That Was The Year That Was: The Premier League
There it is, then. A little over forty-eight hours later than originally scheduled, the Premier League season has finally come to an end and we now get to consider the events of the last nine months with something approaching a degree of distance. We have had noted on these pages before that it is possible to be too close to an event to be able to judge it with any degree of perspective. For example, we still do not fully understand the potential long-term ramifications of Brazil getting beaten by seven goals to one at home in the semi-final of the last World Cup. Only the history books of the future will tell us the true significance of that particular result.
So it is with Leicester City’s 2015 /16 Premier League championship win. For a few weeks, it felt as if we were all trying to find a meaning from this most extraordinary of achievements. Comparisons were drawn with previous title winning heroics from the past, and an undue the degree of actual factuality was granted to bookmakers prices that were given before the start of the season. But the truth of the matter is that none of us would have been able to imagine how brilliantly this particular group of players would gel together or the extent to which those who we would all have predicted to be at the top end of the table under-performed.
For the champions, everything came together at the same time, like the planets aligning. A manager that almost everybody believed to be the wrong man for that job at that time was coupled with a scouting network that was identifying players that had flown under the radar of other clubs in possession of, in theory at least, far greater resources. These were variables that could be controlled. What couldn’t be accounted for was the sheer volume of players – Wes Morgan, Riyad Mahrez, N’golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and more – who hit the form of their lives at the same time, but none of this should detract from the scale of their achievement. We may never see its like again.
What, though, of the others? Chelsea and Jose Mourinho’s implosion over the course of the first half of the season was as unexpected as it was – for the neutral, at least – entertaining. The unravelling of the defending champions began on the opening day of the season, with Mourinho’s appalling behaviour towards club doctor Eva Carneiro, and highly motivated opponents who scented blood left him a lame duck as the club’s manager for a considerable amount of time before his departure, eight days before Christmas. Guus Hiddink’s return to Stamford Bridge steadied the ship somewhat and at least dismissed the faint possibility of getting sucked into a battle to avoid relegation, but they did at least haul their way to mid-table anonymity reasonably quickly and, under new manager Antonio Conte, the likelihood of a repeat next time around seems unlikely, to say the least.
Another club for whom a repeat of this season next time around seems unlikely to be tolerated is Manchester City. At the very start of the season, City purred like an ominously finely tuned engine, but inconsistency proved to be their undoing. They failed to win consecutive league games between the end of October and the start of April, and while progress in the Champions League provided a fig leaf of respectability to their season and injuries to such key players as Kevin de Bruyne and Vincent Kompany provided an explanation for their stuttering form – to the extent to which a club of their financial largesse can have any justification for failing to challenge for their domestic league title – but the team’s form truly bottomed out following the unusual decision to publicly announce that Manuel Pellegrini would be leaving the club at the end of the season to be replaced by pan-European coaching heart-throb Pep Guardiola. Manchester City won the League Cup less than a month later, but the decision had been made by this time, and such trophies are mere baubles to a club seemingly intent on global domination these days anyway. Manchester City’s ambition next season will likely be greater than ever.
On the other side of Manchester, meanwhile, United were embracing a riot of beige. Louis Van Gaal had saved his own hide at the end of his first full season in charge of the club by scrambling into the final Champions League place, but he was unable to get his team through the group stages of that competition, shortcomings that were only amplified when United were parachuted into the Champions League, only to be dumped out of that by their bitterest rivals, Liverpool. In the Premier League, meanwhile, the team stalled noticeably short of the Champions League places and the atmosphere at Old Trafford on match-days became more febrile, reaching a nadir a week before Christmas with a limp home defeat at the hands of Norwich City.
Van Gaal seemed to reach an uneasy balance of doing just about enough to keep himself in employment without doing anything much to progress the team. A win in the FA Cup final this weekend may paper over the cracks sufficiently to allow the manager to run down the final season on his contract, but with a Batman-shaped light with Jose Mourinho’s silhouette now apparently permanently trained upon Old Trafford, there are at the time of writing no guarantees of what the state of play will be at Manchester United by the start of next season.
Back in London, meanwhile, Arsenal grabbed second place in the table following a season of rancour which at times threatened their two decade long unbroken Champions League run and certainly brought to the surface tensions between supporters concerning the ongoing viability of Arsene Wenger as the club’s manager. Perhaps, given that serious Arsenal title challenges have been rarer than hens teeth over the course of the last decade or so, grabbing the runners-up spot from Tottenham Hotspur is as much as much as Arsenal supporters should be hoping for these days. The feeling remains, however, that they are being somewhat short-changed.
Their Champions League quest ended, unsurprisingly, at the hands of Barcelona, whilst their two year hold on the FA Cup came to a sticky end with a lumpen performance against Watford in the quarer-finals, but they were capable of excellent football at times, including a league double over the champions Leicester City, the second of which might have been a springboard towards a push at the title that never quite materialised. The season ends with hopes that the squad will be strengthened during the summer and that next year will be the year, but this is a conversation that Arsenal supporters have had before more than once, and with several squads at clubs of similar ambition also needing overhauls, competition for the best players will be extremely tough.
What is there to say about Tottenham Hotspur that hasn’t already been said over the last few weeks? If it’s possible for a football club to have a personality, then Spurs demonstrated both their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde over the course of the season. At their best, they were thrilling to watch, but as the season drew towards its end, their squad ran out of steam and eventually blew all of its gaskets over the course of throwing away leads against West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea, and then losing hilariously to an already-relegated Newcastle United. For all the talk that Spurs had broken free from a psychological straitjacket over the course of the previous few weeks and months, their DNA didn’t seem to have changed that much at the business end of the season.
It’s worth remembering that third place in the table and being involved in the title race until the last couple of weeks of the season represents a significant achievement in its own way for Spurs, but dropping out of the title race in the manner in which they did raises questions about the temperament of a young team that only time will be able to answer. Mauricio Pochettino has signed a contract extension and Champions League football will likely be enough to make the Premier League’s most promising team hold together for now, but there can be little doubt that external pressures on the club and its players over the course of this summer will be extremely high.
If Spurs ended their season on a high, West Ham United ended theirs on a high. There remain significant questions to be asked concerning how it came to pass, but the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium is happening and the club is heading there on a wave optimism brought about by a solid league performance and the prospect of revenues increasing sharply with the new home. The overblown and schmaltzy goodbye to Upton Park – a departure indulged by the media to a hitherto unseen extent – if anything took a little too much attention from manager Slaven Bilic, who drilled a well-organised team that might not even need too much tweaking to be able to push for a top four place next season. West Ham United may never be the underdogs again.
At the start of 2016, there was considerable conjecture that Ronald Koeman might not be much longer for Southampton. The team had dropped to thirteenth place after a run of just one win in eight matches. Patience, however, proved to be a virtue for the Saints, who lost just three times after breaking for the FA Cup Third Round, eventually rising to an impressively Europa League claiming fifth place in the table. Another team that exceeded expectations was Stoke City, who finished in ninth place, a point above Chelsea and with something to build upon for next season. Furthermore, Stoke did it playing a style of football that seemed determined to exercise the ghosts of the past, something for which manager Mark Hughes deserves considerable credit.
All of this shunted an inconsistent Liverpool into eighth place. Liverpool lost two cup finals and their final league position was their joint lowest since winning the Second Division championship in 1962, but stadium redevelopment and finally finding a manager who connects with the club in the form of the excitable Jurgen Klopp has put a spring in Liverpool’s step ahead of the summer. Considerably more importantly than anything that could have happened on the pitch, though, there was vindication for the ninety-six who died at Hillsborough in April 1989. A quarter of a century, and there remain many who should carry shame at their involvement in the slurs, the innuendo and the cover-up, but recognition of the innocence of all who were present there on that terrible day.
The bottom half of the Premier League felt as though it was divided between those who were merely treading water and those who were genuinely had one eye looking over their own shoulders at what lies beneath. Everton sacked Roberto Martinez following their penultimate game of the season but still ended the season in eleventh place, whilst Watford did the same in getting rid of Quique Sanchez Flores and finished thirteenth. Both had largely uninspiring second halves to their seasons, but neither could hold a candle in this respect to Crystal Palace, who ended the first half of the season being talked of as capable of playing European football and may yet manage this, though only if they win this weekend’s FA Cup final. Their league form collapsed in the second half of the season and they finished in fifteenth place. West Bromwich Albion Pulised their way to fourteenth and AFC Bournemouth reached safety with comfort before finishing with an atrocious end of season run that casts doubt over whether they’ll be able to perform the same feat of gravity defiance next time around.
And then there were the also-rans. It was clear from the beginning of spring that relegation was coming to three from four clubs, and that one of those four would be Aston Villa, whose dreadfulness surprised even those whose pre-season prognoses for the club had been the most apocalyptic. Villa became a macabre soap opera over the course of the season. Tim Sherwood departed, Remi Garde came and went, and Eric Black assumed the role of the captain of the Titanic as the season hit the rocks. There was appalling behaviour and attitude from the players, an absentee landlord of an owner and a strong smell of damp rot from all corners of Villa Park. The club will soon, we understand, finally be under new ownership, but this may turn out to be a repair job that requires a very steady hand indeed.
With Aston Villa looking doomed from the autumn on, the two other relegation places always seemed most likely to go to two of Norwich City, Newcastle United and Sunderland, although other clubs such as Swansea City and Crystal Palace did also flirt with the possibility of getting sucked into it all. When Sunderland replaced Dick Advocaat at the start of the autumn, the club made a decision that would come to change the course of its season. Sam Allardyce doesn’t always give the impression of being the sort of person you’d want to share a long car journey with, but he is effective and Sunderland were in touch by the spring, before a late run pushed them ahead of Newcastle United. When Norwich beat Newcastle in dramatic style at the start of April, it looked briefly as if both of the two north-eastern clubs could be in serious trouble, but Norwich failed to push on from this despite having opportunities to do so.
At Newcastle United, meanwhile, dissent regarding the owner, Mike Ashley, has settled into a fog of white noise in recent years, and this season was another during which the wheels fell off the club’s wagon. Given his failure at Derby County the season before, the appointment of Steve McClaren was a somewhat surprising one and, although Newcastle were abject for most of the season, there were occasions when the team almost spluttered to life, most notably in winning successive matches against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in December. On the whole, though, it was wretched fare being served up a team that didn’t seem to care whether they won matches or not, a situation that didn’t change when the club spent lavishly in the January transfer window.
McClaren finally went in March, and his replacement was a surprise, to say the least. Rafael Benitez had been managing Real Madrid earlier in the season, and the transformation that he brought to Newcastle was startling, though it didn’t come soon enough. Newcastle went unbeaten over the course of their last six matches, but three of these were draws – most notably at an already relegated Aston Villa – and when Sunderland beat a deflated Everton in their penultimate match of the season, it was enough to relegate both Newcastle and Norwich. The problems at Newcastle over the course of the season seemed to be structural. Bad choices in the transfer market, a failure to identify that McClaren was not motivating the players and a sense of rudderlessness seem to be the primary reasons for the failure, but Newcastle bounced straight back in 2010 and if Benitez can be persuaded to stay, then the club will surely be amongst the favourites to bounce straight back up next season.
Just as a conflation of factors relegated Newcastle United, so a conflation of factors took the Premier League title to The King Power Stadium and Leicester City. There remain questions to be answered about the club’s attitude to Financial Fair Play whilst in the Championship and we know that their players weren’t all angels, but the story of this club over the course of this season doesn’t have to be a fairy tale in order to be an incredible achievement. The biggest clubs were all under par at varying points throughout the course of the season, but Leicester stuck to their task and the margin of their eventual lead was so great that mitigations start to feel like something of an irrelevance. With eye-watering amounts of money coming into the league this season, it’s impossible to say at this early stage where people’s money will be going by the start of next season, but it’s likely that the transfer market will be more frantic than ever, and that the biggest clubs will start to flex their muscles again. For now, though, it should suffice to say that we saw the year that Leicester City won the Premier League with our own eyes.
Yes, it really happened.