Brentford and Brighton top the Premier League expectation table, while Everton and Manchester United clearly have work to do this summer. We construct a table based on what we – and most others – expected to happen v what did happen.
Playing top-flight football for the first time since 1947, Brentford started the season with one foot squarely in the ‘just glad to be here’ category of Premier League clubs, but they started with an explosion, didn’t panic when they hit their (inevitable?) mid-season slump, and finished their season with a run of seven wins from 11 games to lift themselves 11 points clear of the relegation places in a comfortable 13th place.
The decision that shifted the course of their season was the arrival of Christian Eriksen, whose return to the game was unquestionably one of the emotional high points of the season. Eriksen’s performances were such that it seems unlikely that the Bees will be able to keep hold of him throughout the summer, but his arrival sums up why they are where they are: a calculated gamble that made sense when viewed through the prism of the club being a combination of the cold-blooded world of football analytics and the warming hug of community. Brentford had a plan that was working, even when it didn’t look from the outside as though it was, and they stick with it. There’s a lesson to be learned that other clubs will wilfully ignore.
The enduring influence of Second Season Syndrome and summer changes may leave them facing next season with a degree of trepidation, but this – Fulham take note – was an object lesson in how to treat your first season in the Premier League.
The Brighton-supporting Twitter account North Stand Chat has spent the season documenting, with increasing amusement, the anger of other clubs’ supporters at being outplayed by #teamslikeBrighton, but they’ve had the last laugh, ending the season with a best ever final league position – beating the 13th place they managed in 1982 – and with one of the most sought-after managers in the Premier League.
There were a couple of senses in which Brighton’s season was a little bit of a let-down. The goals scored tally of 42 was their lowest in the five seasons since their promotion, but unlike previous seasons this was seldom grimly attritional fare. They’re the ninth best team in England, and all they needed was a goalscorer to finish considerably higher. Less than 25 years ago they were homeless and only staying in the Football League thanks to another club dissolving into complete chaos. Now they’re playing to crowds of 30,000 and will go into next season with one eye on pushing for a European place. It’s been an incredible time for the club, and it’s not over yet.
Newcastle may have spent more money than any other in Europe in the January transfer window, but the key to their revival in the second half of this season was, for all that Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes brought to the team, the arrival of Eddie Howe to replace the now seemingly terminally hapless Steve Bruce as coach. Howe steadied the ship that had been listing so badly under his predecessor and didn’t only oversee a January transfer window that they worked more intelligently than many expected, but also a steady improvement in the players they already had at their disposal.
The sportswashing hum will continue because it has to, and supporters will already be aware that their long-held reputation as ‘the nation’s second team’ has gone and will not be returning for the foreseeable future, but with a mid-table finish that seemed impossible at the season’s halfway point, they’ll also head into the summer expecting further strengthening and will start next season with one eye on chasing a place in Europe. There’ll be an asterisk attached to whatever success Newcastle achieve as the Saudis’ play-thing, but it’s already clear that a vast majority of Newcastle supporters in the main don’t care about that in the slightest. The only question is whether rule changes will decisively prevent the owners from doing what they evidently want to do.
Wherever Spurs did start this season, it wasn’t a particularly happy place, with Nuno Espirito Santo having been appointed as apparently their seventh-choice manager and widespread media assumption that Harry Kane would be leaving for Manchester City before the end of the summer transfer window. But Kane staying didn’t particularly steady what was becoming an increasingly befuddled-looking ship, and after a surprisingly strong start it didn’t take long for Santo’s star to start to fade.
When Antonio Conte arrived to replace him, his appointment brought an unspoken question; could a coach who can realistically be described as one of the top ten in the world unSpurs Spurs, or is Spursiness now a chronic condition that can only be lived with, and never cured? Their January transfer window was quietly spectacular. Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur turned out to be inspired arrivals, and Conte improved much of what was already there, too. Cristian Romero and Son Heung Min flourished, the latter finishing the season tying for the Golden Boot with Mo Salah. We can probably expect a DVD release this summer.
There was enough Spursiness going on even during Conte’s 2021/22 for the optimistic endpoint to have become blurred at times – getting kicked out of the Europa Conference League for having Covid-19 and getting knocked out of the FA Cup at Middlesbrough were so on the nose as to feel satirical, and there were plenty more – but ultimately, finishing in fourth place just above Arsenal has both an emotional and structural importance to the club after a couple of seasons of decline.
It’s wholly appropriate that the title race should have come down to the last ten minutes of the season. Liverpool pushed Manchester City that close. But also, at the exact end of the Premier League season, there are questions about the Liverpool’s past, present and future. The first of these may go down as one of the league’s great unanswerable questions. How might this Premier League season have finished, had Liverpool taken the lead over Wolves while Manchester City were two goals down to Aston Villa? In a game of very fine margins, what effect might that news filtering through from Anfield have had upon City’s players? We’ll never know for certain, though both City and Liverpool supporters already have their own theories.
In the present, meanwhile, Liverpool’s success this season will truly be defined next Saturday, when they play Real Madrid in Paris for the Champions League. The Premier League seal was broken in 2020, and while another league title would have been a highly desirable piece of silverware, winning in six days’ time would push the end of Liverpool’s season from being a tiny, tiny bit underwhelming (at least in the context of all that quadruple talk) to being another great season for what is increasingly looking like their greatest-ever team.
And for the future, there is always a concern that this is the peak, wherever this is. Liverpool have considerable financial largesse of their own, but it doesn’t compare with that of their rivals, and perhaps the biggest question facing the club for the future is for how long can Jurgen Klopp can keep those plates spinning. But for all that, Liverpool had been chasing City for much of this season, and for all the drama of the last day itself, expectations had not been particularly high that they would achieve the Premier League title beforehand. And can ending the season with two or three trophies ever really be considered a ‘disappointment’?.
6) Manchester City
Expect the unexpected. In the end they cut it fine again, but if the Premier League had to end in a manner befitting the season as a whole, it should probably be the feeling of inevitability that the machine was rumbling to life which came with Manchester City pulling a goal back against Aston Villa on the last day of the season from 2-0 down. Within six minutes they were leading, and that was that.
Manchester City end the season still coveting the Champions League, and it says something for their domestic dominance that the Premier League title almost feels like a consolation prize following their semi-final elimination at the hands of Real Madrid. But that’s modern football. As the wealth grows, so the disparities between haves and have-nots and levels of expectation (or at least aspiration) do as well. The Champions League remains the crowning glory for the Dubai project, but it remains out of reach, for now.
But that sense of inevitability manifests itself in many different ways. The signature of Erling Braut Haaland felt like Ivan Drago signing for the Galactic Empire, and that particular accession to the summit of Europe’s football mountain continues to feel like a waiting game for the club’s supporters. New money will out in the end, whether Floretino Perez likes it or not, and Manchester City supporters are fully entitled to believe that whatever happens in this year’s Champions League final is merely delaying the inevitable.
The Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde of the Premier League, Arsenal end the season having seen quite a few lows, a couple of not-insignificant highs, and the feeling that they have questions still to answer. But they have improved and are heading in the right direction. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was successfully cauterised in January, a rare example of a transfer window benefitting a club with a departure rather than an arrival, and there was obvious promise from a young team.
But Arsenal did keep stalling just enough when it mattered to let Spurs through in the slipstream in the race for fourth place. There was certainly a point at which Mikel Arteta’s departure seemed more likely than not, but he will reflect upon this season as a vindication for his much-talked-about ‘process’. Arsenal remain just short of being the finished article, but they are considerably closer than they looked at the end of last season.
8) Crystal Palace
Few will probably admit it now, but the appointment of Patrick Vieira during the summer of 2021 felt like a gamble for Crystal Palace. There was no questioning his acumen both as a player and as a coach, from winning the double with Arsenal to a coaching education in the rarefied air of Manchester City, but New York City and Nice this was not, and as anyone who’s kept an eye of his former team-mate Thierry Henry’s stuttering coaching career will be fully aware, greatness as a player is no guarantee of greatness as a manager.
But Vieira had an encouraging first season in the Premier League, playing a high-tempo game that suited the old school feel of Selhurst Park. There were points during the season when, under a shroud of darkness and with the Holmesdale in full voice, they looked capable of beating anybody. There is a question over what happens for player and team over the future of Connor Gallagher so there may have to be changes this summer, but mid-table seems like a fair return for this season.
9) and 10) Watford and Norwich (joint)
Congratulations, Watford and Norwich. You made the top half of a table. And no, for the record, I don’t think this is your ‘fault’. There is a space between the Premier League into the Championship into which these clubs fall along with Fulham, an orbit from which none have thus far been able to escape. Watford and Norwich occupy these positions because expectations for them at the start of the season were so low.
Watford didn’t fall into the bottom three until after the halfway point of the season, but their decision to bring in first a wholly unprepared Claudio Ranieri and then an only half-interested-looking Roy Hodgson turned out to be a disaster. Norwich only spent one week all season outside the relegation places, but considering both of their seasons, arguing over who did ‘better’ according to expectations feels a little like two bald men arguing over a comb.
11) West Ham
Another club for whom things might have been quite different. West Ham ended the season with a Europa League semi-final loss to Eintracht Frankfurt and missing out on Europa League football, while the likelihood is high that the player around whom their team has revolved for the last couple of season, Declan Rice, will be set for pastures new in the next few weeks. But for all that, West Ham are in the Europa Conference League next season, and seventh place represents a small hiccup for a team whose transformation since the lockdowns of early 2020 remains remarkable.
It is a mark of how far Wolves have come since they returned to the Premier League that finishing in tenth place in the table might feel like a little bit of a disappointment. There have been rumblings of discontent at coach Bruno Lage, whose team could only score 38 goals in their 38 Premier League matches, while there has been talk of the summer departure of key players, and one particularly important player, Raul Jimenez, has simply not been the same player since he returned from a serious head injury. But for all that, tenth place is tenth place, and goalkeeper Jose Sa has been excellent all season, one of the very best in the whole league. So there’s still something to work with. Wolves arrive at the end of this season at something of a crossroads.
On the morning of May 11, Leicester City were in 14th place and staring down the barrel of a fixture cannon. Four games in 11 days felt like a punishing-looking schedule at that point of the season, even if much of their opposition was moderate, and while they were already comfortably safe from relegation, following on from losing in the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League to Roma it felt like their season might end on a real downward turn.
Instead, they took ten points from those last four games and scored 13 in the process, and finished the season in 8th. At £2.2m per league place, that little run at the very end of the season will have made the club more than £13m in prize money alone. Not an improvement, but not the big step backward it felt like it might be not so long ago either.
14) Aston Villa
Aston Villa came into this season with lofty expectations. They’d survived second season syndrome, had improved on only narrowly avoiding the drop upon their return, and money was being spent. This season didn’t quite end with them falling flat on their faces, but it was still something of a disappointment. The decision to replace Dean Smith with Steven Gerrard was a bit of a gamble that could have ended up much worse than it did, but there is still a suspicion that Villa could have done better for the money that they spent than the 14th place they eventually claimed.
Over their four previous seasons from 2017 to 2021, Southampton’s average Premier League place was 15th. This season, they finished 15th. If there’s one thing we can say for certain about Southampton, it’s that they’re the fifteenthest team in England.
Chelsea would have been considerably higher up this list at the end of January. Still firing in the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup and Champions League and freshly crowned as world champions, it looked like 2022 was going to be a good year.
But then events elsewhere took over.
Some of this happened before the sanctions. Chelsea were already fading view in the Premier League by the time they were applied, and the decision to pay almost £100m for Romelu Lukaku was taken well beforehand. But both the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup slipped away from them on penalties, and a Champions League exit chipped away at the notion of them being both world and European champions.
It was touch and go for a while, and at the exact time of writing nothing has been completely formalised, but it seems reasonable at this point to assume that the Todd Boehly-led takeover is going ahead, but with the departure of key players now also coming, there is work to do for Chelsea this summer. The days of the Abramovich Empire are over, and we don’t yet know exactly what will follow.
What keeps Burnley above the bottom three in the expectation table is that expectations are perennially low around Turf Moor, with only the club itself having retained the belief that they could stay in the Premier League. But this season, Burnley finally did live down to the expectations of others. The decision to replace long-time manager Sean Dyche was a huge gamble that can only really be judged as a success or as a failure on whether they survived. They did not, and for all they may have had a brief new manager bounce when Mike Jackson breezed in, they took just one point from their last four games when one more win would have been enough.
All the joy in the world at surviving relegation on the last day of the season is unlikely to quell discontent amongst Leeds supporters at the direction their club has been taking over the course of this season. The sacking of Marcelo Bielsa was akin to the death of a dream, the end of a clearly definable period in the club’s history when the twin burdens of history and perpetual incompetence that had followed them around for the previous decade and a half were finally shrugged off. Bielsa powered a Championship team into the Premier League and briefly had them fly there.
Complete stasis in the January transfer window hit them hard, and there was a persistent suggestion that the methods of Bielsa himself were exacerbating a growing injury crisis. This was definitely not a good season to be a team with a coach who preferred a small squad. The Leeds owners will see survival as a vindication of replacing Bielsa with Jesse Marsch. Some Leeds supporters claim that even to see it through that prism is to miss the point.
It’s not that expectations were high. The appointment of Rafael Benitez to replace Carlo Ancelotti – yeah, remember him being at Goodison Park? – had looked somewhat bewildering from the outset and was doomed to fail as soon as Everton started losing football matches. He may have been tolerated by some had they kept winning, but once a bright start to the season faded, and it didn’t take long for that to happen, his departure became as inevitable as his appointment had been perplexing.
And then in came Frank Lampard, who continued his record of not really improving whoever he coaches. Everton under Farhad Moshiri has often felt like managerial appointments have been made by a hand reaching into a bag marked ‘Managers Farhad Moshiri Has Heard Of’, but at least Lampard continued their 69-year run in the top flight.
And thank goodness he did, because had Everton dropped it might have been calamitous. They’ve been overspending for years, and the sudden pulling of funds from Alisher Usmanov coupled with Moshiri surely being worth less than he was on account of his business interests being tied up in Russia meant that losing Premier League TV money might well have been disastrous for the club. But Everton still need considerable work, and the sense of relief that’s had Goodison Park glowing this last few days won’t last until the start of next season. Things have to improve or the end of this season will turn out to be a stay of execution.
20) Manchester United
How long have you got?