Steven Gerrard lasted just 11 months as Aston Villa manager. Jesse Marsch might pass through Leeds United after an even shorter tenure with the club’s fans turning on the former RB Leipzig coach in recent games despite him being in charge for a mere eight months.
Managing a Premier League team is becoming harder at every level — even Thomas Tuchel lost his job at Chelsea earlier this season, just over a year after winning the Champions League. But succeeding at clubs that go into the season as neither title challengers nor relegation candidates appears to have become the hardest challenge of them all.
All those coaches employed by the so-called Big Six know exactly what will happen if they don’t succeed, but they at least go into the job knowing they are working for clubs with the financial power and attractiveness to potential signings to have a chance of achieving their targets. And at the other end, at those clubs who have either been promoted or who accept that Premier League survival is their only measure of success, the manager has a simple objective: stay up. Scott Parker’s dismissal at Bournemouth five games into the season, having secured promotion back to the Premier League three months earlier, was due to his repeated public questioning of the club’s recruitment strategy rather than a prolonged period of bad results although a 9-0 defeat at Liverpool almost certainly sealed his fate.
Yet teams such as Villa, Leeds and
Finishing 10th might be a sign of progress at such clubs, but only if it is a springboard for bigger, better and higher the next season. Unless you are a team such as Newcastle United, another club seeking to re-create more positive times from the past but one with the financial strength to build for today and tomorrow, it is almost impossible to succeed if you are in that middle ground of Premier League clubs.
Gerrard discovered that to his cost at Villa, losing his job after 40 games in charge in which he won 13 and lost 19. The former Liverpool captain cannot argue that he was successful at Villa Park, but the club invested only £63 million on new signings this summer (plus £27m on full-back Lucas Digne in January) and his biggest transfer, £28m defender Diego Carlos, has been out since the second game of the season due to injury. Gerrard’s gamble on Philippe Coutinho did not work out, with the £18m summer signing from Barcelona failing to have an impact after an initial bright spell on loan last season. But for a club of Villa’s stature and ambition, the summer outlay on new players was never likely to be transformative.
It is a similar story at Leeds, where Marsch lost midfielder Kalvin Phillips (to Manchester City) and forward Raphinha (Barcelona) for fees totalling almost £100m, while club-record signing Daniel James also left on loan to Fulham. The Elland Road recruitment team replaced them with a variety of players with little or no Premier League experience, such as Brenden Aaronson, Luis Sinisterra, Tyler Adams and Rasmus Kristensen. Having avoided relegation only on the final day of last season, Leeds arguably went into this season with a weaker squad after allowing three key players to leave in the summer, so it is no surprise that Marsch’s team would be struggling and now in the bottom three.
But Leeds, like Villa, have too proud a history for their fans to accept annual fights against relegation. The problem is, neither club is yet financially strong enough to be able to chase new glories with the kind of investment, on and off the pitch, that enables Eddie Howe to make such rapid strides at Newcastle.
Gerrard went after the fans turned on him at Fulham last week, chanting “You’re getting sacked in the morning” as they watched their team lose 3-0 at Craven Cottage. Marsch was subjected to the same supporter anger after his side also lost, 3-2 at home, against Fulham on Sunday.
Hearing fans sing the name of a previous manager is another bad sign, and Marsch has heard Marcelo Bielsa’s name chanted several times in recent weeks. Sources told ESPN on Friday that Marsch was in no imminent danger of losing his job at Elland Road, but Premier League management is all about the shifting sands of results and the backing of supporters. Marsch is in negative territory in both of those key metrics.
It was the same story for Gerrard who, having arrived at Villa Park to great fanfare last November after proving his credentials by guiding Rangers to the Scottish Premiership title in 2021, was fired within minutes of the 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage this past Thursday. Whomever Villa appoint to replace Gerrard will discover the same problems, and there might also be a new coach at Leeds soon charged with bridging the gap between expectation and reality.
But if clubs appoint managers and then fail to sign players good enough to make a difference, it will always be a story of diminishing returns followed by another roll of the managerial dice.