Antonio Conte and Chelsea
The 2016/17 Premier League season was billed as the year of the superstar manager. Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City was a shot in the arm for a league unable to attract the very best players in the world. With Jose Mourinho battling him in Manchester, the intriguing battle in north London between Mauricio Pochettino on the way up and Arsene Wenger on the way down and two managers in Merseyside approaching their first full seasons in charge, most season previews focused on the touchline rather than pitch.
That is not to say Antonio Conte was the underdog or the unknown. The Italian had won three consecutive titles with Juventus and was a success with the Italy national team, beating Spain at Euro 2016 before losing to Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Yet in a league of stellar names, Conte was overlooked. If few thought that he could lead Chelsea back to the top of the Premier League, none predicted he would do so with such swagger and dominance. Conte came, saw and conquered.
Perhaps, in hindsight, we can conclude that Conte got a good thing with Chelsea. This was a squad that had won the title in 2014/15, a mood soured through their own underperformance and Jose Mourinho’s questionable man-management the following season. Conte’s task was to lift that mood, a quick win that immediately improved Chelsea’s chances of rebounding after last season. A lack of European football provided a further helping hand.
Those are valid points, but ignores the manner in which Conte has achieved this feat. When Chelsea lost 3-0 to Arsenal on September 24, they were eighth in the table, behind Crystal Palace and eight points from the top.
‘Antonio Conte to ditch Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in defensive overhaul…with David Luiz also facing the axe after two games,’ read The Sun’s headline. ‘Antonio Conte has been shown the true scale of his Chelsea task,’ said the Daily Telegraph. ‘Antonio Conte’s move to Chelsea shows how far international football has fallen,’ was the Evening Standard’s take. ‘Conte not surprised that Chelsea are still sh*t,’ was Football365’s candid headline when Chelsea’s manager spoke about their problems. We have all been made to look like fools.
Conte’s instant improvement from that defeat, with his change to a 3-4-3 formation that became the blueprint for so many other Premier League managers, is the single defining action of this Premier League season. It took bravery from a coach under pressure, but also demonstrated a resolve that impressed Chelsea’s players. Conte inspired them to be better.
Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham
I know the response before I even type the words: But Tottenham haven’t won anything.
That is true, of course. Tottenham ultimately failed to win the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, Europa League and EFL Cup, in order of how serious Mauricio Pochettino took each competition. These are facts.
Yet to describe this season as anything other than an overwhelming success is foolish, one-eyed or both. Tottenham started this season as sixth favourites for the Premier League title, expected by bookmakers to miss out on a place in the Champions League. The summer transfer window was intensely disappointing, with the signing of Moussa Sissoko for £30m doing more harm than good.
That Sissoko signing was notable: It took Tottenham into positive net spend over the last five years. Of the 20 clubs in the Premier League this season, only Swansea City have a lower net spend over that period. For all the jokes about using that as a measure of success, it indicates the remarkable job Pochettino has done on a budget and with a small first-team squad. They also still have the lowest average age of any first-team squad in the division.
Pochettino did not just upset the odds to engineer a top-four bid, but ran Chelsea closer to the title than any other club. Tottenham recorded the second highest ever points total by a club that has not won the Premier League title in that season.
Most enjoyably for neutrals, Tottenham are the most exciting team in the division to watch when in form. Their goal difference for the last two seasons, compared with their peers, is mightily impressive:
Tottenham – 94
Manchester City – 71
Arsenal – 67
Chelsea – 58
Liverpool – 49
Manchester United – 39
Spurs have the best full-backs in the league (for now, and when fit), the best central defensive partnership, one of the best goalkeepers, the best young player in Dele Alli and the best striker in Harry Kane. Those players who fill the gaps (Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son) aren’t bad either.
Tottenham’s performances against Manchester City in October, Swansea in December, Chelsea in January and Leicester City in May also account for four of the ten best team displays of the season, indication that when this team clicks they are a joy to behold. By any measure, Tottenham have over-achieved.
That does not mean that this Tottenham project is complete or that potential has been realised, but it is worth praising during the journey as well as congratulating them if they reach the ambitious destination. A traditional Premier League also-ran has become a key player. Further squad investment is needed, but keeping their manager will again be the signing of the Spurs summer.
– Kane has become the fourth player to win consecutive outright Premier League Golden Boots after Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. He is 23.
– Kane became the fourth player to score 20 or more goals in three successive seasons after Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy, although Sergio Aguero matched that on Sunday. He is 23.
– Only four players have now scored more Premier League hat-tricks than Harry Kane (Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Thierry Henry). He is 23.
I didn’t sign up to the Harry Kane ‘two-season wonder’ tag just as I didn’t sign up to the ‘one-season wonder’ tag, but that does not mean that Kane’s achievement this season is not surprising. Despite his rise over the last three years, 2016/17 somehow ended as Kane’s best season yet. His record of 29 goals in 30 league matches this season is nothing short of extraordinary.
Goals conceded since beginning of last season (teams must have played in both seasons):
Tottenham – 60
Manchester United – 64
Arsenal – 79
Manchester City – 80
Chelsea – 85
Southampton – 88
Liverpool – 92
Given that Manchester United, Tottenham’s only close challenger, sacrificed attacking intent for defensive stability, that is a wonderful effort. Toby, Jan, Danny, Kyle, Eric and Hugo; well played.
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‘Don’t get me wrong, Luiz is a decent footballer. He’s a European champion, and I like him as a defensive midfielder. But I can’t help but laugh that he has commanded more than £100m in transfer fees when he is one of the worst central defenders in Premier League history.
‘Some people will argue he has decent pace and reads the game well, but that’s no good if you’re out of position so much and your distribution from defence so poor’ – Stan Collymore, September 2016.
Everybody gets things wrong, me as many as most. Yet the return of David Luiz to the Premier League didn’t just attract questions of Luiz’s value to Chelsea, suitability to Antonio Conte’s system or whether he was a world-class defender. Instead, Luiz attracted the accusations of fraud that were generally uttered by those pundits whose lack of insight and analysis is counteracted by raising their voices and making opinions more outlandish.
It is a reputation Luiz must be used to. Despite being bought, trusted and respected by a series of high-profile coaches, Luiz is still seen by many as a clown footballer, worth of social media mockery more than appreciation. His performances this season have made that reputation look utterly ludicrous.
A list of Luiz’s trophies since the beginning of 2009/10, then:
Primeira Liga – 2009/10
Portuguese cup – 2009/10, 2010/11
Ligue Un – 2014/15, 2015/16
Coupe de France – 2014/15, 2015/16
Coupe de la Ligue – 2014/15, 2015/16
Premier League – 2016/17
FA Cup – 2011/12
Champions League – 2011/12
Europa League – 2012/13
Still, he’s got funny hair so he must be crap, right?
Here’s one I made earlier…
If the question before the season started was whether Lukaku had really outgrown Everton or merely found his level, the last nine months have answered that question emphatically. Lukaku became Everton’s record Premier League goalscorer and singlehandedly led their attack with Yannick Bolasie injured and Ross Barkley struggling for form. The doubters still remain, but the Belgian has earned his shot at the big league.
In 2014/15, Southampton sold Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert. They moved from eighth to seventh.
In 2015/16, Southampton sold Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne. The moved from seventh to sixth.
In 2016/17, Southampton sold Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, Victor Wanyama and Jose Fonte. They moved from sixth to eighth.
It might strike some as a slightly unambitious way to exist, but Southampton are a smaller club making it work in the Premier League, and continuously laying strong foundations for their financial future. Since 1920, they have finished in the top eight of the top flight 12 times. Four of those have been in the last four seasons.
At a time when a strand of British managers are keen to claim that they are hard done by in comparison with more exotic names, it’s hard not to champion Eddie Howe as someone who goes about things in a very different manner. Rather than cry foul over a perceived lack of praise from the media, owners and the public in general, Howe quietly gets on with the job.
And how. Howe finished the season as the highest-placed British manager in the country, evidence enough that Bournemouth have over-achieved once again. There were valid concerns about Howe’s ability to recruit effectively, organise a defence and continue the improvement of 2015/16, but taking Bournemouth into the top half is arguably the second best achievement of the season.
A reminder that Bournemouth had never played in the top flight before the start of last season. Under Howe, they almost look like they belong there.
The surprise individual performer of this Premier League season. If Howe has inspired Bournemouth from the touchline, it was King who guided the team away from the threat of relegation.
This was not the rescue act of Sunderland a year ago. Allardyce was appointed Crystal Palace manager with the club outside the relegation zone, spent more money than any other manager in the Premier League in January and only had safety confirmed a week before the end of the season.
Yet that is an uncharitable assessment of his impact, and ignores the fact that we will not remember the minor details in years to come. The only thing that matters to Big Sam is that he has improved his reputation less than eight months after leaving his position as England manager. He has turned (a pint of) wine into water; there is nobody better at putting out fires.
This was a season in which the clubs at the bottom of the Premier League changed tack in a bid to stave off relegation. Crystal Palace sacked Alan Pardew, Hull City sacked Mike Phelan, Middlesbrough sacked Aitor Karanka and Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri, all to different levels of success.
Swansea opted for two sackings, quickly asking Bob Bradley to clear his desk less than three months after appointing him. Their second appointment brought in Paul Clement, who had been sacked by Derby in the Championship less than 12 months previously. It is Clement who won out.
As we wrote when making Clement our early winner last weekend, he inherited a team that, at the start of the year and halfway through the season, were rock-bottom of the table, two points below Hull and three adrift of Sunderland. To think of anyone being worse off than Sunderland at that point of the season illustrates the scale of the mess Clement had to clean up.
Appointed in difficult circumstances amid accusations of breaking the trust of his former boss, Shakespeare reignited the spirit of 2015/16 and took Leicester away from danger. In a table based on results since he was appointed, Leicester are sixth. Those who called Leicester’s owners snakes should feel silly. It turns out football didn’t die on February 23, 2017.
We will go through our pre-season predictions this week, but every one of us predicted Burnley to be relegated. Burnley had finished 19th in 2014/15, five points behind woeful Aston Villa and Sunderland sides who survived. They only finished three points above that dire QPR team managed by Chris Ramsay.
It didn’t look like much had changed. Burnley struggled to recruit players before the start of the season (although that would change in late August), and Sean Dyche was almost resigned to another season of struggle.
Burnley only survived relegation by six points, but that creates an unfair picture of discomfort. Since the end of September, for only two weeks have Dyche’s team been lower than 14th in the table. Their home record has tailed off since the end of January, but was the backbone of this survival bid.
For that, Dyche deserves great credit. The chip on his shoulder requires regular seasoning and makes him a difficult man to warm to, but this is the first time in 42 years that Burnley have survived relegation from the top flight. He has achieved success against the odds; just don’t expect to get the Arsenal job just yet.
The most important player for the title winners last season, and the most important player for the title winners this season. We are hardwired to be more impressed by attacking players, but the Premier League’s ultimate Duracell bunny has changed all that over the last 18 months. Never have tackles and interceptions been shared in six-second videos in such volume.
A season that only makes 2015/16 more infuriating, but let’s look at the positives. For whatever reason, Hazard was not motivated under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea last season, with most stories suggesting a fall-out with his manager over his treatment. If that was the case, Antonio Conte has put an arm round Chelsea’s most talented player, refocused Hazard’s mind and has released the shackles. Kante may have deservedly won the award for the best player in the Premier League, but there is no player more enjoyable to watch when in full flight.