Can Man United or Liverpool learn from recent runners-up?

Date published: Tuesday 17th April 2018 7:13

“In my philosophy, finishing second just makes you the best loser,” said the manager of Real Madrid in March 2011. “You’re just the best of the rest when you finish second. It’s the same when you finish ten points behind the champions, but score 500 goals. You’re still only number two.”

The challenge, as Jose Mourinho knows all too well, is to transition from number two to number one. The Portuguese took over at the Bernabeu in summer 2010 after Real had just finished second, and he guided them to the same finish in his first season. It was only in his second year that he wrestled the crown from Barcelona’s grasp.

Pep Guardiola was manager at the Nou Camp at the time, and Mourinho will hope history repeats itself next season. No sooner had Manchester City been confirmed as Premier League champions was the question asked: Can anyone dethrone them next season? If so, the club that finishes second this campaign is surely best placed to do so.

In 25 full Premier League seasons, the team that finished the previous campaign second has won the title the next year 11 times, starting with Manchester United in 1992/93. Blackburn managed the feat in 1994/95, while Arsenal and Chelsea have done so on multiple occasions.

But since Manchester City jumped from second to first in 2013/14, the fate of the previous season’s runner-up has been rather less bright. Liverpool plunged to sixth, Manchester City dropped to fourth and Arsenal slumped to fifth in their follow-up seasons after pushing the champions the closest. Tottenham are unlikely to finish any higher than third after not bottling the title in 2016/17 – although there has been no collapse quite as pronounced as Newcastle’s fall from second to 13th in 1997/98.

But what of this season’s bridesmaids to City’s runaway bride? United currently lead Liverpool by one point with a game in hand, yet both will have already considered how to improve on their league position next season. Can they learn from City’s success four years ago, and the failures of each club since?


Manchester City – second in 2012/13 to first in 2013/14

What happened?
City went from finishing 11 points behind United to pipping Liverpool by two points.

What went right?
Plenty. City wasted no time in laying the groundwork for 2013/14 after finishing a distant second behind United the season before. Roberto Mancini was sacked with two games of the 2012/13 season remaining, and Manuel Pellegrini was appointed his successor exactly one month later.

There were also inevitable changes in the playing staff. Kolo Toure, Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz were all released in summer 2013, while Carlos Tevez, Maicon and Abdul Razak were sold. The club spent a meagre £90.9million on incomings, but only one could possibly be declared a true success. Jesus Navas never settled in Manchester, both Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic left within three years, and Martin Demichelis is still having nightmares about Marcus Rashford. Fernandinho exists as evidence that this was not a wasted transfer window.

Yet arguably the biggest difference between the two seasons was not at the Etihad, but four miles away in Stretford. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement had a cataclysmic effect throughout the Premier League elite as David Moyes proved painfully incapable as a manager at the top level. City’s most crucial change was in the dug-out of their main rivals.

The difference
That is not to say City were not much-improved. They conceded more times in the Premier League in 2013/14 (37) than 2012/13 (33), but scored 36 more goals. Tevez and Edin Dzeko were their joint-top scorers in Mancini’s final season (14 goals); Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure all exceeded that total under Pellegrini. They also lost as many games (6), but won more (27 to 23) in their title-winning season.

City had more shots (673 to 659) and completed more passes (21,035 to 20,357) en route to being named champions, while they ranked second for tackles in 2013/14 after placing 17th under the same metric in 2012/13.

To conclude…
Have more shots, complete more passes, make more tackles, employ Manuel Pellegrini, sign Fernandinho and hope the best manager in the league retires.


Liverpool – second in 2013/14 to sixth in 2014/15

What happened?
Liverpool slipped from title challengers to Europa League stragglers.

What went wrong?
Luis Suarez left. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi, Alberto Moreno and Mario Balotelli all arrived, but any success from that motley crew would come long after Brendan Rodgers’ departure. The deflating nature of their title collapse also took its toll, as did the increased weight of expectation. But yeah, Luis Suarez left.

The addition of European football to the fixture list also surprised a squad who had enjoyed midweek breaks for the entirety of their 2013/14 title challenge. Liverpool played 43 games that season, while failed attempts in the Champions and Europa League, as well as runs to the FA and League Cup semi-finals, added an extra 15 matches to the schedule.

A combination of many factors contributed to the downfall. As James McKenna wrote in ‘We’re Everywhere, Us: Liverpool’s 2014/15 Season Told Through the Stories of Fans and Foes’:

‘Our impression of looking lacklustre looks in danger of actually being lacklustre. I could try and be a pundit here and say Liverpool need to change this or that, that tweaking this little thing improves the overall. But I really don’t know what the solution is short of building Luis Suarez II, or new muscles for Daniel Sturridge’s legs, or new legs for Steven Gerrard, or a bit of courage for Simon Mignolet, or an actual defence.’

The expiration of Javier Manquillo’s loan probably didn’t help, though.

What changed?
Liverpool scored 101 Premier League goals in 2013/14; that almost halved to 52 in 2014/15. Their top scorer went from Suarez (31) to Steven Gerrard, whose nine league goals included four penalties and one free-kick. Daniel Sturridge went from 24 goals to an injury-ravaged five. They went from having 651 shots to 590, from 848 tackles to 797, from winning 26 and losing six games to winning 18 and losing 12, from a vaguely respectable Simon Mignolet to a Simon Mignolet who had to be dropped for Brad Jones against Manchester United and Arsenal, from beating Tottenham 5-0 and 4-0 and Arsenal 5-1 to losing 6-1 to Stoke. It was quite funny, really.

To conclude…
Don’t sell Luis Suarez and expect Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli to adequately replace him.


Manchester City – second in 2014/15 to fourth in 2015/16

What happened?
City went from finishing 25 of 38 gameweeks – including the last – in second place to tripping over themselves in a title race they really ought to have won.

What went wrong?
Ten players were sold in the summer, with James Milner the most notable. A further six were loaned out, with Edin Dzeko the most significant. Those two made 54 Premier League appearances between them in 2014/15, scoring nine goals and assisting 11.

Of course, they were succeeded by better, younger players. The summer of 2015 saw City spend £147.4m on Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph, Nicolas Otamendi and Luke Brattan. They would lead the Premier League table as late as December, winning 13 games up to and including January, but just six thereafter.

Their lack of winter investment likely cost them more than anything else. City were third on January 1, three points behind both leaders Arsenal and second-placed Leicester. Neither were expected to maintain their form for various reasons, but City had the means to set the pace themselves. They opted to make just one signing in January, but the arrival of Anthony Cáceres from Central Coast Mariners doth not a title challenge make.

Perhaps Pellegrini and the players simply took their eyes off the ball. Pep Guardiola was announced as the Chilean’s successor on February 1, at which point they were second and three points behind leaders Leicester, with the Foxes yet to visit the Etihad. They lost that game 3-1 five days later, and won just six of 15 league games after Guardiola’s imminent arrival was made public.

What changed?
They earned 13 more points in 2014/15 than they did in 2015/16, owing to five more wins and three fewer defeats. They also scored 71 goals in Pellegrini’s final season, compared to 83 the year prior, and conceded 41 goals to 38. The margins were actually fairly slim, but Leicester’s unlikely surge, Tottenham’s emergence and Arsenal’s unfathomable second place left them clinging onto a Champions League qualification place; they finished level on points with Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United.

To conclude…
At least consider capitalising on a position of strength by signing someone in January. And don’t announce your manager’s replacement three months before the end of the season.


Arsenal – second in 2015/16 to fifth in 2016/17

What happened?
From the actual ‘most under-acclaimed runners-up in recent history’, to a New Year collapse, to three at the back, to almost snatching a Champions League place, to finishing an agonising one point off fourth. It was weird.

What went wrong?
For the first four months of the season, not much. The 4-3 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day was followed by a 14-game unbeaten run in the Premier League. It was only when they finally topped the table after a 3-1 victory over Stoke in December that they realised what was happening. They lost their next two games to Everton and Manchester City.

Arsene Wenger got the season back on track somewhat with four wins from their next five, yet Arsenal soon did an Arsenal. They lost to Watford, Chelsea, Liverpool, West Brom and Crystal Palace in the space of seven games before a formation switch almost rescued a failed Premier League season. Victory in the final of the FA Cup – and seven wins from their last eight league matches – papered over the cracks, earning Wenger another two-year deal.

What changed?
Everyone else’s form. Arsenal finished second pretty much by accident in 2015/16, capitalising on the fact that everyone else was busy appreciating how mental it was that Leicester were winning the league. Arsenal dropped three places in 2016/17, but had more wins (23 to 20), more goals (77 to 65) and more points (75 to 71) in finishing fifth as they did coming second. They hardly regressed, but even in standing still they allowed Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool to pass them.

To conclude…
Don’t finish second by default.

Tottenham – second in 2016/17 to where in 2017/18?

What happened?
Manchester City. Manchester City happened.

What went wrong?
Manchester City. And some early teething problems at Wembley. And their away record against their direct rivals. But then nothing went particularly wrong, as they were punching above their weight to finish second behind Chelsea to begin with. They were among the pre-season title contenders, but fourth feels about right.

What changed?
That said, their form has clearly dipped. They won 26 Premier League games last season, and can win a maximum of 25 this. They lost four times in 2016/17, and have already been beaten on six occasions in 2017/18. They need 21 goals in five games to match their output from their last campaign, and have already conceded four more goals. Has any Tottenham player irrefutably improved from last season?

Matt Stead


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