16 Conclusions on another quiet and uneventful Premier League final day

Dave Tickner
Manchester City players celebrate winning the 2021/22 Premier League title after a 3-2 win over Aston Villa

Final-day Barclays is routinely the very best Barclays and that was a vintage slice. City produced a title-winning conclusion mad enough to be the second maddest final day they’ve had, while Leeds leapfrogged Burnley to avoid the drop and, most astonishingly of all, Spurs never even threatened to Spurs things up for a single second as they cruised back into the Champions League…


1. “I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again.” So, is Martin Tyler a great big massive liar or what? I guess technically he’s in the clear because, absurd as Manchester City’s latest wildly improbable final-day title-clinching comeback victory was, and as hard as this fact is to process given the scale of the drama, at no point were City ever anything other than top of the table. City’s astonishing, season-defining six minutes in which they turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory over a shellshocked Aston Villa occurred while Liverpool were themselves still shambling around against Wolves and, frankly, being pretty damn lucky not to fall behind to any one of a series of counter-attacks blown by the visitors before their own late goals to secure a win and a Golden Boot share for Mo Salah but no Premier League cigar.

City and Liverpool both seemed to succumb to nerves, with both producing quite honking performances at odds with their season’s work as a whole in which both once again went beyond the 90-point barrier. Says quite a lot that both still won, really. Liverpool fell behind in the third minute as a Virgil van Dijkless defence went AWOL, while City were having one of those games where their casual, easy dominance of proceedings fails to translate to chances and goals. It’s the only way they ever seem to drop points and does make you worry for everyone else about what happens when Erling Haaland gets added to this heady mix. They’ve now faced down one of the all-time great Liverpool sides to make it four titles in five years and yet there is an obvious, tangible area where improvement can be made and they have already taken the most obvious step towards securing that improvement.


2. While Matty Cash’s opening goal was unexpected – City’s fast start had rather burnt out but they still appeared in full control despite the lack of chances – Philippe Coutinho’s second was not. City weren’t exactly panicking, but they were leaving plenty of gaps in pursuit of an equaliser. As the second half wore on a second Villa goal felt just as likely as a City first. Assuming as one always did despite their defensive struggles that Liverpool would find a way against Wolves it looked like being narrative overload. The fun to be had with a player called Cash scuppering City was obvious, but the prospect of Coutinho scoring the clincher for Steven Gerrard’s side to hand Liverpool the title was if anything a bit too much for anyone to stomach.


3. Enter Ilkay Gundogan, who scored two goals from a combined total of about four yards either side of Rodri’s equaliser to tip the whole thing on its head. Those goals were quite telling. The similarity, Gundogan arriving from midfield to apply the close-range finishing touch with his head from Raheem Sterling’s cross and his foot from Kevin De Bruyne’s, plus the fact these are the archetypal City goal. Even as Pep Guardiola made his changes, even as City went chasing three goals in 15 minutes to save their season – and they really were quite startlingly close to ending this campaign empty-handed – they still remained visibly and recognisably City as what at half-time looked like being a rerun of Blackburn’s stumble over the finish line in 1995 turned into their own touching tribute to Agueroooooooo on its 10th anniversary.


4. Liverpool’s performance was truly odd viewed in isolation but was in reality just another example of how hard it is for even a team this stunningly good and a coach this stunningly good to spin every plate until the very end. Van Dijk and Salah starting on the bench with one eye on the Champions League final was a reminder of how great this season has been for Liverpool and this disappointment doesn’t change that. And in the end despite their two most influential players starting on the bench and despite an overall performance several levels below their best, they still in the end got their part of the job done. Had City not done what they so ludicrously did over the closing minutes against Villa, Liverpool would have won the league and moved one game away from winning absolutely everything. While the City comeback will sting for a while no matter what happens against Real Madrid, Liverpool will know that a situation that required favours from elsewhere against City was always unlikely to end well. They have done superbly well to first drag themselves back into and then stay in a title race that looked over at the turn of the year – and it’s worth remembering that last season they got as many points as Arsenal have this year – but as the dust settles Liverpool will look at a record of no wins from six matches against the other sides in the top four and wince. They wouldn’t even have needed to beat City; a single win against Chelsea or Spurs would have done it.


5. Slightly unsettling that on what was a truly spectacular example of final-day Barclays – truly the greatest of all Barclays – the end result saw only one significant change from the status quo heading into this crazy two hours as Leeds survived and Burnley slipped through the trapdoor. A 2-1 win at Brentford secured by Jack Harrison’s injury-time strike was significant redemption for Jesse Marsch, who has endured some rare old nonsense as Leeds manager but also been quite crap at various points and said a few silly things that made you wonder quite hard about his claim to have never watched Ted Lasso. Keeping Leeds up was achieved while wearing a child’s PE top which is also either brilliant or ridiculous. We’re still weirdly pleased for him, though. He looked like he was having a lovely old time in the celebrations and fair enough. Still be amazed if he’s in that job come November, mind.


6. While City’s six-minute blitz was of course the big story and drama of the day, the purest slice of Final-Day Barclays came in that relegation fight. For proper final-day antics you really want related events intertwining at multiple games, and the heady two minutes in which Newcastle were awarded a penalty at Burnley, and then Joe Gelhardt scored for Leeds, and then Callum Wilson scored the penalty for Newcastle and then Gelhardt’s goal was disallowed by VAR was great if discombobulating content.


7. Thiago’s assist for Sadio Mane’s equaliser against Wolves ultimately counted for nought but there should always be a place to recognise the beauty of football even if it doesn’t secure pots and pans at the end. It was a glorious little touch, a triumph of vision and technique and a reminder that while Guardiola has assembled a brilliant and formidable winning machine of a squad at City, the most Guardiola player this league possesses can be found at their biggest rivals.


8. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about all the final-day drama, though, was that while there were head’s gone bottle jobs going off all around the country there was absolutely nothing of the sort from Spurs who simply cruised to a thoroughly dominant 5-0 win at Norwich to confirm their return to the Champions League. Does this tell us about a renewed steel under Antonio Conte, or does it tell us just how very, very bad Norwich are? A little from Column A, a little from Column B. While this proved to be a formality even for a club of Spurs’ fearsome reputation for drama and mess, the overall achievement should not be diminished. Nobody anticipated this outcome when the season started after a destabilising summer of Harry Kane speculation and a clown car catastrof*ck of a manager search had ended inexplicably with Nuno Espirito Santo leading the club into a crucial campaign. Spurs were ninth and had just been spanked 3-0 at home by a Manchester United side that would ultimately finish 13 points behind them when Nuno was sacked and replaced with Conte. It has not always been plain sailing under the Italian’s leadership, but they have increasingly looked the third best team in the country during his time at the club and are playing football that matches that of the peak Poch years and which hasn’t been seen since. There is still an inherent fragility to it all thanks to the general uncertainty of having the flighty and volatile Conte as your manager – he pointedly refused to end speculation about his future even after securing a top-four finish that he can’t truthfully have expected when he took the job – but what’s undoubtedly true is that every time it looks like Spurs are about to drift back into the mid-table morass from whence they came, they somehow find a way to keep themselves in the big time. FUN STAT: Spurs have now qualified for the Champions League in each of the last seven Premier League seasons apart from ones in which they have employed Jose Mourinho.


9. Son Heung-min’s two goals may have been stat-padders but few could begrudge him the share of the Golden Boot they earned him. Twenty-three goals with no penalties from a wide forward in a team that was bang average for long periods of the season is a monumental effort. Kane and Son this season became Son and Kane and were no worse for it. His two goals were peak Son as well, racing on to a Lucas Moura flick and calmly finishing a one-on-one before curling home his second from 20 yards. He is a sensational footballer, and even as it has become a cliché to note that he is under-rated it remains so, and much to Eric Dier’s chagrin.

You also simply have to admire anyone who can be sh*tposting away on Twitter within 25 minutes of securing Champions League qualification. Dier himself has had a low-key excellent season at the heart of Spurs’ much-improved defence that played its own part in that unlikely top-four finish. In the decisive run of 26 points from the final 11 games Spurs conceded just four goals and never more than one in any game. He’ll be back in the England squad this summer and people will complain, but he’ll deserve it. And not just for the sh*tposting.


10. While it was Spurs’ final two goals that earned Son Heung-min a share of the Golden Boot, it was their first three goals that were more important. Most obviously for avoiding the possibility of any Spursy nerves creeping in but also for the identity of the scorers and creators. Two of the goals were set up by Rodrigo Bentancur, two were scored by Dejan Kulusevski. Both have had a huge impact on Spurs since their January arrivals, and it is inconceivable that Spurs would have finished in the top four without them. A comparison with Arsenal’s decision to sit on their hands as their squad shrunk that month is simplistic and reductive, but still…. As Arsenal’s youngsters faded on the home straight, Spurs roared home with eight wins and two draws in their last 11 games to sweep past their neighbours having made two significant upgrades to their starting XI in the month when one such signing is often thought to be impossible.

Tottenham visit Norwich

11. So what of Arsenal. With the pressure off they handed an Everton side whose players and supporters were just delighted to be able to enjoy a stress-free final day after an awful, awful season a predictable hammering and there is significant merit to both a glass-half-full and glass-half-empty reading of their season. First the half-full. Fifth is at least one place and probably more than anybody would have predicted at the start of the season and certainly after they started the campaign with three straight defeats. A young squad should, in racing parlance, be better for the run and you would hope will have the wit and wherewithal to learn from their struggles under the pressure of the run-in. The season is still a net positive, and the inconvenience of Thursday-night football is far less of a concern than another season outside Europe altogether would be for a club of this stature.


12. But now the glass-half-empty. This was a massive, massive chance completely and utterly blown. There is that school of thought that Arsenal didn’t bottle or choke this because they were chasing something nobody had expected them to achieve anyway. It’s fair, as far as it goes, but expectations can and should change as the situation does. This was a golden opportunity that should have been taken, and there is no guarantee if or when it comes around again given the white-hot competition for those coveted top-four places. Yes, Arsenal will have a young side with a year’s more experience next season but they will also have to play an awful lot more football than they did this year. And the facts are these. On March 15 Arsenal were fourth with a six-point lead and a game in hand on eighth-placed Tottenham. They had a one-point and three-game advantage over Manchester United. They had no other football to distract them. They lost six of their last 12 games. Victory over any one of Brighton, Southampton, Crystal Palace or Newcastle would have secured a long-awaited return to European football’s top table. Even 10 days ago they were four points clear of Spurs with three games to play. They do have another lovely retro kit for next season, though.


13. Burnley’s relegation from the Premier League will be mourned by few – certainly not anyone who finds themselves compiling ‘one per club’ features for formerly-good-but-rubbish now football websites – and had appeared to be in the post for most of the season before a late revival coupled with Leeds’ struggles took things to a dramatic conclusion. They were ultimately flattered by a 2-1 defeat against a Newcastle side who long ago put relegation fears behind them through a shrewd managerial appointment and canny January investment. While Newcastle’s future could prove to be absolutely anything over the years ahead, things look bleak for Burnley. There are few clubs less financially equipped to bounce back and there may now be a fire sale of the few marketable assets they possess.


14. The Premier League mid-table can often be such a strikingly congested place that a notably good or poor finish to the campaign can stretch the table all out of whack and distort everything you thought you knew from nine long months of football. Take your pick for this season’s eyebrow-raising final positions. Leicester ending a season of often desperate domestic struggle only four points outside the European places is one such. Wolves spending the whole season seemingly bang in contention for Europe and ending 10th is another related one. The fact Wolves have ended up a mere two points clear of Newcastle having been above Spurs as recently as mid-March isn’t the most important outcome from the day but it still feels worth noting. So we have, right here.


15. Pitch invasions need knocking on the head again. Clearly, by definition, they are more likely to be a thing at the end of the season when things are being settled and celebrations celebrated, but there is also no doubt a sense of each one begetting the next. Each one becoming a game of bizarre one-upmanship where your pitch invasion must be more dramatic, more postable on social media, more viral and more violent than the next. The Celebration Police have quite rightly had a terrible time this season but this is not that. Once your celebrations are attracting the attention of the Actual Police, it probably is time to admit things have got out of hand. What happened to Robin Olsen at the end of City v Villa was utterly unacceptable. It’s not just idle slippery-slope sensationalism to suggest someone is going to get seriously hurt soon. It’s also doing supporters no favours. Those who back the inalienable right of fans to mark the season’s end by running onto the pitch and sitting on crossbars and so on in the name of “fan culture” are also always the first to bemoan that the establishment want to water it down and neuter that lifeblood of the game. They have a real point here, which is why they should condemn the mindlessness of these pitch invasions. If you as a fan know that those who run the game are out to get you, then don’t give them ammunition. Yes, pitch invasions have very little to do with safe standing, but you can be confident they will be used as an argument against it. It would be lovely if fans could celebrate on the pitch without going too far – and surely we can all agree that physically assaulting opposition players falls into this category – but they can’t. Cut it out, lads, yeah?


16. Manchester United, though. Christ alive. I know there was a lot going on elsewhere, but it’s still quite something that another absolutely dismal defeat to end a dismal season is little more than a footnote. Erik Ten Hag was there to see just how big a job he has to turn this lumbering ship around. So, so much seems to be wrong at United, and it was only West Ham’s failure to hold a lead at Brighton that kept United out of next season’s Europa Conference League. This is as bad as United have ever been in the Premier League. Their final total of 58 points is six fewer than they have ever managed in the Premier League before; 57 the most goals they have conceded in a league season since the 70s; 16 wins their fewest in the Premier League era. They have finished further behind fourth place this season than they did behind champions Manchester City a year ago. And they were really were dreadful on a final day where even with their European plans for next season to be determined the focus still seemed to be mainly on whether the club they hate could hold off the club they hate even more for the Premier League title. United: not only crap, but an afterthought. Hated, adored, easily ignored. Or at least hated, adored, relegated to Conclusion 16. But that doesn’t scan quite as well.