Pep Guardiola proved those critics wrong, even if just for a few minutes. Marcelo Bielsa, West Ham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also impressed.
The Premier League season losers are here.
The second Manchester City age of Pep Guardiola
It’s easy to forget given the end result, but in December Pep Guardiola was under serious pressure. Manchester City had just drawn 1-1 at home to West Brom and after 13 games of the league season were ninth in the table having won only five matches. They had dropped 16 points, as many as they did in the whole of 2018/19 and two more than they did in 2017/18.
Questions were asked about the ability of Guardiola to build a second great team in Manchester. All the doubts of last season had resurfaced: the mental weakness when they fell behind; the inability to keep a defence organised; the lack of clinical finishing. Manchester City had kept only five clean sheets in 13 games.
But while we wondered about whether Guardiola could go again and rebuild, Manchester City’s manager went about proving that he had already cracked it. They embarked upon a run of 15 straight league wins and 13 straight away league wins that only ended at Brighton last Tuesday. That second statistic represents the longest winning away run in English football history. That seems to have passed slightly under the radar.
Guardiola did this in three distinct ways. Firstly, he forged a surprise central defensive partnership that made them incredibly hard to break down (more on that shortly). Secondly, he gave Ilkay Gundogan a new role. Rather than operating with two midfield pivots, he was instead asked to make late runs into the box and start from a higher position up the pitch from which he could knit together attacking moves. This was more old David Silva than old Gundogan. The German is City’s top league goalscorer this season with 13. He had never previously managed more than six in a campaign.
But more important even than Gundogan’s revolution is how Guardiola created a new attacking system almost overnight. In his three previous seasons in Manchester, only twice had City started without either Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero and on both occasions they lost at Stamford Bridge. Guardiola was forced to do the same against Leicester City and Leeds United earlier this season; City took one point from two games.
But on December 19, with Aguero and Jesus again unavailable, Guardiola tried out the strikerless plan once more away at Southampton and City won 1-0. He repeated the trick against Newcastle United and it worked again. At Stamford Bridge, the scene of those previous defeats, Guardiola fully committed to the new strategy by moving Raheem Sterling to the left and played Kevin de Bruyne as the false nine. City scored three times in 18 first-half minutes and Guardiola had his sky blueprint.
Liverpool away, Paris Saint-Germain home and away, Borussia Dortmund home and away; all high-profile matches for which Manchester City had no recognised striker. The identity of the nominal centre-forward changed, but then that barely mattered anyway. The fluidity of City’s attacking decreed that different players would play that role in various guises across those matches. Suddenly they became impossible to defend against. Jesus and Aguero have started matches, sometimes together, but only in Premier League games for which Guardiola made numerous changes. It was announced that Aguero would leave and it made total sense.
Any praise for Guardiola, particularly on social media, is met with the ‘look at the money’ argument that started when Harry Redknapp told him to go and manage Dagenham if he wanted to prove himself as a coach. But that totally missed the point. Of course huge transfer budgets afford spending to solve problems, but Guardiola is also capable of finding solutions mid-season and mid-game that can change their course. And with more money comes more pressure. Every match that Manchester City do not win comes with the ‘Fraudiola’ bores reasserting their claims to be humorous.
To win the league is no miracle at Manchester City; some people may say it doesn’t even count as an achievement (although they are hardly the only Premier League club to spend big money). But to overhaul his defensive and attacking systems and change the role of a key midfielder over the course of the same season, from a position of uncertainty and doubt, and in doing so lead Manchester City to such an emphatic title win really is worthy of praise. Finally win the Champions League again and the critics might even be quiet for 20 minutes.
Ruben Dias and John Stones
The arrival of Ruben Dias in Manchester transformed City, as much as Virgil van Dijk made the difference to Liverpool. Dias is the perfect combination of physical presence, reading of the game and composure on the ball. He hasn’t just been a replacement for Vincent Kompany but an upgrade on the Belgian’s final three years in England. Before Brighton, when Manchester City were reduced to 10 men after as many minutes, Dias had started 44 matches in all competitions this season. City had won 35, drawn six and kept 26 clean sheets.
But this is all about the central defensive combination. We expected Dias and Aymeric Laporte to flourish, but John Stones has been the second most improved player in the Premier League this season after Luke Shaw. Manchester City’s record with the pair starting is incredible: 21 wins, one draw, two defeats. One of those defeats was the dead rubber against Brighton, City playing with a man disadvantage for 80 minutes.
During a three-month period between late November and late February, Stones and Dias started 15 games together in central defence in all competitions. City conceded one goal from open play, Callum Hudson-Odoi’s consolation at Stamford Bridge in early January. That record alone did not win City the league, but it certainly platformed it.
Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa
When Wolves gained 57 points in 2018/19, the most by any promoted club in the last two decades, it was hard to foresee anyone beating it for a while. They were a very different type of promoted club, with their transfer contacts allowing them to make signings in the Championship – Ruben Neves, Willy Boly, Diogo Jota – that were ostensibly Premier League-level players. That summer, Joao Moutinho, Raul Jimenez and Rui Patricio joined them, among others.
I expected Leeds United to stay up. I thought that they would be comfortably the best prepared, and most well-coached, of the three promoted sides. I even thought that they might push for a top-half finish. But I did not expect Leeds to beat Wolves’ points total or that they would adapt quite so successfully to Premier League life. And when we worried about the energy running out after four defeats in five games, Leeds responded by producing the best last 11 matches of any team in the division.
This has been a fabulous season because – like Chris Wilder last season – Marcelo Bielsa has demanded and received more from a crop of Championship players. They did spend money last summer, but Diego Llorente and Rodrigo, the two most expensive arrivals, have been restricted to 28 combined league starts. The eight players with the most minutes for Leeds in the Premier League this season were all at the club last season. That is an astonishing achievement.
Praising Leeds this campaign does seem to have provoked an angry response from some supporters. That’s probably because of Leeds’ historic reputation, but also because they were extremely porous against Big Six opposition in the first half of the season. And yet the spring proved Bielsa was not quite so dogmatic as to refuse to learn new tricks; Leeds were more defensively sound from January onwards and looked far better for it.
It is impossible to say with any certainty that any promoted team is fully consolidated in the Premier League after one season (see United, Sheffield for details). But Leeds are in a position to kick on in a way that Chris Wilder’s team were not, so long as Bielsa stays. Their recruitment has been far less scattergun, for one. Get things right, and Leeds could be pushing for European football next season. They’re quickly making up for all that lost time.
West Ham, at peace again
After their opening-day defeat to Newcastle United, West Ham were a club in the midst of a civil war. Supporters believed their club was sleepwalking to relegation. Captain Mark Noble had spoken out about the sale of academy graduate Grady Diangana to West Brom as proof that his beloved club lacked any direction or identity.
Out of that, David Moyes sculpted a brilliant season that only ran out of legs when injuries and fatigue hit hardest in its final weeks. It helped that Diangana has flopped badly at West Brom, playing 15 matches this season in all competitions, drawing five and losing the other ten.
Moyes did it by creating a team in his own image. Out went the expensive signings who he believed were not pulling their weight. Felipe Anderson left, Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko started six league games between them and Issa Diop dropped out of the defence for Craig Dawson.
And it worked. By overseeing a team that Moyes could believe in and was confident were experts in playing his football, West Ham first hauled themselves up the league and then threatened to gatecrash the top-four party. They still ended the season with European qualification confirmed for next season.
Money may not be easy to come by this summer. West Ham must try and hold onto Declan Rice and Jesse Lingard will likely move permanently elsewhere. Six players who have played 20 or more league games this season are aged 30 and above.
But that’s to worry about later, when the dust has settled and Moyes and his squad have enjoyed their well-earned summer break. West Ham are secure in the Premier League again and have finally got a neck ache from looking up rather than down. Most crucially, they are finally a club at peace with itself.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
I continue to believe that Solskajer is not the best manager that Manchester United could have. They claim – with some evidence – to be the biggest club in the world; that gives them the expectation to have the best club manager. And, particularly in matches against the toughest opponents (Manchester derbies have been a huge exception, granted), I think Solskjaer falls short. Sheffield United have won as many home games against Big Six teams over the last three years and they were in the Championship for one of those seasons and finished bottom of the Premier League in another.
But there’s no doubt at all that Solskjaer has overperformed according to my – and many other people’s – expectations. Away from home, Manchester United have been superb. When trailing in matches, Manchester United have been superb. And had supporters been offered second place at the start of the season and a European trophy, they would have taken it. If that seems a little defeatist for a club of their stature, that reflects worse on the impositions of the Glazer ownership and Ed Woodward’s haphazard transfer negotiations than Solskjaer’s performance.
And I fully understand why Manchester United supporters like Solskjaer and would rather their club win the league with him in charge than anyone else. The European Super League breakaway hammered home just how little regard the owners of the richest clubs in the country have for their supporters, despite their subsequent pleas to the contrary. In those circumstances, having a manager who has a deep connection to the club, who understands what it means to you and who has given you moments of supreme joy as a player and manager can be enough.
Next season, Solskjaer will have to forge a serious title challenge. You do not – or should not – get to stay in this job for three-and-a-half years without one and he will likely improve his squad further having already spent more than £280m on transfer fees.
But win the Europa League final to accompany second place and Solskjaer will end this season in a more secure position than he started it. That represents a significant success for a man in his first high-profile managerial job.
This isn’t a criticism of the club or the manager, because one bought him and the other found a free role in which he could perform. But where on earth would Manchester United be without Bruno? He has created 95 chances in the Premier League this season; no other player managed more than 87. His 30 goals and assists were beaten by only Harry Kane.
Manchester United have signed seven players for higher fees than Bruno cost them. Five of those players are still at the club. None have provided better value for money or made more of a difference. It’ll be a long time until anyone else does.
The Premier League’s top goalscorer and top assist provider in the same season. On course to break Alan Shearer’s all-time Premier League goalscoring record. Never take for granted just how bloody good he is. And he might just win the title next season, wherever he goes.
Ollie Watkins and Patrick Bamford
I’ve lumped them in together but that should not detract from their individual achievements. It’s not easy making the step up from the Championship; Premier League history is littered with those who scored regularly in promotion campaigns before the goals dried up. Aleksandar Mitrovic is this season’s best example, scoring three Premier League goals even with previous top-flight experience to call upon.
Bamford and Watkins could have feared the same for different reasons. Bamford had been in the Premier League before and rarely even had regular minutes, let alone goals. Watkins had been in League Two three years earlier – could he really adjust and acclimatise? Despite Jack Grealish’s creativity, it had been seven years since any Aston Villa player had managed more than 13 goals in a Premier League season.
Both have been prolific. Bamford and Watkins have scored 31 Premier League goals between them, but just as impressive is their general involvement in attacking play. They have 12 league assists combined and have flourished when asked to hold up the ball and run the channels. Watkins has his England cap while Bamford is still waiting, but there is a hair’s breadth between them.
England’s young players
This season, 16 English players aged 21 or under at the start of the season reached 1,000 Premier League minutes. In 2016/17, that total was just nine.
And look at the names among them: Greenwood, Saka, Jones, Hudson-Odoi, Foden, James, McNeil, Rice, Mount and Alexander-Arnold. Whatever happens this summer (please God let this be a good summer), the future is bright.
A mention in the last section, but more than any other Foden deserves to be singled out for praise for this has been the breakout season for the most prodigious attacking midfielder England have produced since Paul Gascoigne. I know we’re not meant to pile too much pressure on our youngsters, and with good reason, but you sense that Foden welcomes that pressure and is able to revel in it. If you can’t get excited about a 20-year-old able to lead his super club and about to play a significant role for his country, what’s the bloody point?
The end of the season was nervy and laced with mistakes, but then Chelsea might not have been in that position at all if Tuchel hadn’t been appointed. We’re hoping for an actual title challenge next season.
Of course the focus will be on the late-season collapse; they had it in their hands in the final months, the final weeks, the final days, the final hours but not quite the final minutes. Yet there’s also no doubt that Rodgers has improved his reputation this season. Leicester simply couldn’t cope when the injuries stacked up and it allowed those with deeper squads and better players to overtake them on the inside. The question now is whether Rodgers sees Leicester as the best hope to kick on next season, or if Tottenham should be advised to whisper sweet nothings about rebuilding that team.