The Premier League 2018/19 season: The losers

Date published: Monday 13th May 2019 8:07 - Sarah Winterburn

Come this way for the winners


Manchester United’s hierarchy
There is an argument that Manchester United have become too commercially successful. The business acumen within the club’s structure allows for unprecedented revenue to be squeezed out of what once was a grand old club. That squeeze has shifted Manchester United from sporting institution to corporate behemoth, but the financial progress has also allowed for rampant complacency that has festered into outright incompetence.

By the time United realised that (if they even have yet), it was too late. The rise in broadcasting revenues across the division has allowed top-six rivals who operate far smarter than them to overtake. What’s the point in having an extra £200million in revenue if the owners are happy to bank it and the football expertise is lacking to spend it wisely anyway?

Blaming the players for this miserable season is an argument that carries weight, but there’s a massive flaw. Every player at Manchester United has succeeded elsewhere or at Old Trafford, and all either had great potential or great history. But who was the last player to be signed by Manchester United who actually improved their reputation? Luke Shaw, perhaps. And then who, David de Gea? He joined in June 2011.

Since then, Manchester United have spent approximately £870m (eight hundred and seventy million pounds!) on new players. Either they have somehow managed to exclusively sign the weak willed or indolent, or there is something with Manchester United’s culture that brings so many players down. It cannot be a coincidence.

The phrase ‘downed tools’ is often used these days to accuse players of not trying, but it’s a gross oversimplification. It isn’t the case that Manchester United players have given up, more that they have been afflicted by the subconscious loss of belief that comes through demotivation. If you knew that your company was being run so illogically as to make you look bad or your manager was damaging your reputation in order to preserve his own, would you perform at your peak every day at work? A drop of 3-5% matters at the highest level.

This could easily get better, and could get better quickly. Manchester United are still a big draw and still boast extraordinary financial strength. Get a proficient sporting director in and employ a forward-thinking head coach with a recent history of high-level success and they will rise again.

But there is also little hope that the people that matter are committed to the required changes. They have appointed a relative novice as manager before the end of the season because he was a helpful distraction from their own ineptitude, and look set to appoint a novice in the sporting director role purely because he has played for the club. No other club was chasing the head coach and no other club is chasing any of the potential sporting directors. It might work out, but it’s a helluva risk.

Wealth is no guarantee of success; it merely greases the wheels. Manchester City wanted to establish a period of domestic dominance, so they cherry-picked the best people in the most important roles and created the perfect environment for their dream head coach. Where they couldn’t cherry pick, they replicated.

Manchester United are the opposite. Their owners have leveraged the club against debt to apply the handbrake, and their men in suits appear to care more about noodle partners than on-pitch progression. Rather than creating the perfect environment for managers and players, they have placed roadblocks around every corner. Everyone tainted by this club’s sorry decline should be calling out the Glazers with righteous anger. They took something culturally and socially significant and turned it into a husk.


Jose Mourinho
At the start of this season, as with any season, Jose Mourinho would have considered himself to be the best manager in the Premier League. At the start of this season, some might well have believed him and most would have had him in the top three. Mourinho had won the EFL Cup and Europa League, and had taken Manchester United to second in the Premier League (albeit many miles behind Manchester City). Now that reputation has been badly damaged.

Mourinho’s eternal problem is his inability to react well to setback, but Manchester United truly inspired his greatest meltdown to date. As soon as he perceived that United had doubts about him and therefore were not backing him in the transfer market to his liking, the worm turned. The existing squad was castigated in public, Mourinho took on a sulky teenager persona in press conferences and results began to tumble. He eventually lasted until December 18, but United could so easily have taken the plunge in September. When Mourinho enters firestarter mode, there is no coming back.

Manchester United’s problems do not begin and end with Mourinho, but he sure played his role. With the owners applying the handbrake, Mourinho was asked to play with the hand he had been dealt. His response was to rip up his cards, flip over the table and set fire to the building. Individual players were publicly demeaned with no thought or care given to their confidence and supporters were alienated.

That might be understandable if Mourinho accepted his own role in the calamity. It was he who pushed for Alexis Sanchez’s signing on a ludicrously high salary that has so annoyed other key players within the squad. It was he who pushed for a new contract to become the highest-paid coach in the world, persuading some that he cared more for his own reputation than his club’s.

Mourinho’s abrasive man-management and public feuds would be permissible if they inspired fight within his squad and if United had held their own. If United had even finished fourth this season, Mourinho could have pointed at the table and reasonably stated that he needed more investment to sustain a title challenge. He would have held the moral high ground.

But Manchester United were 11 points off the top four after 17 league games when Mourinho was sacked, and he had spent nearly £400m on 11 players. If their subsequent struggles following Solskjaer’s initial surge might paint him in a better light, do not be tricked into believing that he was overseeing anything other than disaster. United’s points tally when Mourinho left was their worst at the same state of a season since 1991.

Finally, can we please end this theory that Mourinho was in some way a fighter for change within United’s structure, just because supporters are worried that Solskjaer lacks the backbone to push for it? He was perfectly happy to go along with things when engineering his new contract and making signings. The toys only came out of the pram when United wouldn’t sell Anthony Martial or sign Harry Maguire. If Mourinho spoke out, it was because he didn’t get his own way and as a means of attempted self-preservation not because he was the honorary leader of a new green-and gold movement.


Please understand that I am writing this with a double dose of glorious hindsight. Full mea culpa: I was hoodwinked, and cannot pretend otherwise. Like a football magpie I got sucked in by Fulham’s shiny new signings and predicted them to kick on following promotion. In Football365’s season predictions, I said they would be a pleasant surprise. At least QPR fans will agree with me.

It’s really difficult to completely flunk a Premier League season after promotion; the increase in revenue is so vast that even instant relegation can secure a club’s brighter future.

But Fulham managed it. They largely ignored a defence that had conceded more goals than otherclubs in the Championship. They focused on shiny names from higher-profile clubs and then looked surprised when those players weren’t keen to roll up their sleeves and muck in to avoid the drop. They bought individuals rather than creating a team. And they lurched from one managerial extreme to the other and somehow got worse in the process.

But worst of all was the manner in which Fulham took the p*ss out of their most loyal supporters with outrageous increases in ticket prices to mark their return to the top flight in a bid to attract tourist fans who presumably won’t be as keen to watch Fulham against Millwall, Luton and Barnsley next season. Spring brought protests and boycotts from fans who understandably still feel incredibly let down by a coub that has always pleaded to have the local community at heart.

In terms of the recruitment, change looks unlikely. The man in charge of football affairs is the son of the owner and is staying put. Now it might be a happy coincidence that the best person for the job is also directly related to the man with the money, but I’m saying it’s unlikely.


Alexis Sanchez and Fred
The embodiment of the disease, two players signed for whacking great wages and whacking great transfer fee respectively not because they fitted any long-term vision or planning but because they were available and Manchester United wanted to stop them joining a rival club.

That strategy can work out well (if other big clubs want a player it might be that he’s good), but it makes it certain that you will pay over the odds to secure their services. It’s also far more likely to end in the players looking out of place and failing to invest emotionally in the club because they were prepared to change destination so readily.

While Fred has just not played at anywhere close to the standard required, the Sanchez calamity is even more spectacular because his ludicrous wages has understandably unsettled those key players who are actually performing and thus believe they deserve a pay rise. It might just be the worst deal in Premier League history.


Huddersfield Town
Between February 10 and May 9, 2018, Huddersfield Town took 13 points from nine league games to secure their Premier league status. They beat four different clubs and took points off two of top-six teams.

Since then, Huddersfield have taken 16 points from 39 league games to secure their Football League status. They have beaten two clubs in that period, and their draw against Manchester United was the first time since that they have taken a point off a top-six club. Dropping out of the Premier League is nothing to be ashamed of, given their comparatively miniscule budgets. But achieving the third lowest points total in Premier League history is.

Worse news still is that Huddersfield have lost arguably their most successful manager since Herbert Chapman, and owner and chairman Dean Hoyle has been forced to step down and sell due to ill-health. With manager, owner, division and presumably plenty of players all changed from one season to the next, Huddersfield now step into the unknown.


Arsenal’s old habits
A campaign that Arsenal held firmly in their hands until the final weeks, but was lost through their fingers as old habits died hard. Unai Emery’s love affair with the Europa League may well see Arsenal return to the Champions League for the first time in three seasons, but they should never be relying upon this back door entry.

Victory over Newcastle on April 1 took Arsenal to third in the Premier League, their highest position of the season. Taking four points in their next six matches, dropping as many points as they had in their previous 14 league games, was unforgivable given the standard of their opponents.

I do feel a little sorry for Emery. He joined a club that was on its knees, in a state of structural flux and taking its first steps into a non-Arsene Wenger world. He was given less to spend than most of the managers above him (and plenty of the managers below) on a squad that needed it more, and tasked with taking a squad that finished 12 points outside the top four back into it. Most of his budget was splurged on making Mesut Ozil the second highest-paid player in the country, despite Ozil not really fitting Emery’s plan and the fact that it meant Arsenal lost Aaron Ramsey on a free transfer.

The manager is not blameless. His reputation dictated that he could add some defensive resilience to Arsenal and that has palpably not happened. The inconsistency of team selection suggests that he still doesn’t know his best team and some of the substitutions have been highly unpopular. Having been handed the Ozil problem, Emery has hardly dealt with it brilliantly or found a way to fit Ozil seamlessly into the starting XI.

But then there are faults within Arsenal’s team that seem woven into the very fabric of the club: the mental weakness away from home, the capitulation in away fixtures against the best in the league, one mistake in a match bringing all confidence down and one defeat provoking a run of poor form.

The chances are that some of those problems can only be solved by significant investment, but Emery and Arsenal supporters shouldn’t hold their breath. The manager is far from perfect, but working under Stan Kroenke’s managed mediocrity should afford anyone who works under him a little patience and sympathy.


England’s World Cup stars
Last summer marked England’s highest point in at least 22 years – a young, dynamic team under the stewardship of a manager whose dignity and composure demanded respect. While the hardwired pessimists prepared for post-tournament return to mediocrity, Gareth Southgate’s England moved on up. They will compete in the inaugural UEFA Nations league finals and look capable of mounting a serious challenge at Euro 2020.

A stereotype has been turned on its head. We had become accustomed to English players starring for their clubs before falling to the occasion on international duty, but Southgate has seen the best of them. At club level, those World Cup heroes have largely laboured through 2018/19.

England’s XI that lost to Croatia in the semi-final are as follows:

GK: Jordan Pickford – High-profile mistakes for Everton led to questions over his England place.

CB: John Stones – Lost his regular starting spot at Manchester City. On the bench 13 times in the league.

CB: Harry Maguire – Better under Brendan Rodgers, but form slipped under Claude Puel.

CB: Kyle Walker – Hardly a disastrous season given Manchester City’s success, but hardly spectacular either.

RWB: Kieran Trippier – Alarming drop in form that may necessitate Tottenham replacing him.

LWB: Ashley Young – Widely castigated for his Manchester United performances, even by his own fans.

CM: Jordan Henderson – An honourable exception. Generally excellent for Liverpool.

CM: Dele Alli – A hugely disappointing season. Tottenham will be hoping a recharge helps.

CM: Jesse Lingard – Fallen out of favour at Manchester United. Squad player next season?

AM: Raheem Sterling – Another exception. The in-form England player.

ST: Harry Kane – A season beset by injury niggles that raise questions about whether his style of play must adapt.

Throw in Eric Dier, Danny Welbeck, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Marcus Rashford and Nick Pope, all of whom were on the bench for the semi-final, and you get the picture. We expected England to experience post-World Cup ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ syndrome. In fact, it was the individuals rather than the team who suffered.


Mark Hughes
In two years’ time, Hughes will be the manager of a struggling Premier League or Championship club and he’ll boast about a CV that doesn’t contain a single relegation as evidence of his aptitude. Even more farcical is that some people will swallow the yarn.

But as soon as Hughes starts his spiel, someone remind him about Southampton’s 2018/19 season. The Welshman presided over three league wins in 22 matches and followed almost every defeat with a hard-luck story of refereeing incompetence or some other excuse. The reality is that Hughes’ one-dimensional tactics were easily exposed by capable opponents.

Across his tenures at Southampton and Stoke, Hughes has now won 12 of his last 63 league matches as a manager. More worrying than his sacking is that no Championship club has yet given him his next chance. After the success of Daniel Farke and Chris Wilder, have clubs learned the value in looking down the divisions and abroad rather than recycling the same old names?


Claudio Ranieri
What a thoroughly miserable way to damage a reputation. Before this season he was wonderful Uncle Claudio, the man who brought ketchup and pizza to Leicester City and left behind an unfathomable legacy of the most surprising league title in the game’s history. Now he’s grumpy Uncle Claudio, who mutters things about pesky kids under his breath while making a Fulham squad packed with creative talent play direct football and still somehow doesn’t manage to improve the defence.


Young English managers
As 2018/19 ended, five of the 20 Premier League clubs have English-born permanent managers. One of those (Neil Warnock) will be relegated. Another of those had been sacked within a day of survival. A third (Roy Hodgson) is 71 years old. That leaves us with two.

Sean Dyche has kept Burnley up, but is trapped in a prison of his own reputation. He is Burnley’s style and Burnley’s style is him. Dyche gave an interview last week in which he admitted he prefers to buy British. It’s hardly likely to endear him to owners of clubs higher up the league whose inflated budgets allow them to attract stellar names from abroad. That leaves us with one. So step forward Eddie Howe, England is counting on you.

The percentage of permanent managers in England’s top two divisions who are both English-born and aged under 45 stands at 15% (and only five of 24 in League One fit the bill). In Germany (and with Germans, obviously), it’s 31%. In Spain/Spanish-born, 30%. England is experiencing the benefits of a youth revolution. Now it’s time for the coaches to come through too.


Chelsea’s class of 2018
It’s hardly unusual for a change of manager to shake up the status quo within a first-team squad, but Maurizio Sarri has turned Stamford Bridge on its head.

Fifteen Chelsea players appeared in 20 or more Premier League fixtures in 2017/18. That list includes:

Marcos Alonso – First-team regular, but doubts over ability to play in a back four.

Cesc Fabregas – Sold to Monaco.

Alvaro Morata – Loaned to Atletico Madrid.

Tiemoue Bakayoko – Loaned to Milan.

Victor Moses – Loaned to Fenerbahce.

Andreas Christensen – Given eight league appearances, usually through necessity.

Davide Zappacosta – Given 125 league minutes all season.

Gary Cahill – Given 22 league minutes all season. Club captain.


Jack Wilshere
Nobody begrudged Wilshere playing it safe and choosing a move to West Ham over offers from abroad, but the sad reality is that it doesn’t really matter where he call home while injury problems continue to erode his career.

If leaving Arsenal was supposed to leave the fitness problems behind, so it hasn’t proved. Ankle injury became ankle surgery became another season ruined. Wilshere played 389 league minutes in 2018/19; 334 of those came in the first three weeks of the season.

Young Jack has become middle-aged Jack, at least in football years. On the first day of next year he will turn 28 and yet has managed only 134 league starts in his entire career. The potential no longer shines. This summer will mark three years since he pulled on an England shirt.


Daniel Storey

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