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Johnny Phillips: Pressure is on as spectre of relegation looms large

The battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League has taken a more interesting twist in recent weeks.

Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo Bielsa

For several months it looked like a four-horse race between Norwich City, Watford, Newcastle United and Burnley. But since the turn of the year more clubs have been sucked into the mess. Everton, Leeds United and Brentford are now all in peril and, for some, the ramifications of relegation do not bear thinking about.

Everton owner Farhad Moshiri has already ploughed more than £500million into the team with very little to show for such a lavish investment.

With work well under way at the Bramley Moore dock site, it is unthinkable for the club to be outside the Premier League when the day comes to move from Goodison Park.

Frank Lampard has been tasked with ensuring Everton’s 68-year unbroken stay in the top division continues.

Although recent results have been disappointing there has been enough of an upturn in performances to suggest the change in manager mid-season was worth the upheaval, such was the toxic atmosphere around the place under Rafa Benitez. The Blues are far from safe, though, and need to put a substantial run of form together if they are to pull clear of trouble.

Newcastle have certainly improved since Eddie Howe took the reins but that is not the primary reason for their upturn in fortunes.

The new Magpies manager was given a huge January transfer budget allowing him to go out and buy half a team.

With over £90million spent to secure Chris Wood, Matt Targett, Dan Burn, Kieron Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes the Saudi Arabian owners have ensured they have a much stronger squad than the one which toiled for so long in 2021.

Even taking into account the unfortunate injury suffered by Trippier, it is hard to see how they could drop back into the bottom three.

Leeds are the latest of the clubs down at the bottom end of the table to dismiss their manager.

When news broke that Marcelo Bielsa was being relieved of his duties last weekend it appeared their supporters went into mourning, such was the Argentinian’s impact at Elland Road. Much of this was due to his presence in the city and the manner he went about giving belief to a fanbase down on its luck.

But progression on the pitch this season has been difficult this season after last year’s ninth-place finish. Leeds are just two points above the bottom three with the teams below them having games in hand.

Bielsa had undoubtedly been dealt a rough blow on the injury front but his stubbornness in resisting a change of strategy on the pitch probably cost him his job.

After shipping four goals at home to Manchester United and six goals at Liverpool, it was reckless to set the team up so openly against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. With a goal difference worse than every team bar bottom club Norwich, the damage of the last three games has been substantial. Leeds have the look of a club heading only downwards.

The appointment of former RB Leipzig boss Jesse Marsch represents a huge gamble. With a contract until June 2025, the ownership has shown great faith and Marsch is not expected to be a stopgap solution.

Perhaps the purists’ choice should be to see Brentford and Burnley pull clear. Not for anything they are doing on the pitch as both teams can be a hard watch at times, especially when it comes to their ideas on in-game time management, but more for the simple reason that they are the only two clubs who have stuck with their managers.

The amazing jobs done by Thomas Frank and Sean Dyche are worth noting. Frank can get under the skin of opposition managers, but he deserves every credit for earning the Bees promotion in the first place. It is essentially a Championship squad but he has found a way of making his team competitive each time it takes the pitch.

Dyche gets written off every season, with the Clarets rarely investing anything of substance in team strengthening, yet he continues to find a way of upsetting the apple cart and keeping Burnley in the division. With seven points from the last nine games, including that hugely impressive home win over Spurs, Dyche may yet pull off another escape. With a huge leveraged buy-out plunging the club into massive debts last season, relegation could be catastrophic for Burnley.

The bottom two, Norwich and Watford, are clinging on for now. Under Dean Smith, Norwich have shown shoots of recovery but it is more likely that his best work will be done next season. The Canaries must shrug off the yoyo club tag they’ve acquired. Promotion from the Championship usually leads to the white flag being raised at Carrow Road. If they go down again, Smith’s remit should involve building a side fit for purpose in the event of their return to the top.

It is hard to work out what Watford want from life. The chop-and-change management philosophy of the Pozzos has been successful to a point, but it appears to have unravelled quickly this season. Watford have gone through 17 different managerial appointments in the last decade, with three taking the helm so far this campaign. Roy Hodgson’s pragmatic approach has ground out a few useful results, such as last Saturday’s goalless draw at Old Trafford, but they remain odds on to go down.

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