Spursiness, missing teeth, West Ham resolutely failing to be remotely West Ham, Chelsea getting away with it and FANS! The final day always delivers, and even with less on the line than there might have been, this year was no exception.
1) There really is no other day of Barclays quite like final-day Barclays, which manages both to be magnificently and wildly on-brand yet somehow also feel just so very absurd that it almost feels wrong to treat it as canon.
Even on a final day like this, where the things that really matter had long been settled, the top-four outcome managed to start and end as expected but get to that destination via the most circuitous and silly of routes and even the Europa Conference chase ended up being funny.
At the start of the day, I wondered whether the simultaneous kick-offs were really necessary this time around. In a season that has been defined by the staggering of games there were only six that affected the race for Europe and no real reason why the other four couldn’t kick off earlier or later, unless you pretend that “finishing position prize money” is really something that anybody actually considers meaningful. Yet it would have been quite wrong. This season more than ever needed its moment of simultaneous kick-off “big news coming from Villa Park” energy. The roars around the King Power moments after Harry Kane had equalised for Spurs were in many ways the most perfect of all the Return of Crowd noises we’ve heard this week. It was a genuine shame we didn’t have any away fans in; it would have been a truly wonderful unifying moment.
2) Let’s start our “analysis” of the day at the King Power, because it was the game that delivered the most frequent and pure doses of that precious, dizzying final-day craziness. Missing out on the top four was something Leicester fans had already started to process as a probability ever since Alisson did a madness worthy of the final day a week early. But they did it in the most painful manner imaginable: twice taking the lead against Spurs only to make a frightful bollocks of the last 20 minutes when Chelsea’s own clusterf*ck at Villa Park had left Leicester’s destiny once again back in their own hands.
The sheer ridiculousness of the Leicester-Spurs game was summed up by an obvious Leicester penalty not being given until VAR intervened and a ridiculous Leicester penalty still being given even afterwards. Kasper Schmeichel punching the ball into his own net and coming up for not one but two corners before the clock even reached 90 minutes and Gareth Bale playing a one-two with the post as he scored his first two Premier League away goals since April 27, 2013 were the icing on a delicious final-day cake of a game between two sides who only two years ago delivered an equally preposterous game that ended 5-4 to Spurs with shithousing’s Erik Lamela denied a hat-trick by the dubious goals panel. Here’s hoping the fixture computer plays ball and we can complete the triptych soon.
3) Inevitably, then, we must talk of Kane. Having spent the first 40 minutes looking thoroughly unimpressed and uninterested, a half-cleared corner and a cross sent looping into the air off a defender suddenly brought him to life as he fired a volley pure and true past Schmeichel before he could react. It was his 23rd goal of the season and would secure him the Golden Boot. Teeing up Bale’s first was his 14th assist to ensure the playmaker award would go with it.
Whatever happens next, that represents perhaps Kane’s most astonishing season yet given the mediocrity into which Spurs have stumbled this season despite his outrageous feats. It also highlights, if anyone doubted it for a second, why Daniel Levy will go full Daniel Levy about it this summer and just how jiggered Spurs are if he departs. Efforts to secure Bale’s return must also surely continue after his late double here saw him end the season with 11 goals from just 910 minutes of football – his record of 83 minutes per goal putting him 38 clear of his nearest rival. It’s also more goals in total than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Raheem Sterling or Edinson Cavani and the same number as Sadio Mane and Marcus Rashford.
Delighted to win these awards! Not possible without the team and staff throughout the season. 💙 pic.twitter.com/12kfT4LOfL
— Harry Kane (@HKane) May 23, 2021
4) Tottenham’s farcical, freewheeling victory in a stupendously silly game of football had two significant outcomes: it got Chelsea into the Champions League; and Tottenham into the new Europa Conference. It is easy to argue neither of those represents a good outcome for Tottenham. A level of European football below the Europa League is a good idea, but there’s no use pretending it’s where Spurs or Arsenal really want to be and, as both set about tricky rebuilds, it may well be a burden they could do without. It will disrupt the season, they will get minimal credit should they win it and every game represents a load of rakes just waiting to be stepped on.
There will be fun to be had along the way and Spurs fans themselves will rightly enjoy any success they might have in it – when you’ve waited 14 years for a trophy as will be the case next season, you can’t really be fussy about which one you win – but there is an undeniable sense that Spurs might just have found a way to make finishing above Arsenal for a fifth successive season a bad outcome, and the sheer Spursiness of that is making my head spin.
Also, while it’s glib and pointless and there was so much season still to play at that stage, if we pretend everything else would have gone exactly the same way then the collapse from 3-0 up against West Ham and resultant three-point swing is what cost them sixth spot.
5) Ah, yes, West Ham. There can be no greater compliment to the way they confirmed a remarkable top-six finish and with it Europa League football that nobody ever really noticed because it was never in doubt. Much like Spurs, this is simply not the West Ham way. The antipathy that exists between those two clubs is in large part due to the fact that, deep down, they are more similar than they’d care to admit. Absolutely nobody was touting David Moyes’ side for a European tilt this time around and, in The Season Like No Other, theirs was the one bid for something truly out of the ordinary that actually stuck. Everton and Spurs’ early table-topping exploits were the falsest of dawns and the reddest of herrings, Leicester’s bid to rumble the top four again came up short and the three teams who marooned themselves at the bottom early doors never truly looked like getting out of trouble despite Fulham’s brief flicker.
Of them all, it was West Ham who persisted. And thanks to Spurs’ win at Leicester it wasn’t handed to them, either; they had to take care of business against Southampton and did so with not an iota of fuss.
While the wild 3-3 draws against Spurs and Arsenal were, for contrasting reasons, perhaps the most memorable games of West Ham’s season, they actually weren’t all that instructive. This routine final-day win was far more typical of a team that was just very good very consistently in a season when only five other teams came anywhere near being so.
6) Similarly, Liverpool. No fuss, no bother on the final day as they simply took care of business. But with them that belies the nonsense that took the defending champions from the top of the table to mid-table and back into the top four via the most spectacular and unlikely of winning goalscorers last weekend.
They really had no right to get themselves back into the top four, never mind the top three. What would have felt like a bare minimum at the start of the season has become a fantastic achievement, such is the nature of shifting goals and Liverpool’s own misfortune and misadventure along the way, but from where they had sunk it does represent something quite remarkable. As does the fact that the season ends with the same three teams as last season in the top three positions despite having only spent seven out of 254 days this season all inside that top three.
With Chelsea stumbling to fourth, it really is quite something. The four teams who finished in the top four last season and were favourites to do so again before a ball was kicked have ended up there despite it almost never looking like it would be the case. Even with 20 minutes to go on the final day.
7) Manchester City had got their work done weeks ago and could enjoy a final day spent farewelling one of the Premier League’s undisputed greats. At a time when a host of Premier League Hall of Fame inductees are announced there is no doubt that one day Sergio Aguero’s name will be added to their number and while he has clearly not had the final season at City he would’ve wanted – even with another title winner’s medal in the collection – only the very hardest of hearts could fail to enjoy him adding two more goals to his total in a final-day rout of Everton to reach 184 and break the all-time Premier League record for goals for a single club.
It might not quite be Aguero’s most memorable final-day contribution for City, but it’s a fabulously fitting and enduring one. If City can now prise Kane away from Spurs this summer, it’s hard to see when anyone might break it.
8) That 5-0 finish rounds off what is in the end a crushingly disappointing one for Everton. September and October promised so very much but their home form was catastrophic and they fell away horribly. Finishing behind West Ham is just undeniably bad, as is failing to land above either of the north London basketcases. Everton have a fantastic manager and have spent big. Limping home ninth given the struggles of some of those above them really shouldn’t be acceptable. They should strive for more than this and be judged by higher standards. However much we might all enjoy a laugh at Spurs’ attempts to cling on to the coattails as members of a Big Six that looks flimsier now than ever before, at least they got themselves in there. Everton haven’t and look no closer after a season of wasted opportunity.
9) Now to Yorkshire and a side that finally got themselves back into the top flight after a lengthy spell outside the elite – even including a spell down in League One – but whose return brought sensational results and enterprising football and who undoubtedly made the league a better place for their presence, giving plenty of so-called bigger sides a bloody nose on their way to a well-deserved and much-praised top-half finish. The top flight never saw them coming and struggled to cope. A remarkable season.
But it all sounds familiar. Leeds this time, Sheffield United a year ago. Cliched as it may be, the hard work starts now for Leeds and the good news is that they really don’t look anything like as exposed to the pitfalls of second-season syndrome as the Blades. They just have too much quality and far less reliance on one particular method. They just look like a real and proper Premier League team, and have done pretty much throughout. From first weekend to last, they have been great value. And it’s the “to last” that matters most there, and what Leeds fans will hope is most significant for their future. Having swatted relegated West Brom aside as expected today, they end the season with four straight wins and 24 points from a closing run of 11 games that included Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Man United and Tottenham.
The Premier League certainly know what to expect from Leeds now, but – unlike Sheffield United at the end of last season – there is no evidence they are any better prepared to cope with it.
10) A solid home win and the Europa Conference safely dodged, it all seemed to be far too sensible for an Arsenal team who are – improbably and bafflingly – the second-best team in the country since Boxing Day. But this is north London, and while the fans may bicker over which colour it is the truth is that neither side will ever fully cede the banter high ground to their hated rival. Arsenal had one last extraordinary trick up their sleeve to try and contend with Spurs’ antics at Leicester.
— Vaishali Bhardwaj (@VaiBhardwaj) May 23, 2021
11) We briefly toyed with the idea of doing ten separate 16 Conclusions pieces for today’s games, but making each of those 160 conclusions a single word. By way of proof of concept, we prepared one such piece for the Leicester v Spurs game in advance as an example. We reprint it now if only because, barring number seven who was largely anonymous (simply replace with penalty-winning-and-dispatching Vardy), we’re pretty smug about what represents by far our best predictive effort of the whole season. Numbers four and five are, we hope you agree, particularly profound:
‘1. Wantaway, 2. Spursy, 3. Contrast, 4. Bald, 5. Why? 6. Rebuild, 7. Iheanacho, 8. Warchest, 9. Fans, 10. Farewell, 11. Deadwood, 12. Boot, 13. Errors, 14. Conversion, 15. Injuries, 16. Europa.’
We are definitely suggesting putting these into all match reports for next season, something we will instantly regret, making it very much in keeping with its bigger 16 Conclusions brother.
12) Remember when Fulham-Newcastle was going to be the big game on the final day? Truly, there was a time when this felt like it really could be a cracking all-or-nothing battle for Premier League survival. Newcastle’s bloodless 2-0 win at the Cottage instead ensured they finished the season on a whopping great 45 points and 17 clear of the bottom three. At Fulham’s final points-per-game figures, it would take them a mere 24 further games to accrue enough points to reel in their supposed rivals from this predicted winner-takes-all clash. As long as Newcastle didn’t play any other games. Or got no points at all from them. None of which seems likely.
Anyway. This is our way of trying to make at least one of these be about the relegation battle, which really was pretty much a non-event this year wasn’t it? Not even the arrival of Big Sam really gave it any spice. Next year should be better. As discussed, Leeds surely aren’t doing a Sheffield United and we’re reasonably confident Norwich and Watford will at least offer… something.
13) Sheffield United v Burnley was another game that in another world might have been of great importance. The Blades’ win does add another thin veneer of competence to their season and their 23-point final total really does hammer home just how monumentally incompetent that fantastic Derby side was. Theirs is truly now established as the great unbreakable Premier League record. Sheffield United lost almost every game for the first half of the season and have still cruised past them.
In the end, the most important news of the day from that game came before kick-off with confirmation that Nick Pope requires surgery on a minor knee injury and will now almost certainly miss Euro 2020(1). It’s a cruel blow for a player who has worked his way diligently up to the very highest level and has once again produced a season of statistical madness at Burnley. That said, cruel as it is, if that is the most significant late injury setback for his squad then Gareth Southgate would probably take it.
14) Manchester United’s season: an oddity. Today’s 2-1 victory at Wolves means they’ve gone the whole season unbeaten away from home, yet they failed to crack the two-points-a-game mark overall and finished a distant 12 points behind champions with a – by recent standards – underwhelming 86-point total. During their good form last season we were told their penalty numbers were unsustainable, this year it’s their points won from behind stats.
They have finished second in the Premier League – a full five points clear of a Liverpool side that destroyed all before them a year ago – and we still don’t really have any idea whether or not they’re actually any good. Some of those six home defeats were awful. The absolute spanking from Spurs has somehow managed to end up looking even worse in hindsight than it did at the time. Nothing will ever make the Sheffield United defeat look anything other than mortifying. And those slow starts that saw them fall behind time and time again have to be a worry.
There is clearly something about United – Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw mainly – that makes them better than simply the 19th least bad Premier League team but despite the records they’ve set for away points and comebacks they still feel like an underwhelming runner-up. That’s probably unfair.
A final point, though: Solskjaer’s attempts to attribute the home struggles to the absence of fans begs a question about that away record that a win against a piss-poor Wolves at a third-full Molineux can only partly answer.
15) It didn’t cost Chelsea in the end and Villa were already marooned in 11th place but that’s still a statement win for Dean Smith’s side. The injury to Jack Grealish put paid to any European aspirations they may have harboured during an eye-catching start to the season after last season’s great escape, but ending the campaign with well-deserved wins over Tottenham and Chelsea on his return to the starting XI is both a wistful “what if?” as well as tantalising taster for next year. The fact Kane’s future is likely to dominate the Summer Transfer Saga bandwidth is also good news for Grealish and Villa.
16) If we have but one wish for Premier League football it is this: may the authentic sound of fans cheering, celebrating, sighing, booing and cheerfully swearing at officials/players/each other never, ever again be a jarring and notable novelty worthy of mention.