In what is fast becoming the most exciting and absorbing relegation battle in the Premier League since, uh, the last one, five (possibly six) teams are battling it out to avoid the drop.
Let’s start at the bottom with Wolverhampton Wanderers and a perfect example of why being trigger happy with your managers does not normally end well (take note Roman). Granted, owner Steve Morgan had some right to lose his patience with Mick McCarthy following a humiliating 5-1 home loss against Wolves’ fierce local rivals West Brom, however he had nobody to replace the Irishman with after he had dispensed of his services. Discussions with perennial Premier League relegation zone regulars Alan Curbishley and Steve Bruce came to nothing (incidentally Avram Grant’s agent was not called), whilst Walter Smith and Brian McDermott politely snubbed the offer to take Wolves down.
So the job went to McCarthy’s old assistant Terry Connor. The idea of having a new manager is that it allows the players to hear some new ideas and a different voice in the dressing room, freshening things up. Connor is quite clearly not a new voice and hence the rot has continued in the Black Country.
Talking of said dressing room, there are quite clearly some issues in there, revolving around club captain Roger Johnson. Whilst Johnson was excellent in his two previous Premier League seasons with Birmingham City, he has been close to abysmal at times this year and was stripped of his place in the team by Connor. This prompted Johnson’s wife to take to this new, fangled Twitter-thing (which I believe to be some kind of website) to complain about Connor’s team selection. Now, judging by Wolves’ current plight, I’m sure Mrs. Johnson would probably be doing a better job of keeping the team up but I doubt undermining the manager is the best way to turn results around. In addition, Johnson was involved in some sort of fracas with team-mate Wayne Hennessey. Whilst not escalating to Dyer/Bowyer-like levels of in fighting, it certainly highlighted divisions in the Wolves squad.
Roberto Martinez is probably my favourite person in football at the moment (sorry Mario). The man who laid the foundations for Brendan Rodgers’ excellent “Swanselona” side has continually kept an abject Wigan side up whilst always having his best players sold from under his nose, losing the likes of Antonio Valencia and Charles N’Zogbia in recent seasons.
His team selection has certainly been bold as well, being the only manager (Kenny Dalgleish’s failed attempt at home to Stoke excluded) to play three at the back, a formation that is almost unheard of the in the modern-day Premier League but more used in Italy and Spain.
Furthermore, his loyalty to Wigan has also been unwavered as he turned down the chance to take over Aston Villa in the summer. This in-part was why chairman Dave Whelan was so patient with him when Wigan were stuck at the bottom of the league for so long. Although Whelan probably also knows that if Wigan were to go down, Martinez would be the man to take them back up.
The only criticism I can level at the Spaniard is that his style of football is probably a bit too open and expansive for a team in a relegation battle. Oh and his hairline has been receding at an alarming rate.
Martinez love-in aside, Wigan are slowly pulling themselves out of trouble as they often do in March/April. A big three points at Anfield was followed by a comfortable 2-0 victory at home to Stoke City FC. However, Wigan’s traditional phoenix from the flames act may be cut short this year as their fixture list looks ridiculously tough as they have to visit the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, as well as host Manchester United. They will need more big performances like the one away to Liverpool if they are to stay up.
Four managers have been sacked so far this season in the Premier League. If I had told you that fact back in November, you would have put your house, mortgage and even your family on one of those unlucky men to be Steve Kean.
But lo and behold the Scotsman is still at the helm of the good ship Blackburn Rovers. After the 2-1 home defeat to Bolton Wanderers, he looked all but gone. The fans’ animosity had peaked towards Kean. You would have thought that it could not get much worse than a low-flying plane with a ‘Kean-out’ banner passing during a match, but the barrage of abuse aimed towards Kean during that Bolton game far exceeded anything seen before at Ewood Park.
But, credit to Kean, he stood firm against the hail of boos and insults and kept his job. And in doing so, he became probably the first Premier League manager to need a bodyguard.
Blackburn’s next two results were a 1-1 draw at Anfield and a massive 3-2 win at Old Trafford. Blackburn’s fortunes then improved and two weeks ago they moved six points clear of the drop zone. Kean managed this despite losing his three best centre-halves in Phil Jones, Chris Samba and Ryan Nelson over the past few months. Suddenly, the Venky’s didn’t look like footballing naive chicken farmers but shrewd owners who knew that Kean was the right man for the job. But now, with two defeats on the spin to a resurgent Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United, Blackburn find themselves in the bottom three once again and the Venky’s look like, um, footballing naive chicken farmers. However, Blackburn do have an easier run in than QPR and Wigan so they should be able to pull themselves out of trouble.
But on the other hand, should Blackburn be down there in the first place? Arguably, they have the best squad in the bottom five with the likes of Yakubu, Junior Hoilett and Steven Nzonzi and probably have even more quality in their side the already safe Norwich and West Brom.
Queens Park Rangers
Stuff money can’t buy: love and Premier League survival. Since Tony Fernandes’ arrival at Loftus Road, QPR have spent big in their attempts to stay up (£11.2 million, not including a host of undisclosed fees). Joining the amateur philosopher Joey Barton have been the likes of Djibril Cisse and Shaun Wright Phillips but all they have brought to the side are a poor disciplinary record in the case of the former and poor performances in the case of the latter. Despite their recent home wins over Liverpool and Arsenal, I still believe the Rs will fail to avoid the drop. Their form under Mark Hughes has been poor and whilst they were not in the relegation zone under Neil Warnock they have spent most of their time down there under Hughes.
The weekend’s win over Arsenal did lift them out of the mire but they still have to face the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Spurs before the season’s end.
Their spendthrift approach has been in direct contrast with their two fellow newly- promoted clubs Norwich City and Swansea City. The Canaries and the Swans have both largely recruited cheaply and from the lower leagues to great effect. Looking at Norwich at the start of the season, you would have been hard-pressed to name a Premier League-quality member of their squad, but the likes of Grant Holt and Steve Morison have risen to the occasion. Ditto Swansea, where the likes of Leon Britton (and his Barcelona-esque passing statistics), Nathan Dyer and Joe Allen have shone.
Last season, Owen Coyle’s side overachieved at the start of the season and severely underachieved towards the end culminating in a mid-table position. This year, they have probably been exactly where they should be and have been struggling in and around the relegation zone all season. Whilst they have indeed lost key players in Daniel Sturridge, Gary Cahill and Johan Elmander, as well as losing Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden to long term injury (and of course the tragic circumstances involving Fabrice Muamba), the Trotters have been unbelievably poor all season.
That is until their mini-revival of late that has seen them beat fellow-strugglers Blackburn and Wolves and move out of the drop zone. And the run can very much continue thanks to their half decent remaining fixture list that should see Bolton comfortably stay up.
An honourable mention: Aston Villa
Aston Villa have looked, at times, this season like they might be dragged into the relegation dogfight. However, they look like they should just have enough to avoid doing-so being five points clear. But, if there was any justice in this world, they would finish rock bottom. Alex McCleish’s Villa side have very simply stunk out the place all season. Their performances all season have been abject and lacking imagination. In the recent game at Arsenal, they failed to even muster a shot on target against the Gunners.
The fans have obviously turned on the Scotsman (although, his blue connections certainly do not help his cause) and now so have the players with the likes of Charles N’Zogbia publically criticising the manager. Whilst they have had injury problems with the likes of Richard Dunne, Darren Bent and Jermaine Jenas all picking up long term ailments, Villa should still be higher up in the table. And with £54 million losses posted and an owner who has announced his willingness to sell, a worrying future is ahead for the Villains.