their two biggest rivals, have been so much more entertaining to watch this season. Arsenal fans too, began voting with their feet and leaving the Emirates Stadium half empty, partly because Arsene Wenger’s team had lost that wow factor, the fluid football that once made them such a distinctive team.
And it can only be a good thing for the Premier League, because it’s clear attitudes outside of the top six must start to change. Everton and West Ham have the greatest potential to re-establish an entertaining middle order in the Premier League that can look to disrupt those above them, so it must be them who lead the way for the rest of the division. Keeping Moyes and Allardyce in charge would have set a worrying precedent, suggesting the defensive, survival-first mindset would have creeped into at least the start of 2018/19.
The simple fact is, to remain the best top flight in the world the Premier League needs safe, mid-table clubs who have the freedom to build something more significant than merely a side that manages to avoid the drop every season. That kind of long-term planning just doesn’t right now, and Allardyce and Moyes aren’t the innovative thinkers with new ideas and bountiful enthusiasm needed to bring it back to the Premier League.