16 Conclusions: Premier League’s final day

Date published: Sunday 15th May 2016 6:49

Spurs

* It’s not quite ‘Aguerrroooo’, but the main source of interest on the final day was just as unexpected. The image of two of Old Trafford’s stands completely empty ten minutes before kick-off was completely bizarre. Bournemouth’s supporters took the chance to joke that they had more fans than the ‘famous’ Manchester United.

In fact, the abandonment caused the Premier League a severe headache. The point of playing all final-day matches simultaneously is to create the obvious climax and ensure everything is synchronised. It was very surprising that City’s game was allowed to proceed on time. As the information continued to drip through, it became clear that this was a serious incident rather than hoax or false alarm.

 

* More importantly, the incident raises significant doubts about security in our football stadia, particularly ahead of Euro 2016. The bags of spectators are routinely searched (although not always), while away spectators are regularly patted down by stewards. Neither of these things changes the suspicion – that we put to the back of our minds – of just how easy it would be to cause mass panic and devastation in a stadium filled with people. Security personnel found the device, but what if the detonation had been instantaneous? It does not bear thinking about.

As we finally got a clear picture of the incident, we were told that the package was not just a bag left by a bar in error, but a mobile phone device attached to a gas pipe that caused the bomb squad to be called in. That’s really f**king scary.

NB – By all accounts, police and security staff dealt impeccably with the threat to cause the minimum amount of panic. Well done to them.

 

* Finally on the Old Trafford incident, you do have to feel for this fella.

 

* Oh Spurs. I dislike using the term ‘Spursy’ because every club in the land is capable of making you feel utterly miserable at any given time. Today, Tottenham were kings of the anti-climax and the lingering sense of resentment.

This has still been a wonderful season for Mauricio Pochettino, but the gloss has been scratched off their campaign in the final three weeks. If the home draw against West Brom, defeat to Southampton and ill-tempered draw with Chelsea weren’t disappointing enough, the performance at Newcastle was something to behold. It was an abomination.

Losing 5-1 is frustrating. Losing 5-1 to a relegated team only adds to the woe. Losing 5-1 to a relegated team with ten men piles more woe on top of woe. Losing 5-1 to a relegated team with ten men and allowing your rivals to overtake you on the final day is absolutely exceptional work. Tottenham didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as bathe in hot oil before jumping into a fire.

Pochettino was suitably angry after the game. “We need to be sure that never happens again and need to improve our mentality,” he told the BBC. “We were on holiday and that is the reality. In the last couple of weeks when you do not play with 100 per cent it is impossible to win games and after Chelsea something happened. We cannot manage games in the right way.

“I would like to apologise to our fans, I think they don’t deserve all that happened today on the pitch and I apologise. I am very disappointed because our fans don’t deserve it, it is difficult to go tonight and see my boys and my wife.” Sheesh.

Tottenham’s result also meant that Pochettino’s side ended the season on 70 points. That’s two fewer than in Andre Villas-Boas’ full season in charge, when they finished fifth. Funny ol’ game, Saint.

 

* Last week, Pochettino spoke about Tottenham’s rivalry with Arsenal, and stressed that it was not a big thing to finish above their rivals.

“I think that I don’t care about Arsenal, I want to win the league, I want to be on top but Arsenal I do not care about,” Pochettino said. “Sure I want to be above them, but this I think is normal. But to try to improve, to try and be bigger, we need to concentrate on us and not look what is happening with our neighbours.”

You might want to re-think that, fella. Judging by the reactions of both Tottenham and Arsenal supporters, this means a great deal to a great many.

The point from Arsenal supporters is clear. In the eyes of the world, Tottenham have enjoyed their greatest Premier League season, while Arsenal regressed again and Wenger came close to his lowest ebb. Yet still Arsenal have finished ahead. They will be raising glasses to St. Totteringham long into the night.

 

* For Arsenal, a day of mixed emotions. Missing out on the title is obviously a hammer blow, but Arsene Wenger will remark that Arsenal have now improved their league position again. This is not the day to pick him up on that point.

When Wenger was told the news of Newcastle’s fourth and fifth goals, Arsenal’s manager clenched his fists in celebration. Try telling him that local rivalry does not matter. Four more years?!

 

* There is still a semi-serious point to be made on Arsenal with regards to Olivier Giroud, who scored a hat-trick against Aston Villa.

On the final day of 2014/15, Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick in a home win over a West Midlands team. That summer, Walcott was given a new four-year contract worth £140,000 a week, which made him one of the club’s highest earners. This season has shown that decision to be foolhardy.

Now Arsenal are in the same situation, with tough decisions to be made over Giroud, amongst others. One of the most frustrating aspects of Wenger’s management over the last two years has been his refusal to move on those within his squad who are good, but not great. To win titles against the current crop of Premier League elite clubs, a manager must be ruthless.

Last season’s lesson should stick in the mind. Giroud – like Walcott – is not a darling bud of May, merely a flower that blooms less often than is necessary.

 

* Despite their relegation to the second tier, this felt like a very important day for Newcastle United. Hope springs eternal.

It could easily have been so different, limp home defeat followed by chants and protests against the club’s ownership regime, Rafael Benitez passing slowly into the Newcastle night never to return.

Instead, this was the opposite. Newcastle’s supporters treated the final day as an extended attempt to persuade their current manager to stay. Such is the love that Benitez has generated during his short time in charge, the fans are desperate. This was an afternoon of adoration for a man and manager they simply can’t face losing. Rafa is their leg-up, their lifeline.

As if feasting on the mood, Newcastle’s players produced easily their best performance of the season. Many of the club’s senior players may leave in the summer, but this a response to accusations that they don’t care about the club’s plight. Too little too late, but better late than never.

It also demonstrated just how much Newcastle have cocked up this season. Had they pulled the plug on Steve McClaren’s disastrous management two months earlier, they would surely still be a Premier League club.

 

* With the game at Manchester United abandoned, the Premier League needed a new protagonist. It needed someone to stand up and not just write the story, but be the story. Hell, it needed a hero.

Step forward Mike Dean. Any one of the 22 players at the Liberty Stadium could have stood up and played the lead in this final-day soap opera, but none of them have quite perfected the flourish of everyone’s favourite referee. If football is the natural home of the university of banter, he is the Dean.

 

* Southampton’s victory over Crystal Palace means they are confirmed as finishing either fifth or sixth, depending on Manchester United’s result. If that doesn’t sound meaningful, it is.

Southampton have now improved their league position in each of their last six seasons:
2009/10 – 7th (League One)
2010/11 – 2nd (League One)
2011/12 – 2nd (Championship)
2012/13 – 14th (Premier League)
2013/14 – 8th (Premier League)
2014/15 – 7th (Premier League)
2015/16 – 5th or 6th (Premier League)

The only team I can think of that matched that improvement was Swansea from 2007/08 onwards, a run that also ended at six seasons. These are the two blueprint clubs for the Football League, examples of how sustainable improvement is possible if you walk before you can run and take advantage of the marginal gains. We should stand to applause.

EDIT: Gillingham actually achieved eight seasons of improvement between 1995 and 2003, and they’re a bit s**t now. So there.

 

* Manuel Pellegrini ensured that Pep Guardiola will be afforded Champions League football in his first season in Manchester, but the draw against Swansea was the Chilean’s reign in a microcosm. Early promise was followed by defensive unease and attacking profligacy, City creating so many unnecessary problems for themselves. Initial happiness was diluted, pegged back by a club with far fewer resources.

That is where the similarities end. While Manchester City hung on to realise their scaled-back ambition, Pellegrini will bid the club farewell. Can you imagine anything more Manuel Pellegrini than him handing his club-branded suit jacket to a fan, but keeping his waistcoat on to avoid getting a chill?

 

* For much of this season, the thought of Chelsea having to give Claudio Ranieri a guard of honour was delicious. Roman Abramovich would be seen stuffing humble pie into his mouth 12 years after declaring that Ranieri would “never win a league title”.

Actually, Chelsea treated Ranieri brilliantly on the final day of a wonderful season. Abramovich went to warmly congratulate his former employee personally, disproving the theory that the Russian would be left moody by the whole thing. Chelsea’s players gave Leicester’s team a great round of applause as they entered the pitch, and the supporters at Stamford Bridge did exactly the same. 

 

* Their game may have been played out at the pace of a testimonial, but Leicester avoiding defeat at Stamford Bridge meant that they topped the Premier League by ten points, losing only three games all season.

Leicester’s title victory is shocking enough, but their margin of victory is incredible. Only one team in the last ten years has enjoyed such a gap to second place. No team in the last ten years has won the title losing fewer games.

 

* It’s hard for me to describe just how much I disagree with the sentiments of Match of the Day’s official account, so instead let me provide a brief list of things you could better spend your money on than a plane banner to taunt opposition fans:

– Charity. Like any charity.
– Go for a big meal to celebrate staying up.
– Buy hundreds of packets of Euro 2016 stickers and send them to local schools.
– Buy new footballs for scores of children’s teams in the local area.
– A suit made entirely of pre-peeled Cheesestrings.
– Buy a massive flag with ‘Sam Allardyce: Lord of the pies’ written on.
– Treat members of your own family.
– Buy some books for a local orphanage.
– A money bonfire.
– Literally anything else in the entire world.

 

Take a bow, Sunderland fans. And the good thing about bowing is that it makes it easier to take a long, hard look at yourself.

 

* The information across most of the media is that Andros Townsend or Theo Walcott will take Danny Welbeck’s place in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for Euro 2016, but I wonder just how much Michail Antonio featured in Roy’s thoughts, if at all. Since signing from Nottingham Forest in August, Antonio has been a revelation.

The West Ham winger took his time to settle in Slaven Bilic’s first-team squad, and has been used in a makeshift right-back role by Bilic. He’s still scored more league goals than Wayne Rooney and provided assists more often than Walcott.

“He’s quality, the way he is playing, the big impact that he’s had on our game and also on the Premier League,” Bilic said on Saturday. “I’m saying as his club manager he’s scored some goals, he’s made some assists, he’s defending really well.

“Of course Roy Hodgson has got a good team, he’s not struggling for names. England qualified with 10 out of 10 wins so it’s very hard for some players to break in But if you ask me, does he have enough to offer? Yeah, definitely.”

Start next season in the same vein, and Antonio may well be under consideration for England’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers in the autumn.

 

* This was the Jonathan Leko joke referred to in Friday’s Big Weekend. If you don’t think it was worth waiting for then I just can’t help you.

 

Daniel Storey

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