Here are the champs of the Premier League 2019/20 season; don’t forget about the chumps.
Five different clubs finished as Premier League runners-up in as many seasons from 2014 to 2018. The deficit to the champions in that time was as big as 19 points (Manchester United, 2017/18) and as little as two (Liverpool, 2013/14). Those examples – polar opposites in terms of coming so close and so far – perhaps best encapsulate the difficulty in making that final step: they were both sixth the following season and sacked their managers within 18 months.
Arsenal are the only runners-up in the last six years to improve on their points total in the next campaign, yet they came fifth and a further eight points off the title-winning pace in 2016/17.
Since Liverpool’s last championship win in 1990, only three managers had followed up second place in England’s top flight with first the following season: Kenny Dalglish, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Jurgen Klopp has earned his place in that conversation.
There are countless ways to underline the brilliance and dominance of this Liverpool side. But when taking into account the recent context of players, managers and clubs struggling under the added pressure of finishing second and being the default closest challengers, their rise to the throne has been remarkable. Add the “history in our backpack” Klopp spoke of at his opening press conference in October 2015 and the magnitude of Liverpool finally crossing the line before everyone else instead of being tripped up or stumbling over their own shoelaces should not be downplayed. Next year was their year. The slip and the facts will never be forgotten but their impact as a stick with which to beat and mock an entire fanbase has been thoroughly reduced.
Winning their final nine games of last season and still missing out on the crown by a single point could and perhaps should have broken them; it has been used as a platform for one of the most assertive title wins ever instead.
Points behind champions when runners-up
Liverpool 13/14 (2)
Man City 14/15 (8)
Arsenal 15/16 (10)
Spurs 16/17 (7)
Man Utd 17/18 (19)
Points behind champions the following season
Liverpool 14/15 (25)
Man City 15/16 (15)
Arsenal 16/17 (18)
Spurs 17/18 (23)
Man Utd 18/19 (32)
— Football365 (@F365) July 26, 2020
It is fascinating to look back on that day Klopp first sat before the media as a Premier League manager. “Does anyone in this room think that I can do wonders?” he asked over an hour that encompassed transfer committees, philosophies and a predictable degree of fawning.
The answer then must have been no: for anyone to claim they saw this coming at the time would be laughable. Liverpool were tenth on a negative goal difference when he replaced Brendan Rodgers, with a squad lacking any obvious spark and a structure that felt far from conducive to success. A couple of trophies and reestablishment in the top four seemed like an appropriate ceiling for expectations.
Klopp himself, it is important to remember, had failed in his previous season as a manager to the extent that he pledged to “take a break until further notice” from coaching. Borussia Dortmund were in the relegation zone as late as February in his final campaign of seven at the Westfalenstadion. His last game, set up for the perfect emotional farewell, ended in German Cup final defeat.
He and Liverpool felt like a natural fit, both in a sentimental sense and because their recent trajectories had been disappointingly downward.
Half a decade later, a club and a manager has been symbiotically transformed. Klopp has grown with Liverpool and they with him, both so much better for the experience that it can be difficult to keep in mind just how far they have come.
This has not been a road without its obstacles: those cynics who scoffed at Gegenpressing, raised their eyebrows at the heavy metal, the gurning and the floppy hair; and the hundreds upon thousands of critics who drew unfavourable comparisons and reacted to any suggestion of progress having been made with a demand to see trophies and trinkets.
They laughed when Liverpool registered 97 points in a Premier League season and still finished second. They said this manager and these players could not possibly replicate that pace. They screamed about asterisks and poor competition as the Reds reached 99 points even with a late stumble.
“It’s not important what people said when you come in, but what they say when you leave,” was one of Klopp’s many opening lines that look prescient with hindsight. If nothing else, they will call him a Premier League winner, and the man who delivered on his promise to “change from doubter to believer” on an unimaginable scale.
It honestly feels futile to single out one player from this phenomenal team. Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Roberto Firmino and Fabinho have been impeccable at various points but unity, consistency and a bloody-minded determination has overwhelmed all comers.
With that said, Henderson’s FWA win neatly sums up what has made this Liverpool team great: an alignment of overlooked talent with consummate professionalism, relentless hard work and an exemplary attitude. The awkward gait has bled seamlessly into a successful shuffle.
It turns out getting 100 points is quite hard.
“We are here to compete,” said Chris Wilder. “We are not day trippers getting autographs and collecting shirts.”
It felt like a pointed response but the timing was merely coincidental. The manager was speaking in light of Sheffield United’s comeback from two goals down to draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in August. It was after Tammy Abraham’s opener that Garth Crooks leaned forward, took a sharp breath and let loose.
"Their style of play is quite basic for the Premier League."
Are Sheffield United going to struggle this season?
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) August 31, 2019
“I’ve got to say, I’ve watched…this is the third game I’ve seen Sheffield United. They’re going to struggle. They lack potency up front. And, quite frankly, I think their style of football is quite basic for the Premier League, I’m afraid.”
It echoed Danny Mills and his “not the most glamorous way of playing” critique from earlier that month, and was something Crooks even echoed in December with the Blades in fifth. And how Wilder and his players would have been justified in letting it get to them.
That might be the most impressive aspect of the manager’s taking to the Premier League like a straight-speaking duck to water. Wilder could have spent the past six months or so serving humble pie across the country, but his only focus is on raising standards at Bramall Lane. For someone who has spent the majority of his professional life in the lower leagues, few have ever looked quite so immediately natural at this level.
When Burnley visited Old Trafford, scored with both of their shots on target and condemned Manchester United to a fourth defeat in seven games to start 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked lost.
“We hold our hands up, it is not good enough,” he said. “At the end you do feel disillusioned, because maybe they do,” he added, alluding to the fans that started walking out around the 84th minute.
“But for us we’ve got to stick to our values and beliefs and there’s no use feeling sorry for yourself. I’m responsible for what’s happening on the pitch and we’re looking to strengthen, we have to.”
Within eight days, Bruno Fernandes joined. United have not lost a Premier League game since. The Portuguese has more goals than Jack Grealish and James Maddison and more assists than Nicolas Pepe in half a season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deserves credit for accepting he had encountered some problems that required external help. Klopp has proven there is no shame in that with Van Dijk and Alisson. The weakness is to belligerently insist what you have is enough and refuse assistance.
The manager has also gambled on the fitness of the elite members of this squad to time a late sprint to perfection, worthy of Champions League qualification.
But without Fernandes, that would not have been possible. He has completely reshaped what was often a lost group of strangers into a cohesive and exciting team in his determined image. Few signings in Premier League history have had as instant and wholly positive an impact. United can now safely shop for players of a similar calibre as they strive to close that gap.
It took until late July for irrefutable proof to be provided, but one thing can finally be stated with conviction: Aston Villa did not do a Fulham.
The transition from things going relatively swimmingly in mid-October, to a team thrashing its legs below the surface from December to February and barely keeping its head above the water by the summer, then calmly letting the current carry them to shore, has been wonderful. A team that was doomed enough for the Sam Allardyce button to come into the equation has survived with apparent ease on the back of its final four games.
Quite how is immaterial for now. Dean Smith has just about accomplished his objectives. His reward is to diagnose a struggling but live patient instead of conducting a post-mortem on a cold corpse. Congratulations
There were times when he looked completely out of his depth, with four defeats in five winter games springing to mind. But Frank Lampard has shown more than a hint of tactical acumen belying his inexperience. When he next hosts a party of managers who have beaten Jose Mourinho home and away in the same league season – which he often does – there will be no guest list.
Chelsea have been in a unique position for much of the year: assured enough of a top-four place to persuade Champions League-calibre players to sign for them, until the late realisation dawned that they might not make it. Lampard has been building on quicksand that has finally set.
Eden Hazard got 31 G/A in 32 PL starts for Chelsea last season
Lampard maintained Chelsea in the top 4
a) In his 2nd season as a manager
b) Despite losing Hazard
c) With an error-prone GK
d) Kanté starting 20 PL games due to injury
Testament to the excellent coaching he’s done. pic.twitter.com/tX4DHKdScR
— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) July 26, 2020
That, and the nature of his appointment, has led to inevitable criticism. Much of it has been fair – the goalkeeper needs sorting, that defence is a mess and set-pieces are a coaching priority. But plenty more has been a little too harsh and agenda-driven. There is an element of the media and fanbase that seem happy to forgive his flaws and indulge in the narrative, while others hold him to a far higher standard than is necessary.
Lampard will not mind. He is Chelsea’s manager and, on the basis of Champions League qualification, progression to the knockout stages and an FA Cup final to come, a pretty promising one at that.
How many times do you have to crash the same party to simply be worth inviting to spare everyone the hassle? Wolves sneaked past security last season but sauntered through 12 months later with more points, fewer defeats, a better offensive and defensive record and the additional variable of Europa League football – a cup they intend to drink dry instead of treating like a poisoned chalice.
The accepted wisdom is that teams outside the elite are interchangeable and their glory is fleeting. Wolves have challenged that notion as effectively as anyone in the modern era through four facets: results, performances, mentality and stability. They were difficult to beat and are now even more so; they have an identifiable, successful and usually positive style; they are not content with merely settling for one phenomenal season; they do not provide a conveyor belt of talent ready for the vultures to pick at. They will likely never be the final destination but are trying their utmost not to be a mere stepping stone for players.
It feels sustainable, built on foundations that won’t collapse with one wrong decision or a slight misstep. The three sides promoted to the Premier League in May 2018 all finished in the top seven this season; Wolves just managed it in a higher division than Fulham and Cardiff.
They will watch the FA Cup final with a vested interest, hoping for a Chelsea win to seal Europa League qualification. If that comes to pass, only a fool would bet against Wolves becoming the first Premier League team outside the Big Six since Aston Villa in 2011 to reach Europe in three successive seasons.
Forgive Southampton. They lost their bearings ever so slightly and switched from progressive, forward-thinking club to Premier League panicker. The Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes eras can be consigned to the darkest recesses of the collective south coast memory. St Mary’s finally has a manager and a set-up the envy of much of the rest of the division again.
The biggest overachiever in managerial terms? Possibly. Steve Bruce’s reported £1m annual salary is a fraction of that given to some of his peers for failure. Eddie Howe is on around £4m at Bournemouth and West Ham had pledged £7m or so to Manuel Pellegrini. Newcastle themselves gave Rafael Benitez £6m a year to finish in the same place with 45 points to Bruce’s 44.
The lowest-paid manager in the Premier League was also given the shortest pre-season of those in charge at the start of the campaign all those years ago. Despite the restrictions, Bruce has navigated Newcastle to mid-table safety from November onwards.
At the very least, his reputation as a steady top-flight hand has been restored, and he will have earned his place well ahead of Alan Pardew in the betting when Watford sack their next manager.
On a personal level, it is something of a relief to see a genuinely affable man live out his dream and not have the memory tainted. The Newcastle job should perhaps never have really presented itself to Bruce but it took courage for him to accept it in the knowledge it could end so badly.
Whatever happens with regards to the takeover and his position, he has carried out the job asked of him with minimal fuss. Brucey has earned his bonus.
Steve Bruce has done a “good job”, not a “fabulous one”, Charlie Nicholas…
— Callum Irving (@NUFCIrving1010) July 26, 2020
Kevin de Bruyne
How delightful of him to match not only Thierry Henry’s Premier League assist record, but mirror him in finishing second and still being the best player of the season. The Frenchman had an official award to recognise that, of course. Oh well.
There are legitimate questions still to be answered and obvious concerns that must be addressed. But sixth place was not even a consideration when Tottenham appointed Jose Mourinho, nor when most assumed his reign had already soured.
Since he replaced Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham have more points (45) than all but Liverpool (65), Manchester City (56) and Manchester United (50). Narrow that down to the period after an unexpected season break that allowed Mourinho to properly work with the players he inherited and only City and United have been better. The performances need work but the results and rehabilitated his reputation.
The oldest Golden Boot winner in Premier League history, probably because he still plays like he’s 12.
It doesn’t feel like it, granted. But after the red mist of frustration has cleared, Leicester can be proud of one of their greatest seasons.
The manager belongs in a different category, mind.