Goals or clean sheets? How a newly appointed Premier League manager can avoid relegation

We’re used to the narrative by now. There’s a new man in town ready to save a football club from relegation. He’s the saviour the fans have been begging for. A white knight on the horizon who brings renewed hope. Or at least that’s the plan.

There’s nothing like the hire of a shiny, new boss to rejuvenate a club that is seemingly slipping towards the relegation trapdoor. And as this season’s Premier League creeps beyond the halfway stage, we’ve rarely been so flush with the sight of fresh starts.

After a whirlwind of sackings so far this season, three of the bottom four sides have welcomed a new manager into their dugout. And it’s already clear that there are different priorities among them.

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After taking over at Watford, Claudio Ranieri initially appeared to favour scoring goals over defensive frugality, while Dean Smith is grappling with problems at both ends for Norwich after looking as though he was shoring things up at the back. As for Eddie Howe, success for him will probably be dictated by Newcastle’s performance in the transfer market.

But what does recent Premier League history suggest is the area a new manager should address to give his side the best chance of survival? The stats suggest scoring goals is the key.

Of the mid-season appointments made at relegation-threatened clubs in the past three Premier League campaigns, the most successful have seen a bigger uptick in their team’s goalscoring output. For example, both David Moyes and Ralph Hasenhuttl made notable gains in the goals-for column as they dragged West Ham and Southampton respectively away from danger.

Moyes took over the Hammers exactly half-way though the 2019/20 season and inherited a team that had scored 20 times in 19 league games under the outgoing Manuel Pellegrini, only to put on nearly 50% more to net 29 times in the second half of the season.

A year earlier, Hasenhuttl took a Saints side that had scored under a goal a game (0.85) and inspired them to score 32 times in his 23 matches at a rate of 1.4 per match. The Austrian did make them more frugal at the back too (as did Moyes at West Ham, but by a negligible amount), but not to the same extent.

It works the other way too. When it comes to reducing goals against, if a team doesn’t score enough at the other end, it’s rarely enough for a new manager to keep a team up… unless their name is Sam Allardyce.

In 2017/18, Swansea’s Carlos Carvalhal and Stoke’s Paul Lambert both made early progress defensively after taking their new jobs, but both went on to be relegated later that season.

Lambert significantly improved a Potters defence that conceded 50 in 23 league matches under Mark Hughes, to only let in 18 for the remainder of the campaign, but couldn’t he couldn’t do the same for his ailing attack. In fact, Lambert’s side became even less prolific after he took the reins – down to scoring a measly 0.92 on average per game.


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The Portuguese made a better fist of it than Lambert, but after a bright start at the Swans, they scored only three times in their last eight matches. Marco Silva suffered a similar fate with Hull despite making improvements in 2015/16, as did Nigel Pearson at Watford two seasons ago – although the Covid-19 outbreak did scupper the momentum he’d built initially.

Despite the progress Rafa Benitez made in his 10-game salvo for Newcastle in 2015/16, it could also be argued the Spaniard falls into that bracket too. He gave the Magpies a fighting chance by ensuring they only conceded 12 times after taking over, but a lack of firepower meant they lacked enough to take advantage. Discounting their 5-1 win against Tottenham on the final day when they were already relegated, Benitez’s Newcastle scored 11 times in nine matches at a rate of only 1.2. Respectable given the circumstances, if not especially prolific.

There is one man who bucks this trend with regularity, though: the aforementioned Allardyce. The self-proclaimed Red Adair due to his survival exploits, Big Sam has proved time and again that defensive solidity alone can result in avoiding relegation.

At Crystal Palace in 2016/17, Allardyce set up an Eagles side that conceded 0.45 goals fewer per match than predecessor Alan Pardew, but one that scored an average of barely more than one goal per game, but he still dragged them to 14th. He repeated the trick again in 2017 when he took charge of an Everton side initially sitting perilously close to the drop zone and pulled them into the top half – albeit they were under-performing significantly to be in such a lowly position to begin with.

Defence was also the order at the day at Sunderland in 2015/16 (conceding an average of times 1.47 per game compared to 2.25 under predecessor Dick Advocaat), although he did see their attacking numbers rise (1.53 goals per game in Allardyce’s final 19 matches in charge) too as he dredged the Black Cats out of the brown stuff. Only Paul Clement’s Houdini act for Swansea in 2016/17 comes close to suggesting simply prioritising the fixing of a leaky defence – conceding only 25 in his 18 games in charge that season, compared to 45 before it – is enough to turn things around. Rely solely on defensive improvements at your peril.

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Fireman Sam’s rescue missions debunk another common myth for a new manager too, proving that making a quick start isn’t imperative for successfully avoiding relegation.

Among the managers hired by relegation-threatened clubs in the past six seasons, Allardyce is perennially a slow starter. It took him 12 games to gather 10 points at Sunderland before embarking on a strong run to keep the Black Cats up, and 10 matches to do the same at Crystal Palace. Only David Moyes among the successful mid-season hires went even longer in recent years, taking 13 matches in his second spell at West Ham before hitting the 10-point margin.

In fact, the two new managers of relegation-threatened clubs in the past six seasons who accrued the most points early on in their reins still went down, with Carvalhal’s Swansea taking just five matches to get his first 10 points and Pearson doing it in six for Watford before dropping away.

It goes to show that while time is of the essence to start picking up points, the most important thing to get right are the foundations to sustain a relegation fight – and get your side firing. A lesson Messrs Smith, Howe and Ranieri are probably more than aware of.

Goals or clean sheets? How a newly appointed Premier League manager can avoid relegation
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