Liverpool salvaged Champions League qualification but that was a poor title defence. Frank Lampard might be back. Jose Mourinho surely won’t.
The Premier League season winners are here.
That Liverpool title defence
After three matches of their league season, Liverpool had nine points. They had beaten two of the previous season’s top eight and already opened up a five-point lead over Tottenham and Chelsea and a six-point lead over the Manchester clubs. Jurgen Klopp’s team were the clear odds-on favourites to retain their title.
The easy answer is to conclude that injuries decimated the campaign for Liverpool, and of course that’s true to an extent. A team can cope with losing one central defender, even their most physically dominant, but not two. Add captain Jordan Henderson only starting 20 league matches and you have a dual problem: Liverpool needed to move Fabinho into defence to plug the gap, which then weakened the protection of that defence in midfield. Those issues also forced Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to drop a little deeper to pick up the ball. Their chance creation and shot numbers are both down on last season.
But it only really offers a part-explanation, a reality that most Liverpool supporters accept. The first devastating blow came in their fourth league game, a 7-2 defeat that represented Liverpool’s worst defensive performance (in terms of goals conceded) in 58 years. That defeat was inflicted with both Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez starting, implying that something beyond their subsequent absence was broken.
It also doesn’t explain Liverpool dropping 19 points against the bottom six clubs in the division this season, more than they did in their entire campaigns in 2018/19 and 2019/20. We might have expected Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses to be exploited by their Big Six peers but, bizarrely, the opposite is true. Liverpool top the mini league between those clubs this season with 20 points from 10 matches. That’s only two fewer than they collected last season. It’s against the ‘rest’ that Liverpool blew it.
Instead, this was the semi-inevitable result of a team that were mentally knackered after chasing for two years. And it’s something that Klopp spotted early. “You could see in moments that in challenges Aston Villa wanted it more and that is something I saw and I don’t like,” he said after Liverpool were thrashed at Villa Park.
For the first time in his half-decade in charge, Klopp had no carrot to dangle in front of his Liverpool players as motivation for them to fight longer and harder than ever before. Every trophy they so desperately wanted had been won, every opposition at home and abroad conquered, every dream of supporters realised as they ended their title drought. Every dynastical manager faces the same question: how can you motivate people to climb the highest mountain for the second time when they still remember the view?
And there is no easy answer, certainly not that Klopp could find quickly. Liverpool responded when a top-four place was on the line and we finally saw flickers of the mentality monsters. But by then, their chance to regain the title had long gone and had actually been lost twice – Liverpool were top again at the turn of the year.
The returns of Henderson, Van Dijk and Gomez will clearly provide a boost to Liverpool next season. It may well be enough to manufacture another serious title challenge and Champions League football will make the summer far easier. But Klopp knows that things are never that simple. He created a truly supreme Liverpool team that won the biggest two trophies in consecutive seasons. Now, with concerns about relationships between his leading forwards and one key component in the midfield likely to leave, he must create another. Don’t put it past him.
It could have been so different. In 2019/20, Sheffield United won nine league games by a single-goal margin, a record beaten by only three clubs in the division. In the crucial moments, Chris Wilder’s side had the hunger, discipline, organisation and high morale to make it count.
This season, Sheffield United have lost 17 league games by a one-goal margin, five more than any other team in the league. In the crucial moments, they lacked everything they once possessed. As the defeats piled up, it became less and less likely that they would respond. Everything wonderful that Wilder added to this team – that hunger, that discipline, that organisation and that morale – cannot be faked. You cannot choose to put a run of losses to the back of your mind.
Changes to the squad didn’t help. Dean Henderson performed far better last season than Aaron Ramsdale has during this, but he was also better protected. In a thin squad, the loss of Jack O’Connell – restricted to two league appearances – has been monumental.
But every party involved also committed serious mistakes. There has been a huge rise in the number of defensive errors and lapses in concentration that Sheffield United were consistently punished for. Wilder hung the players out to dry as a means of motivating them to improve. It didn’t work. The club – at Wilder’s apparent instruction – invested significant money in attacking players that simply haven’t worked out and have provided next to no value for money.
What’s worse is that, without Wilder, Sheffield United are not in a strong position to return immediately. The parachute payments will help, but there is no obvious strategy for who takes this club on and tries to recapture what Wilder made possible. Perhaps it simply isn’t possible.
Sheffield United’s fall is proof that the Premier League is weighted against certain clubs. It does not bar rapid ascent, but it makes that ascent unsustainable in all but the most exceptional cases. If Tottenham or Arsenal or Chelsea get several things wrong, their wealth and revenue offers an insurance policy; get things right and you will quickly return to the surface.
At Bramall Lane, there is no insurance policy and no natural floor to stop you tumbling down. Every year is year zero, with no lasting impact from a miraculous season unless you get every decision right to maintain it. Supporters would not change the last two years for the world (and at least they got to attend matches when things were going right), but this is still a sad end for last season’s great overachievers.
Mourinho has lost his job in English football before, in similar circumstances to the ones that ended his Tottenham employment. There were the players being thrown under the bus, several key names ostracised entirely from the first team. There was the negative football that persevered despite insistence from Mourinho that he was telling them differently. There was the implication that the squad wasn’t good enough, despite previous declarations that it was. There was the wave of self-preservation and attempt to deflect attention from his own failings.
But it had never happened quite like this before. At every other club, Mourinho had won a trophy. At every other club, he had enjoyed at least one whole season during which it looked like we might see him at his best, using that famous siege mentality to compel his players to perform above reasonable expectation.
At Tottenham, it didn’t really work at all. There were flashes, brief periods in which it seemed as if everything and everyone were pointed in the same direction. Mourinho’s falls from grace have always been spectacular, but at least they were preceded by quantifiable success. This was the divorce before the honeymoon had even ended.
Mourinho was at fault. Tottenham sat back when holding a lead far too often and were regularly punished for that mistake. Mourinho’s repeated vows that he had instructed them differently were hardly a defence; either he wasn’t communicating it well, wasn’t able to motivate the players to listen or was fibbing about his communicated strategy.
There is a reasonable argument that this was simply a bad fit. Following Mauricio Pochettino was never going to be easy, but doing so as a renowned disciplinarian with a history of freezing out players always struck as a strange move. For that, Daniel Levy deserves more criticism than Mourinho. The manager was simply taking the best job that came along; Levy had options and chose the wrong one. But that itself was a reflection of Mourinho’s faded reputation. The only reason he was there was because they were imperfect and his own imperfections were starting to cast a shadow over his strengths.
Mourinho does have a new job. Roma are a similar club to Tottenham, but he did leave less scorched earth in Italy than anywhere else and his football may well be more suited to Serie A. But it’s hard to see how Mourinho ends up in England again soon. His wage expectation is high, his recent record too patchy and his demeanour unchanged despite all protestations to the contrary. At 58, Mourinho is hardly finished (He’s no finished, he’s Portuguese), but there simply isn’t an obvious space for him back in the Premier League. Still, it was sometimes fun while it lasted.
Two years ago they were preparing for a Champions League final with a coach that had managed to successfully knit together every strand of the club, oversee a move to a new stadium and taken them to previous unforeseen heights in Europe.
Now Tottenham are in a European competition they don’t want to be in, appointed the wrong manager and allowed him to burn bridges with players and supporters, decimated all of their goodwill with supporters over a lack of consultation over the European Super League breakaway and are now facing losing one of the best players in their history this summer. Selling Kane need not be a disaster if they get the enormous touted asking price, but do you really trust Levy to spend it wisely? If not, Tottenham could become just another Premier League also-ran.
Nobody blames Lampard for taking the Chelsea job. It came too early in the cycle, before he had a defined style or the experience to alter things when that style encountered problems. But anyone expecting him to turn down such an extraordinary promotion at a club with which he has such a deep affinity is guilty of foolishness. Would any of us do the same in our own careers?
To an extent, you can’t really blame Chelsea for trying it either. They were after a new strategy, the ‘holistic’ philosophy that Manchester City once touted. That philosophy involved the promotion of academy players (which Lampard largely fulfilled) and after Maurizio Sarri there were no standout candidates who – or similar to them – wouldn’t be available in 18 months. Lampard’s appointment was framed as a new age for Chelsea, but in fact it was a shot to nothing. As mentioned earlier, there is an insurance policy in place. If everything goes sour, the replacement will probably rectify it. If not, you go back to the managerial cycle that worked wonders in the past.
And it didn’t work out. Lampard’s problem was that he lacked the ability to find a balance between defence and attack, struggling to break teams down without pushing more players forward and getting caught on the counter attack. It was a particular issue against Big Six teams, but more generally things were getting worse. Chelsea lost five of Lampard’s last eight league games and were ninth at the time of his sacking.
Where Lampard goes next is the more intriguing question. Reports suggest that he could land at either Selhurst Park or with England’s Under-21 teams. Ordinarily you’d suggest that the Premier League job would be preferable to maintain exposure, but I disagree (and I know Winty disagrees with me). The unique situation of the Under-21 job – the last guy being bad, having a great group of players coming through, Gareth Southgate potentially leaving in 18 months after the World Cup and Southgate being promoted from the position previously – makes it an obvious route to the England job if it goes well.
Palace, with an ageing squad, plenty of players out of contract and not much money to spend, will be mightily difficult. Either way, it will be fascinating to see what happens next. Lampard’s next job after this could feasibly be the most important job in the country or in the Championship.
Brighton’s anti-xG party
Brighton supporters are very happy with life, and will be more content still if Graham Potter is still in position on the first day of next season. But they have been hamstrung so much by their poor finishing over the course of this campaign that it has become their signature.
Brighton ranked eighth for shots and chances created. They ranked 15th for goals, 17th for shot conversion and 17th for shot accuracy; that’s after a late-season surge in the right direction. If they had bought Ollie Watkins last summer, they would have finished in the top half.
I’m not saying that this season has felt several years long due to the absence of supporters and homogenous mass of mid-table matches, but Southampton were third in December. Since then, a rotten run that dented Ralph Hasenhuttl’s chances of promotion to a Tottenham or Arsenal.
Between January 4 and May 11, Southampton played 17 league games and took eight measly points. They kept one clean sheet in that run, failed to score in seven of them and lost 9-0 for the second season in a row. And if they sell Danny Ings…
Norwich’s points totals over the last three seasons are 94, 21 and 97. Watford went down with 34 points and have gone straight back up automatically. Bournemouth messed up the chance to make it three from three for the relegated clubs for the first time in Premier League history. West Brom and Fulham sunk without trace. That only makes Leeds United’s fabulous season more impressive.
For all the well-placed anger towards the European Super League, there are already vast gaps between the haves and have-nots in English football, and the growing void between the Premier League and Championship is only one manifestation of those gaps. It might not seem like it matters to the top flight, but if two promoted clubs are going to go down every season it does rather remove some of the uncertainty in the division.
The spring of this Premier League season was always likely to be aesthetically tricky. With a European Championship around the corner and a relentless schedule that promised debilitating fatigue, we needed late drama at both ends of the table. And what did we get? Manchester City winning the league with three games remaining and the bottom three places being confirmed at the earliest point of a season in Premier League history. Still, at least that final hour of the season was fun.
We’re now 18 months into the Mikel Arteta project and I’m not really sure what the attacking or defensive strategy is, what their best team is, how to fit the expensive senior players into it and how many players they need to sign this summer. Arteta has been given a lot of faith but he’s a novice. It takes a double dose of blind optimism to believe in Arsenal being in a markedly different position next season if he’s still there.
If 2019/20 was a bad season for Dele – losing his England place, seeing Pochettino leave, starting only one league game after lockdown – 2020/21 has been a disaster. There remains a brilliant footballer within him (and a brilliant young footballer – this is the first season for which he was not eligible for the Young Player of the Year award), but he’s started seven league games. Of the 23 players used by Tottenham in the league this season, only Carlos Vinicius and Japhet Tanganga have been given fewer minutes.
A calamitous signing, as much for what it represented as for how poor he has been this season. Arteta clearly pushed for the move at a time when Arsenal were pleading austerity and poverty to its supporters and they agreed to hand a reported £100,000 a week to a 32-year-old winger on a three-year contract.
Mesut Ozil was moved out of Arsenal’s first team because it was deemed that he was too much of a luxury, unable to fit in with Arteta’s physical demands, but Willian has offered nothing of the sort. He doesn’t track much, he doesn’t press much, he hasn’t created much and he’s had fewer shots on target this season than West Brom’s Conor Townsend.
Donny van de Beek
“We’ve signed Donny and he’s a type of player I felt we needed in the squad,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when the deal was announced. “He’s the type of person that will fit the culture, fit the team and will improve us next season and for years to come. He’ll add his creativity, his reading of the game, his understanding of the game. He can see space and arrive at the right time. The timing of his movement is fantastic.”
Eight months later, Van de Beek has started four Premier League matches. I just don’t understand what the point was in spending £35m on a player that Solskajer has shown little intent in ever using.
Labelled as the main reason for Manchester City’s slump in 2019/20 when injured for most of the season and then expected to be Ruben Dias’ natural central defensive partner. And then John Stones happened again.