Thursday, 6 January 2011

Hodgson takes pole as Sack Race hots up

An extraordinary Premier League season took another dramatic turn last night and the pressure was heaped on bosses Roy Hodgson, Avram Grant, Carlo Ancelotti and Gerard Houllier, as the poor form of their respective clubs culminated in bitter defeats for Liverpool, West Ham, Chelsea and Aston Villa. All four's jobs are under serious threat, and the league in danger of losing four of its managers in very quick succession. In 2011 it is now more commonplace than merely a worrying trend for managers to be sacked so short into their tenure, with three of the four managers at risk only half a season in and Ancelotti at Chelsea only twelve months their senior.

Of the four, Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson is most at risk. His problems at Anfield are complicated and difficult to summarise in a short passage, but the main quandary for Liverpool fans for and against Hodgson had been whether he was performing too poorly, or whether he was doing a good enough job with a sub-standard squad left by Rafa Benitez. In the minds of Liverpool fans, this debate seems to be over. Liverpool are a club in turmoil. Their performances this season, particularly away from home with one win and seven defeats in ten matches, would be considered awful by a club with standards and expectations lower than that of a member of the now out-dated ‘Big Four’.

Hodgson has lost the fans, who usually pride themselves in standing by their manager. “For nearly 40 years I have been a supporter of Liverpool and I have never been so ashamed as I am about what is happening now”, comments one disgruntled fan on BBC 606. While he inherited a poor squad, much of the blame has been placed upon his poor organisation of it. Liverpool lack attacking ambition and are usually defensively set-up, especially away from home, a trait which frustrates Liverpool fans as they accuse Hodgson of borrowing tactics from his former side Fulham and trying to apply them to a bigger club. Hodgson has, in particular, been accused of lacking width and pace and his use of influential central-midfielder Raul Meireles on the right has attracted frustration from the Kop.
While Hodgson must accept his share of the blame, much of this is not his fault. The team is poor. While the team under his organisation may be poor, the sum of its parts has not performed either. Glen Johnson continues to fail to convince as a defender at the higher levels, there is a distinct lack of talent in central defence, and it also seems they can no longer rely on Steven Gerrard to perform on the team’s behalf on a consistent basis. His inconsistency (when fit) has been a feature of Liverpool’s poor form. Granted, Hodgson’s dealings in the transfer market have been far from inspired, with the fallacy behind the much lauded capture of Joe Cole, along with the reason for Chelsea’s willingness to see him leave on a Bosman, now exposed. Hodgson is severely limited with what he can do with the side, and even his selection of Meireles on the right has logic, to pick a player to influence an otherwise ineffectual position. This, along with several other of his tactics, has not worked.

Crucially, Liverpool have shown a clear lack of ambition (from the coach) and lack of desire (from the players), and Hodgson’s head, despite the evident restrictions placed on him, will surely go because of it. The club is lucky that inconsistency and underachievement is currently rife in the league, otherwise their plight would only be magnified. Speculation as to his replacement has begun, and with the big name the club’s ego demands unlikely to appear, no-nonsense former Hoffenheim coach Ralf Rangnick and Champions’ Leauge-bound Dortmund coach J├╝rgen Klopp are among the favourites. With or without Hodgson at the helm, Liverpool fans may have to swallow some pride and lower the expectations of their coaches in the next few years, because, for now at least, they are no longer a major force in English football.

Joining Hodgson on front row of the grid is Avram Grant. Bottom of the league after a 5-0 defeat at Newcastle, Grant’s position is also in jeopardy. While a lot of blame should rest on players, and acknowledgements given that they have one of the league's weakest squads, Grant is a man who does not inspire his players, does not get setups right and clearly does not drill home the benefits of closing down in training. They criminally stand off teams in midfield, have little drive and attacking impetus, and the players do not appear to be thinking properly. The four game job-saving spell over the Christmas period was nothing more than a false dawn, with no lessons learned and the same mistakes made, just against weaker opposition; Fulham and Blackburn were both atrocious against them.

With a more organised and motivational coach, West Ham stand a chance of survival. With Grant at the helm, they will be relegated. Bringing in Chris Hughton instead of Grant, a man who, looking at Newcastle, can build solid relationships with his players and get them to perform, would be a very wise move. There would be greater stability, passion, spirit and ability of the club to rebuild with Hughton at the helm. Grant’s job is being saved for now by West Ham’s hugely limited resources; they simply cannot afford to sack him. But if the owners accepted that hit, with Chris Hughton as boss the club would be in a healthier long-term position.

On to Chelsea, and the growing troubles at Stamford Bridge after an awful performance and result away to Wolves. With one win in eight league games, the side who, only three months ago, were expected to canter to the league title at record pace, find themselves barely in the title race by January. Even with this seasons dramatic fluctuations, the nine point gap between them and an improving Manchester United, who have a game in hand on them, is devastatingly large. Their squad is not as good as they had fooled football followers into thinking. Injuries to the likes of Essien, Alex, and, dare I say it, Lampard, have been crippling, and squad players like Kalou have not proven their worth, while high-fliers Drogba and Malouda have co-incidentally lost their form.

Disgruntled fans point to the removal of Ray Wilkins as the chief reason behind the slump, while some have, arguably cynically, suggested that, content with their high wages and lavish lifestyles, it doesn’t mean enough to many of the players to want to win the title again. But while problems remain at Chelsea, who could do better than Ancelotti? Who is even available? It would appear too that Abramovich is more interested in the Champion’s League title than the Premier League anyway, his current manager having won more Champions’ League titles in eight seasons with Milan than domestic Championships. Ancelotti’s job should be safe until the end of the season at least.

Also considered a contender for the chop until late last night, Aston Villa boss Gerard Houllier has been given a reprieve for the time being. He has seen his team in consistent poor form since he took the reins in September, culminating in his side’s slip into the bottom three after the disappointing defeat at home to Sunderland. Not hugely popular among the fans from day one, an unavoidable reality considering the almost untouchable popularity of Martin O’Neill at Villa Park, his assets to the club outweigh its current problems. Houllier is, in his continued selection of young talent, not only building for the future and showcasing youth (something which is in increasing demand by fans following the World Cup), but also selecting a creative and balanced team. Desire and effort among Villa’s players has never been in doubt throughout the season, which will be a great asset to them in the battle against relegation and which is also sorely missed by many of the teams around them.

Houllier is also a vastly experienced and talented coach, and his best youngsters will only improve under his guidance. But two main problems must be rectified if Houllier is to save Villa this season along with his job. They ‘switch off’ too often at crucial, often late periods. Concentration and organisation is crucial and often separates the good teams from the bad ones. Wolves, for instance, dominated the match at Old Trafford against Manchester United, but the difference between the two sides came at the end of each half, with brief lapses in concentration, brief deviances from an otherwise effective gameplan, costing them the match. In addition to this, Villa also need to be a more potent attacking threat to best utilise the efforts of the excellent Stewart Downing and the hugely promising Mark Albrighton. Simply put, they need a good striker. If Houllier can rectify these problems, he will secure his position. But in a now characteristically ruthless managerial market, he and others know that another slump, and with it yet more pressure on their job, is potentially just around the corner.