Finished? Good. Now go and read the Winners list…
Louis van Gaal
Arsenal imploded in late season. Chelsea were a complete mess from the start. Liverpool sacked their manager in October. Manchester City announced their new coach three months before the season ended, with the title looking forlorn. When you consider the incompetence of the clubs around them and the unprecedented injury crisis that took hold of Manchester United last season, it’s actually impressive that Van Gaal has taken them down at least one place. Fine work.
Having led United back to the Champions League in his first season, the expectation was that Van Gaal’s oft-discussed philosophy would engender further improvement during this campaign. Instead, supporters have been forced to endure football so dull that dark humour became the only reasonable response.
The results weren’t much better. Fans could forgive such aesthetic ABH if it were in realisation of the greater good, but Van Gaal has failed there too. Having piled his eggs into one basket, the Dutchman then threw it down onto the floor, blaming Paul Scholes and “some fat man” for the mistake. With a top-four place now out of reach, he will surely slip into overdue retirement.
Every time United threatened to move forward, they immediately took a step backwards. The most damning indictment of Van Gaal’s management is that the shoots of growth were achieved in spite of his influence, while the subsequent regression came because of it.
Only in hindsight will we recognise the true nature of Van Gaal’s underachievement, but there is no doubting his professional ineptitude over the last ten months. If following Alex Ferguson was the impossible job, following David Moyes was supposed to be the easiest. Van Gaal turned that into an unedifying struggle.
Jose Mourinho, who picked the wrong fight
Adapted from an article on October 4, 2015, because it still fits:
Mourinho’s demand for a ‘united’ front is the basis of his success, a requirement for hard work first and everything else second. Every player is asked, forced even, to buy into his vision. They are tempted by promises of success, and when Jose promises enlightenment, it usually arrives in the form of glittery silver trophies. His management style is a college of the mind – players are made to think better, feel better and thus play better. ‘Fatigue, pfft. We’re Mourinho’s men and we’re untouchable.’
In the male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled world of Premier League football, control is synonymous with respect. Mourinho is successful precisely because his record and charisma generates such a desire to win amongst players and staff, but the mask can slip.
Mourinho’s treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro was appalling, matched only by the Football Association’s woefully inadequate response. Down to ten men, an injured player on the floor, a medic running on, Chelsea then conceding – it was as if he had exploded through his total control vacuum during crucial moments in a match. Carneiro received the backlash.
It was an action only forgivable if followed by a grovelling apology, but Mourinho’s problems were compounded by his extreme stubbornness. Having allowed the mask to slip, he was too proud to admit the mask was loose.
In that incident and its aftermath, the manager lost the respect of some of his senior players and staff. With that respect went control, the fuel of his managerial machine. The church of Chelsea’s Mourinho was burning to the ground.
Manchester United’s home record
Manchester United scored fewer home goals than Norwich City. That line should be written on the compliment slip that is stapled to Van Gaal’s P45.
Arsene Wenger and empty excuses
Arsenal’s season might have ended in celebration at the annual rise of St Totteringham, but they merely won the last battle of an already-lost war. Local rivalry is never meaningless, but it pales into insignificance when the bigger picture is considered. How did Arsenal f**k that up so badly?
On January 10, they were sitting pretty. Arsenal topped the Premier League by two points from surprising challengers Leicester, had sailed into the fourth round of the FA Cup and had completed a remarkable comeback in their Champions League group to qualify for the knockout stages.
By May 10, the club was on its knees. Arsenal were soundly beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League, had lost at home to Watford to be eliminated from the FA Cup and had allowed Leicester to effect a 14-point swing in the league. Between those two dates, seven Premier League clubs had taken more points than Arsene Wenger’s team. They had won six of their 17 league games, the same number as Bournemouth.
Whatever the manager may plead to the contrary, this season is all on Wenger. It was his decision to only sign Petr Cech last summer, his assessment of the squad as strong enough to compete on four fronts and his interminable pre-season insistence that cohesion is king. Arsenal’s cohesion didn’t just fail to pip Leicester, it couldn’t even get close.
There is an obvious defence for Wenger, namely that Arsenal finished above all their traditional peers: Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. They are a ‘model of consistency’, as the Daily Mirror’s John Cross tweeted after the final day. While that’s true, there is a lot to be said for glory and (comparative) failure over consistency. It is the difference between the rollercoaster ride and cruising at 74mph in the middle lane on the motorway. United, City and Chelsea have indeed suffered disappointing seasons, but all have won the title since Arsenal. All too have made or surely will make significant changes to ensure that next season is different. Have Arsenal?
Consistency is wonderful, but only if it leaves room for an extra gear. It is in that extra gear that fans can dream, not of top-four finishes or last-16 exits, but of league titles, of glory. At the top of the table and with Leicester as their nearest challengers, this was Arsenal’s time to shine. Instead – and to use a line from the time – they disappeared like candyfloss in a rainstorm. Arsenal in excelsis.
“I have a lot of options,” said Louis van Gaal in August. “I have chosen Chicharito [Hernandez], because he is another type from Rooney, and we have also Fellaini, who is another type, then I have Wilson and Januzaj, so I don’t think we need a striker.”
In the end Manchester United did buy a new forward, but that quote from Van Gaal indicated the trust he had in Rooney as his No. 1 striker. Given that Adnan Januzaj and Javier Hernandez were permitted to leave the club, even the arrival of Anthony Martial did not alter Van Gaal’s intention to make Rooney his first-choice goalscorer.
“He knows my standards and he knows what I want from a striker,” Van Gaal said later that month. “He thinks he can perform [in that position] and I think that also, otherwise I would not be playing him there. I think that his best position is the striker’s position and he agreed with that conclusion.”
Fast forward nine months, and the difference in Rooney’s role at Old Trafford is notable. Not only is he now used predominantly as a midfielder, but both Van Gaal and Rooney himself have described it as his best position. United’s manager even detailed how Rooney was upset to be deployed as a striker against Norwich.
It’s impossible to shake the feeling that Rooney is being used a midfielder not because of his excellence in the role, but because he no longer commands a regular starting berth as a forward. The rise of Martial and emergence of Marcus Rashford have both comfortably overshadowed Rooney’s efforts in leading the line.
This season, Rooney has scored a league goal for every 331.4 minutes played; that’s exactly the same as Rudy Gestede. It’s also worse than the following list of players eligible for Roy Hodgson’s England squad: Duncan Watmore, Raheem Sterling, Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott, Glenn Murray, Connor Wickham, Dwight Gayle, Troy Deeney, Dele Alli, Nathan Dyer, Benik Afobe, Rashford, Jermain Defoe, Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck, Callum Wilson, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge. Eesh.
The funeral for tiki-taka had already been held after Spain’s early exit from World Cup 2014 – unnecessarily as it happens. Only the foolish amongst us would have considered a certain way of football to be subjectively better than another. No tactic can be ranked above another, only the execution of that tactic.
That said, the manner of Leicester’s title victory became a line in the sand, making a mockery of the sterile possession preached by certain Premier League managers. Claudio Ranieri’s side picked it apart with devastating efficiency.
At the start of this season, Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers were the two Premier League managers who most strongly represented the obsession with possession. Rodgers has laid out his own stall upon being appointed Liverpool manager: “When you’ve got the ball 65, 70 percent of the time it’s a football death for the other team. We’re not at that stage yet, but that’s what we’ll get to, it’s death by football.”
The bodies of Rodgers’ and Van Gaal’s philosophies are now getting cold. Liverpool’s “death by football” missive ended only in Rodgers being sacked in October, while Van Gaal’s slow football has led not only to his own demise, but sparked the significant anger of Manchester United supporters.
Successful attacking strategy is about finding the happy marriage between having the ball and doing something with it. Leicester perfected that art, with the lowest passing accuracy and third-lowest possession and number of passes in the division. Jurgen Klopp may have arrived at Anfield with promises of “heavy metal football”, but Ranieri’s team topped the charts with their own rock ‘n’ roll.
A lovely, kind man, with a face that could never make you angry, Pellegrini will leave Manchester City only as a qualified success. He won the title and took the club to new frontiers in the Champions League, but also created a squad in his own image: Pleasant, but never ruthless.
It’s a bloody shame, but also undeniable: If you’re a football manager who is universally liked, you’re probably not doing your job well enough.
Five league games.
Injury – four league games missed.
Three league games.
Injury – five league games missed.
One league game.
Injury – seven league games missed.
Four league games.
Injury – four league games missed.
One league game.
Injury – end of season.
Can any elite club truly rely on its captain when his injury problems are so exacerbated? Kompany began this season as the leader of the favourites for the title. He ended it watching on as his side scraped fourth place, worrying about his own future at the club.
A hat-trick on the final day added a layer of gloss to Giroud’s season, but looks can be deceiving. You can’t polish a
turd striker who is just not quite up to the level required.
Arsenal supporters will not begrudge Giroud a squad place next season, but they should resent his status as Arsenal’s first-choice striker during this campaign. It was the deciding factor in Arsenal missing out on the title.
When Giroud scored twice against Liverpool on January 13, it sent Arsenal top of the Premier League on goal difference. By the time he scored his next league goal (against Manchester City on May 8), Arsenal were 12 points behind Leicester. They scored only 24 goals in those 16 games.
A three-month drought just when his team needed him most. When the going gets tough, Giroud stops going.
Rodgers is this year’s reminder of just how long a football season is. Was it really only seven months ago that we were hearing about Liverpool’s “outstanding character”?
There are those who reasonably believe that Rodgers’ decline started from the moment they finished second in the Premier League. Not only did that title collapse (and there is a lesson for Mauricio Pochettino here) raise doubts about Rodgers’ ability to cope under pressure, it also gave Liverpool supporters and owners a taste of what could be. Liverpool were left chasing the dragon, searching for the improbable dream.
Rodgers evidently played his own part in that downfall, but more concerning is his inability to find subsequent employment. Despite his own protestations, Rodgers is not a man comfortable being out of the game for long. Publicity and adoration are his oxygen, without that sounding too critical. Nothing has been forthcoming.
From taking Liverpool closer to the title than they had been in 23 years to being overlooked for his old job at Swansea in less than two years; it’s a helluva fall from grace.
Last August, Rodgers will have eyed 2015/16 as his comeback campaign. He’s ended it as a footnote, the tabloid media resorting to stories of him running marathons and proposing to his partner to keep him in the news. How the almost mighty have fallen.
“None of the foreign coaches are trained or equipped any better than we are,” said Sam Allardyce to 5Live’s Sportsweek on Saturday. “But unless we get the opportunity to get interviewed, which is rare now, particularly for young managers, a manager getting into the Premier League now that is English or British would have to do it via getting promoted through the Championship.”
Allardyce’s anti-foreigner missive is all very well (actually, it isn’t all very well. It’s f**king ignorant, but hey), but then you look at the job done by Steve McClaren at Newcastle and begin to laugh.
McClaren led Derby County to eighth place in the Championship in 2014/15, and was promptly given the chance to manage Newcastle United. This was a club not quite on its knees, but in desperate need of investment. The playing staff needed a proficient coach and motivator after the dark months of the John Carver era. What they got was John Carver Mk II.
If, as Allardyce said, McClaren had achieved promotion via the play-offs then the appointment would have been understandable. Instead, they opted for a coach whose last successful job in England came at Middlesbrough a decade ago. At St James’ Park we saw the reason for the gap.
This was the McClaren who melted under the pressure at England, and who sat glumly on the bench through adversity at Nottingham Forest. This was the McClaren who was fine when things were dandy at Derby, but proved himself wholly unable to halt the decline.
At Newcastle, McClaren didn’t even enjoy the honeymoon. The only surprise – due to incompetence on Newcastle’s part – is that the divorce papers weren’t served sooner.
You spent £100million on players in three seasons, including four of the club’s top six highest purchases ever. You spent £13.5m on Oumar Niasse, who you described as sensational but might be the worst Premier League signing of all time. You initially took Everton up from sixth to fifth, a fine achievement but at least in part to the defensive organisation left over from the David Moyes era. You ebbed away that organisation to the point where every set-piece and counter-attack ended in danger.
You described Gareth Barry as “one of the greatest English players ever”. You described Tom Cleverley as “one of the most sensational midfielders you are going to see in Premier League history”. You described John Stones as “potentially as one of the greatest players England has ever seen”. You described each of James McCarthy, Sylvain Distin, Aiden McGeady, Tyias Browning, Mason Holgate, Arouna Kone and Ross Barkley as “phenomenal” on separate occasions. You claimed to have the best group of young players in Europe, and yet managed to take that group to 12th in the Premier League.
And you felt you deserved more time?
“Money can’t buy you Stones,” sung Everton supporters during the early weeks of the season. They were buoyant about their club’s ability to keep the Chelsea wolf from the door, rejecting all advances for their young player.
Their manager was equally happy. “We will always embrace our youngsters and we are not a selling club,” Martinez said. “It’s always important that whatever you build you can keep working on it.”
It’s easy to say in hindsight (although I did also write it at the time), but that “we are not a selling club” was the beginning of the end for Martinez. It indicated that the Spaniard was operating outside of realistic parameters. Being a selling club is not an admission of weakness, but a representation of reality outside the top four. Just ask Southampton.
Rather than holding on to Stones whatever the offer, Martinez should have seen his departure as an opportunity to invest the proceeds across a thin squad, better preparing Everton for the season ahead. Back-up for Romelu Lukaku, back-up for Tim Howard and Joel Robles, back-up for Gareth Barry.
Instead, they kept their star asset and then looked on in disbelief as a player who had handed in a transfer request suddenly struggled to replicate his form of the previous season. Although that transfer request was ‘accidental’, of course.
“John Stones is in the right environment to fulfil his potential as one of the greatest players England has ever seen,” Martinez said at the start of the season. It’s almost as if Stones had had his head turned and then lost faith in a manager who struggled to organise a defence.
Out of form and presumably low on confidence, Everton now face further interest in Stones, presumably at a slightly lower price than last summer. The entire process was a how-to guide for compounding the problems of an already difficult situation.
Promoted clubs and perception
Watford finished second in the 2014/15 Championship, one point and one place behind Bournemouth. They are likely to finish three points and three places ahead of Bournemouth in the 2015/16 Premier League. Yet while Eddie Howe is understandably touted as the next big thing of English management, Quique Sanchez Flores has left Vicarage Road.
In my head, Flores was permitted to spend big money in the hunt for Premier League survival, but the comparison between the two clubs is interesting. While Watford have indeed spent £40.4m on their playing squad since last summer, Bournemouth have spent £40.7m. To repeat, it is Flores who has lost his job.
There are relevant reasons for Watford’s decision (and supporters have hardly reacted angrily to the news), but it’s also true that Flores has suffered for his early-season achievement. While Bournemouth floundered before Christmas before improvement, Watford enjoyed/endured the opposite season. There is no obligation for clubs to take seasons as a whole into context when passing judgement, but that doesn’t change the conclusion: How you finish is far more important than how you start.
On the final day of last season, there were nine English managers in the Premier League. Three of those left the league after the end of that day, with only one (Eddie Howe) coming up. Sam Allardyce, John Carver and Nigel Pearson all lost their jobs over the summer, with only Carver replaced by an Englishman.
During this season, Garry Monk, Steve McClaren and Tim Sherwood all lost their jobs after significant underperformance, each replaced by a foreign manager. Two of those three replacements made impressive improvements.
The final situation is a dire assessment not of the treatment of English managers (as Sam Allardyce would have you believe) but their development in comparison with continental coaches. The season ends with three English managers in permanent Premier League employment, finishing 14th, 16th and 17th. If we take the clubs with English managers on the opening day, they finished in 11th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 20th.
Aston Villa were already a club empty on the inside, unwanted and unloved by their owner. This season was spectacular proof that the phrase ‘things can only get better’ is based in optimism rather than reality. It got worse.
The club’s motto might be ‘Prepared’, but nobody at Villa Park had expected such a spectacular decline when the starting point was already halfway down into the abyss. Only Derby County 2007/08 and Sunderland 2005/06 could ‘beat’ Villa’s woeful points total, and both had squads completely unprepared for the rigours of the Premier League. With Villa, the problem was not that the players had never been good enough, it’s that they seemingly gave up on the cause in September.
This, therefore, is the perfect recipe for Premier League relegation:
– One part Tim Sherwood, served with a chip on his shoulder.
– One part a club enforcing signings on the manager with no buy-in from him on the issue.
– One part ageing players with little left to prove and even less loyalty to the cause.
– One part Remi Garde, brought into a helpless, hopeless scenario with no experience of the league or situation.
– One part former manager, who spent top-four money and achieved top-six finishes.
– One part Gabby Agbonlahor, a club captain with well-publicised professionalism issues.
– One part Randy Lerner, an owner who pleads his continuing love publicly but whose every action is soaked in divorce.
– One part Eric Black, who blamed supporters for his decision not to give the club’s young players a chance.
– One part Joleon Lescott, an over-paid and under-performing international sat tweeting in the top turret of his ivory tower.
No spectacular fall from grace or self-imposed implosion, just a good young manager and player for player the least capable squad in the Premier League.
I really thought he would be a star. That’s the last time I trust a young Dutch player who likes wearing hats.
Almost forgot his existence. Having started the season managing in the Premier League, Sherwood would surely struggle to get a job in the Championship now. It turns out that there is more to managerial life than pure pashun. Thank f**k.
West Brom had fewer than three shots on target in exactly half of their league games this season, and no shot on target at all in seven of them. If that doesn’t shout ‘TONY PULIS’ at you in a loud voice, this will: West Brom got to 39 points on March 6, and were effectively safe on that date. They then drew four and lost five of their last nine games.
At what point do West Brom supporters get bored of this eye-bleeding tedium? At what point do the club listen to them and take action?