Premier League 2017/18: The Losers

Date published: Monday 14th May 2018 10:40

You had the winners earlier this morning. Now for the losers…

 

Arsene Wenger and Arsenal
Sad that it had to end this way, but this is the way Arsenal deserved it to end. If Wenger had strolled into the sunset having lifted the Europa League trophy to secure Champions League football, those within Arsenal’s hierarchy would have patted themselves on the back at a job well done. Their actions – or inaction – over the last half decade did not merit a happy ending.

Last summer, when Wenger signed another new contract despite taking Arsenal out of the Champions League, he and the club made the point of insisting that a title challenge was on the way.

“There is no complacency anywhere at this club. Our goal is to compete for and win trophies here and in Europe,” said Ivan Gazidis. “Our ambition is to win the Premier League and other major trophies in Europe,” said Stan Kroenke.

Either the pair believed that assessment – and so their sanity should be questioned – or they were deliberately misleading supporters about the club’s realistic ambitions. Arsenal had been left out in the rain for too long, allowed to rust round the edges. You can’t suddenly manufacture a title challenge from that.

Arsenal are the club that cried wolf.  This is what happens when a club leaks information about transfer war chests as season ticket renewal date comes round, but then fails to act on it. Players have complacency hardwired into them because their employer has demonstrated that same complacency. Wenger, a great man but a coach who no longer had a unique selling point, could not instigate change upon the team. Those above him didn’t have the strength to instigate change upon him until it was far too late.

And so there is something inherently tragic about Wenger leaving Arsenal in their lowest final league position of his reign. Nothing would ever have threatened the fondness of Wenger’s farewell, for he achieved too much for that, but the apathy nurtured by every member of Arsenal’s board made this happen. Happy endings are only possible if the rest of the script is written to accommodate one.

 

Swansea and Stoke, losing their way
Five years ago, Stoke and Swansea were the two Premier League teams who most obviously had a distinct way of playing the game. Tony Pulis’s Stoke used a direct style and relied upon set-pieces, most notoriously Rory Delap’s long throw. Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea played a version of Barcelona’s tiki-taka passing style, dominating possession and building attacks slowly. They were polar opposites of each other to watch, but had the same principles. A club needed a masterplan if they were to flourish against the big boys.

Somewhere along the line, Stoke and Swansea lost their ‘Way’ and lost their way. Swansea’s ownership structure changed, they abandoned their tactical ethos and they appointed a string of short-termist managers to halt the subsequent decline. A weakening of the communication with supporters’ groups only added to the problem.

Swansea are not being relegated because of Carlos Carvalhal. This has been in the post for three years, through Garry Monk and Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley and Paul Clement. There is only so many times you can repeat the great escape when you keep making the same mistake.

Stoke City’s slump is a little less complicated. Having appointed Mark Hughes to change the style of the team from Pulisball, Hughes achieved that over his first three seasons. But when it became obvious to everyone else that the manager had lost his ability to inspire the players, Stoke held on for too long. That left none of the usual firefighters available; the appointment of Paul Lambert was an acceptance of relegation.

From opposite ends of the spectrum, Stoke and Swansea have met in the unappetising middle ground. Neither ever had the budget or infrastructure to compete with the top six. Without an identity, it became harder and harder to believe in anything at all.

 

The old manager brigade…
David Moyes will reportedly leave West Ham, having failed to convince supporters that he is anything other than an effective firefighter. Sam Allardyce will reportedly leave Everton, having failed to convince supporters that he is anything other than an effective firefighter. Tony Pulis got sacked having taken West Brom into the bottom three, and ended up in the Championship. His replacement was Alan Pardew, and Chunky will get his own section next.

Mark Hughes did eventually keep Southampton up and received a £1m bonus for doing so, but there are doubts about his suitability to take the club forward. At least he will get a chance.

There are no hard and fast rules, and it would be wrong to sell this as a battle between British and foreign managers while Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche and Roy Hodgson have succeeded so significantly. But there is a growing belief that the fat lady is clearing her throat in order to read the last rites to a number of the Premier League’s old brigade. A change is coming; innovation is welcome.

 

…but particularly Alan Pardew
Alan Pardew had a thing. No, not that thing, we can’t talk about that thing. He had a football management thing.

That thing was taking a club that was down on its knees, and using the strength of his personality and optimism to lift them up to their feet again. In fairness to Pardew, he was effective and he did it largely without relying on the transfer market as much as that other great arm-around-the-shoulder merchant of English football, Harry Redknapp.

Pardew’s problems had always started when he started to get ahead of himself, believing his own hype. He has always been a man who you could imagine bottling his own farts and selling them as Eau de Pardieu, and it had regularly been his undoing. Just before the long, steady decline started at Crystal Palace, Pardew had discussed at length about being linked with the England manager’s job when nobody serious wanted him to be England manager.

There was some logic in West Brom calling upon him in November after sacking Pulis, then. Pulis had stymied West Brom’s attacking players and left the club low on belief. Pardew would consider himself to be the best person for the job in most situations, but he did at least have a CV that made the same case.

Now, Pardew’s thing has stopped being a thing. Not only was he unable to lift West Brom’s players, he made them worse. The most notable achievement was taking the squad on a lads’ holiday to Barcelona, during which he had his own wallet and phone stolen the night before senior players nicked a taxi.

If discipline off the field was shot, West Brom were dismal on it too. He won one of his 18 league matches in charge, scoring more than once in two of them – so much for Pardew the entertainer. The defending, which initially improved a touch, quickly became shambolic. West Brom lost all of Pardew’s last eight league matches, conceding 20 times and scoring six. The only surprise was that he wasn’t sacked sooner. Had he been, West Brom may well have stayed up.

For Pardew, this must be the end of his Premier League managerial career, at least unless he takes a club from the Championship. Any top-flight owner who panics in November or December and calls upon a man who presided over that four months at the Hawthorns deserves to face supporter protests.

 

A lack of tension
There seems to be a great deal of debate about whether this has been a good or bad Premier League season, probably shaped by which club you support.

As a near-neutral, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Manchester City’s brilliance, and the pursuit of over-achievement by Tottenham and Liverpool. Arsenal’s failings have caused enjoyable rubbernecking and then Wenger’s farewell tour was absorbing too. The ability of smaller, well-run clubs to consolidate themselves in the Premier League has been pleasing for those of us who assumed that the chance for meritocracy had been lost amidst the ludicrous finances.

And yet the lack of end-of-season tension was a bitter disappointment. You can hardly blame Manchester City for running away with the title, but the largest points gap in Premier League history has made this a stroll ever since the end of October. Add in Arsenal’s continued decline and Chelsea’s now customary post-title slump and even the top-four places became a formality. Only late-season wobbles from Tottenham and Liverpool left the door ajar, and even then nobody really believed.

The relegation battle was interesting insomuch as it contained a number of surprise candidates, but even then the general standard of football was miserable and that too was over before the final day. Southampton survived the drop having won seven of their 38 league games, and scored more than once in a match in six of their last 25 games. They lost three of them.

So whilst some of the football has been majestic, and this season has contained two of the most outstanding individual seasons in recent Premier League history, there was a sense of anti-climax to its denouement. The main hope for next season is that the relegation battle isn’t another competition to find the least small dwarf, and that someone can challenge Manchester City for the title.

 

The top-six gap
It would seem an odd time to say it, given that Arsenal and Burnley were closely matched for much of the season. But this has been the worst Arsenal season (in terms of points at least) for 22 years and they still finished nine points above the team in seventh. Nobody else took advantage.

Next season, when Arsenal have a new manager and new impetus and Chelsea have a new manager and new impetus, the top six are only likely to move further away from the pack. Maybe that isn’t a problem, maybe it is.

 

Arsenal’s away form
In April 2017, Arsenal lost their fourth consecutive away league game for the first time in Wenger’s then-21-year tenure. It understandably caused a number of think pieces to be written about Wenger losing his touch and Arsenal losing their way.

‘The problem perhaps lies in the pressure, the lack of confidence and maybe even a lack of trust around the Emirates,’ read one. ‘After all, with the club’s future up in the air – from the players all the way up to the boardroom bosses – the air of instability is all too apparent.’

It was hardly controversial. The lack of clarification over Wenger’s future was blamed for the limpness of the club’s away form. The manager even said as much: “Since January, we played in a very difficult environment for different reasons. The psychological environment for the group of players was absolutely horrendous. It has been difficult. Certainly my personal situation has contributed to that.”

And yet with his future apparently resolved after a summer contract renewal, Arsenal doubled that run of consecutive away league defeats in 2017/18. Only three clubs (Watford, West Brom and Brighton) lost more games on the road than Arsenal this season. That is sensationally bad.

 

Everton’s hierarchy
It is easy to say in hindsight, but Everton destroyed their season in the space of two summer months. In replacing the departing Romelu Lukaku – a striker, lest we forget – with a string of potential No. 10s, they entered the season with centre forward options of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Sandro Ramirez and Oumar Niasse. Niasse had already been told by Koeman that he had no faith in his ability and that he would not be considered for first-team selection. Eventually, he had no choice.

Koeman hardly helped himself through his inability to organise a defence. That destroyed the confidence of Ashley Williams and new signing Michael Keane, and neither have recovered since. But Koeman, just like Conte at Chelsea, would be right to point out the flaws in those who pay his wages.

Those flaws were proven when Koeman was sacked without Everton having a replacement lined up. It might sound a little underhand, but the reality of any midseason appointment is that the new manager will have been sounded out for the position, and so will his club if he is in employment.

Instead, Everton publicly courted Marco Silva without getting the prior permission of Watford and without persuading Silva himself to speak out of turn. That annoyed Watford so much that they stood firm despite Everton’s massive financial offer, prompted Silva’s decline at Vicarage Road and left them calling up Sam Allardyce two weeks after making it clear that they didn’t want him.

Allardyce then dug his heels in for a two-and-a-half year contract which will require a significant financial outlay this year when they look to get rid of him, promptly turned Everton into an unwatchable team and angered supporters with his constant dismissals of their very relevant concerns.

So if you were still wondering why Everton fans are a little disillusioned…

 

The West Ham circus
Supporters storming the pitch and fighting in the stands, then trying to get into the directors’ box. A co-owner whose tabloid newspaper column causes annoyance within the club’s hierarchy and who waited until ten minutes before the kick-off of a vital game to tweet to her followers asking them to watch her new television programme instead. Other co-owners that seem very keen to talk a good game but whose actions are sadly left lacking. A transfer policy that appears to revolve around throwing sh*t at a wall, but crucially discussing how brilliantly that sh*t has stuck on social media before you’ve even thrown it. Another season in which a manager has been sacked and another one appointed with little sense that there is a long-term plan in place. The major January signing barely playing a minute for the club. And a stadium that still doesn’t feel like home.

So if you were still wondering why West Ham fans are little disillusioned…

 

Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United signings
A list of all the players who were signed by Van Gaal on permanent deals for transfer fees:

Angel Di Maria – long gone.
Bastian Schweinsteiger – long gone.
Memphis Depay – long gone, but doing nice things in France.
Morgan Schneiderlin – long gone.
Marcos Rojo – going?
Daley Blind- going?
Matteo Darmian – going?
Anthony Martial – going?
Luke Shaw – going?
Ander Herrera – 13 league starts all season, but back in Jose Mourinho’s good books for now.

The message is clear: It’s far better to be signed by Mourinho than inherited by him. Those towards the top of that list merited their sales because they were not good enough. Can the same be said of those towards the bottom?

 

Manchester United’s creativity
They had Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez. They created 69 fewer chances than any other team in the top six (and less than 40 more than Bournemouth and Southampton). That suggests a problem in system, not individuals. A solution must be found over the summer.

 

Southampton
Disaster averted, but Southampton should never have been in this situation in the first place. There is no inherent problem with selling your best players for huge profit every year, despite what some people might say. In fact, for those clubs below the financial elite it is the perfect route towards sustainable progress.

But the strategy can only work if the club’s recruitment processes are watertight, both in signing players and appointing managers. Southampton swallowed Mauricio Pellegrino’s story that he could be the man to bring passing football to St Mary’s, despite little in his career offering evidence of that capability.

They then doubled down on that mistake by allowing Pellegrino to sign players that the club didn’t want but that he insisted they needed, which is why they ended up paying £20m for Guido Carrillo, Monaco’s fourth-choice striker who Pellegrino had worked with at Estudiantes. Carrillo failed to score a single goal, saw his former manager leave and played his last minutes of the season on March 31.

This shock to Southampton’s system could be the scare they needed. Without any obvious candidates for sale this summer (Ryan Bertrand is the only one who would fetch £30m-plus), Southampton can press the reset button on their tactic for gradual improvement. It’s time for Les Reed to do his thing again.

 

Antonio Conte
“Don’t forget two years ago, Chelsea ended the season 10th and not in the FA Cup final, not in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup and they were eliminated in the last 16 against PSG in the Champions League. It can happen.”

You can see Conte’s point. He was brought in by a team in turmoil. Had you told any Chelsea supporter than in his first two years Conte would reach two cup finals and take his team to fifth and win the league title, they would have thanked you profusely for your offer.

And yet this season has been one of intense disappointment. Conte does not shoulder all the blame for a dreadful summer of transfer dealings that culminated in effectively getting £5m and Danny Drinkwater for Nemanja Matic, but he must admit some guilt. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Davide Zappacosta were his idea, and both have been mostly dismal.

Conte was dealt a difficult hand, but has played it badly. Football management is rarely about being given the perfect scenario, but coping with difficulties and achieving in spite of them. Just ask the manager who thrashed Conte on the final day of the season.

The accusation – and it carries some weight – is that Conte has become a wilful part of this Chelsea decline in order to continue his public barbs against the club and save face. If that is the case, it can only tarnish his reputation.

Conte came, he saw and he conquered. But then he threw his toys out of the pram and lost the chance to continue building the Roman empire.

 

Leicester City
Hardly an awful season, given that they recorded their second highest finish this decade. But therein lies the Leicester City dilemma. After two years of Premier League brilliance and Champions League enjoyment, 2017/18 was the season when Leicester’s fans and owners realised they can never hope to replicate that joy. If that makes everything feel futile for a while, managerial short-termism becomes the likely result.

 

Ross Barkley
Started the season being linked with Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. Ended it with 131 league minutes played in total and being firmly considered Chelsea’s fifth-choice central midfielder. And that’s before Ruben Loftus-Cheek returns.

 

Craig Shakespeare
Go on, admit that you’d forgotten he existed.

 

Frank de Boer
Bloody hell, that was this season.

Daniel

 

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