Southampton should never have been here. No team that plans properly and recruits effectively should fall from eighth in the table to relegation, and even the loss of Virgil van Dijk can only be offered as part-excuse. Even if Southampton do indeed stay up – which now looks certain – this has not been a successful season. They have dodged a bullet.
But success is redefined and compartmentalised by what comes before it. Given the manner in which Southampton were sleepwalking to relegation, their celebrations are fully justified. Winning two and drawing one – with an injury-time equaliser conceded – of their last three matches is a sterling effort.
The same goes for Mark Hughes. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t believe him to be the right option having taken Stoke City to the edge of relegation before being sacked, but the improvement over the last three matches, particularly defensively, has been pronounced. Earning £1m for keeping the 12th or 13th best squad in the Premier League is nice work if you can get it, but Hughes has earned his bonus. Southampton have saved one hundred times that figure in avoiding the drop.
Now they must avoid a repeat of last summer, surely assisted by the fact that they have no diamonds left to sell. That should allow for a period of more sensible, measured recruitment, and a reset on their masterplan. Southampton do not have to reinvent the wheel (Swansea and Stoke show that); they just need to grease it a little.
You can go and read the most enjoyable post-match piece I have written this season and the statistics behind this success, but another brief word on Huddersfield’s dramatic rise.
In the 45 years before this season, the Terriers had spent 17 years in the second tier, 22 years in the third tier and six years in the fourth tier. This was a club with no top-flight acumen, whose greatest achievements came 20 years before the end of the Second World War.
More recently, only once in the last six years has this club finished in the top 15 of any division. For four years between 2012 and 2016, they ended the Championship season between 16th and 19th and earned between 1.1 and 1.3 points per league game.
Even in 2016/17, when they were promoted, Huddersfield finished with a negative goal difference, and behind both Sheffield Wednesday and Reading. Those two clubs have just finished 15th and 20th in the Championship. To go from such middling obscurity to Premier League consolidation in two years is nothing short of remarkable.
Huddersfield Town’s annual revenue when they were promoted to the Premier League was £11.3m. To put that into (slightly clunky) perspective, that’s the same as Eden Hazard earns annually. Before their promotion, Huddersfield had never in their history spent more than £2m on a player. Their third most expensive signing was Marcus Stewart, who joined the club a month after current midfielder Philip Billing was born.
For a provincial club to survive in this financial bear pit is enough to earn David Wagner the freedom of the town. It might not be pretty, but my goodness it has been effective.
The promoted three in the Premier League all stay up for just the third time in Premier League history, and the first time since 2011/12. Spread that statistic across the leagues, and none of the 12 teams promoted to a Football League or Premier League division this season have been relegated. Believe in the method, not the magic.
Mark Hughes’ courage
A piece of inspired management borne out of misfortune. When Jan Bednarek was inadvertently punched by Alex McCarthy, coming to meet the umpteenth cross of the match, Hughes made the decision that it was time to go for broke. On came Manolo Gabbiadini, a striker for a defender, to try and win the match. Goal or bust.
Four minutes later, Gabbiadini was in the right place at the right time to give Southampton the right result.
The focus will be on Gabbiadini’s winner, but it was McCarthy who won Southampton the match and McCarthy who has been the most important player in their survival. Swansea attempted 19 crosses from open play on Tuesday evening, having clearly decided upon a strategy to test Southampton aerially. McCarthy dealt excellently with each one.
Having started the season on the bench behind Fraser Forster, McCarthy has been almost faultless since his recall. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to hit the ground running as a goalkeeper in a defensively disorganised team.
That save. That magnificent, match-saving, season-defining save. Lossl was moving in one direction, and the header was sent in the other. Huddersfield’s goalkeeper threw out his arm and pushed off the wrong foot, somehow able to connect with the tip of two fingers. The ball collided with the post, and stayed out. It was the kind of save a goalkeeper watches again later and still cannot believe they made.
Tottenham and Harry Kane
A nervy, horrible evening at Wembley, but it was always going to end this way. Tottenham do not have the financial dominance or squad depth to regularly coast to Champions League qualification. There will always be nerves.
Kane and Dele Alli were poor again, Heung-min Son’s form has deteriorated and Jan Vertonghen looked unfit and shaky. Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame dominated in central midfield, and Newcastle could feasibly have been 2-0 up at half-time.
But Kane and Tottenham found a way. The striker might not be able to run and his touch looks clumsy in this fog of half-fitness, but boy can he still finish when it matters. White Hart Lane will host Champions League football for the first time since 2011. Tottenham continue to punch above their financial weight.
Guided Leicester to their first win over Arsenal in 22 attempts, against his former manager. It might not be enough to save Puel’s job with the club wanting to move in a very different direction, but at least his Leicester City side weren’t booed off in their final home game of the season.
Therein lies the strangeness of this Premier League season. The two clubs that will finish eighth and ninth could sack the managers that took them there, and nobody should be surprised or outraged.
Three assists in Manchester City’s final home game of the season to draw level with Kevin de Bruyne on 15 in the league. Sane is a truly supreme talent, fine tuned by Pep Guardiola.
Diame started four league games before December 23, and Newcastle lost each one. There were strong rumours that he would be sold in January, and you would have struggled to find a Newcastle United supporter who disagreed with that call.
Fast forward five months, and Diame was named Man of the Match at Wembley and cheered by Newcastle’s away support. Wonder what he asked the genie for his second wish.
Carlos Carvalhal and Swansea City
It’s uncharitable to Carvalhal to say that we were taken in by the cheery optimism and massacred metaphors. The Portuguese was appointed by the side bottom of the Premier League and they will finish either 17th or 18th, so it’s unfair to call this a disaster. Carvalhal’s rapid improvement of Swansea’s results will remain one of the stories of the top-flight season, whatever followed next.
And yet something has clearly gone wrong, and Carvalhal’s unusual brand of man-management has stopped working. Just as Southampton supporters were happy to warn Leicester fans of Puel’s tendency to start brilliantly before falling out with senior players and tinkering with the team, Sheffield Wednesday supporters saw Carvalhal’s methods stop working after his first year in charge. They said this might happen.
At Swansea, the rise and fall has been squeezed into a shorter period. Carvalhal’s perseverance with a back three despite it limiting Swansea’s attacking threat, and his persistence with Ki Sung-yueng, have played a part in the demise, but so too has the constant optimism. It gives off the impression that Carvalhal is fine when the sun shines but dissolves in the rain.
“We will score,” Carvalhal said after Swansea had failed to do so against Bournemouth. “I am not worried because I have players who can score. Even if they are not scoring, we achieved goalscoring situations against Chelsea and Everton. In the Chelsea and Everton games, we deserved much more than we got and I believe in my players and I believe they can score because we have got goalscorers in the team.”
They did not score. They have scored twice in eight matches and Carvalhal has barely changed a thing. They managed just four shots from inside the penalty area in 90 minutes against a defence with two league clean sheets in over four months. Put a cheery spin on that.
Swansea are not being relegated because of Carvalhal. This has been in the post for three years, through Garry Monk and Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley and Paul Clement. This is the result of a club that had a way and a long-term version, and somewhere along the road allowed both to slip away. There is only so many times you can repeat the great escape when you keep making the same mistake. Ask Sunderland.
Carvalhal was just the unlucky one, left holding the unpleasant parcel when the music finally stopped playing. Like those before him he is not blameless. Like those before him he was tasked with holding back the tide.
Swansea riling up Southampton
Perhaps it was a double misunderstanding, although the timing seems particularly suspicious. Southampton were informed 24 hours before they were due to stay at the Swansea Marriott hotel that their booking could not be fulfilled. The Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman got the story, and found no such obstacle when he called to book for ten people the same day. When Southampton’s team coach was then told that it would have to wait for 25 minutes while Swansea’s own coach unloaded, it starts to look like someone was taking the p*ss.
Mark Hughes is a grumpy man, and his ‘didn’t fancy her anyway’ take on the Marriott hotel was as wonderful as Southampton’s own Twitter zing, but there is an important point in here. In riling Hughes, you put him in a mood of defiance that can only transfer to the players. The strength of the manager’s personality demands it.
Southampton played at the Liberty with a resilience that Swansea did not possess. They withstood the light first-half storm when their hosts dominated possession and territory, before pushing onto the front foot after the break. Perhaps that resilience stemmed from Hughes’ work on the training ground over the last few weeks, but it was surely helped by Swansea’s attempts – deliberate or otherwise – at pre-match gamesmanship. That’s why Hughes’ final whistle celebrations were so demonstrative. You can hardly blame him.
The last three or four times I’ve watched him, Ki has offered nothing other than simple passing. The opinions of a few Swansea supporters consulted since indicates that I haven’t been missing his good performances. Where would Swansea be if they had picked Leon Britton for the last five matches? At least he noticeably cares.
Arsenal’s away record
After the comfort of a 5-0 win at the Emirates Stadium, a reminder: This is the reason Arsene Wenger is being sacked this summer. Arsenal’s home record this season is the second best in the Premier League, with three fewer points than Manchester City and only seven fewer goals than Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking scorers.
Those statistics undermine the argument of those who claim that the anti-Wenger protests – or empty seat apathy – at the Emirates have harmed Arsenal’s performances and actively made things more difficult for Wenger. If the atmosphere at Arsenal’s home games has fluctuated between angry and non-existent, it hasn’t affected results or performances.
But away from home, Arsenal have been truly wretched. Their form reads: P18 W3 D4 L11. The away record of relegated West Brom? P18 W3 D4 L11. A draw on the final day at Huddersfield would allow them to match the away record of David Wagner’s team. Burnley, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Newcastle, Bournemouth, West Ham and Watford; all have taken more away points than Wenger’s Arsenal. That is a disgrace.
Against Leicester, a familiar tale of defensive ineptitude. Konstantinos Mavrapanos’ challenge was clumsy and misjudged, Shkodran Mustafi continued his party trick of giving the ball away in a dangerous area of the pitch and Henrikh Mkhitaryan subsequently brought down Demarai Gray in the penalty area. Wenger described the penalty decision as “creative and imaginative”, but that’s a nonsense too.
The positive spin is that Wenger’s replacement cannot do much worse than his predecessor away from home. The realistic assessment is that this defence and defensive midfield requires a total overhaul – either in terms of personnel or attitude – to reverse this season-long trend.
It was always a long shot to secure a top-four place in the final weeks of the season after a campaign of stumbles, and now failure has been assured. Still, the pattern is well established:
2013/14 – Outside the top two.
2014/15 – Champions.
2015/16 – Outside the top two.
2016/17 – Champions.
2017/18 – Outside the top two.
2018/19 – ???
No pressure on Antonio Conte’s replacement, then.
Antonio Conte’s team selection
Very odd indeed. Chelsea can hardly have been surprised by Huddersfield Town’s tactics at Stamford Bridge, unless they missed their game against Manchester City three days earlier. Huddersfield needed a point and so came for a point. They sat deep and they defended for their lives.
In that situation, you need your most creative players to unlock the door. Yet Conte chose to leave Eden Hazard on the bench. Any team selection that causes the opposition manager to breathe an enormous sigh of relief should be avoided.
On Sunday against Liverpool, Tiemoue Bakayoko played a ranging pass to the right wing, where Victor Moses controlled the ball instantly. Moses played the perfect cross into the penalty area, where Olivier Giroud was loitering with intent. Giroud’s header was perfect.
If leaving Hazard out of the team was a surprise, so too was leaving out every player involved in Sunday’s winning goal. Even if Conte felt that Hazard et al were in need of a rest ahead of the FA Cup final, why did it take until almost the hour mark to make a change?
He’s played 54 league minutes since joining the club, and he remained on the bench when Chelsea were desperate for creativity and drive in order to force a winner. This has been a ludicrous waste of everyone’s time.
More from Planet Sport
QUIZ: Test your knowledge on the legendary Jack Nicklaus (Golf365).
Time for Next Gen stars to take on Federer, Nadal in slams (Tennis365).
Cricket is great; we won’t save the game by telling everyone it isn’t (Cricket365).
QUIZ: Test your Spanish Grand Prix knowledge (PlanetF1).