Man Utd absurdity and Pochettino failure among 10 disappointments of 23/24

Dave Tickner
Mauricio Pochettino, Dan Burn and Bruno Fernandes.
Mauricio Pochettino, Dan Burn and Bruno Fernandes.

Season’s nearly over, isn’t it? Nothing much left to sort out, is there? Time then, for the 10 biggest disappointments of the season. A broad church this: some of the disappointments are very general, some disturbingly specific, a great deal of them only disappointments at all viewed through the specific lens of a specific fanbase.

We’ve also tried to avoid just ‘players who’ve been crap’ as that is a feature for another day. Managers who have been crap do not escape so lightly.

Enjoy. Or, more likely, be disappointed.


10) 30 being the new 40 for Crystal Palace
Increasingly clear absolutely nobody apart from us cares about this but, after a 10-year streak getting 40-something points every season, it very much looks like Palace are going to end this year in the 30-somethings.

They are currently to be found on 30 points from 31 games and thus need to wangle a further 10 from remaining games against Liverpool, West Ham, Newcastle, Fulham, Manchester United, Wolves and Villa.

It’s a honking run-in. Only against Fulham and Wolves is their any prospect of coming up against a team with the flip-flops already on, while the five teams they face with something to play for are all at the higher end of the table.

Of course, Palace being Palace, this wild outlier season in which they (probably) don’t get 41-49 points will still see them finish probably 15th and in no real danger of relegation. Things change, but there are still limits.

READ: Chelsea the kings of Barclays peaks and troughs as a proud Palace record comes under threat


9) Conspiracy discourse
We don’t know who needs to hear this, but that penalty/offside/points deduction/appointment of a referee from Greater Manchester is not evidence of a shadowy campaign in which the Premier League, PGMOL and Sky have for some reason teamed up to stop your team achieving that which is its right.

We know this stuff has always gone on, but it’s definitely got louder this season. VAR hasn’t helped, especially when there’s a good process, and there is now absolutely no way to get the toothpaste back in that particular tube.

But managers and clubs could certainly do more to help, with Nottingham Forest appointing the ref off of Gladiators as a sort of gamekeeper-turned-poacher official-decrying lobbyist a conspicuous new low.


8) Brighton post-September
Brighton’s second Premier League defeat of the season came on September 30 at Aston Villa. Fair play, it was a thumper too, because they lost 6-1 which is really silly.

But there was no need to panic. They’d won five of their six games up to that point, all by two clear goals, and were still well set for another excellent big-boy-bothering season. Their next game was a 2-2 draw with Liverpool, as if to reinforce the view that absolutely nothing was f*cked.

But that Villa game now sits at the start of a run of six wins in 25 games. Sure, there was the wonderful distraction of an immensely enjoyable if now concluded maiden European campaign, but the bread and butter went awfully stale.

Even the wins they have managed are telling. Two against Forest, and others against Brentford, Palace and Sheffield United are revealing. The absurd 4-2 outlier against Spurs ultimately probably says more about them than it does about Brighton.

Such is the nature of the division this year that it’s only very recently that this six-month run of relegation form has seen Brighton drop out of the top seven. Even now, they’re still in the top half. And Roberto De Zerbi is still being linked with all the very big jobs, because nobody much cares or notices if Brighton stop pulling up trees for a minute. Something he might want to think about, because this is not a run of form that slips quite so easily under the radar at Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge.


7) Newcastle’s defending
Such is the absolute state of all Barclays below the top five this season, Newcastle’s season remains inexplicably salvageable despite themselves. They have improved slightly of late and sixth place is still very much in reach. They could also very easily end up 11th and everything look entirely different again.

But wherever they happen to land when the music stops, there’s no doubt this season constitutes a significant backward step. It’s all well and good now to start talking about how progress was never likely to be linear, and how last year exceeded expectations and yadda yadda yadda, but those are tricky cards to play when you’ve spent the previous summer announcing yourself as new members of a Big Seven. Aston Villa would like a word, for one.

Newcastle have largely escaped attention for a season that has, at best, drifted by and that’s in part because of more high-profile, juicier crises elsewhere, but also a general reluctance to give Newcastle a kicking they probably deserve. They’ve got one of those nice young English managers the media want all big clubs to have, they can’t go and give him a paddling just for being quite rubbish after a season of rich promise. That’s reserved for Jonny Foreigner, thank you very much. Maybe that explains why Man United are apparently keen on Gareth Southgate. Makes you think.

But while there’s mitigation for much of Newcastle’s stagnation this year – injuries, mainly – they got their first big summer as a big-money club badly wrong. And it’s not just that results haven’t been as good, it’s that it’s harder to see what the plan is this year.

Last year, Howe and Newcastle turned themselves into an impressively good side by being able to control games. Teams having breakout seasons are generally quite chaotic; Newcastle were anything but. They weren’t dull by any stretch, but they were efficient and streamlined and, crucially, just didn’t concede goals. Pretty much ever.

They conceded 33 goals all season, the same number as Man City and 10 better than anyone else. They scored 68 too – again, not dull.

They are going to score even more goals this season, but have already shipped 52. And that’s the difference between a Champions League spot and scrabbling around with the rest of the mid-table inadequates hoping to pinch a Europa spot.

READ: How Premier League teams qualify for Champions League and Europa competitions for 24/25


6) Burnley timidly accepting their fate
The accepted narrative in East Lancashire now is ‘promoted a year early’. That’s fine, but it’s not what people were saying a year ago when Vincent Kompany’s side were swashing and buckling their way through the Championship with the former Manchester City captain inevitably portrayed as some kind of anti-Dyche transforming a club into something more capable of competing in the big league.

The desire to stick with him as the best man to get them back up again is admirable and very likely correct – last season still happened, despite the low-key miserabilism of this one – but there’s a lot of retconning going on.

Given the weakness of the bottom five this year and the fact it was amplified by the points penalties at Everton and Forest, Burnley going down with barely more fight than Sheffield United can’t really be dismissed as a nothingness.


5) Micky van de Ven’s hamstring twang
Statistically, there is a very coherent case to be made for Tottenham’s Dutch defender being behind only Rodri as the division’s most influential player.

His recovery pace garners most attention – or at least did until the weekend he unveiled a hitherto concealed fondness for shots that damn near rip the net off – but he is an astonishingly complete all-round defender and at 22 has settled into Barclays life with astonishing alacrity in a position where plenty more seasoned campaigners struggle to do so.

While his all-round game is pretty much exemplary, it’s not difficult to see why his pace is his biggest Angeball asset. Given where Spurs like to play the game, and where they want/need their full-backs to be, it really does require at least one centre-back with extreme pace to nip a few of the inevitable counter-attacks in the bud by being able to take five yards out of wingers over a 20-yard sprint. Van de Ven, somehow, can do this.

But quite how important he is to Spurs is truly staggering. When he limped off against Chelsea in November, he was an ever-present for a side that had started the season with eight wins and two draws. Spurs were down to 10 by the time he went off, but it was still 1-1.

By the time he returned in January, Spurs had lost that Chelsea game 4-1 and been beaten four more times in the nine games he missed. He was also missing for last month’s 3-0 defeat at Fulham, leaving the 2-1 home defeat against Wolves as the only league defeat this season in which he has played a full part.

Even if we include the Chelsea game – which is probably harsh – his 20 appearances in the Premier League have produced 13 wins, five draws and two defeats. Crude as the maths is – and his absence was not the only one through Spurs’ bleakest period – had he not been injured and Spurs collected points at a similar rate they would currently sit two points behind Manchester City. Hmm.

READ: Premier League winners and losers: Arsenal, Luton and Grealish brilliant; Chelsea, Liverpool and Emery poor


4) Manchester United’s sheer lack of a plan
We all enjoyed Gary Neville’s exasperation as Manchester United floundered and flapped around at Old Trafford in desperate search of something approaching an idea against Liverpool, and it was especially funny when they turned the game around in a manner that was not so much against the run of play as against all previously understood laws of physics and the universe.

But it’s also absolutely f***ing absurd that a coach of Erik Ten Hag’s standing and pedigree is this deep into his second season and still doesn’t have anything approaching an identifiable style of play for this United team. They’re absolutely nothing like his Ajax ones, that’s for sure, and his recent insistence that they never would or could be is presumably not information he offered up at his job interview.

They’re not a possession-based side, they’re not really a counter-attacking one. They don’t particularly press well or pass you to death. They don’t even exert the sterile control of Louis van Gaal’s moribund United sides. They let teams have a genuinely maddening number of shots on their goal, while frequently offering very little in attack themselves.

Even with the addition of a probable fifth-place buffer zone they have contrived to play themselves out of Champions League contention with a fifth of the season still to play, but most infuriating of all is that despite being absolutely rubbish and with no sense of direction or urgency somehow still find themselves sixth.

There’s a lot of other clubs who should be looking sheepishly at their feet about that, but it also does show just how bad a Big Six side has to be to have a properly stinking season. Fair play to Chelsea, is the confusing conclusion we must draw from United’s confusing existence under Ten Hag.

📣 Straight to the comments! ‘No mention of Utd’s injury problems? Not sure one can expect a plan for having most of your defence and your new £60m midfielder missing for almost the entire season.’ – Keith Butcher. Respond here.


3) The points deductions
Pointing no fingers and attaching no blame here about a messy situation that goes far beyond our levels of understanding.

The best we’ve been able to come up with for why Forest and Everton have been dealt with while Man City have not is that bit in The Simpsons where Mr Burns has so many diseases none of them can actually get through the door. Like we say, we don’t really understand it.

What we do understand is that the relegation battle has been reduced to something close to a farce by it all. That we are deep into April and firmly on the run-in as Everton are handed their latest penalty and points totals remain provisional and nobody knows precisely what they need to do.

The ‘think of the fans’ argument is always flawed. Sanctions against clubs will always punish blameless fans – it’s the miscreant clubs who should have thought of the fans, not the authorities left to punish them. But what fans of all clubs involved – directly and indirectly – is some degree of certainty and clarity. We still don’t really have it.


2) Mauricio Pochettino
We were disappointed in him for taking the job in the first place, to be honest. A man who had been so willing to wait after his departures from Spurs and PSG seemed unduly keen to take a job that had a high chance of going horribly wrong, that looked even less suited to his style and methods than PSG but without the guaranteed CV-burnishing trophies, and as much as anything else required him to quite literally p*ss all over his Tottenham legacy.

If you’re going to do all that, then at least don’t make a complete bollocks of it, mate.

It’s absolutely true that Pochettino is not the primary reason Chelsea aren’t very good despite spending the GDP of a small country on a team that would be in a relegation fight were it not for the endeavours of one player in what is his first real full season of top-flight football.

But he absolutely has not made the best of the silly situation either, and this was a season where it would have been very easy to make significant forward progress. Even now, they – like Newcastle – could end up with a finishing position that will test the old ‘table never lies’ maxim to breaking point. They might even get back into Europe.

It’s all miserable, though. He’s gone to a club where it was always going to be hard/impossible to win the fans over and done really very little to even try and do so. His words seem hollow and emotionless, which we know is not him.

There’s mild amusement to be had in a former Spurs boss turning up at a suspicious and unwelcoming Chelsea and finding life harder than expected given the recent trend for the exact reverse, but once that fades only sadness really remains.

READ: Five reasons Ruben Amorim should join Chelsea over Liverpool


1) The managerial merry-go-round breaking down
It’s a genuine disgrace. What has the Barclays come to if it can’t even be relied on for some good old-fashioned kneejerk manager sackings?

There were 40 managers in the end-of-season rankings last year. Forty managers, Premier League? Forty? That’s insane.

It was, in fairness, probably too many. If anything, Clive, they’ve almost merry-go-rounded too well. A correction was perhaps inevitable. But this season has been totally unacceptable. Barring some wildly unlikely late drama, there will be just 24 names this time, two of which took charge for just a single game while formalities were completed.

And the two managers who have left have been almost instantly replaced anyway, before the contenders pieces could even be written. It’s no use to anybody, this, and we will not stand for a repeat next year.

On the plus side, the near total lack of managerial changes in the season could lead to proper managergeddon in the summer. We already know Jurgen Klopp is going but there could easily be changes afoot at two more Big Sixers and who knows how many others. It will ease the pain. A bit.

Straight to the comments! Click here to tell us your biggest disappointment of the season and join the debate…