The winners are here…
David Moyes’ greatest trick was persuading people that Sunderland’s relegation was inevitable. When Moyes was appointed, he spoke of his delight at managing in the Premier League once again, and turning around this ship. He was permitted to spend money on the squad, despite rumours of Sunderland’s difficult financial situation should they be relegated. This was not a hopeless task, or Moyes would not have accepted the offer. He was dealt a bad hand, but he played it awfully.
At the start of the season, four clubs were shorter odds than Sunderland to be relegated, with Moyes’ team a similar price to West Brom and Bournemouth. To be relegated by 16 points, to have scored 29 goals all season and to have accepted failure without a whimper is more damaging to Moyes’ CV than his downfall at Manchester United or abject performance at Real Sociedad.
And yet in many ways this was an inevitability. From the moment Sunderland chose to appoint a coach who was so obviously on a downward spiral, desperately trying and failing to claw onto the sides of a greased barrel as he slides further towards the bottom, they were doomed. If Moyes is not finished, his reputation is back to where it was when he was appointed by Preston in 1998. Having climbed the ladders, Moyes has landed on a snake and been sent back to the starting square.
Amidst the poisonous Stadium of Light mood, with the crowd continuously chanting for their manager to leave, it’s worth remembering that Sunderland had a chance of survival as late as December. When Patrick van Aanholt scored the only goal against Watford on December 17, Sunderland were one point from safety and only seven points behind Southampton in ninth. At that point, Moyes needed to use his experience, his nous, to manufacture Sunderland’s escape from chains so loose that Houdini would have scoffed before rolling his eyes. What followed was ten measly points from 21 league matches. Moyes and Sunderland were done.
The weirdest element of this capitulation is that Moyes, for so long the archetypal dour Scot by personality, has projected an image of positivity that has bordered on propaganda. While the Sunderland squad reportedly refer to him privately as the ‘energy vampire’, Moyes used press conferences to paint a rose-tinted picture of Sunderland life. We were repeatedly told that results were hard on Sunderland, and that performances justified better. Even after the 5-1 defeat on the final day, Moyes focused on his insistence that the fifth goal was offside. It would be funny were we not dealing with a manager’s fall into the abyss.
Moyes’ Sunderland future is still uncertain, but it is unthinkable that he could lift this smog of his own creation. For now, Moyes’ Premier League career is on hold. Like Steve McClaren, this is a British manager who belongs in the last decade. If the game has moved on, they have not moved with it. If the game has stayed the same, they have fallen backwards.
In a decade’s time, we will look back with raised eyebrows and shaken heads at David Moyes’ appointment by Manchester United. From his greatest honour, Moyes has been careering downhill ever since.
Many thousands of words have been written about Wenger, on this site and elsewhere. Yet at the end of a campaign during which Arsenal finally dropped from the top four, the lingerng feeling is one of emptiness.
This season comes as no surprise to anyone even remotely interested in Arsenal’s fortunes. Those – of which Wenger was one – claiming that this squad, with this manager, could rebound from further disappointment and finally mount a meaningful title challenge were kidding themselves. The only likely way was down.
It all started last summer. With the Premier League’s elite clubs investing heavily after the bizarro world of 2015/16, Arsenal signed a central midfielder for £35m, a 27-year-old back-up striker for £17m, and spent £35m on a central defender who was not wanted by any other elite club.
It is easy to say in hindsight, but Arsenal were beginning the race from behind the start line. With a squad creaking after summer commitments, Arsenal took one point from their opening two matches and were immediately playing catch-up. Questions over the team’s mental state, sculpted in the eyes of their creator, were answered at Goodison in December, Stamford Bridge in February, The Hawthorns in March and Selhurst Park in April.
Wenger’s defenders will point to Arsenal’s improved points total from last season, but Champions League football was Wenger’s fall-back argument to criticism, and now that has gone. You cannot ask to be judged on consistency, only to move the goalposts when that consistency drops.
Over the course of this season, Wenger has become a weary figure. The abiding memory is of him with arms outstretched and brow furrowed, as if confused at his waning powers. Had the club managed the situation adequately, we may have avoided this constant examination into his future. Instead, the only hope is that his legacy will not be soured. If the Champions League will be a poorer competition without Arsenal and Wenger, they sure needed it more than it needed them.
“I love this club enough to do my best every single day,” said Wenger after Arsenal’s fifth place was confirmed. “One thing you cannot question is my love for this club. I’ve turned down every club in the world to stay here.”
That has never been in doubt, and switches focus from Arsenal’s manager to their board. In February, Sarah Winterburn wrote that Wenger was addicted to the light that blinds him, and that is the perfect phrase. Wenger has come too far to walk away, a servant to an institution that has become his dependency. If it is hard to imagine an Arsenal without Arsene Wenger, it is harder still to imagine an Arsene Wenger without Arsenal. There is no guard at the door, yet Wenger remains captive.
This is why you have leadership, after all. Club owners may delegate responsibility on commercial sponsors, kit deals and myriad other economic decisions, but they sit at the top of the club for a reason. They are the ones who should decide whether a manager stays or goes.
Arsenal’s leadership has not just been insufficient, but entirely absent. They have sent out their manager to face the same questions, week by week, month by month, year by year. They have left the decision in the hands of the person least able to make an objective call. In doing so, Arsenal’s hierarchy have allowed Wenger to act as a lightning rod for the club’s eventual decline. At best we can call it foolish, but at worst it is a calculated strategy to evade due scrutiny.
Not every Arsenal supporter is hoodwinked into abusing the manager into the lenses of well-placed cameras around the ground, held in the hands of those looking to monetise frustration, anger and despair. Not every Arsenal supporter believes flying a plane asking a manager to leave is anything other than evidence of people with far too much time, money and desperation for attention. If that’s what football does to you, give it up.
“Stan Kroenke…get out of our club,” the chant started on the North Bank. For three, six, nine years, Arsenal’s majority shareholder has sat back and watched as his manager endured questions over his position, growing in volume until they were deafening. Now it is time for Kroenke to take his own turn under a microscope searching for the cause of this debilitating Arsenal disease.
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“I want to be champion. To say before the season starts that the top four is the target? The top four is not the target. We want to play to be champions. If during the season we realise the points difference doesn’t allow us to fight for the title, we are going to establish a new title, and when you can’t be champion the next target is to finish top four. But day one, I don’t want to hide behind a bad season or no Champions League football to say we want to finish top four” – Jose Mourinho, July 24, 2016.
That quote came three weeks after Mourinho’s first press conference as Manchester United manager, when he resorted to classic Jose by having a pointed dig at Louis van Gaal: “I was never very good at hiding behind words and philosophies. I could be quite pragmatic to say ‘let’s work and try and be back to the Champions League, try and be back to the top four’. I prefer to be more aggressive and say we want to win.”
Manchester United may well win the Europa League, beating Zorya (third in Ukraine), Fenerbahce (fourth in Turkey), Feyenoord (first in Netherlands), St Etienne (eighth in France), Rostov (sixth in Russia), Anderlecht (first in Belgium), Celta Vigo (13th in Spain) and Ajax (second in Netherlands) in the process. They won the EFL Cup, beating Northampton Town, Manchester City, West Ham, Hull City and Southampton. Yet it is possible to separate United’s Premier League performance from their achievement in two cup competitions. In the league, United have been so far below expectation that defeat to Ajax on Wednesday would make this a disastrous campaign.
Read through that first quote again. This was a manager of the second favourites for the Premier League title talking up his side’s chances, refusing to talk of mere improvement and top-four finishes. Yet Mourinho has missed out on both his primary and secondary league targets. United recorded their second lowest ever points total in the Premier League and their worst home win rate since they were relegated in 1973/74. The last time there was a greater gap between Manchester United and first place was 1989/90.
You could say that Mourinho has an excuse of injuries, fatigue, players missing chances and a squad struggling to release the shackles of their predecessor. But then Mourinho told us in his first press conference that he wasn’t a manager to hide behind words. Those present at his press conferences this season may struggle to stifle their laughter on that point, after ten months in which Mourinho has switched from his usual first season persona to the one he reserves for this third year in charge.
If the accusation of the media is that Mourinho is treated differently to other managers (Pep Guardiola, say), Mourinho’s strength of personality demands that treatment. He is a coach who raises his head above the parapet to demand praise, and thus must also accept censure. He is a man who knows what he is doing, with his media leaks to preferred journalists and accusations of mistreatment at the hands of officials, governing bodies and just about anyone else in his view.
Mourinho is not finished, and Manchester United may well respond next season under his stewardship. Yet this is a coach who prides himself on being the best manager in world football. Given United’s spending last summer, we are right to have expected more than triumph in the EFL Cup, Europa League victory in which United were pre-tournament favourites and a miserable Premier League finish. He would have expected more too, whatever the subsequent attempts to manage ambitions.
Mourinho is not a failure, but this season has fallen short of his minimum expectation whatever happens on Wednesday. Anyone believing different needs only to revisit the Mourinho of July 2016 for proof.
As with Mourinho before him, Guardiola is not a failure. As with Mourinho before him, there are excuses within Manchester City’s squad and injuries to key players. As with Mourinho before him, we are right to be disappointed in this first season in Manchester.
Yet there is a key difference between United and City’s disappointments. With United, the frustration is that they never clicked. With City, the frustration is that they clicked on and off, producing performances or part-performances of astonishing quality, yet unable to maintain it long enough to counteract their defensive deficiencies.
Half an hour against Monaco, the first half against United in the first derby of the season, the first six matches of the league season, the home game against Barcelona; these were times when we sat in open-mouthed amazement at City’s play. Yet there were just as many occasions when we wondered just quite what was running through Guardiola’s mind, and he might have done the same about his own players. Using Yaya Toure as the only defensive midfielder, Fernandinho at right-back and the catastrophic goalkeeping situation are all black marks in Guardiola’s book. So too is the Champions League exit to Monaco; look at the difference between how City and Juventus handled Leonardo Jardim’s counter-attacking team.
Guardiola’s reputation has not collapsed, but it has been pricked. Having been held up as a coaching phenom, it is clear that this will be the most difficult of the Spaniard’s three elite club assignments. The question is how much he can take this Manchester City project forward over the course of this summer, and whether the Premier League is an environment in which you can afford to walk before you run.
“I am quite surprised with so many question marks around this guy,” said Jose Mourinho in July 2016. “I know that at the national team level you have this capacity of trying to make things complicated for yourself, so what happened around him in the summer was not a surprise for me. But in my club we are not going to have that. He is the club captain, he is the manager’s captain, he is the players’ captain. I trust him a lot. I think he’s going to be a very important player for me and no problem for him.”
Ten months on, and perhaps Mourinho now understands why there were question marks. Plenty – both inside and outside Manchester United – predicted that Rooney’s decline would be sharp, but in the space of one season their captain has effectively become persona non grata.
No other player has fallen further over the course of this campaign, with the possible exception of Saido Berahino. Rooney started 27 league games in 2015/16 but only 15 during this season. More than a third of those came in April and May, as Mourinho chose to give up on league form.
It is not just Rooney’s lack of game time that indicates his decline, but his displays when he has been picked. Once the explosive boy wonder, Rooney now looks like the ageing professional entering the second half of his own testimonial, and even then failing to make full-time. There are still moments of aptitude, but they are lost in a sea of mediocrity.
It is easy to be critical of Rooney, and his £300,000 weekly wage certainly makes him unfit for purpose at Old Trafford, but there is something inherently tragic in a 31-year-old undermined by his own physical limitations and an increasing inability to match the speed of those around him. The only hope is that Rooney shuffles off somewhere warm this summer, and we can watch his past brilliance on loop.
We knew attempting to follow the Lord Mayor’s show in a new stadium after a summer of transfer incompetence would be hard, but even then West Ham fell short of expectation. They lost Dimitri Payet after breaking promises over squad improvement, managed their home move like a Chuckle Brothers tribute act and followed that with an encore of embarrassing defensive performances. Slaven Bilic is responsible for only one of those, and yet even his job understandably came into question.
The first Premier League-winning manager to be sacked during the following season since…oh, Jose Mourinho the season before. Nine months on from Ranieri’s greatest triumph, he paid the price for either changing too much, stopping listening to advice, freezing out his coaching staff, failing to get the best out of new signings or throwing away butter. Then in came Craig Shakespeare, and we all got to make crap puns to relieve the bard-dom.
Tony Pulis, post-safety
Pulis has done a tremendous job in leaving West Brom in mid-table this season (albeit a mid-table that can reasonably be described as uninspiring), but somehow managed to lose all accrued credit after his West Brom side didn’t only play in flip-flops for the final two months but donned snorkels, Bermuda shorts and inflatable armbands too. The Baggies took one point from their final eight matches.
The results of every Premier League match played by a Tony Pulis team. The black line is where they hit 39pts. You'll notice the difference. pic.twitter.com/a8I7BOU4Hf
— Huw Davies (@thehuwdavies) May 21, 2017
This would hardly be a concern were it a one-off, but that is emphatically not the case. As the above tweet demonstrates, over the last six years Pulis’ sides (at West Brom, Crystal Palace and Stoke) have played 37 matches after reaching 39 points. Of those 37 matches, they have won three, drawn 13 and lost 21.
The charitable explanation is that Pulis demands so much from his teams to achieve safety that they have nothing left to give in the final weeks of the season. The alternative argument is that Pulis is a manager happy to coast once expectations have been realised, and thus manage optimism ahead of the following campaign. It certainly doesn’t make supporters cheer, watching an unarsed team and manager for 20% of every season.
Wrong man, wrong place, wrong time?
Wrong man, wrong place, right time?
Wrong man, right place, wrong time?
Right man, wrong place, wrong time?
Wrong man, Right place, right time?
Right man, wrong place, right time?
Right man, right place, right time?
Still trying to work that one out, but something was definitely not fit for purpose. English football’s first American manager lasted 11 games, the second shortest tenure of any permanent Premier League manager.
The one you’re going to forget on Sporcle in five years’ time.
It’s all about the friends you make along the way.
— Matt Furniss (@Matt_Furniss) May 21, 2017
I could discuss their lack of ambition under Aitor Karanka. I could discuss the incredible waste of slogging to get promoted, only to accept relegation with the wave of a white flag. I could discuss the intense frustration you feel when watching Gaston Ramirez, Adama Traore and Stewart Downing.
But sometimes you only need a statistic to make your point. Premier League goals this season: Middlesbrough 27 – 29 Harry Kane.