So That’s The End Of That Then…
Another year, another weighty albatross of prem football dispensed with. It’s a bit ironic that the league that is the most awash with cash should have become, a) a beacon of light in the all too shady world of sporting finances while at the same time b) significantly less skilled or exciting. But that’s the way it goes apparently. So who has been good (exceeding expectations) and who has been poor over the last season?
I did enjoy Chelsea being thumped away from home at the tail end of the season while their fans all sang, “Champions of England, we know what we are…” And you can’t argue with that. Nor can you argue with Mourinho’s assertion that tactics are winning and winning is tactics however you end up playing.
And Chelsea did play some great football. Even some of their ‘park the bus’ matches were great to watch. Anyone who disparages good defensive performances should watch that Arsenal Chelsea 0-0 again and see how Arsenal tried everything to find a way past Chelsea’s obdurate defense to no avail. In an age when almost no English teams can actually defend, John Terry’s look of joy at the end of the game was well earned.
In contrast, Man City had a season to forget. Somehow the plan that involved re-signing all their over-25s didn’t take into account that they would nosedive after Christmas, that Yaya would still be upset over his cake and that too many of their players seemed to have a bit of a World Cup hangover.
In contrast to the teams around them, all of whom have very clear footballing philosophies, it’s not clear where City are going, nor exactly what they need to do to redirect themselves.
Phew! Arsene will be pleased (I don’t think he does ecstatic or overjoyed). While Third place and the retention of the FA Cup undoubtedly counts as progress, the suspicion remains that they should have done even better and that this incremental improvement will be used to, once again, gloss over the need for upgrades and competition in many areas of the side.
More players of the quality of Sanchez need to be brought in and the team needs to remember those matches where they threw away leads and played like headless chickens (see the end of the home leg against Monaco) as much as the progress that has undoubtedly been made. They need a lot more games like the FA Cup final and a lot less like their rubbish early season form.
Phew! Louis van Gaal will be pleased(ish) having scraped by with the absolute minimum requirement of a Top Four finish. Bearing in mind he had infinity grazillion pounds to spend on new players (even if he did spunk a wad on Falcao) and had a fixture list that compared favourably with Liverpool’s last season (no European football and out of the Cups relatively early doors), he very nearly managed to balls the whole thing up good and proper.
How we laughed at his talk of ‘philosophy’ when all he meant was humping it to the big man while all about him his costly midfielders were shanking the ball all over the shop. It’s amazing to think that in a season where there was no real challenge to Chelsea, Man U couldn’t do better. Still has a testy Champions League qualifier to get through to achieve his minimum objectives too.
Ever the bridesmaids, Tottenham have been lambasted all over the shop for what was actually a great season for them. First, they unearthed a genuine star player in Harry Kane – exactly the kind of player that Spurs fans want at the club. Second, they overachieved their position in the wages/league standing table, which is no mean feat at a time where the correlation between wages and league placing is pretty absolute.
Sure they moaned about the dragback of the Europa League, but these were precisely the games where Kane was allowed to play and establish his right to play in the ‘proper’ games. And where new manager Poccettino was able to assess his squad with some degree of freedom. Their big challenge over the next few years will be how to keep the squad at this level and beyond, while facing the financial straitjacket of building a new stadium.
After a season of nearly succeeding, Liverpool had some big challenges this season. How to deal with the loss of their best player, while upping their game to play in the Champions League, and how to manage the obvious-to-everyone-but-himself decline of Steven Gerrard. Clearly they failed to effectively deal with either of these.
Obviously it doesn’t help that their second best striker did nothing but enhance his relationship with the sick bay, so depriving Liverpool of a glut of goals, but a miserable recruitment drive failed to drag in anyone with a double figured goal tally, grossly overworked some of the younger team members and proved fabulously divisive.
None of this could be entirely the manager’s fault, but where Rogers really let his pants down was his selection for the away match against Real Madrid. Leaving Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho and Henderson on the bench for the most glamourous game of the season can’t have left any of them very happy. Allowing Spurs to pip you to 5th place, while still ensuring the potential handicap of Europa League football won’t endear you to anyone either.
Phew! What happened there then? At the start of the season, Southampton looked like a team in trouble. As is the way of teams breaking into the top ten, they’d been roundly pillaged over the close season, losing their manager to Tottenham, all players whose names started with L to Liverpool, Chambers to Arsenal and Luke Shaw to Man U. It looked like they would go the way of Aston Villa, who’d once been challengers only to reemerge as relegation dogfighters once all their best players had moved to various teams in Manchester.
Yet somehow Southampton came out on top. Their quiet recruitment of Koeman as their new manager was a masterstroke. Equally their choice of relatively unheralded continental talent, along with the emergence of more new young homegrown players far outshone the more celebrated recruitment policies of many ‘bigger’ teams. A fantastic result.
Given the usual rush for either long-in-the-tooth, well proven ‘Prem’ managers or relatively uncelebrated continental spreadsheeters for any managerial vacancy, the rise of Garry Monk has been exceptional. Bearing in mind this is his first full season in charge, his achievement has been extraordinary. This is Swansea’s best ever points total and even then they managed to cope with the loss of their top striker in the January transfer window. Outstanding.
If you can argue that 7th is about the absolute limit for those clubs that aren’t in some way fighting for the Champions League, then Stoke had a damn fine run at ‘their’ Championship, arguably a more prestigious result than the 5th and 6th of Spurs and Liverpool, only narrowly losing out to the far more accomplished Southampton and Swansea.
Hughes has done well to build on the work of Tony Pullis, but despite the occasional moments of lovely play, he’s still working with the best journeymen in the league rather than any even minor stars.
Given the finish they had, it’s hard to remember what life was like at the start of the season under the watch of Neil Warnock before the return of the prodigal Alan Pardew. It’s clear that Warnock isn’t a Prem manager, but Pardew obviously is.
Even without a pretty poor start, 10th place is a great achievement, the ‘best of the rest’ prize. Again, this is essentially a team of journeyman players, with the possible exceptions of Bolasie, and Zaha. So in a season of halves, Pardew dun good.
The second team that can realistically feel hard done by. You sense that Everton feel that they should have done better, if not against the likes of Spurs and Liverpool, then certainly against the four teams that finished above them.
One fallout of the loans system, the try before you buy system, which Everton use a lot, is that actually signing a player you had on loan the season before doesn’t actually feel like a new signing at all. Spending £28 million to make Lukaku a permanent Everton player may have been good business, but it didn’t feel like the team that was moving forward, a situation that wasn’t helped by his post-World Cup scoring rate. Additionally, the stalling of local players like Stones and Barkley didn’t help. Everton need to up their game next season.
This season felt like a bit of a pre-watershed moment. An astonishingly good first half of the season was matched only by the disintegration of the second half. Like Liverpool and Tottenham, West Ham’s challenges were very clear, how to prepare for the move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016, while ensuring the team stay in the Prem. And how do you deal with the obvious-to-everyone-including-himself departure of manager Allerdyce?
West Ham’s solution, to play terribly and lump the ball to the big man, is clearly the wrong answer, yet the alternative, wave goodbye to Allerdyce, install an untried new man, and hope for the best is highly risky. You sense that unless things improve, this is about as high as West Ham can get. And they are right above the relegation dogfight trapdoor.
For a perennial yo-yo club, mere survival feels like a significant achievement. West Brom were one of the first clubs to gamble and change their manager over the season and, Crystal Palace aside, by far the most successful. Not least because they managed to secure Tony Pulis, who seems to be about the most gold plated ‘stay in the Prem’ manager about.
Yet that accomplishment aside, there wasn’t a lot to recommend West Brom. For them staying in the Prem is almost a Championship (at this rate everyone will be going home with prizes). For Pulis, it’s recognition of his accomplishments. But it’s nothing really special.
In contrast, Leicester, 3 points and a place behind West Brom, have done fantastically. After struggling for the best part of the season, Leicester came good and didn’t just scrape to safety, they romped it.
Over the whole season, they stuck to their game plan and produced some really good performances, albeit with fewer wins than they would have wanted. And unlike some of the teams above them, it felt like they had players who were genuine up and comers rather than just journeymen.
Probably had the worst season of all the teams who weren’t relegated. At least the equally poor Sunderland team had the pleasure of beating them twice. Their first manager Pardew, understood that he was contracted to produce mid-table mediocrity, the very definition of the Curbishley Requirement. But he managed to jump ship mid-season and his replacement John Carver of Mars was somewhat less than useless, prime exponent of the peter principle, where one is promoted just above their level of competence (with hilarious consequences).
Phew! Really pulled the rabbit out of the hat with aplomb. But if it takes a hail Mary punt on Dick Advocaat for 8 games to get them to stay up, there’s a lot they need to be doing in the close season.
Phew! How did I do that? mused Tim Sherwood. It’s hard to believe that in barely two half seasons in charge of Spurs and Villa, he’s unearthed Harry Kane, squeaky bummed it to Prem safety and got to a Cup Final and NEVER signed no one ever. Plus, one of my other favourite moments of the season was the Villa fans singing “We’ll score again, don’t know where, don’t know when” during the much despised goalless Lambert era.
Like Monk at Swansea, Sherwood illustrates the potency of the former player as manager. And while he may not have all of his UEFA badges, he seems to have it sussed when it comes to man management and player improvement. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does next season.
So it turns out that buying all the Tottenham rejects, including ones you had had on loan the previous season, isn’t actually a sure fire route to successville. Who knew? And if Tony Pulis is the nearest thing to a Prem safety magnet, then Steve Bruce is clearly a doomed Championship manager masquerading as a Prem leader.
Bad and tedious beyond belief, Hull won’t be bothering the Prem any time soon.
Hard to say whether Burnley’s season can be counted as either a success or a failure. They came up, played 38 games, and as they did the last time, will disappear without anyone being much bothered.
Despite putting in a lot of ‘effort’, my main memory of Burnley is late tackles, and the sort of effort over application that you get when poor players play against better ones.
QPR are nothing if not hilarious. The fantastic Four Year Plan video, which amazingly enough is actually available in the QPR shop, details the terrifying catastrophe of their behind the scenes management after 2007. It’s only a shame that they didn’t have the gumption to continue to make more episodes.
Harry Redknapp stuffed the club full of the usual fagged-out run of the mill hoofballers, then proceeded to hoof it himself when his knees gave way under the weight of his numerous newspaper columns. Like John Carver, his replacement Chris Ramsey, seems to illustrate that while appointing former players (see Monk and Sherwood) may work, promoting the number 2 is rarely effective. Bottom of the heap for a great reason.