Premier League Review: Nine Months of Bad Faith
Yesterday afternoon’s one-nil win at Southampton brought up one hundred Premier League points for Manchester City this season. They scored one hundred and six goals and won thirty-two of their thirty-eight league fixtures, finishing nineteen points clear of Manchester United and thirty above fifth-placed Chelsea, who were last year’s champions. True enough, they didn’t manage an entire season unbeaten, as Arsenal did in the 2003/04 season. They scored twenty-two goals more than the division’s second highest scorers and conceded the least goals in the division as well.
They were, by a margin so wide that at times it was almost comical, England’s best football team over the course of this season. It won’t be enough for some, though. It won’t be enough for many. Supporters of other top six clubs, salty at the oil-funded parvenus turning the championship race into a stately procession, have spent most of the season seeking to downgrade City’s achievements, and it is understandable, perhaps, coming from them. They signed up for trophies in perpetuity, only to find out that life doesn’t always work out like that.
The apparent inability of both supporters and the media alike to argue in good faith, however, has become the lingua franca of the Premier League, and it can be applied just about anywhere. Manchester United? The most boring football team on earth, like Stoke City, only without the occasional thrill of witnessing one of their players attempting the tricky art of onfield amputation without anaesthetic. Tottenham Hotspur? Never mind that this is the first time that Spurs are starting to make Champions League qualification their norm or that this is the best team the club has had in more than half a century. Where’s the trophies, eh, Pochettino? Liverpool? Worst team ever to reach a Champions League final. Chelsea? Every single person who has ever been involved with that club is a fascist. Arsenal? They were so terrible this season that it’s a miracle they weren’t relegated.
And so on, and so on, and so on. Terrible opinions have always been terrible, but the modern world differs from the past in two significant ways. Firstly social media allows those whom you wouldn’t want to talk to if they sat down next to you on the bus a louder mouthpiece than they’ve ever had. Secondly, blowhards are often more greatly rewarded the more terrible their opinions are. Magnanimity is verboten. Cynicism isn’t just encouraged – it’s demanded. No-one is ever good enough unless they’re of your tribe, and if they’re your tribe they’re unimpeachable. The thing about record-setting teams in football is that each has its own particular niche. The records that Manchester City have broken this season may not have been the same as other records that other clubs have broken, but to somehow suggest that Manchester City somehow ended up as far clear as they did at the top of the Premier League table is because of their opponents’ shortcomings has been a familiar trope this season.
The same can be applied to players as well, of course. The singling out for hounding given to Raheem Sterling didn’t abate after it was pointed out that the timbre of much of the criticism stank to high heaven of racism. The jokes concerning that “stolen” Harry Kane goal stopped being funny approximately twenty-five minutes after they started, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t continue, and we can probably expect a fresh deluge during the World Cup finals. The word itself may now be considered somewhat toxic, but the banter hasn’t ceased. It’s more that its protagonists don’t really like it to be labelled that way any more.
The irony of so much of this is that one might be able to construct a case for saying that the margin of Manchester City’s Premier League win could be at least partly explained by the fact that the other five “Big Clubs” all seemed to be flawed in some way or other. Manchester United often didn’t look like the sort of team that should result from spending £300m on new players, fell out of European competition surprisingly easily, and still don’t look fully comfortable with Jose Mourinho as manager. Tottenham Hotspur haven’t won a trophy in a decade, and it is surprising that a club whose profile was built in no small part on being very successful in the FA Cup should have jettisoned that in favour of the wearying pursuit of at least fourth place in the league this season.
Below the top three, Liverpool are only two years from being three decades removed from their last English league title win, and their defence still has a tendency to look as though it’s going to completely lose its mind at any moment. Chelsea’s defence of their Premier League title was almost as flimsy as their last one in 2016, and their failure to reach next season’s Champions League is a worse end of season result than many seem to have noted. Arsenal’s away record over the course of the season was worse than that of, amongst others, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and a Southampton team that only mathematically avoided relegation once and for all on the last day of the season. The departure of Arsene Wenger at the end of this season may alter their direction for next seasons, but there are no guarantees that a new coach will be more successful than the man being replaced.
Below this gilded six, though, there was little but flotsam and jetsam. Burnley will be playing European football for the first time in fifty-one years after finishing the season in seventh place in the table, though there’s a lot to be read into the fact that they finished sixteen points behind Chelsea, who ended the season two places above them in the Premier League table, and eighteen ahead of Southampton, who finished just one place above the relegation positions. For anybody likely to finish below sixth place in the table, the possibility of relegation hangs in the shadows at every turn, and with Premier League television contracts being what they are this fear has become something that seems to infect every decision that a club makes.
All three of the clubs relegated from the Premier League suffered from a form of identity crisis over the course of the season. West Bromwich Albion had been considered a club that was amongst the best run in the division in recent years, but the decision to appoint Alan Pardew in place of Tony Pulis was the footballing equivalent of jumping from a frying pan into a fire. His record of three wins in twenty-one matches effectively relegated Albion before Darren Moore’s appointment and brief flourish of success gave the club a brief glimpse of the possibility of what would have been the top flight’s most remarkable survival of all-time. By the time Mark Hughes left Stoke City in January, it was already clear that this club’s chances of avoiding relegation were hanging by a thread. During happier times Hughes had been lauded as the man who had rescued Stoke’s reputation from the worst excesses of the Pulis years, but Paul Lambert wasn’t able to recapture the Stokiness that made this club so difficult to beat in better times, and the new manager could only muster two wins from the fifteen games that he had to save their season.
And then there was Swansea City. When the Swans were promoted to the Premier League in 2011, there was considerable neutral support for a club that was still 20% owned by its supporters and which had only narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League eight years earlier. Like Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, though, Swansea City lost their soul along the way. In April 2016, the directors of the club sold out to American speculators. Last season, the first full season since they took over, saw the club finish in its lowest position since promotion into the Premier League. This time around, they managed to go one step further, getting the club relegated back into the Football League with barely a whisper. Carlos Carvalhal had been the somewhat surprising choice to succeed the hapless Paul Clement at the end of last year, but Carvalhal always felt like more than a symptom of the the club’s problems than a cause. Notably, he is the fourth manager – the sixth, if we include caretakers – that the club has had in the two years since it came under new ownership.
Not everything in the Premier League this season amounted to observations of entropy, though. The three promoted clubs all kept themselves clear of returning from whence they came, including two who hadn’t played in the top flight of league football since 1971 and 1983 respectively. With Premier League news stories towards the end of this season being somewhat thin on the ground, Huddersfield Town’s draw at Stamford Bridge, which rubber-stamped their survival, was talked up as though miraculous, but they only spent one week in the relegation places all season – at the start of February, when a fifth successive defeat dropped them to nineteenth place in the table before two straight wins bounced them back up again – and always seemed likely to find enough to get themselves over the finishing line.
Brighton & Hove Albion started their season with two defeats and a draw, which left them in the relegation places, but a first win of the season at the fourth attempt against West Bromwich Albion lifted them from the bottom three and they didn’t return there for the rest of the season. Brighton were inconsistent throughout the season, but eventually the seven points they took from home matches against Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur proved pivotal in ensuring that they remained clear of the relegation places. Newcastle United, meanwhile, swatted Chelsea aside on the last day of the season with a three-nil win that lifted them to a highly respectable tenth place in the table. Relations between the clubs supporters and owner Mike Ashley remain in a tense stand-off, but the fans’ relationship with manager Rafael Benitez has developed into a full-blown love affair since his arrival at St James Park a little over two years ago. It has been almost touching to watch, from a distance.
Some of the other clubs sitting below the top six or seven in the table had their moments of high excitement as well. Crystal Palace’s start to the season was a weak as it could conceivably have been, but the appointment of Roy Hodgson in September began the process of steadying a seriously listing ship – they lost their first seven successive matches before beating Chelsea, a result which hinted heavily at Chelsea’s apparent inability to retain a league title – and, fired by the magnificent form of the returned Wilfred Zaha, went on to finish in a comfortable mid-table position. Elsewhere, it looked as though Everton supporters could be in for a long, dark night of the soul this season following the failure of the Ronald Koeman experiment and the decision to replace him with Sam Allardyce. Allardyce led the team clear of the relegation places, but there has been no Benitezesque love affair at Goodison Park this season.
For these clubs and others like them, there was only survival to play for all season. Getting over that finishing line was all that mattered. On the south coast, Southampton found that their status as a selling club finally caught up with them, and after four consecutive finishes in the Premier League’s top eight only a quasi-revival at the end of the season kept them up, although their final points tally of thirty-six was unlikely to elicit anything but relief – and certainly not much joy – from their supporters. The south coast’s top placed team, however, was Bournemouth. After having finished in ninth place last time around, finishing in twelfth place in the table this season could conceivably be framed as the tiniest of disappointments, but this in turn says something about the extent to which the club has cemented itself in this division since promotion.
Differing expectations, however, carry differing burdens. West Ham United started the season with the belief that their time might be about to come. The move to the Olympic Stadium seemed as likely as anything to help to propel the club in an upward direction, but nine months on there are many supporters of the club who will admit to varying shades of buyers remorse now. The new home, it turned out, wasn’t ideally suited for watching football, and the sense that the club had lost something fundamental about itself became increasingly widespread, all the more so as the team bumped along in or around the relegation places. In the end, West Ham fell into the bracket of clubs who spent the winter months troubling themselves with the hope that there would be four worse teams than theirs come the end of the season. There were, as things turned out, but this didn’t feel much like the brave new world that supporters were promised in return for this little chunk of their souls, and it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that disgruntlement might be a part of the West Ham experience for some time to come.
This, however, was a season of disgruntlement, and perhaps this is inevitable in a division in which no-one ever seems to be particularly happy. The Premier League will continue to offer the supporters of the vast majority of its clubs little more than ennui and existential questions for as long as it remains as unbalanced as it is. The top six clubs don’t look very much like they enjoy being there. They’d much rather be playing in a European Super League. Of the other fourteen, well, the newly-promoted clubs will usually carry a feeling of wide-eyed wonder about them, but for the majority each season becomes about fear. We have been smacked over the head with the idea that relegation from the Premier League is something akin to death that many seem almost paralysed by the very concept of staring into the abyss. There’s no point in getting angry over it any more. Anyone with the ability to do anything to do much about it would have done so years ago, had they any imperative to do so. Small wonder we’re all so cynical, these days.