What, you haven’t read the Premier League 2015/16 losers list yet? What have you been doing, working? Pah.
Leicester City, the Premier League’s mythbusters
– The assumption was that no team could break into the top four without spending vast sums of money on the playing squad. Leicester did not just disprove that theory, they won the title too. The cost in transfer fees of their most-picked XI (as calculated by Sky Sports) was £23million. Bloody hell.
– The assumption was that a provincial club could never again win a trophy that had been shared by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City for the last 20 years. Leicester ripped up that rulebook.
– The assumption was that progress from outside the elite could only be achieved through long-term, step-by-step progress. Leicester finished 46 points behind Chelsea last season, and gained 40 more points from one season to the next. You might have heard it mentioned, but they were 5,000/1 at the start of the season.
– The assumption was that Leicester would fall away in the final few months of the season, hamstrung by nerves and with a smaller squad than those around them. From the beginning of February to the final day, Leicester took four more points than any other team, six more points than Tottenham and seven more than Arsenal.
– The assumption was that Leicester had appointed the Tinkerman in Claudio Ranieri. The Italian made fewer changes to his starting XI than any other Premier League manager.
– The assumption was that you had to overpower and dominate teams to be successful over the course of a 38-game Premier League season. Leicester ranked 18th for possession and number of passes and 20th for passing accuracy.
– The assumption was that only a team packed full of internationals could win the title. Their top eight appearance-makers this season shared just 73 international caps at the start of the campaign.
You don’t have to buy into the whole ‘fairytale’ idea, but there is no doubting the enormity of the sporting achievement. This was the most surprising league title victory in the history of the game, and it came at a time when the elite is supposed to be surrounded by higher walls than ever before. That’s enough to make me feel warm inside.
Vardy failed in his ambition to be the Golden Boot winner and top English scorer in the Premier League, but these are minute blips at the end of a truly magnificent season.
Below is a top ten list of Premier League players ranked by their goals and assist tallies combined, with Vardy in top spot:
1) Jamie Vardy – 30
2) Riyad Mahrez – 28
3) Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero – 26
5) Mesut Ozil – 25
6) Romelu Lukaku – 24
7) Olivier Giroud – 22
8) Dimitri Payet – 21
9) Troy Deeney – 20
10) Dele Alli, Dusan Radic, Christian Eriksen – 19
Put it this way: If they’re considering making a Hollywood film about your career, it’s probably gone pretty well. Unless you’re John Christie. Or Gary Ridgway. Or Henry Lee Lucas. Or Wayne Willia… Okay, apart from anyone who isn’t a serial killer.
On July 23, 2015, Oddschecker published a list of contenders for the PFA Player of the Year for the following season. Riyad Mahrez’s name was not included on that list, which detailed those available at 100/1 or lower.
That list included: Andy Carroll, Bojan, John Stones, Samir Nasri, Michael Carrick, Danny Ings, Jay Rodriguez, Marouane Fellaini, Radamel Falcao, Mario Balotelli, Angel Di Maria, John Terry Nemanja Matic, Christian Benteke and Dusan Tadic. A lot can change in ten months.
For my next list, the transfer fees of the last seven PFA Player of the Year winners:
2010 – £30m – Wayne Rooney
2011 – £10m – Gareth Bale
2012 – £3m – Robin van Persie
2013 – £10m – Gareth Bale
2014 – £22.8m – Luis Suarez
2015 – £32m – Eden Hazard
2016 – £350,000 – Riyad Mahrez
That highlights the most remarkable aspect of Mahrez’s progression. Even Robin van Persie in 2012, the obvious exception, had been signed more than five years previously. There are bargains out there, if you are persistent and diligent enough to find them.
Tottenham’s young squad
Despite the sour end to the campaign, Tottenham and Pochettino’s season must be judged in its entirety. Had you collared a supporter after the opening-day defeat at Old Trafford and told them they would be disappointed at finishing third in May, the laughter would still be ringing in your ears now.
Mauricio Pochettino’s efforts in dragging this Tottenham squad from fifth to third, from 64 points to 70 and from the Europa League to the Champions League is startling because this squad is still in its infancy. Pochettino has the youngest set of players in the Premier League, with an average age of 24.9. Such success wasn’t meant to come along so quickly.
Of the eight Tottenham players to make more than 30 league appearances this season, five are aged 24 or under as the season ends. Of the top ten youngest starting XIs this season in the Premier League, seven are from Tottenham.
“It is true that we started to build a team from one year ago, or six months ago, and that the team have started to play how we want in the last six, seven months,” said Pochettino in January. “This is a new project, a different project and there are a lot of examples with maybe a more experienced team in the Premier League. The most important thing is to balance the younger [players] with the experienced players to create the winning mentality and to have hunger to win titles.”
Clearly Tottenham’s title challenge eventually came unstuck, but that does not mean Pochettino’s side have to be another Liverpool 2013/14, slipping back amongst the also-rans. There is no one star in this squad (like Luis Suarez), and players will want to join Spurs this summer, not leave.
Rather than a failed attempt at glory, this campaign must be judged (or at least sold by Pochettino) as a giant step closer to the eventual goal. Next season, Tottenham may well be better prepared.
N’Golo Kante, the complete player
Football365’s end-of-season awards will be published later this week, but I’m prepared to reveal the identity of our player of the season right now. Kante has not just been the best signing of the year, but the best player too. He is the champion of the champions, the master of all necessary trades and the jack of any others we may not even have thought of.
“He never stops running in training,” Claudio Ranieri said last month. “I tell him, ‘One day, I’m going to see you cross the ball, and then finish the cross with a header yourself”. He’s unbelievable.”
There is a risk of relying too heavily on statistics for evidence of a player’s excellence, but not here. Kante made 16 more interceptions and 32 more tackles than the next best player on each list. The gap to No. 5 on those lists was 39 and 67. That’s absolutely sodding ridiculous.
From our top ten attacking midfielders list, in which Alli finished second:
‘If Leicester have enjoyed the greatest communal rise of this season, Dele Alli wins the individual award. In June 2015, Alli was denying rumours that we would be leaving Tottenham on loan for the season. By July 2015 he was expressing hopes of breaking into the first team. By May 2016 he’s discussing dreams of winning Euro 2016 with England. No chill, as the kids might say.’
The last nine months have given us a chance to get used to Alli as a fixture in Tottenham’s team, but it doesn’t change the startling nature of his adaptation to the top flight. Of the 317 players to start ten or more Premier League games this season, he is the youngest.
I doubted him. Come on, we all doubted him to some extent. Yet when the questions were asked of a young, English striker, he answered every one. When the pressure was piled upon him, Kane merrily carried on scoring goals.
The list of players to score 20 or more goals in consecutive seasons reads as follows: Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and Harry Kane.
Kane is the first new English entrant on the list since 1996. He will lead England’s line at the European Championship and deserves to do so. Time to continue the ridiculous rise, please.
Called up to Roy Hodgson’s 26-man England squad, 82 days after his Premier League debut. He’s Michael Owen for the Tinder generation.
2009/10 – 7th (League One)
2010/11 – 2nd (League One)
2011/12 – 2nd (Championship)
2012/13 – 14th (Premier League)
2013/14 – 8th (Premier League)
2014/15 – 7th (Premier League)
2015/16 – 5th or 6th (Premier League)
Try telling Southampton supporters that the Premier League elite is a closed shop. Keep Ronald Koeman in charge and continue to invest wisely in their playing squad, and they will believe that further improvement is possible next season. Leicester may have deservedly taken the headlines for their shortcut to glory, but Southampton deserve almost as much kudos for the sustainability of their own rise.
Not being careful what you wish for
‘I do actually fear for West Ham,’ Richard Keys told us in an article titled ‘Be Careful What You Wish For…’
‘West Ham should be careful what they wish for with Sam Allardyce – better the devil you know,’ wrote Stan Collymore.
“All the teams he’s left have plummeted afterwards. Look what happened to Blackburn, Bolton and Newcastle when Big Sam left. Be careful what you wish for, West Ham fans,” said Alan Shearer.
“Is it the right thing for West Ham? Are West Ham going to jump from where they are now to being a club that can challenge for the Champions League places? That’s not going to happen overnight. Sam knows his way around the Premier League. Tried and trusted. It’s one of those. Be careful what you wish for,” said Graeme Souness.
Opting to twist over sticking is not always the answer, but when a) you’re a fairly well established Premier League club, b) said Premier League has a number of crisis clubs and c) your current manager has overseen a run of 16 points between Christmas and the end of the season, it’s a fair call. West Ham fans patronised in the media by those who followed the club’s fortunes less closely stuck in the throat.
So it has proved. Not only have West Ham gained 15 more points from one season to the next and gained five positions, they have also scored 18 more goals. Slaven Bilic has not yet taken West Ham to the promised land, but he’s at least taken them to Stratford without any fears over the future.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, defending made simple
It was Roberto Martinez’s description of John Stones as “the best ball-playing central defender in Europe” that made me smile most, and you wonder whether either Huth or Morgan might have managed a smile too. It is a distinctly modern principle that central defenders must be judged on their ability to pass the ball. The danger is that you forget to assess their actual defending. Stones is a fine example.
This season, Huth and Morgan relied not on their ability to play the ball out of defence – although neither are undistinguished in this area – but a desire to keep the ball away from their goal. If this was the defending of the pre-Premier League era, long live the retro. Sometimes functionality can be perfect. Sometimes a central defender’s aesthetics can be prioritised to the detriment of the team.
Ranieri instructed his full-backs to stay deep, meaning both of his central defenders could operate within the lines of the penalty area. He urged his central midfielders to force the opposition wide and the full-backs to stand off their winger, forcing them to either pass backwards or play a cross into the box. Morgan and Huth backed themselves to head or volley the the ball clear of danger. That’s when the counter-attacking could begin.
With Kante and Danny Drinkwater covering when either full-back did venture forward, it was this commitment to defensive structure that ensured Leicester’s title win after the unlikely attacking exploits of a magnificent autumn.
In the space of seven months, Klopp has taken Liverpool to as many finals as they had managed in their previous nine seasons combined. He’s not yet proven himself to be the club’s new Messiah, but by August Klopp could have in place the framework for some serious Premier League progression.
The best defender in the Premier League bar none, and picked as much in our list.
A player that made us remember football as a child, when you watched a player solely for the joy he could provide in the moments rather than the impact on a team’s performance. In fairness to Payet, he did both.
When Guidolin was appointed on January 18, Swansea’s Premier League future was hanging in the balance. Since then he’s taken 28 points from 17 matches (putting him fifth in the Premier League over that period) and secured his future at the club with a new deal. The poor British coaches (Garry Monk and Brendan Rodgers) can hardly feel hard done to.
Anthony Martial and Kevin de Bruyne
Everything turned out fine for the ‘Waste of money’ and the ‘£55m reject’. Who’d have thought it?
While his peers are dropping like flies around him, Howe continues to fly the flag for English coaches. What’s more, you don’t hear him moaning about the opportunities given to foreign coaching, moaning about refereeing decision or, well, moaning about anything much really.
In November, Howe spoke to the Guardian about the club’s injury crisis. It was these quotes that convinced me that Bournemouth’s manager might just go all the way to the top:
“You can have that on the backburner if you see it like that. If you want the excuse, it’s there. But I tend to look at it different,” he said. “First, I don’t really talk about the injuries to the media – I’m obviously doing this to you because it’s more of a reflective piece. I certainly don’t talk about the injuries to the players, and for me it’s as if it’s never happened.
“I judge the team knowing what it is capable of from what I see, not because we’re missing players. So for me, it’s not an excuse – that can be a state of mind that can be a real negative track that you can’t escape from, you could blame everything on that. The reality is we’re where we are at the moment because of ourselves, not because of players missing through injury. We haven’t performed well enough and we’ve made some individual mistakes.”
An English manager who will stay calm, rarely offer soundbites to the media, protect his players, never play the victim and quietly go about his job. It’ll never catch on.
He created 146 chances, 27 more than his nearest rival and 65 ahead of fourth place. Thinking about Ozil laying on those chances for Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema makes me cry silent tears.
Continues to be the Premier League’s Mr Consistent. Since the start of last season, Williams has made 686 clearances in the Premier League. He’s 145 clear of second place.
We still dig you, even if that nasty PFA don’t give you enough love. And we always will.