16 Conclusions on the Premier League’s final day

Date published: Sunday 12th May 2019 7:00

1) “You’ll never see anything like this again!” screamed Martin Tyler seven years ago, and he was absolutely right. Michael Thomas earned his place in football folklore in 1989, but the 2012 Premier League title race has no modern parallel.

This season has effectively proved Tyler wrong, but not in the way you might expect. Drama has been replaced with dependability and climax with consistency as the nail-biting narrative has made way for phenomenal faultlessness.

The twist is that there was no twist. Liverpool were top for around 21 minutes on the final day, but Brighton could not resist the Manchester City onslaught for too long. The Premier League title has been brilliantly defended for the first time in ten years.

All it took was the joint-second-longest winning run in Premier League history to win it by a single point, with Liverpool becoming the first team to win nine consecutive league matches on two occasions in one season. As far as perfection and precision over 38 games goes, Tyler was right: you’ll never see anything like this again.

 

2) But Brighton deserve all the credit in the world. Few envisaged the Seagulls troubling a side that had earned more points since the start of February than Albion had all season, but they helped Liverpool fans believe in the impossible, for a time at least.

Glenn Murray’s goal at the Amex Stadium was the first time City had conceded a Premier League opener since December, a run of 23 games. It was also the first time they had conceded in the first half of a Premier League game in 14 matches. Brighton can have absolutely no shame in failing to scale this ridiculous mountain; better teams have tried and failed more spectacularly and convincingly.

 

3) The unlikely hero was Riyad Mahrez, making his first Premier League start since April 3. He would hardly have expected his first season at the Etihad to be underpinned by suggestions of his imminent departure, and his inclusion against Brighton was certainly a surprise.

Kevin de Bruyne watched on from the bench as City initially struggled before David Silva and Sergio Aguero combined for the immediate equaliser. Mahrez’s corner was then dispatched by Aymeric Laporte, and the Algerian added a sublime third of his own before Ilkay Gundogan’s free-kick.

There was a time when his most telling contribution of the season felt like it might have come from the penalty spot at Anfield in October. But Mahrez scored the winner against Tottenham that month, assisted the second goal in a 3-1 win over Manchester United in November, scored and assisted in a 2-1 victory against Watford in December, and netted in the 1-0 success against Bournemouth in March. He has most certainly earned his second Premier League winner’s medal.

 

4) Liverpool played their part, with a goal in either half from Sadio Mane ensuring they ended the season as one of only two teams to complete the double over Wolves. God, those Huddersfield games were weird.

His first strike was a carbon copy of Georginio Wijnaldum’s first goal against Barcelona in midweek, with the second a header that matched the quality of the delivery. So often third fiddle to Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, he has been a quite wonderful third wheel.

Only Robert Lewandowski and his two aforementioned Liverpool teammates have ever scored more goals for Klopp than Mane. To be ahead of Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Philippe Coutinho and Mario Gotze is no mean feat, particularly for a player hardly renowned for scoring.

 

5) In laying on crosses for both goals, Alexander-Arnold set a new benchmark. Thirteen assists is the new record for a Premier League defender in a single season, and is as many as or more than Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Dennis Bergkamp and Steven Gerrard ever managed in one top-flight campaign.

It does rather feel as though the exploits of an English 20-year-old are being overlooked. He is preparing for his second consecutive Champions League final for his boyhood club, having played a crucial role in one of the most pressurised title challenges ever. Alexander-Arnold has emerged from a difficult spell earlier in the season a much better, more focused player. Jurgen Klopp would quite justifiably not swap him for anyone else in his position.

 

6) There is plenty to be said about the sustainability of Liverpool’s challenge in future seasons. This does feel different to their 2013/14 and 2008/09 near-misses in that the foundation is more solid and the structure is more settled.

The Reds had the owner of the Golden Glove and two of the three shared Golden Boot winners, suffered one defeat all season and secured the third-highest points total in Premier League history, yet still missed out on the crown.

They will also continue to dominate the agenda, as any previously dominant side on a 29-year title drought would. But that suits City perfectly: the champions will start next season having dropped 30 points in their last 80 Premier League games. Liverpool are here to stay, but they have played out of their skin to fall short. City regressed but stayed one step ahead. Those who continue to argue against their recognition as one of England’s greatest-ever sides deserve little more than a derisive glance.

 

7) For connoisseurs of the 1996/97 and 1997/98 seasons, as well as fans of 1970s American rock bands, the Golden Boot race reached the only fitting conclusion. Salah failed to extend his lead at the start of the day, meaning Mane and Aubameyang’s respective doubles drew them level on 22 goals.

Each deserve their plaudits: Salah for reaching a level of sustainable brilliance; Mane for somehow matching his teammate; and Aubameyang for forming part of a Champions League strikeforce that continues to support a Championship defence.

His exploits should not be dismissed. Aubameyang moved to the Premier League at the age of 28, joining a club undergoing one of the most difficult transition periods in modern history, carrying with him the burden of being their most expensive player ever. A record of 41 goals in 64 games is extraordinary in the circumstances.

 

8) But Arsenal could not do the unthinkable. Their 2-1 win away at Burnley was not even enough to draw level with Tottenham on points after their north London rivals held Everton.

The Toffees thought they secured a memorable victory when Theo Walcott and Cenk Tosun serviced the ghost of Sam Allardyce’s past, only for Christian Eriksen to earn a point with a fine free-kick.

While Everton’s overall season has been a huge step forward, Eric Dier’s opening goal reminded them of their fallibility. Yerry Mina and Kurt Zouma both missed opportunities to clear Erik Lamela’s corner before the unmarked Dier lashed home from six yards. Marco Silva’s side end the campaign having conceded more non-penalty set-piece goals than any other Premier League side (15). The foundations for progress have been laid, but there is plenty of work to do.

 

9) The positive for Mauricio Pochettino was that Tottenham emerged with no further injuries. They now have three agonising weeks to prepare for the biggest game in their modern history.

The manager has insisted for years that finishing above Arsenal has never been his priority since his 2014 appointment. Such words echo his sentiments on silverware, and are completely at odds with both the media narrative and expectation. But as the Champions League final has proved him right in that respect, so too has the sheer lack of fanfare at looking down at Arsenal for the third season in a row. As much as that says about the struggles the Gunners have encountered, it speaks volumes of Tottenham’s exponential growth.

 

10) On a similar note, Chelsea finishing third is an achievement in itself, without even factoring in their upcoming Europa League final. If this was to be Maurizio Sarri’s final Premier League game, he can be proud of his achievements at Stamford Bridge.

Leicester were always going to be difficult to break down without a 33-year-old Belgian centre-half in their ranks. It was bound to prove even more so when Vincent Kompany’s compatriot was left on the bench, with Eden Hazard only introduced for the final 21 minutes.

There was considerable handwringing over the decision, as many questioned why Hazard did not start what might be his final Premier League match. The 120 minutes he played in midweek was the first clue. But that might encapsulate the Sarri conundrum: he refuses to play slave to emotion, and Chelsea fans have found it difficult to relate to that void of sentimentality.

As much as ‘knowing the club’ is a ridiculous reason to appoint a manager, the opposite does ring true. Sarri has done a fine job but it is in this sort of moment that he lacks the connection with and understanding of the supporters, right or wrong. Rafael Benitez guided Chelsea to third in the Premier League and won the Europa League; ask him whether that improved his long-term job prospects.

 

11) Before this season, the biggest impact any manager had on Nathan Redmond’s game was when Pep Guardiola offered him the most aggressive praise possible just over 18 months ago. “Southampton have some super talented players,” said the Manchester City manager. “Redmond is so good one against one.”

Tommy Smith and Jonathan Hogg took it in turns to prove that claim at St Mary’s. Redmond received the ball wide on the left-hand side after Danny Ings’ run, with both Huddersfield players practically inviting him inside and into their wall of bodies. Redmond danced past both before firing into Joel Coleman’s top left corner.

It was a sumptuous goal to crown an excellent individual season. Redmond has now scored as many goals in 25 games under Ralph Hasenhuttl as he did in 103 with Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes (9). The only manager he has scored more often for is Alex Neil, and he has 36 games to score three goals and beat that tally.

Nine goals does not sound like much, but it is both the best return of Redmond’s career and the most scored by a Southampton player in a single season since Sadio Mane’s departure. That each of those strikes have come since Hasenhuttl’s December appointment suggests the world’s oldest 25-year-old has finally found a manager capable of aiding his development. It is a perfect match.

 

12) It might seem purely cosmetic, but West Ham securing a top-half finish courtesy of a 4-1 victory away at Watford was a worthy conclusion to a season of serene progress. The sheer absence of drama or civil war has been a rarity in itself, but Manuel Pellegrini has coupled that with steps forward on the pitch, too.

Mark Noble might never be on a hat-trick again, while Manuel Lanzini’s first Premier League goal since the final day of last season encapsulated the feelgood factor around a previously troubled club. Marko Arnautovic also scored to banish those memories of his failed January move. If he does leave this summer, he can do so with his head held high.

It is worth noting that only Liverpool (+22) improved their points tally more from last season than West Ham (+10). Saving two of their three biggest wins of the league season until their final two games is a fine way of treating supporters. By the way, that strange feeling is justified optimism heading into a summer transfer window. Embrace it.

 

13) Only one game fully embraced the glory of the Premier League’s final day, when ridiculousness is regular. Crystal Palace and Bournemouth played out a 5-3 thriller with seven separate scorers and one own goal.

It was the first time Palace had scored more than two goals at Selhurst Park in all competitions since April 2018, and is cause for promise ahead of next season. But the visitors must heed this familiar warning.

Many a side has slipped into relegation troubles on the foundation of a poor second half to the previous season. Bournemouth’s woes stretch even further back, with only Brighton (22), Fulham (21) and Huddersfield (13) earning fewer than their 25 points since the start of November.

Wilfried Zaha toyed with the Cherries at Selhurst Park, aided by Michy Batshuayi and Andros Townsend. And Eddie Howe should take no solace in the fact that games involving Bournemouth have seen the most goals scored of any Premier League side this season (126). The Great Entertainers down the years are more often than not remembered for glorious failure.

He has done phenomenally in taking the club this far. But their league position has now regressed in consecutive seasons having not done so once since 2011/12. It will take a huge effort to arrest that slide.

 

14) To put their seasons into perspective, Bournemouth spent more on Jefferson Lerma and Dominic Solanke combined (£44m) than Newcastle did all season (£43.5m). The two clubs ended the campaign level on points, but momentum is carrying them in completely different directions.

Benitez built his Newcastle job application on a four-goal final-day win over Tottenham in 2016, and only strengthened it with a three-goal final-day win over Chelsea last season. Thrashing an in-form Fulham at Craven Cottage by four goals is as impactful a statement.

Jonjo Shelvey and Ayoze Perez gave Newcastle a deserved first-half lead, but Benitez need only point to the identity of the third and fourth scorers to support his claim for more financial backing and ambition. Fabian Schar and Salomon Rondon joined for a combined £3m and have been two of the club’s best players. Benitez has earned the support 100 times over.

 

15) It is quite the party trick to lose 2-0 at home to a relegated team that sacked you five years ago. That sentence alone betrays the inherent stupidity it required for Manchester United to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in March.

That it is a choice everyone supported – and many even called for – after the Champions League elimination of PSG is no defence. Ed Woodward is employed by the club not to buy into, play up to or give into the social media frenzy, but to make the cold, calculated business decisions off the pitch to aid progress on it. He is there to ignore the bluster, to cut through the nostalgia and lead United into the future, not on a grand tour of their illustrious past.

Yet here they stand: a battered and bruised shadow of what they were even one or two seasons ago, never mind ten. United plumbed various depths under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, but two wins in 12 games is a level of failure even Solskjaer’s predecessors would have winced at.

The 1-1 draw away at bottom club Huddersfield seemed like the nadir, yet a 2-0 defeat at home to 18th-placed Cardiff is a new low. The Bluebirds had as many first-half shots at Old Trafford as they had scored away goals in the Premier League all season (11) as United looked disinterested, disjointed and diseased.

Solskjaer’s tactics were wrong, as was the attitude of the majority of his players. This now matches 2013/14 as the most disastrous season in the club’s Premier League history.

United have won as many league games as they did then (19), scoring and conceding one and 11 more respectively. They reached the Champions League quarter-finals in both seasons, but a domestic quarter-final and third-round was beaten by a domestic semi-final and third-round five years ago.

Both seasons were also characterised by mistaken managerial appointments seemingly corrected by a shot of sentimentality. That Woodward decided against Ryan Giggs half a decade ago makes the Solskjaer appointment feel like an even greater step back.

He might prove to be a success. Solskjaer certainly has the necessary desire and character to will United into improvement, and this squad hardly needs a complete renovation. But the skill at this level is undeniably and understandably lacking, no matter how much all parties want this to work.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of it all is that the defeat to Cardiff barely registered outside of Old Trafford. This is no longer the sort of seismic result that previously shocked United into an immediate response; it is a mere tremor in this man-made disaster of a season.

 

16) Mason Greenwood is quite good, mind.

Matt Stead

 

More Related Articles