The Premier League has never been so cutthroat. As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was put out of his misery after overseeing Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat to Watford on Saturday, his sacking set a new record.
The Norwegian’s dismissal was the sixth managerial casualty in the top flight this season and is the earliest date in the Premier League era that the total has ever been hit. The remnants of chaos strewn across the division.
Solskjaer joins a list of names including Nuno Espirito Santo, Steve Bruce and Dean Smith to have taken the bullet in recent weeks. Managers cast aside by their clubs in what has become one of the most brutal sacking sprees seen at this level.
We’re told it’s sacking season. That time of year when coaches lose their jobs nearly as readily as the leaves are dropping off the trees.
Only unlike any other seemingly annual event, a closer look at past trends shows it’s impossible to set your calendar by it. Sacking season has a mind of its own and can be triggered at any time throughout the year, but when it arrives it usually leaves a slew of victims behind in its wake.
Solskjaer’s sacking as United boss was announced on 21 November, meaning the previous records of 24 November – set in both 2004/05 and 2007/08 – were surpassed by three days. In fact, on eight occasions in the Premier League’s 29 previous campaigns, all 20 managers have made it beyond the date without meeting their maker.
That’s not to stay the club guillotines weren’t as ready to snap into action when the sackings started in earnest, though. It’s just the flurry of managers losing their jobs arrived later in the year – sometimes never hitting overdrive until after Christmas.
But as soon as one gaffer is made to pack up his things, it can often be the catalyst for more to follow suit.
For example, when Crystal Palace made Neil Warnock the first managerial dismissal of 2014/15 on 27 December, it could have been easy to surmise that chairmen were feeling in more lenient moods. Yet in the 46 days that followed Warnock’s firing, four more managers were given their marching orders, with Alan Irvine, Alan Pardew, Harry Redknapp and Paul Lambert all picking up their P45s by mid-February.
It’s relatively common for the Premier League manager market to move in that way, with a string of sackings arriving in a glut. It’s how sacking season gets its name, after all, although it’s not always right to assume that it’s some sort of domino effect.
When the trigger was pulled on Solskjaer this term, he became the sixth manager to leave his post in seven weeks, or the fifth in only 32 days.
But look beneath the numbers and there’s enough nuance among the departed sextet to suggest this year’s record-breaking sacking fest has been partially inspired by coincidence rather than the current climate.
There’s Steve Bruce, whose Newcastle farewell was inevitable once Mike Ashley had sold the club; Solskjaer, who finally ran out of lives after three years of ups and downs at Old Trafford; and Nuno, who was a victim of being the wrong hire for Tottenham in the summer. Then there’s Watford being, well, Watford.
It is possible Spurs accelerated their decision to make a change with one eye on events at United, though, as they wanted to snap up Antonio Conte before a potentially more appealing job became available in Manchester. And arguments could be made that both Dean Smith and Daniel Farke could conceivably still be in their positions at Aston Villa and Norwich respectively had there not been an increased sense of urgency due to what was going on elsewhere.
The latter two clubs were clearly keen to make the most of the international break too, giving them chance to bed in their replacements during the two-week domestic gap in league fixtures. While this logic stands firm, the break has only become a more-utilised time to make managerial changes in relatively recent times. Before this year, only nine of the division’s mid-season managerial swaps have occurred during the window.
Instead, runs of sackings crop up at different times. As well as the example triggered by Warnock above, five sackings happened in a five-and-a-half-week period from mid-November to late-December in 2019/20, whereas it was a particularly busy time for managers in 2016/17 with three managerial changes in 12 days around Christmas and New Year a season earlier. Roll the calendar back all the way to 2001/02 and struggling Leicester City, Derby County and Southampton all made managerial changes in the three weeks to 21 October as they each made slow starts to the season.
Of course, there’s always the point that bad runs will usually precede sackings and concerned chairmen won’t be looking elsewhere unless they’re seeing the defeats tally up in their own camp. Yet look at where there’s been a higher frequency of firings in the past and it’s too much of a coincidence to say the sides at the bottom of the table don’t tend to react to each other.
If one club brings in a new boss to aid their fight against relegation, a look back at the run of departures that follow and it suggests itchy-trigger-finger syndrome spreads quickly. It’s fair to say that if one manager gets the boot, it can ramp up the pressure on others around them in the table.
But as we cast an eye back towards this campaign and wonder where the next fallen manager will appear, don’t be fooled into thinking sacking season is a modern-day phenomenon because they were at it in the 90s too.
In the Premier League’s second season, four bosses felt the chop in less than a month in January 1994, whereas a whopping six left jobs in 34 hectic autumn days later that year.
It might not have happened as early in the season as this year’s sackings, but it suggests the Premier League has never been a comfortable ride for its managers.