Premier League relegation is a simple concept: Your team was not good enough this season so they, and two other teams, have to drop down to the tier below (the Championship) and will play their games there next season. Conversely, the Championship will promote three teams to the Premier League to take their places (let’s not get into the playoffs). This toing and froing happens all the way down the league structure.
Now, while MLS and a few other leagues have dispensed with this system entirely, it is one of the wonderful aspects of the soccer pyramid that generates magic in the UK and in leagues around the world.
Usually, by this point in the Premier League season, if your team is in 15th place or above your players will already have their proverbial flip-flops on with one eye on the beach; winding down the season with a few lack-luster half-assed performances, secure in the knowledge that they’ll be playing in the Premier League again next season.
It’s a lovely situation to be in — nothing much to play for, no threat of relegation, no enticing European places to play for; just mid-table mediocrity — the soccer equivalent of planes in a holding pattern, circling the airport awaiting a landing spot. Players being careful, just hoping to not get injured so they can enjoy those rounds of golf and boat parties in Mykonos and maybe a move to a better (better paying) team, perhaps?
This season, however, is different. Teams from the bottom right up to 12th are all still within striking distance of the deadly clutches of relegation to the Championship — and all that goes with it. (SPOILER! Cold rainy nights in Stoke await). There's nobody seemingly wanting to march to the old faithful 40 points that usually guarantees survival.
Nobody is quite sure why we have this relegation congestion this year. It might be a product of the World Cup; a coda injected into the normal Premier League season that has contributed to more concertinaing than an international sea-shanty festival. It could be more evidence of the oft-mentioned "gulf in class" between the big 6/7 and the rest, or conversely the leveling effect more money brings amongst the lower-ranked teams… it could just be "the way it is."
Whatever the reasons behind it, what can teams in this situation do to arrest the slide? History has taught us there are several ripcords to pull, Band-Aids to affix and panic buttons to push. We explore their relative pros and cons below.
Off the field
Option 1a- Fire the Coach/Sack the Manager
Whether it’s a pink slip, a P45 or some other piece of job termination paperwork, this method CAN and DOES work. The termination alone can be enough to kick-start a recovery and rekindle the inner spirit of a team that's been lacking. Dropped heads? Lost dressing room? Player mutinies?... all can all quickly be turned around with a swift and direct culling of a useless manager and their backroom staff. This action typically follows shortly after the club has given the manager the dreaded "vote of confidence" — a death knell for the inevitable parting of ways which will soon follow.
Getting rid of the manager can be an expensive but most direct way to change a team’s fortunes, however, for this to work, there is another step which many clubs often get wrong – see 1b below.
Option 1b- Appoint a new coach and get the patented New Manager Bounce™️
"Succession Planning" is a term usually contained to management training courses — but it a critical part of the survival equation a lot of teams struggle with — which is surprising given some teams change their managers as often as we change our socks (and, no, you can’t turn a manager inside out and get another couple of days out of them).
You might think teams would see a situation like this coming and be old hands at having a successor lined up given it happens so often. One issue is the scarcity of good managers; typically, the managers available at this time of the season are available for a reason: they're not very good; their LinkedIn #OpenToWork status is on because other teams have jettisoned them for being "a bit shit" (see 1a). It’s like doing your Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve. The shelves are bare but for a few serial under-performers sat at home waiting for the phone to ring while counting the payoff from their previous job.
If there are any good managers who accidentally fell back of the shelf, the prospect of taking over a club in peril for a few games, getting relegated, losing the best players and a season in the Championship usually results in them declining the job; biding their time for a better future offer with a resumé that doesn’t have the words "relegated" and "Championship" anywhere near it (this really helps with the job search algorithms).
So, if the available new manager pool is dry, or full of bruised fruit and dented can managers, where else can a desperate club look?
There's always the greatest hits back catalogue! Bring back an oldie to "get a tune out of the lads" to the end of the season. As we’ve seen with Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace, and, to a much lesser extent, Frank Lampard at Chelsea, reconciling with an old flame might be the way to go. They know where the tea and coffee are in the kitchen, the chairman can probably poke around in a drawer, find their old security pass and reactivate it (saving clubs precious time and resources photographing and printing new passes which really helps with Financial Fair Play and a club’s environmental targets).
The problem here is that manager already left the club once, maybe they bowed out at the top, but more likely they were given the big elbow because of a situation not too dissimilar to the one the club now finds itself in. Old managers should be viewed like fireworks that fail to go off — don’t go back to them because they might blow up in your face.
Other alternatives include appointing from within, which is all well and good, but as managers nowadays travel with such an entourage, after you’ve got rid of the manager’s backroom staff a team might be left with the person who washes the kits, the person who makes the tea and the under 7s coach… arguably all of whom could probably do just as good a job.
So, these are a few things teams can do behind the scenes, but what about on the field of play itself?
On the field of play
Option A – Rise Majestically from the melee by putting in commanding performances!
Easier said than done. After 30+ games so far, your team’s lowly position would imply you aren’t capable of magicking Champions League final performances out of nothing. New manager or not, buzz words, motivational messages and Neuro Linguistic Programming alone are unlikely to unlock the potential within at this stage of the season.
In the old wrestling of yesteryear, Hulk Hogan used look like he was getting beaten up, suddenly cup his hand to his ear, get the crowd behind him, shake randomly… then win the match with the big 1-2-3. If you’re down the bottom of the table, you ain’t no Hulk Hogan… so what’s next?
Option B - Shithouse your rivals into relegation
This does require a bit of 4D thinking – basically, if we can’t beat you, we’ll deplete your forces and let the better teams clatter you.
When teams in this relegation situation play each other it’s best practice, when using this method, to see which of the opponent’s good players are one yellow card away from a suspension or have a short fuse and little emotional balance and shithouse them into a card by employing a mixture of physical and mental dastardliness (e.g. booting him up in the air/ calling his mum nasty names… or both). Any shithousery that will result in that player reacting, and receiving a yellow or red card, preferably in full view of VAR, that causes them to miss the next match or more due to suspension or injury.
There are risks associated with this, namely, your own players being at risk of being sent off — so maybe select a dispensable clod-hopper or team donkey from the subs to perform these tasks. If successful, the knowledge that your opposition will face future opposition with a weakened team in the coming weeks is a great tonic!
Option C – Implode/Surrender/Capitulate/Give up
The favored method of many teams in this situation, this involves discovering a whole new level of terrible, below even the meagre standards the team has set all season. Weak and leaky defenses, profligate attacking and the occasional fist fight between frustrated teammates. This is the tactic to use when all hope is gone, and you’re resigned to the aforementioned rainy nights in Stoke and the occasional nil-nil snorefest at Watford.
From an individual player’s perspective why would you do this? There’s no player draft so your mediocrity won’t be rewarded with a favorable pick (as in some other sports). So why? Well, one reason is you might actually be a good player whose future resides with a proper top-tier team elsewhere and you’ve done enough this season to secure a move away, or, you may have a relegation clause built into your contract, either way if your team goes down, you’ll probably avoid those windswept Championship trips to Hull and West Bromwich by virtue of a transfer to greener pastures.
Option D – Scramble to safety by producing some of the worst football imaginable
Another popular choice for "relegatees," when the going gets tough, the tough get hideously ugly — but effective.
11 men behind the ball, goal-line scrambles, booting the ball into row Z, running the clock down for a point from the first half, goals scored through lucky deflections bouncing off players' backsides, questionable VAR decisions - whatever it takes – this is the Alamo; muck and bullets, agricultural route to survival which means only two things: (1) The manager will be sacked as soon as the season’s over for the awful football the fans had to endure, and (2) the team will be in the exact same situation the following season.
Option E - Be the 4th worst team
In reality, the route to survival can be as simple as just having three teams who are worse than you. You might be the worst thing since sliced bread, but if three slices of bread fell on the floor, or the bread looks OK but is really that dry nasty gluten-free stuff – you MIGHT be in with a chance of survival, even if you continue that "calamitous caper" you’ve been passing off as soccer the whole season.
Now, you’re not going to win any awards, you’ll probably annoy your fans with the turgid style of play they’ve paid to watch all season, and, when the team are actually in flip-flops in Mykonos in June, there will probably an announcement on Twitter that the manager and his staff have decided to part ways with the club by mutual consent… but you’ve done it. You live to fight another day. No Stoke-On-Trent with an umbrella on the calendar for another 12 months at least (cup games and friendlies excepted).
Option X – The curveball
Finish outside the relegation zone but get relegated anyway on some sort of technicality or financial irregularity.
A lesser seen event in the relegation battle but one where the opponents aren’t so much the teams around you but are actually forensic accountants and auditors pouring over the company books. Sometimes these investigations are prompted by the FA, sometimes the flames are fanned by fellow relegation strugglers keen to capitalize on the creative accountancy of their peers through a bit of shit-stirring.
A punishment of a fine or transfer embargo could be annoying but, ultimately, the team may survive. A points deduction, now, that could be ruinous, especially if it’s the difference between staying up or going down. Either way, this could be one to look out for this season, that third-from-bottom team could see a reprieve even after the last ball has been kicked as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) makes their judgments known.
So, many teams have it all still to play for, with lots of twists, turns and narratives still left to play-out in this relegation saga. I’m sure we’ll see several teams deploying all or some of the options above from now through to the final day.
We’ll no doubt see a few teams dipping their toe in and out of the Championship on that final day of the season; panic stations, random cheers emanating from the stands as results elsewhere filter to the fans meaning their team is momentarily safe, teams literally dicing with Premier League death… until the music stops and hapless teams who have had literally 38 games to not be this bad will grab defeat from the claws of victory, and drop to the floor in dejected disappointment like one of those inflatable flappy tube men things, but in a power cut, as the final whistle is blown.
No amount of new manager bouncing, shithousery, or parking the bus will override the fact that 20 into 17 doesn’t go and Burnley et al want their turn.
Relegation is horrible to watch when your team is in it, but it’s great to watch when they aren’t, and it’s one of the things that makes league football as magical it is. Bring it on!