It is slightly wide of the mark to suggest Chelsea’s title is a victory for coaching over chequebook, for Antonio Conte has hardly worked on a shoestring. Chelsea signed the best central midfielder in the country last summer, and spent another £80m on a centre-back, left-back and reserve striker. One of those has been their best central defender, another was key in the switch to three at the back and the third scored the goal that sealed the Premier League crown.
Yet Conte has achieved where others have failed. The 2016/17 campaign was billed as the season of the superstar managers, but most of the advertising focused on battles between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in Manchester and Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino in north London. As third favourites, Chelsea were hardly underdogs, but Conte was the comparative unknown quantity. While Mourinho and Guardiola have valid excuses for why their teams have struggled, Conte has not needed to search for reasons. He turned around the mood at Stamford Bridge and achieved success in wonderful, dominant style.
It is not just Chelsea’s destination that paints Conte in the best light, but their journey. The decisive change to three at the back early in the season, dealing with the Diego Costa spat, managing those pushed out of the team such as Michy Batshuayi and Cesc Fabregas, improving players such as Victor Moses and Pedro, overseeing John Terry’s decreasing influence. All were achieved while Chelsea cruised in the fast lane during Conte’s first campaign at a new club, in a new league, in his first season managing outside Italy.
Win both of their final two league games, and Conte’s Chelsea will register the second highest points total and the most wins in a single Premier League season. After taking over a squad that had finished tenth in the previous season, and being pitched against the highest-profile coaches in world football, that would be an extraordinary achievement.
Forever doubted, occasionally vindicated; that is the lot of being a football manager.
When Jurgen Klopp announced his Liverpool team to take on West Ham, the general response was one of dismay. It is a mood that the manager has regularly been battling over the last month, as Liverpool’s top-four bid wobbled and wavered.
Yet Klopp nailed it. It sure helps to face a West Ham side determined to give supporters one more low to conclude a difficult season at the London Stadium, but Liverpool were rampant. Daniel Sturridge justified his inclusion (read more about that here), while the much-maligned Divock Origi played his part and the midfield was dominant.
Klopp has endured a difficult season, in which his aptitude has been called into question regularly. More than any other Premier League manager (okay, perhaps apart from Arsene Wenger), he is only ever one defeat away from crisis. Yet Klopp has deflected attention away from his players, and will surely lead Liverpool to the top four for only the second time in eight years. At the start of August 2016, five teams were a shorter price than Liverpool for that place.
In that respect, Klopp has been the victim of recency bias, or perhaps just a season that peaked at the wrong time. Having been loosely involved in the title race before falling away, this campaign was tinged with just-not-quite syndrome. If Liverpool had started poorly before surging up the table, we would be admiring the view.
Yet it was always likely to follow this pattern. Liverpool’s squad depth is too shallow, and they collected too many injuries, to maintain their early-season form, and Klopp shares the blame after refusing to invest in January. Still, beat Middlesbrough next weekend and Liverpool will have achieved their ambitions for the season. Not every manager can say the same.
Achieved the inevitable and, despite notable setbacks, will come out of this season with his reputation further enhanced. The cynic might suggest that Allardyce picks his battles carefully, but he is still deserving of his reputation as the Premier League’s perfect firefighter.
One of the easiest Premier League players to like, who thrives in the biggest games and visibly enjoys playing for his club. Having lost Yannick Bolasie last summer, Crystal Palace supporters will be desperate to keep hold of Zaha. He is their superstar and everyman.
Three consecutive away clean sheets for the first time since March 2015. Timing is everything.
You should go here to read nice things about the Studge.
A wonderful way to finish a wonderful season at White Hart Lane. In winning on Sunday, Tottenham became the sixth club (after Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) to go an entire Premier League season unbeaten at home.
For more on the win over Manchester United, go here.
In his second full season, Pochettino secured Tottenham’s highest league finish in 26 years. In his third full season, Pochettino secured Tottenham’s highest league finish in 54 years. Over those two seasons, he has spent a net total of £16m in transfer fees. Outstanding.
Our early winner, for achieving what at one stage looked highly unlikely. Swansea were bottom of the Premier League when Clement took over, but will play top-flight football for the seventh consecutive season.
Two goals in the 3-2 victory over Liverpool. Two goals in the 3-2 victory over Burnley. The opening goal in the win over Stoke. The opening goal in the win over Sunderland. If Clement and Gylfi Sigurdsson earn the most praise for Swansea’s survival, Llorente certainly deserves the final spot on the podium.
Consecutive clean sheets for the first time since December 2015. Better late than never.
A first Premier League goal at his fifth Premier League club and on his 26th top-flight appearance. Bamford’s 577 total Premier League minutes hardly make that an abysmal record, but he should take the chance to find his goalscoring feet in the Championship next season.
The type of brilliance that makes you consider watching Tottenham’s post-season friendly in Hong Kong for a final glimpse before the long, hard summer. For all the improvement in players at Spurs this season, and the rise of young, English talent, it was Eriksen who was picked as their Player of the Year.
It’s probably got to the stage now where Eddie Howe would like him to stop scoring and thus attracting even more summer interest.
Comfortable win at Stoke City, which is one thing. Yet Arsenal moved further away from the top four this weekend, thanks to Liverpool’s result. Only a mini-miracle on the final day will avoid Wenger being thrust into the Europa League.
Marco Silva is not to blame, although he was unable to improve the dismal away form. Mike Phelan is not to blame, although he struggled to ignite a level of performance much above incompetence during his time in charge. The players are not to blame, although they were abject against Crystal Palace in failing to have a shot on target during a match they had to win. The supporters are not to blame; they never are. No, this one is all on the club.
“It’s fair to say we didn’t see eye to eye and it couldn’t go on, we had to split up. We were spending all our energy fighting each other,” said Steve Bruce in January, explaining the reasons for his Hull City exit. Not content with burning bridges with loyal supporters – including telling them they could die – Hull’s owners had done the same with Bruce. Bruce had initially sided with the owners against fans, and lost a lot of goodwill for doing so, but his patience had run out.
If we were writing a manual on how not to survive in the Premier League, it would be worth getting the Allams to write the foreword. Since beating Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off final, Hull mistreated their manager to the point that he quit, sold their match-winner from Wembley and, while it was out of anyone’s control, they endured serious injuries to Moses Odubajo, Alex Bruce and Allan McGregor.
The obvious response was to invest in the transfer market, necessary for every promoted club but particularly crucial for Hull City, and it is here where the owners were most guilty of a dereliction of duty. Curtis Davies’ pre-season photo containing nine players was intended to humiliate; it did exactly that.
— Curtis Davies #6 (@TheCurtisDavies) August 4, 2016
Hull’s season started with a caretaker manager in charge, and with supporters protesting once more about the Allams’ ownership. The team surprisingly won their first two league games of the season, before reality set in. Six points from 16 league games followed.
That was when relegation was sealed, rather than in dismal defeat at Crystal Palace or home defeat to Sunderland. Those travelling supporters who have seen their team collect two points on the road since September 10 do not deserve relegation, but the Allams’ ownership does not merit them enjoying the financial rewards of Premier League football and the fans agree. Hull City blog Amber Nectar has more on that here.
A year ago, I wrote a piece on why there were so many empty seats at Wembley for that Championship play-off final. While some questioned the loyalty of supporters or the appetite for football in the local area, there was a more obvious conclusion: This was a reminder to the club that their supporters should not be taken for granted. Being continuously told that the play-off final could be worth £170m to your club doesn’t give you the same tingle when you know it’ll only go to an owner you despise and make him more likely to stay.
Twelve months later, and nothing has changed. Still those supporters are disillusioned; still Hull City are a fractured club. They are an example of how the whims and wants of an individual can erode away at a social institution. I only wish those supporters the very best of luck next season.
I do understand why Manchester United supporters are retaining high hopes, both for this season and United’s future under Jose Mourinho, but it is possible to be disappointed in Mourinho’s first season – even if they win the Europa League – without being subject to catcalls of bias. In my experience, those accusations of ‘ABU’ tend to come when backs are against the wall.
I get it, we all love our clubs, but let’s get a sense of reality here. After 36 league games, Manchester United – the pre-season second favourites – are 22 points behind leaders Chelsea, the same gap to the champions as at the end of 2013/14, when David Moyes and Ryan Giggs were the club’s two managers. If the instant retorts are to point out that Moyes took over the champions and that there is far more reason for positivity now, both are valid. Yet can those defences not at least partly be countered by the fact that approximately £450m has been spent on this squad since Moyes’ departure?
Mourinho’s team are now one point above the total achieved by Moyes and Giggs in that disastrous 2013/14, when United reached a modern-day nadir. Under Mourinho, United are heading for their second lowest position and second lowest points total of the Premier League era. Nobody can pretend it was meant to be this way. Nobody can pretend that they didn’t expect more. Prioritising the Europa League cannot be used as a catch-all excuse when it is only used after Manchester United have been ensconced in sixth place.
Mourinho has been keen to push the positive spin on Europa League success, and there is no doubt that it provides a season-saving opportunity for Manchester United. Perhaps he may reconsider his 2013 assessment, made when returning to Chelsea, that “I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me. I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition”. It is now United’s only saving grace.
“At Manchester United, for us it’s more important to win titles than to finish top four,” was Mourinho’s slightly altered opinion on Sunday. “Probably other clubs finishing in the top four, they would like to be in our position.” You can doubt the man, but never doubt his PR spiel. There is no truly no greater coach in the world at that.
United supporters, and Mourinho, are right that trophies matter just as much as a high league finish matters, but the manager’s greatest tricks have been persuading fans that success in both competitions was not possible in tandem, and effectively lowering expectations amongst some fans. Louis van Gaal suffered greater injury crises; Alex Ferguson dealt with busier fixtures schedules. The insistence that United still require four or five first-team players to create a title-challenging squad may be valid, but what happened to the Mourinho who improved the players he found as well as spending freely in the transfer market?
On Sunday, we saw a Manchester United manager effectively give up the chance to win a Premier League match, throwing in the towel. That is a sentence I never thought I would write about United, and never thought I’d write about a manager who sells himself as a serial winner. If his intention was to demand more from those stepping into the shoes of established first-teamers, Mourinho failed to achieve anything other than limp acceptance of defeat.
Manchester United’s away results
0-0 vs Liverpool
0-4 vs Chelsea
0-0 vs Manchester City
0-2 vs Arsenal
1-2 vs Tottenham
For all the questions over United’s home struggles this season, they are far easier for Mourinho to fix than their sorry performances in the away games against their closest rivals. Massive improvement needed.
You get the audience you deserve.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) May 14, 2017
After a ray of hope for the future at Hull, a quick fall back into despair at home to Swansea City. David Moyes’ team have scored in one of their last eight home league games, and taken four points from a possible 30 at home in 2017.
Since reaching 40 points on February 25, West Brom have played ten league games. They have taken five points from those ten games, and scored in only two of them. Somehow, Pulis has managed to give potentially West Brom’s joint-highest league finish in 36 years an unhappy ending.
Keep it tight, keep it tight, keep it tight, keep it tigh…oh. Balls.
Burnley’s away form
An away programme completed with seven points taken from 19 matches. Not only is Sean Dyche grateful for Burnley’s excellent home form, but also for the way in which some teams underestimated Burnley at the start. Since the end of January, the Clarets have collected 11 points from 14 matches. Relegation form, if you will.
More boos around the Britannia, preceded by the groans and sighs of a support that sees very little discernible progress. Stoke’s run of six points from their last ten league games leaves them one point behind their lowest points total since promotion with two games remaining. That total, achieved in 2012/13, led to the sacking of Tony Pulis.