Here are the losers…
Manchester City and Pep Guardiola
If you needed any more evidence that managing an elite club is far more difficult than some might have you believe, bear in mind that Pep Guardiola has still not achieved what he was appointed to do at Manchester City.
This club targeted this manager to establish a domestic dynasty and because they wanted to become champions of Europe. Even after 198 points and 201 goals across two league seasons, and even after becoming the first team to retain the Premier League title in a decade, the job is only part-completed.
The Champions League exit to Tottenham will rankle Guardiola long into the summer. He is a perfectionist and he knows that City were good enough and created enough chances to win that tie and win the competition too. That may well happen next season.
But the response to that disappointment was astounding. What could so easily have eroded their confidence and forced their season to break apart at the seams had the opposite effect. Champions League exit only doubled their resolve to win the Premier League.
It also caused a shift in City’s play. Gone was the carefree attacking, replaced by a gritty, gutsy desire to break down opponents who were defending deeper and in greater numbers to stop them scoring. Every time, they got it done. City ended the season with a run of 14 consecutive league wins, a stretch that has only been bettered once in Premier League history. And that was by City last season.
The statistics are truly remarkable. Manchester City took 55 of a possible 57 points in the first half of last season, and took 54 of a possible 57 points in the second half of this campaign. After their defeat at Newcastle in January, City conceded four league goals and were behind for a total of 83 seconds. Even Glenn Murray’s opener on Sunday, which could have sparked panic, only sparked a response. Take care of the process, and the process will take care of you.
This title victory has been so impressive for two reasons. Firstly, Manchester City have been forced to cope with regular injuries to key players. Kevin de Bruyne, arguably City’s best player, started 11 league matches. Fernandinho, arguably their most important, missed 11; the pair only started five games together. Benjamin Mendy only played 10 times. John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva and Sergio Aguero all missed games through injury. City have a deeper squad than most other clubs in Europe, but those injuries still caused headaches for the manager. And yet they coped without the pace ever dropping.
Most of all, City deserve great credit because of the relentlessness of this title race. Over the first half of the season, Guardiola’s team had Liverpool setting an incredible pace. Over the second half of the season, they had Liverpool breathing down their necks.
To consistently cope with your rival winning match after match and still holding them off proves City’s astonishing mental resolve. You have to take a step back to appreciate just how mad it is that the team in second lost one match all season and still fell short. “To win the title we had to win 14 games in a row,” said Guardiola on Sunday. “This was the toughest title in all my career, by far.” You believe him.
The fear for the rest of the league is that Manchester City might well get better again. As explained in this piece, Guardiola has moved his team closer to the ideals of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels, but we are only in the first year of that cycle. Another summer of planning and squad improvement, and Guardiola will back his team to repeat their feats of 2017/18 and 2018/19.
Why on earth would you doubt them? They may move on Benjamin Mendy and replace him with Ben Chilwell. They may scour Europe for a heir to Fernandinho’s throne. Guardiola will have more time to scope his team in his own vision. They will be drilled, coached and prepared by the man who is better at all three than any other manager in the world.
Let’s say this loud and say this clear: Raheem Sterling’s only responsibility is to be the best footballer he can be. Let’s say it louder and say it clearer: his performance as a footballer are the only thing on which Sterling should be judged.
You can deny it all you want. You can bury your head in the sand. But Sterling has been treated differently because of the colour of his skin. He is young, black, successful, ambitious and wealthy, and that made him a threat to some. It also made him fair game for unacceptable criticism.
So when Sterling spent too much, spent too little, spent the right amount but on the wrong things, went to a high street food outlet or flew with a budget airline, it was a story. And because sections of the media had hardwired their audience to react negatively to Sterling, they reacted negatively to every story about him too. Make someone a hate figure, and every meaningless story fuels the myth you created. That directly led to the racially aggravated assault Sterling suffered.
For Sterling to make a stand and call out that mistreatment firstly indicates quite how lamentable the coverage was, but it also demonstrates his maturity and understanding of his potential to be a cultural icon. Virgil van Dijk has made the bigger difference to his club this season; Sterling has made the biggest different to his sport. That’s why he was my Player of the Year.
And Sterling has caused a shift in treatment, introspection in places where it was most needed. Any attempt to shame a young footballer for spending his money by splashing it over the front and back pages is now met with the contempt it deserves. In pointing out the issues, Sterling has helped to solve them.
All that would make Sterling a winner anyway. But to have taken on this responsibility while simultaneously leading Manchester City and England as their best player is incredibly special.
Sterling is an icon and a role model not just for children of colour or those growing up in financial struggle with dreams of stardom and success, but for everyone who has had their path deliberately blocked by a social system designed to keep them in their place. And I love him for it.
Wolves fans chanting "Raheem Sterling, he's top of the league"
That has *not* gone down well at Anfield.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) May 12, 2019
Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool
Due to an extremism of opinion fuelled by social media and an extremism of media fuelled by the demand for traffic, those who miss out on trophies receive harsher treatment and shorter shrift. Second place is the first loser. Second place is for frauds. In terms of your reputation, it’s almost better to reach the quarter-finals and finish third than get close to glory and miss out.
But Liverpool have flipped that theory on its head. They did not win the league, but they did produce one of the most magnificent league seasons in history. As Jurgen Klopp said on Sunday, “This club is in a great moment and that will not end because another team finished with a point more.”
There will be rival fans who believe that such effusive praise for the team in second stems from the identity of the club. Because Liverpool are one of the most emotionally charged clubs in the world, some believe they get different treatment.
Nonsense. Just as Guardiola was wrong to assert that the media wanted Liverpool to win the league, it is also wrong to conclude that Liverpool are being showered with praise because of who they are rather than what they did. To do that would be deeply patronising.
We are praising Liverpool because they were bloody good, brilliant above all expectation. We’re praising them because Jurgen Klopp has developed two of the most effective attacking full-backs in the world who are still defensively reliable. We are praising them because their transfer record over the last two years is almost faultless. We are praising them because every single player has improved upon last season’s work. The one exception might be Mohamed Salah, who was still the joint-top goalscorer in the Premier League. Sadio Mane accounted for any shortfall. We are praising them because the club picked the perfect manager for the culture of the club, and we are praising him because he has harnessed it so powerfully without ever letting the cup spill over.
Finally, we are praising them because this feels sustainable, and because there are more reasons to think that Liverpool will stay here than fall away. They will have the opportunity to improve their squad depth this summer. Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal are all beset by problems of mismanagement or budgets. In Toby Alderweireld/Christian Eriksen, David de Gea/Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard and Aaron Ramsey, all may lose key players this summer.
Liverpool are not one-season wonders, and this is not a fly-by-night improvement. You do not get 97 points in a Premier League season because you got lucky. They will back themselves to be here again in 11 months time, pushing and pressing to end 30 years of hurt.
Virgil van Dijk
Hindsight can easily persuade you that it was never in doubt. Van Dijk looks so assured in Liverpool’s central defence that of course it made sense to make him the most expensive defender in the history of the game. Liverpool’s front three was their strongest suit last season, but their improved defence is the game-changer.
But it wasn’t guaranteed that Van Dijk would succeed. When he signed, Southampton supporters delighted at the unprecedentedly high fee and rivals fans mocked Liverpool for paying it. They aren’t laughing now.
Were you to design the perfect central defender, it would be him. He is comfortable on the ball, stepping out of defence and playing short passes into midfield or longer crossfield passes, and his pace allows for any lapses in position.
But these typically attacking characteristics are not mutually exclusive from physical presence. Van Dijk wins headers, makes challenges and lets opposition attackers know he’s there like any gnarled and snarling defender might. The sleek exterior hides a powerful engine.
Add to that the leadership by example (as with Vincent Kompany, there is no chest-beating for its own sake) and professionalism, and Van Dijk can call himself the best central defender in the world on current form. Expensive at £75m? Value for money at double the price now.
Man City’s number 4 – Vincent Kompany
Liverpool’s number 4 – Virgil Van Dijk
Manchester United number 4 – pic.twitter.com/ehoXlEHswB
— Oran Treacy (@oran_treacy) May 6, 2019
The most naturally talented attacking player in the Premier League, bar none. Apologies are offered to De Bruyne, Salah, the Silvas and Kane, but Hazard is the one. He has carried Chelsea for the last half decade, and he’s kept his level despite plenty of people around and above him letting him down.
This season, Hazard has been a one-man Chelsea band. He scored 26% of the league goals scored by Chelsea players, contributed 29% of their assists, had 22% of their shots on target, created 20% of their chances and completed 31% of their dribbles.
Anyone that begrudges him a move to Real Madrid has not been watching closely enough. Hazard was once named by fans as one of the Chelsea rats, supposedly letting down the good name of his club. That reputation has been decimated. He deserves better.
Just when you think he’s finished surprising you, he does it again. Just when you think he’s tired of punching above his weight, he finds the strength. Just when you think he will struggle to hold back the tide, he shows King Canute the way.
In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski posit that spending on players’ wages is a better predictor of league position than net spending on transfers. So here’s a statistic to sum up Pochettino’s brilliance: According to latest UEFA figures, Tottenham wage bill is €148m. So you could double the wages of every single Tottenham player, they could sign seven new players on £100,000 a week, and they would still have a lower wage bill than both Manchester clubs. One of those was knocked out of the Champions League by Spurs. The other should be embarrassed by the gap in league points and position.
Tottenham’s late run of miserable away league form threatened to take the shine of their season, but the astonishing comeback in Amsterdam added another thick layer of gloss. Pochettino has had to deal with post-World Cup fatigue, lamentable squad depth, a stadium farce that only ended in April and his peers enjoying bigger and better transfer budgets. Daniel Levy must match his manager’s ambition this summer or risk this project going south very quickly.
The raw statistics tell you enough. Between them, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold provided 24 league assists, ranked second and third at Liverpool for chances created and provided 257 crosses from open play. Third for crosses was James Milner, with 56.
That remarkable contribution helps Liverpool, because having your creativity at full-back reduces the responsibility on others to provide it. Jurgen Klopp can instead tell his three midfielders to focus on breaking up opposition attacks and pressing high up the pitch to force the turnovers that mean overlaps that mean chances that mean goals. Nor too did Robertson or Alexander-Arnold ever abandon their defensive duties; these are not wingers masquerading at full-back.
It sounds easy, but this is a triumph of Liverpool’s scouting and coaching system. When they signed Robertson from Hull City for £8m, there was no queue of suitors willing to pay twice as much. Alexander-Arnold has been nurtured through the academy, and given the confidence to take his chance so emphatically when circumstance created it.
More than anything, this is emphatic proof of Klopp’s man management that gives his players the freedom to express themselves without fear of public haranguing or retribution. That’s how you end up with a 20-year-old taking an opportunistic short corner in the second leg of a Champions League final and in doing so taking his side over the line.
Robertson only turned 25 in March. Alexander-Arnold doesn’t turn 21 until October. They’re only going to get better, folks.
Andy Robertson gets a hug and a kiss from his manager to go with his standing ovation from the Anfield crowd. The best left-back in the PL by a mile and arguably the best in Europe this season. #LFC
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) May 12, 2019
Wolves and Nuno
Wolves’ owners have never hidden their ambition. Last September, after the club’s bright start to the season, executive chairman told the Daily Mail that he wanted Wolves to “be as good as Man City, even better than them in future”. Someone’s not messing about.
That ambition can create serious pressure on a manager. Nuno knows that any serious backward steps and his cub will have no problem in making changes. Fosun are not in the business of hanging around.
But Nuno has matched those ambitions and more. Having earned promotion as champions, he has led Wolves to seventh place in the Premier League that will mean European football if Manchester City lift the FA Cup. It was hardly outrageous to think that Wolves would be the highest placed promoted club, but seventh is a superb effort that will keep Shi and Fosun happy.
The great myth of Wolves is that Nuno has relied upon Jorge Mendes clients to create this success story. Clearly Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez have made a difference, but it is the improvement across the squad that proves Nuno’s excellence. Club legend Steve Bull picked Matt Doherty as his Wolves Player of the Year, and plenty of supporters would agree with him. Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett have also been developed and fine-tuned by their manager.
The most remarkable part of Wolves’ season is that it could have been far better. Their FA Cup semi-final collapse against Watford will nag away at Nuno all summer. Wolves lost more league games against the bottom four than the top six.
But for now, positivity reigns. Wolves have already signed Jimenez on a permanent deal with the striker boasting his own ambitions for Champions League football, and others will follow him. The battle for the top six next season is going to be sensational.
Leicester City’s upgrade
A Leicester City season dominated by the horrific tragedy that saw the loss of five lives in October. The outpouring of grief and gratitude for Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha from supporters in Leicester and beyond, creating a carpet of flowers outside the King Power, will live far longer in the memory than anything that happened on the pitch.
But there is a way to move on from such tragedy, by honouring the work and life of their owner by pushing on in Vichai’s memory and continuing the progress he made possible. In Brendan Rodgers, Leicester have a manager capable of blending the club’s youth and experience and genuinely challenging the top six.
Nothing sums up the financial strength of the Premier League than mid-table Leicester to leave Celtic, the Scottish champions elect. Rodgers will hope to take Leicester far higher than mid-table.
If you are one of the most famously dogmatic managers in world football, the result cannot be the only king. Sarri has struggled to implement his Sarriball, some of the league victories have been highly fortuitous and some of the football pretty wretched. Sarri has displayed odd loyalty to certain Chelsea players and been parsimonious in giving minutes to others. Many Chelsea supporters believe that any progress has been achieved in spite of their manager rather than because of him. Eden Hazard FC? Pretty close, at times.
But now for the defence. Chelsea appointed a manager they knew was dogmatic three weeks before their first match of the season and tasked him with taking a team that finished five points outside the top four back into the Champions League via any route necessary. They gave Sarri one permanent signing who fit his vision, and the manager has been forced to deal with fans chanting against his style and senior players drip feeding their displeasure to the media.
Off the back of those problems, Sarri has taken Chelsea back into the top four, has them in the Europa League final and took them to a domestic final thanks to victory at Anfield. If there are indeed problems to solve this summer, Sarri has proven that he merits the patience of a second season.
That’s particularly true given the issues facing Chelsea. They have an ageing squad (David Luiz, Olivier Giroud, Pedro, Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta will all be 30 or above by the end of August), one of the best players in their history is almost certain to leave and there is a transfer ban hanging over the club. Even if Chelsea are successful in delaying the ban until the end of the summer window, they do not need to be spending precious time looking for a new manager.
This has not been a perfect season for Eddie Howe, although even securing Bournemouth’s fifth consecutive top-flight campaign is mightily impressive given the club’s infrastructure. Work will begin this summer on a new training complex. They should name it after him.
Bournemouth were sixth after 15 matches, but their form slipped away as quickly as their defensive solidity. Howe must try and address those problems this summer. Asmir Begovic has tailed off badly and it might finally be time for those who took Bournemouth out of the Football League to be thanked profusely and then nudged from centre stage.
But there are players who are absolved from any blame, and more good news stories at Bournemouth than bad. David Brooks, Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson contributed 56 goals and assists this season. If the black mark on Howe’s reputation was his work in the transfer market, that trio was signed for £13.5m. Bournemouth would want ten times that much if they were to sell this summer.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
He might not be the best man for the job, and this wonderful dream might be rudely curtailed by a bad run of form at the start of next season, but that doesn’t mean Solskjaer isn’t an emphatic winner.
A year ago today, Solskjaer’s Molde lost 2-1 at home to Bodo/Glimt to drop to eighth in the Norwegian Eliteserien. Had you been told then that 12 months later he would be planning for his first full season in permanent charge of Manchester United, you would have giggled at football’s remarkable propensity for drama and intrigue. Solskjaer is the cat that got the cream (and then discovered that the cream had gone sour).
Gracia can feel hugely unfortunate not to have been nominated for Manager of the Year. But that only reflects the impressive work done by managers above him and emphasises how quickly Gracia has normalised Watford’s position well clear of the bottom three. I’m only too happy to admit that I predicted Watford to be relegated last August.
Watford’s league form did tail off slightly in late season, but there’s still an FA Cup final to come. Winning the club’s first major honour really would put Gracia’s name down in Watford folklore.
A season that contained more downs than ups, but Southampton started it with Mark Hughes as their manager and ended it with Ralph Hasenhuttl planning for his full season. In terms of experience, success and coaching aptitude, Hasenhuttl belongs in the top six not the bottom.