16 Conclusions: The Premier League’s final day

Date published: Monday 22nd May 2017 11:45

* Thirty-seven goals, with three sides scoring at least five, and only four failing to trouble the scoreline. Just one draw. One red card. Some hilariously random starting line-ups. A handful of farewells, both heartfelt and horribly contrived.

There are few things more endearing in football than late-season unpredictability, and the Premier League season’s final day can always be relied upon to offer it in droves. There was Liverpool overcoming another lowly side with relative eventual ease. There was Marco Silva’s home record being routinely obliterated by Tottenham, and Burnley’s being ruined by West Ham. There was the season ending with the softest under-belly in recent memory, as the teams from Southampton in eighth down to Watford in 17th were separated by just six points. But the one thing that every stadium had in abundance was entertainment. Except probably St Mary’s.

 

* The only real storyline, besides who would end Stoke’s three-year reign of terror by finishing in ninth place, was whether Arsenal could overhaul either Liverpool or Manchester City to claim an unlikely spot in the top four. The title was already at Stamford Bridge, and the three relegated teams had already learned their fate. Could the Gunners make it a meaningful final day?

Alas, they could not, although they held up their end of the bargain. A 3-1 win over an uncharacteristically terrible Everton mattered little as both Liverpool and City sauntered against equally uninspiring opposition. It is fifth place and Europa League for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger did not join his players on a lap of appreciation for the fans, all but confirming his decision to extend his stay at the Emirates Stadium without saying anything at all. It means the Frenchman is now relying on victory in next week’s FA Cup final at Wembley to ensure that the official announcement is not played out against the backdrop of failure. Quite why he has allowed his future to cast a shadow over the club since the turn of the year is unfathomable, and completely at odds with an individual who rarely engages in self-indulgence.

 

* That Wembley victory against Chelsea is no guarantee, either. Laurent Koscielny’s mindless red card rules him out of the FA Cup final, and fellow centre-half Gabriel will almost certainly join him on the sidelines after suffering a second-half injury.

Gabriel can be afforded sympathy, for his injury was nothing of his own doing. But captain Koscielny deserves censure for an appalling challenge on Enner Valencia at a time when Arsenal were in the ascendancy. It leaves the Gunners with the option of a two-man defence of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi for the final, or the addition of the returning Per Mertesacker to a three-man defence for extra pace. Eden Hazard will be licking his lips.

 

* By the time Arsenal had taken the lead against Everton through Hector Bellerin in the eighth minute, Manchester City were already leading against Watford. All eyes turned to Anfield.

Liverpool were in complete control against relegated Middlesbrough, who completed just six passes in the opening ten minutes, and yet no breakthrough was forthcoming. The minutes passed; the tension rose. Patrick Bamford was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty after Dejan Lovren pushed him over in the area, but referee Martin Atkinson thought nothing of it.

As half-time approached, Liverpool were fifth and needed a hero. Up stepped Georginio Wijnaldum in stoppage time, settling the nerves with a fine strike, and sending the Reds on their way to a 3-0 victory and, by extension, the Champions League.

It caps a fine debut season for Wijnaldum, whose role in this side has been questioned a number of times. The Dutchman has now scored in crucial victories over Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Arsenal and Burnley, and in January’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea. He started last summer in the Championship; he will start this one in the Champions League.

 

* Anyone harbouring any hope of Manchester City slipping up against Watford were a) silly, and b) to be left disappointed. From the first minute, when Gabriel Jesus’s header was cleared off the line, to the last, the visitors were rampant at Vicarage Road.

It would be dangerous to read too much into a 5-0 win against a side with no actual central defenders, but for all claims of fraudulence levelled at the manager, there have been signs of positive progress under Pep Guardiola. City were an absolute delight to watch, with Jesus particularly impressive. The ease at which he has taken to a new club and a new system in a new country is startling, and it will be intriguing to watch him in his first full season at the Etihad Stadium. Far more was expected of City and Guardiola, but at least the blueprints have been laid going forward.

 

* With two goals against Watford, Sergio Aguero rounded off what was not only the most difficult season of his career, but the most productive. His brace takes him to 33 goals for the season – his highest tally in any campaign. He remains a serially under-appreciated talent whose future under the manager would be written off only by a fool.

But the Argentinean was not the only individual to impress. Kevin de Bruyne assisted two of City’s five goals, meaning he has now set up 18 this Premier League season. To sit just two behind Thierry Henry’s overall assists record for a single campaign is no mean feat, particularly in a season where he has struggled for post-Christmas consistency. It serves as a reminder that the 25-year-old will be as important as any figure in the club’s future.

 

* A word for Watford and for Walter Mazzarri, who will wish to consign his sole year on these shores to history. All six of his first-team centre-halves were unavailable, while he named two goalkeepers on the bench. As fate would have it, Heurelho Gomes suffered an injury in the second half as City strode to the most comfortable win any side will enjoy in any season.

“‘Get out of our club, get out of our club, f*** off Mazzarri, get out of our club,” was one chant directed at the manager from Hornets fans who wished to show their gratitude to the Italian. The supporters also chanted for referee Jon Moss to send him to the stands in the first half. His will not be a mourned loss.

But where do Watford go from here? Their last manager to stay in the post for two seasons or more was Malky Mackay, who left in summer 2011. Marco Silva is the favourite to succeed Mazzarri, but is unlikely to jump at the opportunity. Claudio Ranieri, Leonid Slutsky, Geovanni van Bronckhorst and Nigel Pearson are next in the betting, and few would truly imbue this side with confidence heading into the future.

Chairman Scott Duxbury said earlier this week that “the last three seasons have shown something is working,” before adding: “If that shows we are different, then we’re happy to be so. I’m sorry we want more.”

Yet this is hardly the success that Southampton have enjoyed despite their revolving door of managers. The Hornets finished 13th last season, eight points clear of relegation. They end this forgettable campaign in 17th, six points above relegated Hull, and after spending almost £60million in the summer.

 

* That Mauricio Pochettino actually felt it necessary to reiterate that Harry Kane is “one of the best strikers in the world” after his four-goal salvo against Leicester in midweek speaks volumes. His image, his nationality and perhaps even his club are all contradictions when it comes to judging one of football’s true elite forwards.

With his second hat-trick in the space of a week in a resounding victory over Hull, Kane registered his 27th, 28th and 29th strikes of the Premier League season. Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more, and while Lionel Messi (29 years old) and Cristiano Ronaldo (31) are undoubtedly in a bracket of their own, Kane (23) belongs in the same breath as Edinson Cavani (30), Robert Lewandowski (28) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (27). Any arguments to the contrary now just look stupid.

Kane has now scored more Premier League hat-tricks in the last three days than Gareth Bale, Eric Cantona, Diego Costa, Olivier Giroud, Cristiano Ronaldo and Daniel Sturridge have managed in their entire careers. Just four players have scored more Premier League hat-tricks in history, and he is still only 23. His 29 goals have come in 30 games, and he has missed two separate spells this season with ankle injuries. He is the first striker to win consecutive Premier League Golden Boots since Robin van Persie. He is most certainly real, and he is most certainly really bloody good.

 

* It is in no small part thanks to Kane and 13 goals in the club’s last two games that Tottenham finish this season as the Premier League’s top goalscorers.

This was the polar opposite to their demoralising end to last season, where they failed to win any of their final four games in a collapse at least partly related to missing out on the title.

Not so this season. In the three games after Chelsea were crowned champions, Spurs have beaten Manchester United, Leicester and Hull at an aggregate score of 15-3. They have now won 12 of their last 13 Premier League games, and will not begin next campaign haunted by the doubts and insecurities which initially beset this challenge. Spurs missed out on the title this season because of their beginning, not their end, and if Mauricio Pochettino can ensure a positive start next campaign, they will be one of the favourites.

 

* Jose Mourinho implored the media not to “kill him” when they saw his Manchester United starting line-up against Crystal Palace. He asked “good friend” Sam Allardyce to take it “easy”. He said he would play the kids, but that it would be “not so good” to do so.

United’s starting XI against Crystal Palace, with an average age of 22 years and 284 days, was not only the club’s youngest in Premier League history, but the third youngest ever in the competition. Only Middlesbrough in May 2006 and Arsenal in May 2009 had ever named a more youthful XI. There were four full debutants at Old Trafford, and more off the bench.

Mourinho needn’t have worried. Goals from young Josh Harrop and only slightly older Paul Pogba secured a comfortable 2-0 victory, the importance of which should not be underestimated. United had won just one in seven before Sunday, and were on course to stumble into Wednesday’s Europa League final. This provides some much-needed momentum ahead of a must-win, should-win meeting with Ajax.

 

* The shame with United’s victory, as impressive and important as it was, is that it will be used to further an argument older than time itself.

‘Jose Mourinho has given Premier League debuts to six academy players in his first season at Manchester United. Never plays youth…’ tweeted chief lickspittle Duncan Castles almost as soon as the final whistle went at Old Trafford. Harrop, Scott McTominay, Demetri Mitchell and Joel Pereira started; Axel Tuanzebe featured once more; Angel Gomes became United’s youngest player in Premier League history when he replaced Wayne Rooney.

On the surface, it is a show of faith from Mourinho in the youngsters, yet this was a game he has spent the past month or so dismissing the importance of. This was seen as little more than an obligation, a fixture United had to field 11 players in lest they face the consequences. The danger is that these minutes handed to youth players, painted as a positive by both himself and his disciples, are little more than token appearances in the bigger picture.

The Portuguese’s first press conference as United manager should not be forgotten in this regard. “You know how many players I appreciate from academies?” he asked last summer, his record of trusting younger players having been questioned since his appointment was announced. “49. 49. 49. I promote 49 players from academies.”

Mourinho handed out a list of said 49 players he had “promoted” throughout his career. On that list was Arjen Robben, who had played 100 games before Mourinho first managed him, and Carlos Alberto, who was a Brazilian international before Mourinho first managed him.

Most pertinent for this latest crop is that twenty-three of the 49 had played just one game under the Portuguese, another ten played only two, and only 14 of those listed made more than five appearances under his tutelage.

Trusting Marcus Rashford in the first team is one thing – he is a polished player who belies his 19 years. But for Mourinho to claim that Harrop, McTominay, Mitchell, Pereira or Tuanzebe are proof of his faith in youth, they must feature in games that matter next season. This has to be the start of something.

 

* Over to Stamford Bridge, and a Premier League title party that Sunderland threatened to crash and ruin like your drunk uncle on your nephew’s eighth birthday. Javier Manquillo opened the scoring early on, but Chelsea eventually secured a historic 30th league win of the season.

That, of course, was not the highlight of Sunday afternoon in southwest London. That came in the 26th minute, when John Terry’s 717th and final appearance was brought to an end as he was substituted off for Gary Cahill.

The mid-match guard of honour provided by his teammates was surreal, but it would later emerge that the captain himself had privately requested to be removed on that very minute, representing his shirt number. In ever so many ways, the Premier League will never see a player like him again.

Post-match, David Moyes would explain that Sunderland had agreed to kick the ball out of play to service the farewell. How bloody weird.

 

* Forget Terry, forget Wayne Rooney and forget the fight to finish in the top four. Where were you when Manuel Lanzini made his 1,500th pass for West Ham in the Premier League?

Congratulations to the Hammers, who finish an eminently forgettable season with a 2-1 victory over Burnley. The London Stadium move has been difficult to negotiate, the injuries have hard to handle and Slaven Bilic’s tactics have often been impossible to decipher, but West Ham have emerged in 11th. Davids Gold and Sullivan would be advised not to spend this summer publicly discussing £30million moves for strikers as they chase Champions League qualification.

 

* Sean Dyche will hope that defeat at Turf Moor is not a precursor for next season. This was only the Clarets’ sixth defeat on home soil in 19 Premier League matches, with 33 of their 40 points coming in Lancashire.

This is the first ever Premier League campaign in which Burnley have escaped relegation, and so Dyche deserves credit for that. But for all the positivity this season has garnered, they still finished below a Swansea side who made the bottom three their home for all but two months of the season. Dyche is determined to disprove the non-existent theory that he is a dinosaur; staying up next season, with three weak sides in Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland being replaced by potentially solid ones in Newcastle and Brighton, will be the true test.

 

* Stick or twist. That is what West Brom owner Guochan Lai will be asking himself this summer, after the Baggies ended the campaign with a 2-1 defeat to Swansea. It was expected that they would push on after reaching the 40-point mark on February 25, by which stage they were four points behind Everton and eight behind Arsenal.

In accruing five points in the subsequent 12 games, Tony Pulis has proved better than anyone that his self-imposed glass ceiling is almost certain to one day lead to his exit. The Welshman has now managed 48 games after reaching 40 points in his Premier League career. His sides, be it Stoke, Crystal Palace or West Brom, have won six of those matches, and lost 25.

 

* It was mentioned previously, but the fact that eighth has finished with 46 points and 17th with 40 points is an indictment on the Premier League. The top seven have been varying degrees of dominant throughout, but the interchangeable nature of the middle and lower-middle simply points to a lack of quality. With strong Newcastle and Brighton sides rising from the Championship, the pressure is on Southampton, Bournemouth, West Brom, West Ham, Leicester, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Swansea, Burnley and Watford to build sides capable of performing for longer than two or three weeks at a time next season. Mediocrity is a difficult disease to rid a club of once it sets in.

 

Matt Stead

 

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