English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat. Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight. All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.
Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.
Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year. The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages. They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).
Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup. If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team. That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.
The off-season will be busy. Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury. Six other players also have one year left on their contract. Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters. It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.
It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football. A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short. In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches. Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.
And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club. Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.
A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago. And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.
The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache. Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”. This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league. A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux. Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.
Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England. Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001. While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets. They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs. Good fun.
West Ham United
The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading. While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence. The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals. However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow. Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.
An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.
We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides. It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table. Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year. Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box. But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent. The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way. The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.
The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?) We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches. Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.
Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left. The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches. Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals. It turns out it was the players after all…
So here they sit. No Champions League next season. If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition. To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.
The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements. It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent. It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing. It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move. It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.
As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson. Good luck finding his successor. It isn’t OGS.
This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake. Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.
Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season. Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places. If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable. The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses. Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.
Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go. The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season. A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet. Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.
Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing. No money, no players, no hope. Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.
See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up. Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32. Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated. ‘Nuff said.
Brighton and Hove Albion
Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season. Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits. But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table. Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job. The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.
Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season. At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines. He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.
But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final. Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.
Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against. The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose. With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four. Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.
What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four. After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018. Nicht. Nil. Zip.
Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily. They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club. They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.
Obviously, they were not disappointed. Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England. Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games. It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.
That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam. After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.
But one can not stand still in the Premier League. You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium. Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs. Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July. Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend. Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…
After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious. Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree. Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain. But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room. He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line. Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer. Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.
However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.
Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting. That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th. But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.
Sigh. The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old. Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places. Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table. Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…
Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons. When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England. Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results. Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19. Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.
The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl. Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing. Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole. What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower. Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.
All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face. Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth. No Everton Cup for you, Everton. Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.
Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season. By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid. Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth. Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it. Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.
Leicester is a very talented squad. Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard. The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title. It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six. They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.
A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either. An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons. Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either. After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals. Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”. Expect more of the same from Palace next season.
All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!