One is an American in his first few months in English soccer. Another is an interim coach thrust unexpectedly into his first experience of top-flight management. The other was not long ago an elite player vying for the biggest trophies in the game.
The men leading the three clubs — Leeds, Burnley and Everton — who are engaged in a tense fight to avoid relegation from the Premier League are far from the typical managers English teams would once default to in a crisis.
Like Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis. Been-there-and-done-that managers in their 60s, with decades of top-flight experience, and a supposed ability to organize a defense and eke out enough points to keep a team up.
Instead, the boardrooms of struggling Premier League teams have bucked the trend.
Take Burnley, for example. Less than a month ago, the club’s American ownership made the surprising move to fire Sean Dyche, the longest-serving manager in the league and a man whose pragmatic approach defined the team. He wasn’t replaced by someone renowned as being a survival specialist — or a “firefighter,” as they are sometimes termed — but instead Mike Jackson, who had been coaching Burnley’s under-23 team for the previous nine months and had very short stints as a manager in the lower leagues in 2014 and 2020.
Jackson has changed Burnley’s style of play, with a more attacking mindset bringing three wins and a draw from five games and a shot at survival.
Then there’s Leeds, which brought in American coach Jesse Marsch in February following the tough decision to let go of a popular manager in Marcelo Bielsa, who had brought the team back into the Premier League after a 16-year absence and, like Dyche, had established a unique approach that stopped working.
Marsch’s preferred style — attacking and heavy-pressing, having been embedded in the Red Bull project for the last seven years in roles at New York, Salzburg and Leipzig — didn’t seem to chime with what was needed at Leeds in a likely relegation scrap.
What Marsch has actually done is tighten up at the back, even if a series of defensive mistakes contributed to a 2-1 loss at Arsenal on Sunday to drop the team into the bottom three.
Everton makes up the trio of relegation battlers separated by just one point with two weeks left of the season and is being led by Frank Lampard, the former England midfielder whose only experience of Premier League management was at his old club, Chelsea, where he lasted a year and a half before his limitations as a tactician led to him getting fired.
Just like Jackson and Marsch, Lampard has eschewed the team’s previous style to meet its current predicament. Everton now takes a defense-first approach and plays on the counterattack, with three wins and a draw from its last five games — the one loss came after a hard-fought display at title-chasing Liverpool — lifting the team out of the bottom three.
Meanwhile, a manager with the reputation of stopping teams from getting relegated, 74-year-old Roy Hodgson, was unable to prevent Watford from sinking back into the second-tier Championship after being hired in January. Watford’s relegation was confirmed on Saturday.
Last season, Allardyce — 66 years old at the time — was drafted in by West Bromwich Albion midway through the Premier League campaign in a desperate bid to help the team avoid the drop but he wasn’t able to. It ended Allardyce's proud record of never having taken a team down from England’s top division in 30 years as a manager.
No wonder, then, that struggling clubs are changing course and choosing to be bolder with their managerial appointments.
One of Leeds, Burnley or Everton looks sure to join Watford and Norwich in the Championship but whichever does can at least say its change in manager made a positive difference. Indeed, Lampard and Marsch have said they will be staying at their respective clubs whatever happens in the tension-filled days to come.
Leeds looks in most danger, with games to come against Chelsea on Wednesday followed by Brighton and Brentford.
Burnley is out of the relegation zone only on goal difference and still has to play Tottenham, Aston Villa and Newcastle.
Everton, coming off back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Leicester, looks to be in better shape, especially since it has a game in hand — at already-relegated Watford on Wednesday. Brentford, Crystal Palace and Arsenal are its final three opponents.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press