Manchester City and Liverpool were both phenomenal, Antonio Conte and Eddie Howe both thrived as mid-season arrivals and Jesse Marsch did it.
Step this way for the losers.
“Please, never again this way,” begged Vincent Kompany. “Please, never again.” Yet a decade on from making the inevitable seem anything but and reaching the coveted destination through a particularly convoluted route, Manchester City again stumbled along that increasingly fine line between success and failure.
They would have been branded the sport’s biggest bottlers, squanderers of a 14-point lead Pep Guardiola recently described as “fake”. Those spurious claims about the squad lacking character, leaders or personality by design would have been given credence. This group would have been marked as tactically phenomenal and physically remarkable but mentally weak in exiting Europe in ludicrous fashion and allowing their historic domestic achievements to be overshadowed.
It is simultaneously true that some detractors will seek to belittle and diminish a fourth Premier League title in five years as either predictable or the natural consequence of their resources. But the essence of this coronation and the countless examples of money being no guarantee of glory at other clubs dispels both critiques.
Earlier this season, Guardiola and his players faced a new line of condemnation. It was suggested that this team was not entertaining enough, that their dominance had become boring. The passes were crisp, the movement was perfect and the goals flowed but there was a robotic soul to their play, something which struggled to stir the emotions. That was not Manchester City’s problem – their only responsibility is to themselves and their fans – yet it absolutely affected their wider image.
Those same sceptics who scoffed at their emotionless, automatic brilliance would have revelled in the first half at the London Stadium, or after three quarters of an hour had passed against Aston Villa. It was from those final two games that Manchester City extracted four points from two goals down each time, pipping Liverpool to the title by one. These mechanical, millionaire automatons displayed their mortality and showed a dimension which many may have felt was exclusive to only one half of this title race. They faced the precise kind of pressure which should break the exact sort of team they are publicly perceived to be, and emerged with the crown once more.
Manchester City often make it look so easy that you forget how difficult it really is. This past fortnight betrayed that usual serenity. They made a false start and tripped over the finish line but that relentless sprint from November to February earned them just enough space to manoeuvre. The timing of that winter accumulation of points was no coincidence, allowing for those brief periods of in-game hibernation elsewhere. Guardiola embraces the challenges posed by a 38-game season like no other manager and it shows.
“The season was so close, so tight. Moments, decisions, these kind of things. What I’ve learnt about life is if you stay on track and keep going you get your rewards. Not today, but we will get it. If you want to win big, you have to be ready to lose big.”
It is difficult not to be swept away by such conviction at an ostensibly tough time. But Jurgen Klopp speaks from a position of experience. For the second time in four seasons his Liverpool side missed out on the Premier League title by a point to Manchester City. The German need not hope history repeat itself with victory in a subsequent Champions League final. He is so certain that Liverpool are on the right path that he will wait to see if the “moments” and “decisions” favour them when necessary.
Klopp has reached an enviable level of managerial Zen – although that does not extend to fixture scheduling or Des Kelly. That he can compartmentalise this setback so effectively transmits a powerful message to the players. They are reassured by his tranquillity and that subsequently absolves them of a certain pressure. If they play how they have been coached, those fine and uncontrollable margins which come into play in cup finals or bafflingly close title races will take care of themselves. Winning two trophies on penalty shootouts only reinforces that sense of destiny. Klopp himself missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga with Mainz on goal difference in 2003, before going up on the same metric the following season. He knows better than anyone that fortune and circumstance can favour anyone at any time.
Liverpool’s final points total would have been enough to win the title in all but six of 30 Premier League seasons but it just so happens this year was one of that half dozen. As disappointed as Klopp will be with second place, he could hardly have asked his players for more. Their league form has been the ideal springboard for at least two trophies and perhaps three.
They could nit-pick decisions which went against them or for Manchester City since August. Liverpool might cast an eye back to those 10 games in which they dropped points. It would be energy wasted after a 92-point season ending in 16 wins and two draws. Klopp, with 10 runners-up medals in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Champions League, Europa League, German Cup and League Cup, realises that he cannot control that now, but a different time will come soon to channel that frustration properly.
Another breathtaking league campaign for Jurgen Klopp. For what they're up against, for what the reality is at the top end of European football, for the fact they aren't in that group of state owned clubs, Liverpool have been sensational once again. Klopp is a giant among men.
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) May 22, 2022
The sum total of career Premier League experience Brentford boasted at the start of the season was 19 minutes, shared between Ivan Toney and Sergi Canos in substitute stints during 2015/16. Thomas Frank added centre-half Zanka in September, then Jonas Lossl and Christian Eriksen during the January window. The Bees thus dispelled two English top-flight myths on their first go-around: pack your squad with players who have prior knowledge of the division and avoid the treacherous winter market.
This was only Frank’s sixth full season as a coach at senior level and he has embodied the spirit and drive which lifted Brentford to perennial safety. Considering their transfer budget barely stretched beyond £20m and ascension through the play-offs limited time to plan and act, it has been a wonderful campaign.
The winner of Juventus’ first untainted Serie A title in nine years. The guider of Italy to their first major tournament win over Spain in 22 years. The coach behind Chelsea’s rise from 10th to champions. The deliverer of Inter Milan’s first Scudetto in over a decade. Antonio Conte had already cultivated a reputation as elite salvage worker, a coach capable of restoring clubs indelibly damaged with the chips and cracks of gross mismanagement. Then he stepped into a directionless Tottenham side driven to mid-table obscurity by Nuno Espirito Santo and he promptly secured Champions League qualification.
It has been a characteristically bumpy ride which seemed destined to end in separation at numerous stages, but the numbers bear his brilliance. Tottenham, since Conte’s appointment, have been the Premier League’s third-best team on points, goals for and against and wins. The Italian has succeeded through a combination of coaching the composite parts he inherited and adding a couple more in the transfer window, when many other managers focus so intensely only on the latter that they forget the virtues of the former. This season started with the two best managers in world football residing in the Premier League and it ends with the third contemplating how to bridge that sizeable gap.
Talk about landing on your sodding feet.
Graham Potter doesn’t look like he’d say boo to a goose but he has had to endure some jeering of the Seagulls this season. “The fans are entitled to their opinions but I disagree with them,” was his “confused” response to fan dissatisfaction at a draw against Leeds in November. “I feel for our supporters because we haven’t really given them much in terms of results at home, goals and that type of thing. We’ve suffered a bit and they’ve suffered,” came the more magnanimous reaction to a “frustrating” stalemate at home to Norwich in April.
That olé-soaked leathering of Manchester United was a mutually gratifying crescendo. The Brighton faithful had expressed irritation because they know their team could be so much better. Potter shared that belief but wanted to ensure the progress made to reach that point was not overlooked, forgotten or trivialised. As he said after one chorus of disapproving heckles: “We are sitting eighth in the Premier League but maybe I need a history lesson on this club.”
It was 9th eventually for Brighton, the club’s first ever top-half finish in England’s top flight. For all the room for improvement that was laid bare in the 11-game winless run between September and December, then during those six straight defeats in February and March, only Manchester City and Aston Villa beat the Seagulls twice in the league this season. The progress is tangible and not yet fully realised.
Waiting for that next chance can pay dividends as a manager. Dean Smith perhaps regrets taking the next cab off the rank so soon after his Aston Villa demise, with Norwich in seeming need of deep restructure. But Mauricio Pochettino bided his time and ended up in a mutually dissatisfying relationship at Paris Saint-Germain. Eddie Howe lingered long enough for the golden ticket to fall in his lap but he has maximised the opportunity.
Only five clubs have accrued more points than Newcastle since Howe’s appointment as Steve Bruce’s replacement. It is foolish and naive to pretend substantial January investment was not a factor in their transformation, but equally the manager’s role should not be devalued. Howe has made great use of Fabian Schar and Callum Wilson, while successfully repurposing Joelinton and establishing pressing patterns which seemed beyond his capabilities at Bournemouth.
It has become public knowledge that European qualification is their next aim and it is an obvious milestone to target next. Newcastle have been in that level of form for five months, Howe turning St James’ Park into something of a fortress and underlining coaching credentials which many had come to doubt. He was not first choice for the Magpies but speculation that a new contract is in the offing suggests that he was the right one.
How it started vs Howe it's going pic.twitter.com/pxA7IW3wW5
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) May 22, 2022
Curious bookends to the season came to a head on the final weekend. Jesse Marsch failed in his quest to replace Julian Nagelsmann at Leipzig but his first match in charge of the Bundesliga club, a 4-0 win against SV Sandhausen in the first round of the DFB-Pokal, represented their first step in eventually lifting the trophy. A day later, Leeds earned Premier League safety and disappointed a procession of pundits in the process.
The turnaround was unremarkable on the surface. Marsch started with transitional defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa, then was only beaten by the teams which finished 1st, 3rd and 5th. The four opponents he registered victories over included the relegated pair of Norwich and Watford, nine-man and bottom-half Brentford and 10-man and specifically mid-table Wolves. Each of those wins featured decisive goals scored in the 85th minute or later. They drew against the sides that finished 9th, 12th and 15th. Marsch won the games Leeds were favourites for, lost the ones they were overwhelming underdogs in and drew a few in between. A Premier League table since his appointment has the Whites in 13th.
But averting the course Leeds were on, under a wholly beloved and iconic manager whose style was so thoroughly imprinted on a squad he had built, required no little skill and patience. Marsch was put at an immediate disadvantage in those circumstances and through misconceptions surrounding his nationality. It has not been a note-perfect response but the American has at least earned his shot at the Premier League with a proper warm-up rather than a sprinting start.
There is a surface element of a teacher being praised for getting his class through an exam they were technically on course to pass regardless of his input. Frank Lampard left Everton precisely where he found them this season: in 16th, four points clear of the relegation zone. But his intervention was crucial and should not be downplayed.
Lampard unified the squad and fanbase at Goodison Park, healing fractures that had formed and been allowed to fester under previous regimes. He quickly adapted his approach to suit the strengths and mask the shortcomings of his squad. He steadied a ship that was careening into the rocks under Rafael Benitez.
The 43-year-old also added a string to his bow, navigating a relegation battle which at times looked lost and then seemed won. Lampard has not had to deal with such professional adversity since spending a couple of months on loan at Second Division Swansea in the mid-90s, but he did well in trading the Waitrose of challenging for titles and competing in Europe for the frenzied panic of an Aldi shop. Hopefully next season can provide an impermeable answer as to how good he truly is.
“There were 37 managers on the shortlist. I talked to all the potential managers and said: we need an evolution over a period of time. We’ve been in the bottom three two seasons in a row for home form, sooner or later that’s going to catch up with us. Frank’s No1 brief is to reduce the anxiety for me and the supporters.”
When Crystal Palace last pursued reinvention, it led to them sacking a manager within 77 days, losing their first seven Premier League games, failing to score in each, and immediately reverting to type in a panic. Roy Hodgson was airdropped in to clean up De Boer’s mess with two banks of four and double training sessions in 2017, but Palace chairman Steve Parish would have to approach that same crossroad again eventually.
Nuno Espirito Santo, Frank Lampard and Lucien Favre, at the very least, were ahead in the Selhurst Park queue to replace Hodgson and lead the latest renovation of Palace, but Patrick Vieira has been a wonderful fit. The Frenchman inherited almost a dozen expiring player contracts and used it as an opportunity for streamlining. He took over the league’s oldest squad and brought the average age down below eight other teams. He assumed a club locked in stasis and helped reinforce their identity as the place to be for young, London-born or based talents like Conor Gallagher, Marc Guehi and Michael Olise to learn and thrive.
Their summer was quietly excellent, the FA Cup run was a welcome change from the usual early round exit, they went unbeaten against Arsenal, Brighton, Manchester City and Watford, Wilfried Zaha has never seemed so secure or satisfied and for the first time since 2013/14, Palace finished higher in a Premier League home table than an away one. Vieira has plenty to build on going forward. The evolution is underway.
The steam understandably expired by the end and shifting priorities meant that West Ham last recorded consecutive Premier League wins in January. Their stunning European exploits inevitably exposed a shallow squad, an issue which David Moyes seemed strangely reticent to ease by resting players at certain points. But ultimately, even dropping a place in the table, the Hammers exceeded expectations by keeping the pace in the league and reaching a fifth round, quarter-final and semi-final. For the first time in their history the club qualified for European competition through league position in consecutive campaigns. The standards have not been allowed to slip.
Poor for much of the season. Cannot defend corners. Did not win three consecutive Premier League games at any stage. Still finished 8th.
Well check out who managed to not lose 9-0. The last time Southampton kept the same manager in charge all season and avoided such an ignominious scoreline was 2016/17. Still suffered the heaviest home defeat of any team this Premier League campaign but these are baby steps.