A Premier League Review of the 2020/21 Season
Well. It finally happened. I LIKED a Eurovision Song Contest winner. I had thought that would have been one of the increasing signs of my on-setting old age. But it was just the first Italian rap-rock song I’d ever heard (“Gianni’s Addiction,” comedian Chris Addison commented as he live-tweeted matters, the only way to even remotely enjoy an event for which I have had no time, even ironically, since I was about nine). Oh… and I liked Finland’s rap-rock number too. Vastly superior to the Lordy rubbish that won in 2006.
But the weirdest feeling of last week came on Wednesday, when I realised that the daily diet of EPL games, necessitated by the Covid-related ban on fans at matches, was over and some tactical readjustment was required for my early-to-mid evenings.
Football has been on in the background to almost every evening chez Murphy this calendar year. Or at least as much in the background as shouty sensationalists Talksport Radio can be. It has been mostly radio. Indeed, I’ve heard so much radio that I feel I know certain pundits rather better than I should, or at least better than they would like me to.
I’m not a stats man per se. But I do like to keep count of how many times Clinton Morrison says “you’re spot on” to a co-commentator. Fourteen is his best to date, during actual match commentary at least. And, surprisingly, this was not to Vicky Sparks, for whom he clearly holds a torch. The closest Talksport got to this was Neil Redfearn (aka Jim Bowen with a head cold), who tries “to be fair” to at least one player in every passage of play.
My football diet has mostly been EPL, Champions League, or Celtic’s dismal season ‘north-of-the-border,’ where two-trophy St Johnstone are the new powerhouse. And I will unexpectedly miss…most of it.
Fake crowd noise can go hang. Even if Covid variants force fanless games again. The machine operators seemed to be on a much-delayed satellite link, with many goals greeted by ill-timed, tangential crowd noise. A prime example was Chelsea’s brilliant opener against Fulham on Mayday. A wonderful touch and pass by Mason Mount and a neat finish by the better of Chelsea’s two improving Germans, Kai Havertz, met with polite applause which would greet a pleasant cover drive for two runs at Lords. The cheers eventually arrived. But even the VAR check was over by then.
Yet the TV pictures without crowd noise hit screens some seconds after those with them, which seems counter-intuitive to a non-techie like me, given that the fake noise has to be added. Having heard enough from Leicester City’s ‘crowd’ at their FA Cup quarter-final with Man Yoo, I switched to the BBC website’s “no crowd” coverage, only to be confronted with a very previous passage of play; a long-enough delay for my twitter feed to provide advance warnings of goals.
I won’t miss ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce, a busted flush in EPL terms. His dig at his supposed media pigeon-holing (“as you all know, I’m a short-term manager”) was as sour as his teams down the years. Though, in fairness, West Brom played some good stuff under his tutelage. Just ask Chelsea. But, stats fans, his points-per-game ratio was not a whole lot better than sacked predecessor Slaven Bilic. West Brom would have needed FIFTY games on ‘Big’ Sam form to reach fourth-bottom Burnley’s final points total. They were 19th when he joined AND they were 19th when he left.
I won’t miss Jose Mourinho either, a busted flush in EPL terms. Current Spurs supremo Ryan Mason is 29. But he still displayed a greater maturity than his petulant predecessor. And, stats fans, Mason’s two-points-per-game total was nearly half-a-point-per-game better than the not-so-special-one-anymore. Truths, damn truths and (some) statistics.
There were more “damned lies” stats within the final EPL table. Two of the higher-praised EPL managers have been Brighton’s Graham Potter and Burnley’s Sean Dyche. Yet there’s their teams, two places and one place above the relegation zone respectively.
Potter’s team took profligacy in front of goal to mind-altering heights/depths. They lost their home M23 derby with Crystal Palace to two wonder strikes. But Christian Benteke’s momentary transformation into Marco Van Basten should have been consolation goal of the season (century?). Managers often smile at unexpected goals, ruefully if their team concedes them. When Benteke scored, Roy Hodgson was p*ssing himself. And that was nothing to do with his age…
Burnley were even more of an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. They made Spurs look like world-beaters in February, inspiring snorts of derision which echoed back to Lancashire from Sky Studio-based pundit Roy Keane. But they lurched from the ridiculous to the sublime WITHIN some games (home to Villa the prime example). And they produced my favourite half of football all season; their floor-wiping exercise with, admittedly hapless-at-home Everton, two weeks after the Spurs surrender, their 2-1 interval lead feeling like a misprint.
If only they had a player like Allan Saint-Maximin, I tweeted after the mercurial Frenchman came off the bench to inspire Newcastle’s comeback victory there last month. But this was not entirely football-related. Dyche is renowned for recruiting players on the basis of good character. And far wiser people than me call it mere co-incidence that these recruits are invariably white. Burnley also reportedly have the lowest EPL salary bill. Which makes even 17th laudable. But all the Ben Mees in the world couldn’t have stopped Saint-Maximin at Turf Moor. Which is partly why Newcastle finished 12th.
Yes. TWELFTH. One place higher than in the much-lauded Rafael Benitez’s last Toon season. Indeed, they finished closer to Uefa Conference League qualification than relegation, in terms of league position AND points (enough for a UEFA Isthmian League spot in future seasons…it’ll happen if the money is right, you know it). Much was made of how badly Newcastle missed striker Callum Wilson and Saint-Maximin. Not least by manager Steve Bruce, clearly in job retrieval mode for much of the season. But even though Bruce said that the missing players were not an excuse for Newcastle’s form, they really were.
They were not the whole story, though. Graeme Jones, introduced to Bruce’s backroom team in January, has been credited with giving the team licence to play less fearful football. But the freedom to play fearlessly is nothing without the ability to do so. “Attitude is more important than ability” is a mantra of many managers, with Dyche taking the concept to extremes. But it isn’t always true. After all, if Burnley had a player like Allan Saint Maximin…
Newcastle weren’t the only story of the mid-table. As a child of the 1970s, I have taken some time to acclimatise to a deservedly-popular Leeds United. They’ve certainly left it late to tire this season, which might give hope to their detractors that they might suffer the “difficult second season” which has blighted recent Yorkshire Premier Leaguers, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United. But it means we might have at least another season of one of this EPL season’s leading characters.
Google “Marcelo Bielsa’s” and at the top of a list of suggested next words, even above “bucket,” “wife” and “murderball” remarkably, is “translator.” The suspicion lingers that Andreas Clavijo, for it is he, was winging it, as his translations of Bielsa’s press-conference and post-match wisdoms seemed more ‘gist’ than ‘verbatim,’ even to Bielsa himself at least once. I recall Mauricio Pochettino speaking no English during his first EPL season. But I cannot remember his translator, or even if he used only one. I’ll not forget Clavijo and his ‘edited highlights’ translations so readily.
The last Sunday of the season threatened to be forgettable as the top one and bottom three were obvious from weeks out. The still ludicrous idea that fourth-placed teams can reach a ‘Champions’ League (call it a European SUPER League, I say) made a Super (-ish) Sunday out of a potential Snooze Sunday, although it was scarcely evidence of the “incredible league” cited by the desperate headline over the BBC website’s ‘as it happened’ coverage. The action was a repeat, too (insert “typical BBC” comments here), Leicester City blowing it on the last day, just as last season, with dismal late form reminiscent of, to pick an example PURELY at random, Liverpool in 2014.
That laughter you heard at about six o’clock on Sunday might have been Celtic fans pondering a former Celtic manager’s repeated fate. “Remarkable Leicester Top Four Stat Raise Questions About Their Mentality,” ran the Balls.ie website headline, after Leicester’s Europa League-consigning defeat to Spurs. “No team has spent more time in the top four over the last two seasons. They’re going to miss out on Champions League qualification on both occasions. Wouldn’t other teams get harsher criticism for that?” they asked.
This question was overlooked on Gary Lineker’s “Match of the Day,” somehow. “So many injuries,” the Walker’s Crisps guy said, as if that hadn’t been an EPL-wide phenomenon since it restarted last June, post-pandemic outbreak.
Leicester’s loss prevented similarly dismal consequences for Spurs, as it kept them from finishing below even this season’s mediocre Arsenal in the final EPL table. A quandary, perhaps, for Spurs fans, as Sunday afternoon progressed. A Leicester win would have denied Chelsea a Champions League slot. Mind you, you’d have to have a heart of stone to wish failure on that irrepressible funster with the distractingly weird haircut Thomas Tuchel/Tookle/Tickle. And, yes, I AM being sarcastic.
If the EPL’s end was allowed to pale into insignificance alongside the weekend’s three-way battles for Spain’s and France’s national titles, it would have done. But Sky Sports demand drama. After all, as Jermaine Jenas said on ‘Match of the Day 2,’ when damning football’s lawmakers for daring to tell the EPL how to operate the offside law, the EPL is a “product” (the most dismal on-screen corporatism this season, alongside Sky presenter David Jones’ visible mood-darkening when he realised that Man Yoo/Liverpool might be postponed because of the anti-Failed European Super League protestors for whom he’d previously feigned understanding).
And this meant ignoring the mediocrity of games not on Talksport, which were all fantastic and unbelievable (you remember how magnificent Newcastle/Leeds was, don’t you…DON’T YOU?!?). Pundits may claim to be long wearied of VAR-based discussions but make little effort to limit them or to script them down to the bare minimum on the highlights shows, which I know are filmed live but are based on match action long-enough passed to enable such pre-editing. And, anyway, as I tweeted just after the 89th minute of this year’s FA Cup Final, “VAR is ruining football? Is it balls…”
There were outstanding moments and emergences this season… Kevin De Bruyne’s pass to help create Gabriel Jesus’ goal at Leicester was high-class, even by his stratospheric standards. But what made this one stand out was how the pass exactly bisected Leicester centre-backs Jonny Evans and Wesley Fofana, who took turns to stretch full-length to cut the ball out, and missed. Meanwhile, Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze looks just the sort of mercurial but inconsistent player Pep Guardiola could coach into superstardom within two seasons.
And while I won’t miss certain departees, I’ll miss others. I think Mike Dean, rather than Lee Mason, should be hanging up his whistle (or whatever old refs do with them, it’s maybe best not to ponder that for too long, especially given the advice they sometimes get). That said, the on-line abuse of Dean this season…well…quite simply…no. I’ll miss Hodgson, and some people I know will miss his assistant Ray Lewington’s shorts and bare legs…for reasons it’s maybe best not to ponder etc… But I’ll mostly miss the habit of turning on the telly/radio/PC just after tea, rather than the actual football.
I’m not sure how good Euro 2020(1) will be without Ireland’s goal machines in green. But, until then, I’ll resemble Linus van Pelt in the Peanuts cartoon strip whenever his comfort blanket is in the wash. Because the EPL was such a great product that I… got used to it. And I can’t damn with fainter praise than that.