After Paul Heckingbottom became the first managerial casualty of the Premier League season, we wonder why nobody had sacked their manager until now, and whether we might be about to see others wield the axe.
After hearing news of Paul Heckingbottom having been sacked by Sheffield United, many people are asking the same question.
“What took so long?”
This isn’t necessarily a question specifically directed at Sheffield United and their decision to give Heckingbottom until December to try and sort out the mess that has been their start to life back in the Premier League, but instead at the whole top flight. Why has it taken until 5 December for any top-flight club to make a managerial change?
By this time last year, there had been six sackings. Scott Parker didn’t even make it to September in the Bournemouth job. It was the same by this stage of 2021-22, with six changes by early December.
The season before that started later due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so when Slaven Bilic became the first managerial casualty of the season on 16 December, fewer games had been played than at this stage of the current season.
You have to go back to 2014-15 to find a season when no manager had been sacked by this date, while the latest the first managerial change has ever come was in the Premier League’s first season, when Ian Porterfield was the first departure, leaving Chelsea in February 1993.
In recent years, it has become the norm for clubs to hit the panic button early. There is something admirable in the fact that it has taken this long for anyone to change managers this season; in Sheffield United hoping that Heckingbottom could eventually turn things around if he was given a little more time.
Bournemouth have recently started reaping the rewards of their patience with Andoni Iraola. While many were calling for his head after starting his Bournemouth tenure with six defeats and no wins in his first nine Premier League matches, they have won four of six games since that poor start, and they were an injury-time equaliser away from beating Aston Villa at the weekend.
After that game, Bournemouth forward Antoine Semenyo spoke about the benefits of having worked with Iraola for an extended period.
“The manager’s tactics are really coming together now, and we are all gelling as a team,” he said. “We are training hard together… the cohesion is great, and we just need to keep building on this.”
Iraola’s pressing game is bearing fruit; no team has scored more goals following a high turnover in the Premier League this season than Bournemouth (five).
Bournemouth are only six points above the drop zone, but given only two teams – Arsenal (15) and Liverpool (14) – have collected more points than them (13) from each team’s last six fixtures, Iraola will presumably be concentrating more on the six-point gap to the top half of the table.
In truth, though, it wouldn’t have been that surprising had the Bournemouth hierarchy cut their losses on Iraola with their side 19th after nine games. With Sheffield United currently bottom, with just five points from 15 matches, the fewest goals scored in the division (11), and on course to set a new Premier League record for goals conceded in a season (at their current rate of 2.7 per game, they would let in a staggering 104 goals), it is something of a wonder it took this long.
Heckingbottom’s sacking could now open the floodgates when it comes to Premier League sackings. Sheffield United have blinked first; could the move to force others considering their options to press the panic button?
It’s not as if 2023-24 has been without managerial pressure or talk of the sack. Erik ten Hag has been under pressure for much of the campaign, with Manchester United out of the EFL Cup, on the brink of exiting the Champions League at the group stage, and stumbling to what has to be one of the least convincing resurgences you’ll see.
United have won six of their last eight Premier League games and are now only level on points with fifth-placed Tottenham, but their performances haven’t been as convincing as their results. Of course, you’d rather have points than spirited but ultimately unsuccessful performances, but even though Wednesday night’s win over Chelsea was a massive result and they are still in the hunt for Champions League qualification, they don’t look like a team that knows quite what they want to be right now.
The fact that only four teams have scored fewer Premier League goals in open play this season than United (13) speaks for itself, while according to our expected points model, United have actually got 6.7 more points than their performances have deserved. There are more than a few fans who think it is time for a change of manager to get this team firing, even if they have woken up on Thursday morning buoyed by the Chelsea win.
It is unlikely that United’s hand will be forced by the news of Heckingbottom’s departure, but there are a few teams who might be looking over their shoulder at the other end of the table and now considering their options.
One of those may be Nottingham Forest, who might just have sleepwalked into a relegation battle. After winning two of their first four games of the season, they have only one win in their last 11. That victory was a particularly impressive result, as they beat in-form Aston Villa 2-0 a few weeks ago, but since then they have lost four on the bounce and the pressure is mounting on Steve Cooper. Wednesday night’s 5-0 defeat at Fulham could well spell the end for him.
Cooper did a fantastic job in getting Forest into the Premier League and then securing survival last term, but owner Evangelos Marinakis has shown with his leadership of his other club, Olympiacos, that he needs little excuse to fire a manager, so any hint of a relegation battle – if, say, the teams beneath them show more signs of life – and his finger might move towards the trigger.
Despite losing in midweek at Wolves, Burnley’s 5-0 win over Sheffield United last Saturday will have relieved some of the pressure on Vincent Kompany, who has come in for a little criticism since taking Burnley back up to the Premier League for sticking with such commitment to the style of play with which they earned promotion. Only seven teams – all of them in the top half of the table at present – are averaging more passes per sequence this season than Burnley (3.8), while only Manchester City (1.3 metres per second) are attacking up the pitch at a slower average speed than Kompany’s side (1.4 m/s). Meanwhile, only Sheffield United (8.6 per game), Luton (10.7) and Nottingham Forest (10.8) are having fewer shots than Burnley (10.9).
They haven’t done a great deal to show that they belong in the Premier League playing this way. Their only two league wins have come against the other two sides who were playing Championship football with them last season, and Kompany might well be surviving on account of his reputation rather than any genuine belief he can keep them in the top flight.
Then there is Crystal Palace, whose chairman Steve Parish has reportedly as good as admitted he is biding his time waiting for next summer, when manager Roy Hodgson’s contract will be up and he can start planning for the future. They have slipped to 14th in the table, but there is apparently little fear internally at the club that they are going to get sucked into a relegation battle. However, with only one win in their last eight after they lost to Bournemouth on Wednesday, and having lost key men Eberechi Eze and Cheick Doucouré to injury, there are a few murmurs of discontent among the Palace faithful.
Hodgson entertained his way to a decent mid-table finish last season, but much of this term has seen the kind of back-to-basics football that his previous stint was built on. Only four teams have generated a lower total of open-play non-penalty expected goals this season than Palace (12.3 – an average of just 0.8 xG per game), with 27% of their overall xG coming from set-pieces – the third-highest proportion in the division.
Palace fans grew tired of Hodgson last time they had him, and they might well tire of him again before long.
Chelsea have shown signs of improvement under Mauricio Pochettino, while the current club owners appear to be rather more patient with managers than those in the previous regime; there was a time not so long ago when five wins from 15 after a summer outlay of more than £400m on new signings would be deemed not good enough at Stamford Bridge.
It is unlikely that many people will be calling for his head – not least because our expected points model suggests that given the quality of the chances Chelsea have created and conceded, they might have earned roughly seven more points than they actually have. It’s not an exact science by any means – not least because it doesn’t take into account game state, which will always affect how much a team chooses to attack – but it does indicate that performances haven’t been quite as bad as their league position suggests. Nevertheless, a few more poor results and there might be a little more pressure on Pochettino.
So, back to the question at the top of this page. What took so long for us to see the first managerial casualty of the season?
Time and patience are increasingly virtuous traits in owners, and fans are more often asking for under-fire managers to be backed rather than sacked. Few Chelsea fans will want Pochettino to be given anything other than a few years to build something sustainable at the club, for example.
Another reason appears to be a lack of viable alternatives. Who would Manchester United turn to if Ten Hag was to go? Would Zinedine Zidane even want the job? Is Graham Potter good enough? Is Michael Carrick ready? Would Antonio Conte be a step back?
At the other end of the table, Sheffield United turned back to a manager in Chris Wilder who endured one of the worst seasons in Premier League history last time he was in charge of the club. What says ‘there was no other option’ more clearly than that?
Burnley can’t turn to a classic firefighter-type survival specialist because the squad has been built to play a possession game and would be ill-suited to backs-to-the-wall football. For Forest and Palace, there might be an alternative option out there, but both clubs’ managers have done enough in their jobs previously to be able to argue that they deserve a bit more time.
One final reason is that, more than ever before, managers are able to defend themselves with mitigating circumstances. Ten Hag is contending with a mountain of behind-the-scenes issues at Old Trafford; injuries are decimating squads across the Premier League, and Hodgson has had to make do without Eze and Michael Olise for much of the season; Kompany is battling against greater financial disparity than the Premier League has ever seen before.
Then again, this is still the same Premier League we’ve always known, really, and both the pressure to win and the stakes are higher than ever before. In truth, the sack could be just around the corner for anyone we’ve mentioned.
Sheffield United blinked first, and there is every chance their decision to sack Heckingbottom could force others to follow suit, not least because the options out there are limited, and any one team might be worried about being beaten to a potential target by a rival.
It’s far from clear whether we’re about to see the start of a classic Premier League managerial merry-go-round, but there is a chance that Heckingbottom’s departure leads other owners to consider making a big call.
First Manager to Depart in Each Premier League Season
1992-93: Ian Porterfield (Chelsea) – Left on 15 February 1993
1993-94: Peter Reid (Manchester City) – Left on 26 August 1993
1994-95: Osvaldo Ardiles (Tottenham Hotspur) – Left on 1 November 1994
1995-96: Roy McFarland (Bolton Wanderers) – Left on 2 January 1996
1996-97: Howard Wilkinson (Leeds United) – Left on 9 September 1996
1997-98: David Pleat (Sheffield Wednesday) – Left on 3 November 1997
1998-99: Kenny Dalglish (Newcastle United) – Left on 27 August 1998
1999-00: Ruud Gullit (Newcastle United) – Left on 28 August 1999
2000-01: Gianluca Vialli (Chelsea) – Left on September 2000
2001-02: Peter Taylor (Leicester City) – Left on 30 September 2001
2002-03: Peter Reid (Sunderland) – Left on 7 October 2002
2003-04: Glenn Hoddle (Tottenham Hotspur) – Left on 21 September 2003
2004-05: Paul Sturrock (Southampton) – Left on 23 August 2004
2005-06: Alain Perrin (Portsmouth) – Left on 24 November 2005
2006-07: Iain Dowie (Charlton Athletic) – Left on 13 November 2006
2007-08: José Mourinho (Chelsea) – Left on 19 September 2007
2008-09: Alan Curbishley (West Ham United) – Left on 3 September 2008
2009-10: Paul Hart (Portsmouth) – Left on 24 November 2009
2010-11: Chris Hughton (Newcastle United) – Left on 6 December 2010
2011-12: Steve Bruce (Sunderland) – Left on 30 November 2011
2012-13: Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea) – Left on 21 November 2012
2013-14: Paolo Di Canio (Sunderland) – Left on 22 September 2013
2014-15: Neil Warnock (Crystal Palace) – Left on 27 December 2014
2015-16: Dick Advocaat (Sunderland) – Left on 4 October 2015
2016-17: Francesco Guidolin (Swansea City) – Left on 3 October 2016
2017-18: Frank de Boer (Crystal Palace) – Left on 11 September 2017
2018-19: Slaviša Jokanovic (Fulham) – Left on 14 November 2018
2019-20: Javier Gracia (Watford) – Left on 7 September 2019
2020-21: Slaven Bilic (West Bromwich Albion) – Left on 16 December 2020
2021-22: Xisco Muñoz (Watford) – Left on 3 October 2021
2022-23: Scott Parker (Bournemouth) – Left on 30 August 2022
2023-24: Paul Heckingbottom (Sheffield United) – Left on 5 December 2023