Sack the manager? Keep the manager? Sell your best player and import seven new ones, five on loan? Go warm‑weather training in Dubai? Cancel the Gulf trip?
Switch to a sweeper system? Revert to a flat back four? Play two up front? Keep the faith with a lone striker? Go cold‑weather training in New York? Go lukewarm‑weather training in Benidorm? Abolish days off? Start regretting Champions League progress?
Relegation battles are full of dilemmas and the Premier League’s bottom six have played at least one of the above cards as they strive to stay out of the Championship in this season’s particular game of “stick or twist”. Leicester City face the hardest decision of all, whether to dispense with Claudio Ranieri, last season’s title‑winning manager.
Changing managers mid-season has worked for Sunderland during each of the past four years when Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce presided over “great escapes”. Accordingly it would be somewhat paradoxical if Ellis Short, the owner, were to keep faith with David Moyes this term and the division’s bottom‑placed side were to be relegated.
Such short-term fixes are expensive, though, and have contributed to Sunderland’s £140m debt, something their manager is hardly easing by taking his squad to the Big Apple for a diet of daily runs in Central Park, sightseeing and male bonding. Coaches invariably delight in extolling the benefits of transporting players somewhere warm and vitamin D rich at this time of year, so this Moyes “masterplan” seems a little left field – to say the least.
Allardyce has always been a big believer in the sun’s healing properties and maintains that February trips to Arabia with previous clubs represent a big reason why he has never endured relegation from the top tier. Unfortunately for the new(ish) manager at Crystal Palace, amid relentlessly dismal results, a proposed Dubai trip did not get off the ground, thereby dictating that this season is so far very much the exception to his tried and trusted rule.
With Palace arguably worse now than under his predecessor, Alan Pardew, some fans fear Allardyce may have lost his touch but, after succeeding Advocaat in October 2015, he started slowly at Sunderland, too. Indeed, at one point, the Wearside club endured five league defeats in succession before perking up on returning from the United Arab Emirates and losing only one of their last 11 games. It ensured they finished last season fourth bottom, two points clear of Rafael Benítez’s then convalescent Newcastle United, who were unbeaten in their final six games. Newcastle, though, had almost certainly paid a very high price for lingering a little too long before replacing Steve McClaren with the transformative Benítez.
By acting much earlier Palace, Hull City and Swansea City have avoided that trap, with the latter two achieving a near instant “new manager bounce” as results improved markedly under Marco Silva and Paul Clement respectively.
In Hull’s case it helped that, without collecting many points, Silva’s predecessor, Mike Phelan, had got his team playing arguably the best passing football of any in the bottom six. It meant Silva, the former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos coach, had a decent framework and broadly similar philosophy to build on as he endeavored not only to integrate those seven new faces but cope with Robert Snodgrass’s much-lamented defection to West Ham United.
By common consensus, Silva – who has temporarily abolished days off – is sharpening Hull’s attacking edge, something he will be further honing during a training/bonding camp in Portugal this week and which offers a stark contrast to Aitor Karanka’s survival strategy at Middlesbrough.
Karanka’s side rarely concede more than a goal per match but are the division’s lowest scorers with the fewest wins – four. Fans, thoroughly ticked off by their Basque manager for recently chanting “attack, attack, attack”, are increasingly frustrated by his refusal to play two up front.
If the recent, spectacular, improvement in Adama Traoré’s wing play emphasizes Karanka’s very real coaching talents, he is possibly too intransigent for his own good in believing a squad warmed by the sun in Benidorm last week can inch their way to safety through of a series of ground-out, low‑scoring, draws.
With Gylfi Sigurdsson around, Swansea have threatened going forward but Clement – who, counterintuitively is keeping his squad at home this month – has performed wonders in tightening a defense in which Federico Fernández looks reborn and Alfie Mawson’s form means supporters are no longer missing Ashley Williams quite so badly.
Swansea’s latest win – 2-0 at home against Leicester on Sunday – has left the champions 17th. Ranieri, with his side a point clear of the drop zone and without a goal in six league games, must be cursing the distractions of Champions League involvement.
The Italian has been badly let down by his now fuzzily focused players but might this be the time for Leicester’s owners to decide the manager has lost too many dressing-room “hearts and minds” and take the “nuclear” option? But with whom would they replace Ranieri? Dilemmas, dilemmas …