Here’s a funny stat shared over the weekend. Erik ten Hag is the Premier League’s ninth-longest serving manager. He’s been on the job eight months.
The intense pressure of the true Super League, which is what the Premier League is, claimed two more victims yesterday when Chelsea put Graham Potter in a box marked, “To Timbuktu,” and then Leicester City agreed to part ways with Brendan Rodgers, i.e. told him to go kick rocks and he agreed he should depart for some rock-booting.
Happy trails, Graham Potter
Potter had only been in the Chelsea hot seat since September, when he replaced Thomas Tuchel, himself strangely kicked to the curb after collecting the Champions League and finishing in the top four for the club, as well as appearing in three domestic cup finals in his not-quite-two-seasons. Potter was not able to turn around the utter mess that Chelsea have become under Todd Boehly, though that doesn’t absolve him of all blame. For Saturday’s loss to Aston Villa at home, he fielded a 3-5-2 set-up, except the “3” only had one natural central defender and the “2” had no actual strikers, with both João Felix and Kai Havertz really being attacking midfielders or straight No. 10s.
Potter has been hampered by Chelsea’s injury list since pretty much the moment he showed up, with Havertz being the only regular who has been available for most every match. And Potter certainly hasn’t been helped by the Pollock-painting method of Chelsea’s transfer policy. It started in the summer, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was purchased because Tuchel wanted him, and then Tuchel was fired seemingly minutes later. Boehly has splashed out some $757 million for new players since arriving, and yet they still don’t have a true holding midfielder (N’Golo Kante’s wonky health and increasing mileage doesn’t really totally solve the problem), a dependable keeper, or a true striker. They have brought in Raheem Sterling, Mykhaylo Mudryk, and Felix, who all do their best work from the left of the attack. Which is also where Christian Pulisic lives. Enzo Fernandez, Denis Zakaria, and Connor Gallagher were all added to midfield and none of them address the problem of what to do when Kante isn’t around or how to replace Jorginho, whom they let walk to Arsenal. What exactly is Boehly’s plan here?
Chelsea don’t have a spine both physically and spiritually, which is where the blame for Potter comes in. They have looked utterly toothless for most of his run, and as soon as they went down 1-0 to Villa they never really looked like they would claw back anything. There are some interesting patterns they weave in the build-up with the ball, but once they hit the final third it’s like everyone’s controller gets shut off. Which was the story for Potter’s Brighton teams, that they would play some really beautiful stuff but couldn’t make it count nearly enough. A problem that Roberto De Zerbi seems to have solved in Potter’s wake.
It’s hard to say Chelsea don’t have too much left on the table, given that they’re in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and have a date with Real Madrid. While running through Madrid and then the winner of Man City-Munich to even get to the final is about as tough of a draw as any team could ask for, it’s not like it’s impossible. That gets harder with either an interim manager in place or a permanent one who’s been in the job a few days.
Where does Chelsea go from here?
The league season is shot. They’re currently in 11th. But clearly, Boehly and the rest of the execs need this incredibly expensive squad to be formed into something from jump street next season, otherwise, all that money spent might draw some interest from the Financial Fair Play investigators. But does a prime managerial candidate like Julian Nagelsmann or Luis Enrique want to step into a club that is seemingly trying to run in five different directions at once?
As for Leicester, they ran through the normal Rodgers cycle of burning incredibly brightly for his first couple seasons and then not just fizzling out but collapsing like a factory owned by Bart Simpson. They’re currently in 19th, though in the nine-team backyard brawl that is the current relegation fight, they’re only five points from 12th. Leicester are in a weird spot as a club. They’re too big to be a constant launch-pad for talent and use the money gained through sales to reinvest in the next crop of players to be flogged — like Brighton does for example. But their players aren’t quite good enough to get them into the glitterati, as Rodgers’s back-to-back fifth-place finishes sort of showed. The window to sell guys like James Maddison or Harvey Barnes or Youri Tielemans for big money seems to have passed, but they’re also all on the downside of their peak years.
The cull of managers in the Premier League is only a testament to the rewards at hand, no matter what level a club finds itself. For Tottenham or Chelsea, it’s about trying to claw back the riches of the Champions League. Sort of the same for Leicester, though now they’re eying the trapdoor as if it contains the Tell-Tale Heart. Leicester is not a club that can pay Premier League wages while in the Championship.
What about the rest of the league?
Which is the story for all the other eight clubs in the relegation fight, which is why all of them have changed managers save West Ham and Nottingham Forest (Southampton has done so twice). And Forest spent over $200 million on new players this season. For instance, Leicester earned nearly $150 million in TV money last season from the league’s various TV deals. Right now, Sky Sports in England pays the EFL, which runs the lower three divisions in England, $175 million in total for the TV rights to all those leagues. You can see the problem. And that doesn’t get into cheaper tickets and everything else that deflates upon relegation.
The urgency is overwhelming. While most clubs will have some players on relegation clauses with a lowering of their salaries should the club go down, cutting the wage bill down by 30 or even 40 percent doesn’t make up for the loss of the rest of the income that springs from Premier League status.
Clubs simply don’t feel like they have time for “a project” to come together without feeling like they’ll get passed by another club operating like a Vegas coke binge. Patience may land you in hell. There are only four Champions League spots for seven “big” clubs. Well-run machines like Brighton, Brentford, and maybe Aston Villa now under Unai Emery are waiting to pounce on what’s left. Everyone else is spending to keep their heads above the relegation waters, and that includes the teams who get promoted. It’s a sprint on the field and in boardrooms.
Give clubs a taste of the good land and they’ll want more and more. They’ll need it to survive. Which will see managers run over like this become the norm. You either hit the highest gears immediately, or you won’t get time to catch up.
For more of Sam’s barely coherent footy thoughts, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate.