Ten things yet to be decided in Premier League as final stretch beckons: Haaland v Saka, Klopp successor
The international break has been navigated painlessly and there are no more disruptions left, so Arsenal, Erling Haaland and the bottom nine must focus.
10) Golden Boot
It does feel like Erling Haaland might have this wrapped up after a reasonable introduction to Premier League life, but Harry Kane is putting up a valiant fight. Ridiculous as his Norwegian adversary has been, the England captain has 21 goals this season for a mess of a Spurs team – a tally which, with 10 games remaining, would already have been enough to finish as top scorer in five different campaigns.
But provided his completely unsuspicious visit to a Barcelona medical facility for treatment on a groin injury goes smoothly, Haaland will crown a phenomenal debut season in suitably gilded fashion. The only question might be the margin of victory. That current seven-goal lead lags behind Luis Suarez’s 10 over second-placed Daniel Sturridge in 2013/14, Alan Shearer’s nine over Robbie Fowler in 1994/95 and Thierry Henry’s eight over Shearer in 2003/04. Sort yourself out, Erling.
9) Golden Gloves
Considerably more competitive is the battle for the Joe Hart tribute award, those shiny but sadly not actually practical Golden Gloves. Ederson and Alisson have shared this between them for the past five years but perhaps no longer: they are both on 10 clean sheets, behind the three main challengers.
It will have Gareth Southgate hot under the collar to learn that Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale are joint leaders with 12 shutouts. David de Gea, the last keeper to claim the prize before Ederson and Alisson’s reign of joint dominance began, has cobbled together 11 for Man Utd, which isn’t bad for a side with a worse defensive record than West Ham.
8) Playmaker award
The Premier League website claims that ‘the Premier League Playmaker award was introduced in the 2017/18 season to reward the players who create the most goals for their teams.’ But we all know the truth. The Premier League Playmaker award was introduced in the 2017/18 season to ensure Kevin de Bruyne received individual recognition for a stunning Manchester City season, with Mo Salah understandably hoarding the numerous Player of the Year awards.
De Bruyne has the coveted gong within his sights, the Belgian’s 12 assists giving him a healthy lead of at least five over all but one player. The unfortunate news is that Bukayo Saka is said phenomenal anomaly, having laid on 10 goals for Arsenal. Christian Eriksen and Salah are next on seven but this should be another Arsenal v Manchester City showdown.
7) Player of the Year
By the same token, the PFA Player of the Year award will almost certainly go to a member of the two sublime title challengers. Haaland is the current favourite, holding off Martin Odegaard, Saka, De Bruyne and Gabriel Martinelli, with a few outsiders sprinkled into the field: Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Casemiro.
The existence of about 427 different Player of the Year award variants could lead to a mutually beneficial spread of acknowledgement. The PFA Players’ Player version is the most prestigious but the Player of the Season, voted for by a sponsor-picked panel, the journalist-led FWA Footballer of the Year, the PFA Fans’ Player and the Football Supporters’ Federation Player of the Year awards offer lovely ornamental consolations.
6) Champions League qualification
Arsenal, Manchester City and Man Utd can all be relatively assured of their safe passage to next season’s Champions League, but the ownership of England’s fourth spot is the subject of intense uncertainty. With Spurs the current inhabitants, nothing can be taken for granted.
Antonio Conte’s former employers are on 49 points from 28 games. One can probably go down as far as Brighton in seventh – 42 points from 25 games – to find the sides who might fancy their chances of catching up. Newcastle (47 points from 26 games) have rediscovered their form with wonderful timing, while Liverpool (42 points from 26 games) have salvaged such adverse situations before.
5) Europa League qualification
By extension, those teams have a fallback option which would be welcomed with varying degrees of celebration. Spurs might embrace a return to the Europa League if it guarantees Conte’s departure and Erik Lamela’s homecoming for another chance to play in his natural habitat. Newcastle and Brighton would soon overcome their disappointment at missing out on a seat at Europe’s top table if they could continue their development by dining on Thursday nights. Liverpool may not be thrilled at the prospect of dropping down during an already sketchy rebuild.
While English sides winning European competitions always muddies the qualifying waters, the two Europa League places ordinarily go to the side which finishes fifth and the FA Cup victors. Brighton therefore have a couple of presentable routes and Sheffield United could well introduce the continent to greasy chip butties soon. But if either Manchester club wins the world’s oldest non-magical national football competition while reaching the Champions League promised land as expected, then the other Europa spot would go to sixth, as long as no English club messes stuff up by tasting European glory #permutations.
4) Europa Conference League qualification
But this is what it’s really all about. The Europa Conference League. The Continental Vanarama. The Big One. If West Ham haven’t persuaded teams that it’s worth chucking all eggs into the basket of Europe’s tertiary tournament, with their perfect record slightly offsetting a Premier League relegation battle, then nothing will.
Seventh ought to be enough to qualify, introducing Brentford (42 points from 27 games) to the equation. Fulham (39 points from 27 games), Chelsea and Aston Villa (both 38 points from 27 games) might be a little too far back, fun as it would be to watch Graham Potter’s £1bn squad toil against Shakhtyor Soligorsk or Zrinjski Mostar.
3) Manager of the Season
The Premier League Manager of the Season award has been won by the championship-winning coach of the top flight in all but five campaigns. The LMA Manager of the Year award has been won by the championship-winning coach of the top flight in just 12 of a possible 30 campaigns.
The same manager took both gongs home last season but it seems unlikely that Jurgen Klopp will repeat that largely forgotten feat. The only question is who prises the silver from the German’s loosening grip. Mikel Arteta is a fine shout if the Arsenal process is completed, while Eddie Howe and Thomas Frank likely round off the definite Premier League candidates while the relegation battle remains in flux. Joining Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis in finally receiving recognition for one’s work must be a tantalising prospect.
Jurgen Klopp being named PL Manager of the Year puzzles me.
He’s not won the league, or had an exceptionally good League season.
Pep for me all day long if we’re talking PL alone, with honourable mentions for Howe, Conte (regrettably) and possibly Thomas Frank.
— Tom Overend (@tovers98) May 24, 2022
The international break ceasefire has done little to dampen the anticipation of a true relegation slog. Nine teams separated by four points with as many as 12 and as few as 10 games remaining is a wonderful save point to which the Premier League can return with no more scheduled interruptions.
Crystal Palace parting with Patrick Vieira also means two-thirds of that field have changed managers at least once this season. The exceptions to that rule are David Moyes, Brendan Rodgers and Steve Cooper. One of those men is not like the others. Which is to say that Nottingham Forest fans still actually like their incumbent, despite a dreadful run sucking them back into the fight.
How frustrating that the best outcome is no longer strictly possible.
1) The Premier League title
The possibility of Arsenal celebrating winning the title like they’ve won the title is tantalisingly close. An eight-point lead with 10 matches remaining would ordinarily have open-top bus parade organisers salivating but that Manchester City game in hand, that Manchester City squad, that Manchester City manager, that Manchester City meeting at the Etihad on April 26 and that Manchester City habit of just routinely winning loads during intense run-ins will sit uncomfortably in the back of collective Gunner minds. Phenomenal as they have been to reach this stage in a position of relative dominance, Arsenal will need to be even better to see it through.