Plus ça change? Season shows stability is way to make strides

The Weekend Dossier

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If there is one dominant conclusion to emerge from the Premier League campaign, which draws its last breath tomorrow, it is the value of stability – which does not augur well for England as Roy Hodgson attempts to scramble together a coherent squad and playing philosophy before next month's European Championship. There are times when a change is necessary, times when it is beneficial, times when it is unavoidable, but the old American proverb, "be sure you can better your condition, before you make a change", has been too often ignored.

The fiasco at Wolverhampton Wanderers, who sacked Mick McCarthy in a knee-jerk reaction to the 5-1 home defeat by West Bromwich Albion, is the most evident example. Given the awfulness of Wolves' defence, even given the tight resources McCarthy operated with, a change was perhaps arguable, but the club's indecision over who to replace him with cost them one obvious candidate when Neil Warnock accepted a firm offer from Leeds, and another when Alan Curbishley pulled out. The subsequent promotion of McCarthy's coach, Terry Connor, was barely a change at all, and it showed.

The manager survived at the other relegated club, but while Steve Kean stayed in place all around him was instability. The board was out of the loop on major decisions, which were taken in India, players agitated for a move – successfully in the case of Christopher Samba – and there was turmoil off the pitch. Thus a squad which had enough ability to take the relegation battle to the final day at least are six points adrift and down. The change there has been to the culture of the club which has turned the town against the men who represent its most public institution. The men who sold to Venky's did so in good faith, but they must feel terrible now. Unlike David Moores, who flogged Liverpool to Tom Hicks and George Gillett, they do not even have the compensation of making £88m.

That Bolton are favourites to join Blackburn and Wolves in next season's Championship suggests they should have changed manager, but there are extenuating circumstances. Even before Fabrice Muamba's collapse, Owen Coyle had to deal with a freak injury list. Two broken legs in pre-season, to Lee Chung-yong and Tyrone Mears, added to Stuart Holden's knee problems, left him three players short and there was further uncertainty surrounding Gary Cahill, who should have moved in August, and eventually did in January.

The consequences of instability are more obvious at the Loftus Road circus where Queen's Park Rangers have changed owner, manager and chief executive since the start of the season, and experienced two manic transfer windows which have added 11 players to the staff, at £20m cost, since the opening day. Despite bringing in Mark Hughes as manager, plus players Bobby Zamora, Djibril Cissé, Nedum Onuoha, Samba Diakité and Taye Taiwo in January, QPR are this morning exactly where they were when Warnock was sacked, 17th place.

Other clubs did not panic when they might have. Wigan kept faith with Roberto Martinez despite eight losses on the bounce and Arsenal stood by Arsène Wenger when many were questioning his abilities. Both have turned their seasons around.

Not that changing a manager necessarily leads to instability. At Chelsea familiarity returned when Andre Villas-Boas was fired, Roberto Di Matteo reverting to the old guard, and tried-and-tested methods. While there was too much ground to be made up in the league, the interim head coach has led the team to two finals –winning one so far – with a nine-match cup run featuring eight wins and a draw in Barcelona. Roman Abramovich must wonder whether, if he had trusted Carlo Ancelotti slowly to rejuvenate the team, Chelsea would also have challenged for the title.

Mohamed al-Fayed also hired a new manager last summer, his third in as many seasons, but only because Mark Hughes, like his predecessor, Hodgson, left of his own accord. The team has continued to prosper because Martin Jol, like Hughes, has only tinkered with a formula Hodgson has since successfully transplanted to West Bromwich. Both made the team more expansive, but retained the core players. Seven of the 13 involved in last weekend's win over Sunderland played for Hodgson in the 2010 Europa League final.

Norwich and Swansea, the season's two surprise packages, have been models of stability on and off the pitch, with both managers standing by the core of their promoted teams. Both Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers also did the bulk of their main transfer work early. This is crucial. Bringing in players in time for them to bed in during pre-season makes a huge difference, as Wenger has been reminded.

The Arsenal manager, having already signed Lukas Podolski and lined up Yann M'Vila, is evidently keen to avoid last summer's transfer chaos when he sold Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Eboué after the season had started and was forced to bring in four players in the final hours before the deadline. Arsenal lost four and won two of their opening seven games and have been playing catch-up ever since.

The Gunners' spring recovery owed much to a stable defence, as did Newcastle United's fine start. The back four is usually the foundation of any successful team (managers rarely make like-for-like substitutions in defence) and managers who have to make changes frequently see results suffer.

In terms of pound-for-pound value Everton, as usual under David Moyes, have been one of the outstanding teams. It says much for the spirit at the club that Sylvain Distin, despite his match-changing mistake in the FA Cup semi-final, was voted the players' player of the year, and for the solidity of the structure that Steven Pienaar immediately rediscovered his form when he returned from White Hart Lane.

But no rule is an absolute and there are times when change works. Wigan's recovery from doom owes much to Martinez's bold decision to switch to a three-man defence, and his players' preparedness to buy into it. Sunderland's revival under Martin O'Neill was a clear case of a new manager, with a new approach, transforming a team. The difficulty, for managers, chairmen, and club custodians like the Jack Walker Trust, is knowing when and how to execute change. On such decisions are titles won and relegations averted, or not.

Five Asides

1 League must do right thing with parachute payments

With Blackpool and West Ham United in the promotion play-off final, £32m of parachute payments will not now be paid out. That money could build hundreds of park dressing rooms, buy thousands of portable goals and employ dozens of groundsmen. Or be redistributed to top-flight clubs to go into agents' and players' pockets. Come on, Premier League, do the right thing with it.

2 Toffees need to select the right sugar daddy

Blackburn's traumas since the Venky's takeover should serve as a warning to fans of all clubs seeking a sugar daddy, especially Everton's. Blues chairman Bill Kenwright is right to wait until he is absolutely certain that a new investor has not just the funds, but also the right approach, before passing on stewardship of the Toffees.

3 Who cares if big clubs are beaten more regularly?

The report by the former Wales coach Raymond Verheijen confirming that teams struggle the weekend after European ties is no great surprise, but so what? Champions League income enables clubs to maintain large, high-quality squads, so why force smaller clubs to move games to accommodate them? The occasional upset is part of the game's allure. Europa League teams are generally less well-resourced, but the solution is to split European competition prize-money more equally.

4 Wembley Way becomes a well-trodden path for York

Going out of the league is a terrible blow to Hereford and Macclesfield, but being a leading Conference club has its pluses. York City play at Wembley in today's FA Trophy final, and again in next week's promotion play-off final. That will be their fourth visit to the new stadium since their relegation in 2004. Eight Premier League clubs are yet to play there.

5 Best wishes for Perryman, one of the good guys

It has been a very sobering year for football with Fabrice Muamba's collapse at White Hart Lane and Trevor Francis suffering a heart attack. Now comes the distressing news that Steve Perryman, one of the game's good guys, is still seriously ill after emergency heart surgery. Get well soon, Steve.

This weekend's team news...

Chelsea v Blackburn

Odds Home 30-100; Draw 9-2; Away 9-1.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Gary Cahill and David Luiz remain unavailable for Chelsea, while John Obi Mikel (knee) is unlikely to be risked ahead of next week's Champions League final. Relegated Blackburn are without defender Bradley Orr (Achilles), while goalkeeper Paul Robinson (ankle) is a doubt, along with David Dunn. Gaël Givet is available.

Everton v Newcastle

Odds Home 6-5; Draw 5-2; Away 11-5.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Leighton Baines (groin) could return from a month out for Everton, while Phil Neville and Darron Gibson are also in line for inclusion after missing last weekend's draw at Wolves. Newcastle are without Danny Simpson (ankle) and Leon Best (thigh), while Sammy Ameobi (knee) remains short of match fitness.

Manchester City v QPR

Odds Home 1-8; Draw 8-1; Away 18-1.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has no fresh injury worries for the final match of the campaign, with striker Mario Balotelli pressing for a recall. QPR are without Samba Diakité (virus), while Shaun Derry (leg), Akos Buzsaky (hamstring) are both doubtful.

Norwich v Aston Villa

Odds Home 6-5; Draw 12-5; Away 9-4.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Adam Drury is a doubt at left-back for Norwich City with a groin injury, but James Vaughan is hopeful of a recall. Zak Whitbread (hamstring), Marc Tierney (groin) and Daniel Ayala (knee) are out. Aston Villa are without Andreas Weimann (medial ligament), while Alan Hutton (shin), Emile Heskey (ankle) and Gabriel Agbonlahor (ribs) are doubts.

Stoke City v Bolton

Odds Home 11-8; Draw 5-2; Away 15-8.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Stoke await updates on Marc Wilson (back), while Andy Wilkinson (groin) and Jermaine Pennant (hamstring) should be fit. Bolton manager Owen Coyle is hopeful of including Nigel Reo-Coker (leg) and Mark Davies (virus), while Darren Pratley (virus) is also pressing for inclusion. David Wheater (knee) sits the game out.

Sunderland v Man United

Odds Home 7-1; Draw 15-4; Away 2-5.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Sunderland have no fresh injury worries, although Wes Brown (knee) remains short of fitness. Kieran Richardson and Sebastian Larsson (both hernia) remain out. Chris Smalling (groin) and Danny Welbeck (ankle) miss out for Manchester United.

Swansea v Liverpool

Odds Home 12-5; Draw 5-2; Away 11-10.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers has no fresh concerns, with Angel Rangel (hamstring) and Leon Britton (knee) having returned last weekend. Liverpool could make changes from the side that beat Chelsea on Tuesday, although Steven Gerrard (back) may not be risked. Andy Carroll is expected to retain his starting place up front.

Tottenham v Fulham

Odds Home 2-5; Draw 7-2; Away 15-2.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news Scott Parker (Achilles) is a doubt for Tottenham Hotspur, while Danny Rose is suspended after his red card at Aston Villa last Sunday, with William Gallas in line for the left-back role. Ledley King (knee) is a doubt.

Fulham are without leading scorer Clint Dempsey (groin), while Alex Kacaniklic is doubtful with a hamstring problem.

WBA v Arsenal

Odds Home 4-1; Draw 3-1; Away 4-6.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.25pm)

Team news West Bromwich Albion captain Chris Brunt misses out after having his tonsils removed, while fellow midfielder Paul Scharner makes his final appearance for the club. Peter Odemwingie (leg) and Jerome Thomas (illness) are doubts. Theo Walcott (hamstring) could return for Arsenal, but Bacary Sagna (leg) is out long-term.

Wigan v Wolves

Odds Home 4-7; Draw 3-1; Away 5-1.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 ,10.25pm)

Team news David Jones is a concern for Wigan with "a couple of niggles", according to manager Roberto Martinez. Wolves will give checks to Christophe Berra (calf) and Michael Kightly (groin), while Sébastien Bassong, Kevin Foley (both hamstring), Matt Jarvis (head) and David Davis (head) could return after missing last week's draw with Everton.