Premier League 2017/18: The Winners

Date published: Monday 14th May 2018 7:33

Pep Guardiola
He was told he would have to adapt. He was told that if he thought he could win with his fancy ways and tactical trickery and passing goalkeepers, he would have to cede to the English game or learn a hard lesson. And he was laughed at when he suggested otherwise, and called arrogant for refusing to budge.

When he signed new players last summer, few believed them to be certainties for success. Kyle Walker was overpriced, Ederson was inexperienced and the arrival of Bernardo Silva gave him too many options in the final third. It would be impossible to keep them all happy.

And so this was a victory not just for Pep Guardiola’s meticulous training methods and his innovation (and his fancy, passing goalkeepers), but his conviction in believing those methods would triumph. To produce this level of performance amidst such doubts about his ability to succeed in English football is mightily impressive.

And it was a victory for his man-management too, because speak to every Manchester City player and they will wax lyrical about the power of the Pep. This is a coach who identifies where each player can improve and identifies too the most efficient solution to getting them there. Guardiola rarely – if ever – criticises individuals in public, and he rarely shirks blame.

Beware of making the mistake of thinking that this title triumph was an inevitability. It might have felt that way since October or November, or ever since Manchester City got their noses in front, but back in August this was no foregone conclusion. By way of example, BBC Sport asked 40 pundits for their predictions at the start of the season, and only 25 picked City.

Yet as soon as it became clear that City were going to stroll to the title, the qualifiers began to appear. The accusation was that Guardiola and his club had bought the Premier League. ‘How hard can it be to win the league when you spend all that money?’.

Even if we ignore the fact that spending money is not easy, and that Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger never faced the same focus on their spending despite hardly making greatness out of beans, it is a ludicrous argument. Other clubs have also spent significant sums of money, but Guardiola has also bought younger players that he wished to improve. By any measure, their immediate dominance is extraordinary.

It’s something we have repeated often over this season, but the notion that managing an elite club is easy is a nonsense. It is not easier, just different. The margins for error are narrower, and media pressure far greater. There are some pundits who will have been waiting to take a swipe at Guardiola since August. Tongues have been held for nine months; how can you criticise this?

If Manchester City had won the league by one or two points this season, Guardiola would have achieved his pre-season expectation in winning a league title in a third country and thwarting Jose Mourinho. But in setting new top-flight records for victories and points in a league season, he has rubber-stamped his greatness. Having raised his head high above the parapet in his second season, Pep deserves his crown.

 

Manchester City’s fluent attack
Guardiola has saved most of his tactical innovation for his defence. Ederson has been a revelation as a sweeper keeper, Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko have been converted into left-backs and Fernandinho has been converted into a multi-purpose holding midfielder-cum-full-back-cum-whatever-job-needs-doing.

But the most striking improvement in Manchester City’s play has come in the final third. In Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling, Guardiola has taken three players with very different styles and developed them so that they can all play a similar role. No longer is it good enough to just be a poacher, or a pacey winger or a roaming centre forward – you must do all three. In the case of Sterling, it means that he can interchange with one of the other two seamlessly.

Jesus, Aguero and Sterling have all had between 26 and 27 big chances this season, and all have registered a shot conversion of between 20.7% and 22.4%. Their role is to assist in the creation of chances on the counter-attack, but then to move into areas of danger to finish the chance. One goes to the penalty spot, the other – usually Sterling – hangs four or five yards from goal.

Never again will we see a side who scores so many of its goals so close to goal. The intricacy of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, and dribbling ability of Leroy Sane, makes it possible. Manchester City can unpick three locks while every other side is still fumbling through their bunch of keys.

 

Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino
Lumped together, because without one you don’t get the other. Rather than an insult, that should be taken as a huge compliment.

In April, Jurgen Klopp spoke about the way in which Liverpool had adapted to Salah’s extraordinary run of goalscoring since joining the club.

“I think Mo has made strides forward within this team through the way in which the team play and the way the other lads interact with him on the pitch,” Klopp said. “The way they look to him as such an important player and the way everyone unselfishly tries to play him in. The defensive work is done for him, that way he regularly gets into goalscoring positions.”

Klopp did not name names, but he had just described Firmino’s skillset. Only one Liverpool player has made more tackles than Firmino, a striking demonstration of the high press that Klopp demands from his forwards. But if Firmino has made 65 tackles, ranking second, Salah has made 12 and ranks 17th. That’s fewer than Philippe Coutinho.

It is this sacrifice from Firmino – while somehow still managing to be Liverpool’s second highest chance creator too – that is the key to the success of Liverpool’s attack. It’s a crude way of describing the situation, but Firmino does one-and-a-half jobs so that Salah can squeeze all his attacking brilliance into half a job. The results have been astounding.

The most ludicrous part of Salah’s goalscoring run is how many more goals he could have scored. According to Opta’s definition, no Premier League players has missed more big chances in the Premier League this season than his 23. That demonstrates why Salah and Klopp are so confident that this will not be a one-season wonder.

If Firmino and Salah can continue to be the Premier League’s most effective double act, with Mane the exciting, unpredictable third option, Liverpool will be confident of further progress.

 

Raheem Sterling
It will make the occasional twunt in the comments section get angry, which is reason enough for Sterling to take his place here. But he deserves it anyway.

In late August, a rumour came out that Manchester City wanted to include Sterling in a deal to sign Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal. It later appeared that this was more Arsenal’s idea than City’s, but following the arrival of Bernardo Silva there were serious concerns about Sterling’s hopes of keeping his first-team place. His club’s pursuit of Sanchez would only make that harder.

If the doubts about Sterling surround his ability to pick himself up after setback, that only makes this season more remarkable. He has scored 37% of his career goals in the space of nine months and been converted into a penalty-box poacher and false nine from regulation winger. Going missing during periods of matches? Not a bit of it. Sterling had 263 touches in the penalty area this season, 63 more than any other City player. He took 30 more shots than Leroy Sane, but created only two fewer chances.

Sterling is not perfect; far from it. There is a rawness to his game that makes him occasionally unpredictable with ball at feet and when presented with a chance (although his chance conversion figures have been excellent this season). Sterling is like Sadio Mane, capable of both the sublime and faintly ridiculous.

But forget the negative spin for now. When only two players in the division (Harry Kane and Salah) have provided more goals and assists, the conclusion can only be wholly celebratory. In the space of two years, Sterling has turned his career full circle. Now go out there and fly in Russia.

 

Kevin de Bruyne
What else is there to say that we didn’t say here? Salah may have won the Player of the Year award and the Golden Boot, but De Bruyne is the one I’d pay good money to watch kicking a tennis ball around in his own garden.

 

Sean Dyche
Second in my manager of the season list, and it’s not even close. Chris Hughton, Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson and David Wagner have done superb jobs, but Dyche trumps them all. When we look back at our season predictions this week, only one team was picked by all six of those surveyed to be relegated. Not for the first time, we all look like fools.

Burnley lost their best central defender (or so we thought) and their best striker (or so we thought) last summer. They then lost their first-choice goalkeeper to a season-ending injury a month into the new campaign. If that wasn’t enough, their first five away games were against Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City.

If Dyche started being ridiculous by leading Burnley to two wins and two draws in those five matches, he has continued for most of the season. Nobody expected them to have the sixth best defence in the country, conceding one more than defending champions Chelsea. Nobody expected them to take 12 more away points than Arsenal, having taken 23 fewer than the same team in 2016/17.

Even if there is a view – which I agree with – that Dyche has bottled lightning at Burnley and might struggle to replicate it at a more prestigious club, he has at least earned the chance to prove us wrong. Dyche’s ability to organise a team to play to its strengths and thwart higher-class opposition is a pretty useful asset in football management. It has been a brilliant season.

 

Tranquility and the promoted clubs
If there has been one overarching trend of this season, it is that smaller clubs have flourished while more established Premier League sides took their eyes of the prize.

There will be more on that in the losers section, but for now look at the only five clubs outside the top six who didn’t sack their manager mid-season: Burnley, Bournemouth, Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle.

Those (and Newcastle are an exceptional case) who have long-term managers allowed to get on with their jobs at clubs without massive expectation have outperformed those whose clubs believed they deserved a top-half place. All have created teams that are sculpted in the image of their managers.

The promoted trio have also been more defensively secure than is customary. Too often promoted clubs have made the mistake of over-investing in attacking players rather than defenders, but this season is different. If Hughton has relied upon his Championship pairing of Duffy and Dunk, Benitez signed Florian Lejeune and Wagner signed Mathias Jørgensen. Both have been low-key but excellent additions. At Bournemouth, Nathan Ake has been the same.

We get plenty of emails into our inbox from supporters musing about their ‘ideal’ Premier League, usually including Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and/or Sheffield Wednesday. Yet football has moved on, and left those hibernating giants behind.

Even as a supporter of one of those clubs, I would much prefer that good things happen to the clubs who go about things logically and meticulously, employ managers who fit the club’s ethos perfectly and give them time to find their own path.

If the Premier League is now the home to several clubs who do things the right way rather than have the right history, that’s fine by me. There’s the lesson to all: if they can, your club can too.

 

Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham
It is a tenet of social media that you cannot say anything complimentary about Tottenham without someone replying ‘when’s the open-top bus parade for that lol’, like an accelerated version of Godwin’s law. The trophy debate will roll on, and Pochettino is not blameless on that count, but anybody reasonable can admire his progress.

Pochettino has become the first Tottenham manager for 55 years to finish in the top three for three seasons in a row, while Tottenham are the only club to finish in the Premier League’s top three over the last three seasons. To achieve that in 2017/18, when Spurs were playing their games in a temporary home and with people constantly discussing the possible exit of star players, is a superb achievement.

Pochettino has made Champions League football the norm when it had never been before. Pochettino has made defensive resilience the norm when it had never been before. Pochettino has made beating sides like Real Madrid or Manchester United an annual occurrence when it had never been before. Pochettino has nurtured and refined Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, amongst others. Now Daniel Levy must match his ambition and his excellence.

 

Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace
Like Kerry Katona, we assumed that Hodgson’s career was over after Iceland. Just as with Steve McClaren’s home defeat to Croatia, this miserable England failure seemed to demolish all confidence within the man. If McClaren still had time on his side, Hodgson was 68 years old. Fabio Capello, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle; so few managers go on to succeed after England failure. It chews them up and spits them out in tiny fragments.

So when Hodgson answered the call of his hometown club, it felt like a desperate move. Palace had lost their first four matches without scoring, and continued to do exactly the same in Hodgson’s first three. I was at his first game, at home to Southampton, and Palace were wretched in losing 1-0.

So for Hodgson to have not just breathed new life into Palace, and not just kept them up, but taken them as high as 11th and 11 points above the bottom three is extraordinary. Since the start of October, only the top six have taken more points per game than Palace. Only seven teams have scored more times than the one that failed to score in any of its first seven matches of the season.

Palace do have a decent squad, and there is an argument that they should never have been in this mess anyway. But it was also shorn of all belief at the beginning of autumn and suffered a crippling injury crisis at the end of winter.

From there, Hodgson has achieved the unlikely. Twice. This old man of Croydon is enjoying himself like a 20-something dancing through the night, and I won’t pretend I’m not delighted for him.

 

Rafael Benitez
Significant over-achievement in taking Newcastle, a squad low on depth and lower still on successful Premier League experience, into the top half. Brighton, Huddersfield, Burnley and Bournemouth have punched above their weight thanks to a stable platform and a club where everyone pulls in the same direction. Benitez has achieved at Newcastle in spite of those above him, not because of them.

In recognising the potentially debilitating effect that Mike Ashley’s grim stranglehold could have, Benitez has gone above and beyond to ensure that this club can thrive. The most notable part of his success at Newcastle is that he could have walked away at any point with his reputation intact.

Instead, Benitez brought every supporter and member of the local community under his umbrella as the rain began to fall, and kept them warm and dry. They are lucky to have him, and they know it.

 

David de Gea
A wonderful season that can be crudely summed up by the following statistic: Manchester United allowed more shots on their goal than Watford this season. They conceded 36 fewer goals.

 

Bournemouth
Just another season in mid-table. Just another season in mid-table for the youngest permanent manager in the Premier League (by five years). Just another season in mid-table for the smallest ground in Premier League history. Just another season in mid-table for the club that had never previously played in the top flight before 2015.

Beware the normalisation of over-achievement. Eddie Howe continues to do an exceptional job.

 

James Tarkowski and Nick Pope
Burnley’s astonishing season is based on the collective rather than individuals, but two deserve particular praise for the manner in which they stepped into the breach.

Before this season, a 25-year-old Nick Pope had played 33 games at Championship level and 46 in League Two. He has now played 35 times in the Premier League and is under consideration for England’s World Cup squad.

Before this season, James Tarkowski had started four top-flight matches, 61 at Championship level and 85 in League One. He had played fewer than 800 league minutes in two years at Burnley. Now he has started 35 Premier League games and is under consideration for England’s World Cup squad.

These are the two most unlikely non-Mohamed Salah rises of the Premier League season. The deputies have outperformed the sheriffs.

 

Manchester United
I’m not stupid enough not to include them as winners for moving up from sixth to second, but I also can’t stop myself asking these wordy questions: In Jose Mourinho’s two seasons at Manchester United, they have finished 24 and 19 points from the top. In Louis van Gaal’s two seasons, they finished 17 and 15 points behind the leaders. So what really does constitute success? And has Mourinho really taken this club that much nearer the league title that he was appointed to win? Answers on a postcard (or in an increasingly angry email inbox).

 

Paul Winstanley
In August 2014, Paul Winstanley joined Brighton from Derby County as the club’s new head of recruitment and analysis under recently appointed manager Sami Hyypia. Hyypia was sacked after 22 league games in December of the same year, but by then Winstanley was comfortable in his position.

When Brighton then appointed Hyypia’s replacement, it was agreed that the new manager would continue to have final say on transfers, but work with Winstanley on identifying potential signings. That manager was Chris Hughton, and there are not many relationships in English football that work as well as Hughton and Winstanley. Brighton’s promotion to – and consolidation in – the Premier League has been funded by Tony Bloom’s fortune, but it has been founded on some extraordinary transfer business since Winstanley took over.

Since January 2015, Brighton have signed Biram Kayal, Jiri Skalak, Anthony Knockaert, Glenn Murray, Shane Duffy, Mathew Ryan, Ezequiel Schelotto, Pascal Gross and Davy Propper for around £36m in total. Nine players of nine different nationalities signed from clubs in eight countries. They are the pillars of this rise, and it takes some doing to achieve that kind of success rate.

Daniel Storey


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