New World Order? The Last Day Of The Premier League Season
The lesson to take from it all is probably that, at the moment, European club football is considerably less predictable than it has been in years while the Premier League is as predictable as ever. Manchester City are the champions of England for the second year in a row. It’s deperately unlucky on Liverpool, who amassed ninety-seven points but could only finish in second place. They have the small consolation of an outstanding chance of becoming the champions of Europe in three weeks time, against Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid, a match which they will surely start as clear favourites.
Manchester City march on to the distinct possibility of completing an unprecedented domestic treble next weekend, if they can beat Watford in the FA Cup final. But the Champions League was the one they really wanted. The project has always been building towards that. For Liverpool, the Champions League is a trophy that most people over the age of about twenty to twenty-five can remember winning. They, however, haven’t been the champions of England since 1990, and for a club like Liverpool, winning the Premier League for the first time would be a huge symbolic step towards getting the club back to where it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s the striving for this that is important. Winning the Champions League would be incredible, but winning the Premier League is the increasingly persistent itch that needs to be scratched.
Amongst neutrals, preference seemed to err towards Liverpool, with the nature of Manchester City’s ownership being fairly commonly cited on social media as good reason to err that way. These groups, however, were probably outnumbered by those who were only watching for the schadenfreude, whilst others may have (also) had one eye on a local rival stumbling, preferably in as a humiliating manner as possible. And, of course, you could mix or match, according to prejudice. There really was something for everyone, if they wanted to look hard enough for it.
And for the exact period of a blink of the eye, it looked as though it could conceivably happen. Liverpool had already taken the lead against Wolverhampton Wanderers, whose supporters were gleefully feeding false scores from The Amex Stadium around Anfield. Brighton took the lead, a flicked header from Glenn Murray, but all that happened was that the beast was poked. Aguero levelled within a couple of minutes and City ran out comfortable winners, rendering events at Anfield irrelevant. Liverpool won comfortably, of course.
This may not be fair on Liverpool, but any less than this would feel unfair on Manchester City. Fourteen consecutive wins have taken them to the title, and it’s only likely that they will strengthen further in the future. Is this as close as this Liverpool team – or any team – could possibly get? How on earth is another Premier League club supposed to keep pace with that? Spurs tried, and did so whilst pointedly rerefusing to do anything as vulgar as spend money in the transfer market, which resulted in their team against Everton this afternoon featuring three scarecrows and a dustbin with a player-issue shirt tied round it up front. Spurs and Everton drew two-all.
After scoring early on, Spurs ended up having to scramble back into their game to get a draw. Meanwhile, Chelsea were also playing out a draw against Leicester City. They cling onto third place, Spurs are fourth, and Arsenal miss out again. All three London clubs have something to be pleased with. Chelsea got third place, which, when considering the strength of Manchester City and Liverpool, was probably about the best that they could manage. They also have a European final. Spurs have, erm, not spent any money on players, have got Champions League football again, and have a free shot at the European Cup. Arsenal may have missed out on fourth place, but winning the Europa League would give them a backdoor route into next year’s Champions League on top of, you know, winning a major European football trophy.
And then there’s Manchester United. Elite level sports are often decided by unforced errors, and the decision to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a full-time basis before the end of the season is increasingly starting to look like something both extremely unforced and an extremely big mistake. This afternoon, in a final act worthy of a Tom Stoppard farce, Manchester United were beaten at home by Cardiff City. Already-relegated Cardiff City. Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City. The Cardiff City that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took down in 2014. The problem for Manchester United is that no-one seems to be learning any lessons. The club has been rumoured to be in the process of appointing a sporting director, but does anyone trust them to make the right decision in that respect? Where on earth does Solskjaer go from here?
But if Manchester United want to get back to somewhere near the summit, those years of neglect could be about to catch up with them. If the first team squad needs renovation to the extent that United can challenge near the top of the Premier League or at the very latter end of the Champions League, that’s going to be expensive. One marquee signing per window won’t cut it any more. Then there’s the Paul Pogba situation. On the one hand, he is one of the most talented (and lucrative) footballers on the planet, the calibre of player than Manchester United might not be able to attract with no Champions League football next season, Ole only barely in control of the wheel, and the stench of stagnation hanging heavy in the air. On the other, he has looked disinterested on the pitch and there have been reports of him being a disruption in the dressing room. There are plenty more held to blame than Pogba, though, and the large number of changes that need to be made are going to take time. A strategy, would be a start.
All of this, however, is primarily a distraction. The other leagues in Europe have, in recent years, largely succumbed to becoming at-best-duopolies, so why shouldn’t the Premier League follow suit? The gap between Manchester City, Liverpool, and the rest is now so great that the gap between Manchester City, Liverpool and the rest is already starting to look as though it could prove to be insurmountable in the near future. It requires skill and time to build what these two clubs are building. Whether there are those out there will the skillset who’d want to come to England to boost the chances of the would-be challengers is unknown, whilst time is one of the commodities that no football club has, these days. There’s a chance that this season was a one-off, that no-one could possibly keep this sort of pace going for year after year. But Manchester City have amassed almost two hundred points in two seasons. As records go, it is awesome, in the most literal sense.
This makes what happened yesterday feel somewhat inevitable. Brighton forced their way into the lead against Manchester City, but once City levelled it never felt in doubt that they would go on to pick up all three points. Liverpool should be able to offer some sort of challenge to Manchester City next season, but the others in the chasing pack have so much renovation to do that it’s impossible to see how they could be ready to seriously challenge by August, especially if ninety-five to one hundred points is now what’s required to have any realistic chance of challenging for the Premier League title in the first place. Indeed, there will be some now wondering whether, if this duopoly is to remain so much stronger than the rest of the division that the rest are just a supporting cast, then perhaps it would be for the best if they were to spirited away to a European Super League, after all.