As another Premiership campaign winds down, most of the attention turns to those pitched battles near the bottom of the table, where clubs play a game of Musical Chairs to see who is the last one standing, or at the top where last gasps are exerted in the pursuit of shiny mugs festooned with ribbons. In a season that might very well end in Manchester United’s remarkable achievement of securing a 19th first division title, the general feeling has been that this was by and large an unremarkable year. Even during United’s extended unbeaten run to begin the season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was slightly derided for winning ugly, being lucky, and in general benefiting from a reduction in quality out of other title contenders.
The current behemoths of the Premiership appeared to be decidedly weaker than in previous years. Fielding players who were still a bit tired from last summer’s exertions in South Africa, clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal failed to exude that aura of invincibility when other clubs visited their grounds. As the season progressed, the Anfield outfit improved remarkably from a dreadful start but not quite enough to reclaim its world beater credentials. Arsenal found difficulty in taking full points off sides far down the table, thus obtaining a license to dispense and lid beverages. Carlo Ancelotti obviously lost the ability to manage when he sat his earthquake-proof arse on last season’s title-winning whiteboard as Chelsea dropped all the way to fifth at one point.
How incredibly awful these clubs have been. Why, Sir Alex must have used some money from the Glazers’ bond issue to buy his way into a Champions League Final while still topping the Premiership. Roman Abramovich might be coaching the Blues now while Carlo explores more interesting ways to arch his eyebrows–what else could explain the club’s quarter-final run in Europe that was only halted by fellow English club United along with its ongoing run to recapture the Premiership trophy? Having also led his side into the Champions League quarter-finals along with a League Cup Final appearance and another Top Four finish, Arsene Wenger must be the ultimate loser–if only he could see it for himself.
Rather than pine for the possibly nonexistent days of absolute domination from the big clubs in the Premiership, perhaps some attention should be directed to those mid-table clubs whose performances might demonstrate the relative strength of the league rather than its weakness. Although the likes of Fulham, Stoke, West Brom, Everton, and Bolton are neither chilling champagne in anticipation of league honours nor having a last supper before departing mighty, mighty Dosh Land, these clubs symbolize a pie where the meaty goodness is wrapped in a crust that might look appealing on the top but soggy on the bottom. The taste might not be to everyone’s liking, but it is precisely that filling which forms the basis of evaluation and whether it’s a concoction worth recommending.
Has there been a recent European cup finalist receiving more attention for what statues are erected outside its stadium as opposed to its play on the pitch? Fulham adjusted to the departure of manager Roy Hodgson after losing the Europa Cup Final, handled the sensational silliness of having an inanimate Michael Jackson greet guests to Craven Cottage with a sly smile, and look set to finish better this season under Mark Hughes than the last. Having played before a packed Cottage on most match days, Fulham have quietly dispatched the clubs they could be expected to beat and treating supporters to attractive, attacking football led by American favorite Clint Dempsey. If more money could have been allocated to bolstering the forward position to complement one of the league’s best defenses rather than dedicating it to stone, Fulham might be looking forward to playing in Europe again next season.
Speaking of Europe, it has been met with gasps and slight revulsion that Tony Pulis will be donning his cap and heading on a continental excursion next season. His Potters, long considered one of the ugliest-playing squads in club football, should qualify for Europa League–bar some incredible drop in the table by Manchester City–and they are already being tossed out of hand as being out of their depth. Having bulldozed over a Bolton side and denying Owen Coyle’s side that trip abroad, Stoke City surprised critics but still garners little respect.
The default philosophy for Pulis is to play reservedly, his players drilled into the fine arts of backpedaling then punting the ball forward over the entire midfield, seeking goal-scoring opportunities most often on finely-wrought set pieces. As the Bolton match showed, however, the Potters can score and have a penchant for doing so dramatically with most of their goals scored in the final fifteen minutes of this season’s matches. If this were Alex Ferguson doing this at Old Trafford, wreaths would be thrown at Pulis’ feet for his skill at being able to work the proper cogs into his tactical system and managing favorable results in the face of detractors.
Oh wait, Fergie’s been doing that this whole season and his squad was criticised for being pants too. Scratch that last bit.
Hidden in the bowels of the Premiership then, where budgets are tighter, stadiums are smaller, and squad depth is thinner, quality can still be found. Instead of dismissing the season as forgetable since the big boys were weak, consider it a potential precursor to what future seasons might look like–will we see Fulham and Bolton challenging for Europe regularly or West Brom evolving from a yo-yo club to consolidate in the Prem? In this respect, the 2010/2011 season could in later years be considered a turning point in the fight between the Haves and Have Nots, but not necessarily a changing of the guard.
Because even if Stoke compete in Europe, United’s still going to win something.
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