Patience, Panic, or Liverpool: Sorting Through the Premier League’s Tortoise Race for Fourth PlaceMichael Regan/Getty Images
How to fix a broken team? With the Premier League keeping things weird for another weekend, that’s the question lingering above many clubs. As it stands, Manchester United and Newcastle are tied for fourth place on 19 points, narrow leaders in a seven-team pack all within a measly two points of the ultra-valuable final Champions League spot. And that doesn’t even include Liverpool, who sit in 12th, just barely eclipsing a one-point-per-game pace.
Whether the first 12 games of the season have been a pleasant surprise, an abject disappointment, or — as is the case on Tyneside — both, for all the teams looking to vulture fourth place, the initial question is pretty simple: So, how do we do better than everyone else?
Surprisingly, the best way to fix a crisis is often to do nothing. Take Newcastle, for example. They went winless for the first seven games of the season. Alan Pardew’s job wasn’t just on life support; it was being read its last rites. If Pardew didn’t have such a close relationship with Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, it’s distinctly possible he would already be out the door. But Newcastle weren’t actually that bad, and plenty of people were saying so at the time. It’s to Pardew’s credit that throughout these incredibly bad runs of form, he keeps his team playing more or less the same way. Don’t look now, but five wins in a row later, they’re tied for fourth. You could say something similar about Everton and their current five-game unbeaten streak, although their highs and lows were not quite as extreme.
This ability to persevere is also Arsène Wenger’s primary strength at this point. For all the ways the old French coach’s stubbornness might hold the team back, you know what you’re getting from an Arsène Wenger team. You’re getting it if they struggle for the first half of the season, and you’re getting it if they’re in first place. And you’ll get it next week — even if Arsenal somehow give up two goals in a game despite conceding only one shot on target.
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What you get: Arsenal being good enough for third or fourth place and a routine Champions League exit. In the grand scheme of things, that might be disappointing, but after an incredibly frustrating loss to Manchester United, Wenger’s consistency is probably something for Arsenal fans to cling to rather than ridicule, at least for the couple of weeks before they inevitably climb back into the top four.
At the same time, good results don’t necessarily mean there aren’t serious problems lurking under the surface. (Anybody remember early-season “contenders” Aston Villa? Anybody?) It’s no accident that in his postgame interview on Saturday, Louis van Gaal spoke of how different the game might have been if Arsenal had scored on one of their early golden chances. Similarly, despite winning their second straight game on the road, Tottenham probably shouldn’t expect to keep seeing their opponents self-immolate, picking up red cards and giving them over half an hour with a man advantage to stage a comeback. Both teams have new managers, and both will continue to tweak and fiddle — which, given how the teams have played regardless of their point returns, is a good sign.
Banal generalization alert: Losing is hard — it’s hard on players, it’s hard on coaches, it’s hard on management. Last year, Tottenham struggled to get out of the gate. It might have been a blip or it might have been something more, but even before André Villas-Boas got the ax, the team had started to play differently. The beleaguered coach began to reach for stranger and stranger lineup combinations, seemingly pushing himself further and further away from actually finding any answers. It’s impossible to say, in retrospect, if Spurs were just in a Newcastle-like funk or if something was deeply wrong, but what’s for sure is that Villas-Boas couldn’t keep the string of results from spiraling into something worse. Although replacement Tim Sherwood couldn’t do any better.
Some teams have changed managers midseason, though, and seen dramatic improvement. Most recently, Crystal Palace underwent the makeover to end all makeovers when they hired Tony Pulis last season. Before the tracksuit-sporting, baseball-cap-wearing wonder coach, they were dead last with an average of 0.58 points per game. After hiring Pulis, the team scored 1.52 points per game, eighth-best in the league over that period.
Even if the point returns weren’t quite as dramatic, other recent midseason hires have come in and stabilized teams — both when it comes to the underlying fundamentals and the team’s style of play. Two seasons ago, current Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino completely revamped how Southampton played. The season before that, Rafa Benítez and his conservative banks of four stabilized Chelsea after interim manager turned Champions League winner Roberto Di Matteo started the season disappointingly.
And Then There’s Liverpool
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The latest Liverpool debacle was a 3-1 loss at lowly Crystal Palace. It’s their third consecutive loss in the Premier League and fourth in all competitions. Since beating Tottenham at the end of August — in by far their most convincing win of the season — they’ve won only two out of nine games, a stretch that has included scintillating losses to Aston Villa, West Ham, Newcastle, and now Palace. And while they still have a high Total Shots Ratio (fifth-best), which you might expect to point toward improvement, that number’s being driven by way too many low-percentage shots. Brendan Rodgers’s side sits 12th in the league in expected goals. Similarly, while they are suffering from opponents converting at an unsustainably high clip of 13.8 percent, the second-highest in the league, they’ve given up the 10th-most expected goals. Nothing here points to Liverpool being a sleeping giant. They might be getting a bit unlucky now, but this looks like a team — even if it were performing — that’s only a fringe Champions League contender.
Rodgers, however, seems committed to staying the course. That’s particularly strange in light of how, last season, he was one of the most adaptable managers around. It’s easy to forget now that it wasn’t until January that he switched the team into a narrow diamond with Steven Gerrard at the base. Even after that, he continued to shift pieces around dramatically and sometimes surprisingly. Rodgers has always talked a big game (often hilariously) about instilling passing principles and possession, and having his teams play a certain way. But in reality he’s been incredibly adaptable in his two-plus years with the squad. Until now, that is.
Rodgers might be biding his time, waiting for Daniel Sturridge to return. He did something similar last year while Luis Suárez started the season on a suspension for biting another player. Just like now, the team didn’t play too well during that stretch. However, unlike now, it was able to escape with results despite somewhat lackluster performances. Suárez came back and the rest is history. Except Sturridge has played only three games this season, and he’s scheduled to be out another six weeks. If the plan was to wait for him and not sweat the small stuff — well, the small stuff isn’t so small anymore. By the time Sturridge gets back, if Liverpool don’t improve, they may simply be too far behind to mount a serious Champions League challenge.
Part of what makes the race for fourth so interesting is where the various imperfect teams fall along that spectrum. Newcastle and Everton waited for the worm to turn, and now Arsenal’s on the clock. Meanwhile, Spurs and United continue to grasp, chop, and change as they try to figure out a solution for their multiple issues. And then there’s Liverpool, a team that needs to change led by a manager who has shown flexibility before, but who now seems invested in staying the course like Wenger would. If this keeps up, what costs Liverpool their season won’t be that Rodgers was unable to replace Sturridge and Suárez. It’ll be that he never even tried.