English Premier League: Another season against the run of play
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Nine years ago, at the end of the 2007-08 season, former England footballer, Kevin Keegan, said the dominance of the Big Four—Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool—would expose the English Premier League to the “danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world”.
Keegan, who has played for Liverpool and Southampton, was speaking as Newcastle United’s manager—another club he has played for (scoring 48 goals in 78 matches). He then added that “the top 4 next year will be the same top 4 as this year”.
He was right. United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal did finish in the top 4 in the 2008-09 season. But only half of Keegan’s prediction proved to be correct, because something did change.
Since 2009-10, when Tottenham Hotspur broke into the top 4, the Premier League has not seen a traditional Big Four finish in the top 4 of the league. Keegan’s fears that the Premier League would turn into the most boring competition have been assuaged by season after season of remarkable twists and turns—new heroes and villains, exploding into a crescendo at the end of the last season in 2015-16, when Leicester City beat odds of 5,000/1 to lift the title as defending champion Chelsea ended 10th.
This season has seen the same Chelsea, albeit with a different manager and a mid-field engine mainly comprising Premier League’s Player of the Season N’Golo Kante, lift the trophy comfortably. Of all the sides that were expected to push Chelsea till the end, Tottenham Hotspur played the most entertaining football and had the league’s top scorer in Harry Kane—but they ended second best.
The defending champions this time, just like last time, came up with a miserable title defence as Leicester City finished 12th.
But if this Premier League campaign were to be summed up in a nutshell, then it was a season which should have been won by the second best. The Spurs were simply superb across 38 games, but finished seven points behind Chelsea.
Their main man, Kane, ended with the golden boot, scoring 29 goals even though injury kept him out for three months. To see the team finish the season unbeaten at home but still without any silverware is an injustice that their fans will have to live with.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino has worked wonders with a young team which has produced three players—Kane, Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son—who scored more than 20 goals, a record across the first two divisions in England. If there was any doubt that football can be cruel, ask the Spurs—they scored the most goals, conceded the fewest, and still finished second.
Not only is this is a testament to Chelsea’s remarkable performance, it’s also proof that this is the toughest championship to win in Europe.
But the riches of today’s football are such that even finishing fourth feels like a trophy. A “trophy” Arsène Wenger has won ever since he took over as Arsenal manager—for 20 years. This time though, even that eluded The Gunners as they finished fifth after playing in what Wenger branded a “horrendous atmosphere”.
The cacophony of “Wenger Out” calls have dominated in such a way that the situation was almost farcical outside The Emirates stadium after every loss, with fans divided over their distinguished manager’s position.
Instead, the coveted fourth spot was won by Jürgen Klopp’s inconsistent Liverpool. The Reds beat Arsenal 4-3 in a cracker of an opening Premier League match, only to lose 2-0 against promoted Burnley in their very next game—two results that sum up their roller-coaster season.
There was hardly any roller-coastering for Manchester United though. José Mourinho’s first season has a win tally of 18 games—United’s lowest ever in the Premier League. Relegated Hull City won more games at home than the Red Devils at Old Trafford (just seven).
Leaving Champions League qualification to success in the Europa League final, played on Wednesday night, wasn’t the most ideal start for Mourinho—glimpses of improvement have swiftly been overshadowed by terribly tepid performances in the league.
Even relegated Hull scored more at home than United. Even the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba, couldn’t help United from drawing an epic 15 games.
Not that Pep Guardiola had a great season at Manchester City. The Spaniard has already admitted that Bayern Munich or Barcelona would have sacked him after the season he’s had. City came in third with a late resurgence, but they’re still far from the relentless winning machines their manager has produced in a career that has seen him win 15 major trophies.
The Premier League has seen the top 4 change again, promoted Burnley stay up in the league, while Sam Allardyce produced yet another relegation escape, this time for Crystal Palace. We also saw Zlatan Ibrahimović score 17 times in the last throes of his career. With him around, a league can never be boring—and it doesn’t seem like it will be so in any case in the next few years.
Thankfully, Kevin Keegan’s words are not likely to come true anytime soon.
Pulasta Dhar is an I-League commentator and news editor (sport) at ScoopWhoop.