A break might be what we all need, to be honest. We could all do with a break from the frenzied intensity that has surrounded and consumed the Premier League. Every week, Manchester City and Liverpool ruthlessly swept aside teams as the title race swung from red to blue, from hunters to hunted, from traditional heavyweights to modern giants.
A break might be exactly what they all need too. Away from the pitch, the Premier League has had a largely torrid time: vitriol was spewed from fans online and in the stands, tragedies struck in Leicester and Cardiff, and the sloshing pools of football’s money became more uneven and more murky. On the grass, the other heavyweights took turns in the critical spotlight; people laughed at Spurs’ stadium move and denounced Maurizio Sarri’s stubbornness, then ousted Jose and despaired for Arsenal. The shining lights outside the top six – Watford and Wolves in particular – cast isolated light among comparative darkness. Is to be in the Premier League to just survive? To scrap for morsels and scavenge for crumbs?
The problem for these teams who finish the year bereft of success is that the cult of the individual seems to have waned, meaning unexpected individual brilliance is unlikely to reap the rewards it once did. Not so long ago, a spectacular run of individual form could drag a team beyond its expectations. Newcastle finished fifth in 2011/12 with a distinctly mediocre squad riding on the goalscoring coattails of Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé. N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy helped the rest of an ordinary-looking Leicester side to a Premier League title.
YouTube videos and social media virality have furthered the plight of the individual, but their influence on a team’s success seems to have diminished somewhat. Sure, Twitter highlights will tell you Neymar spent half a season rainbow flicking the ball over defenders’ heads, but PSG won a meagre Ligue Un title and nothing more.
Manchester City’s unbelievable season is perhaps the best example of a group of great players reaching a common goal. Under forensic guidance from Pep Guardiola and his staff, any of City’s squad could slot into the matchday XI and more than hold their own; 21 of City’s squad made 15 or more appearances this season, and their performance levels remained stratospheric.
An October run of fixtures demonstrates this: after a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley, Leroy Sané is subbed out for Raheem Sterling and they beat Spurs 1-0. Sané then comes back in for Mahrez and they beat Southampton 6-1. The personnel changes slightly; Guardiola tinkers gently and consistently, and their mighty form rolls on.
Liverpool’s overall success is born from the same idea, albeit involving a few more standout individuals. Mohamed Salah was directly responsible for 24 of Liverpool’s 97 points, and Virgil van Dijk’s first full season in Liverpool was utterly crucial. But in adding Van Dijk alongside Xherdan Shaqiri, Alisson, Naby Keïta and Fabinho, Liverpool have prioritised the health and longevity of the team, not the tempting – but often fleeting – allure of another individual goal-scoring superstar.
If last season’s Liverpool were free-wheeling chaos merchants, who enjoyed the fruits of their front three’s labour, then this season’s team were more calculating, more reserved – though no less dangerous. Perhaps this is why they were able to sustain such an impressive title run over the course of the season, as the collective effort surpassed the heights of last season’s various individuals.
City win the title 🏆
Liverpool push them 🥈
Andros Townsend puts a cherry on top 😍
— The Football Ramble (@FootballRamble) May 13, 2019
If the margins between success and failure were narrow in the Premier League, then those margins in the Champions League knockout stages were even finer – and the team triumphed over the individual here, too. Lionel Messi did his best to compensate for a sometimes underwhelming Barcelona attack, with exceptional feats of individual brilliance against both Manchester United and Liverpool. And yet he will not play his fifth Champions League final after they were swept aside in remarkable fashion by Liverpool’s XI on the pitch and 50,000 substitutes in the stands. No piece of individual brilliance could stop the surging tide at Anfield. Liverpool’s collective determination, and calm heads under pressure, undid all of Messi’s heroics from the week before. Which is another reason Stan Collymore got it wrong.
And, for both teams in the other semi-final, the idea of the collective team triumphing against the odds is rife. Ajax, with no truly established world-class players, swept aside Real Madrid with surgical precision in the round of 16. The traditional team of exceptional individuals knocked out by the post-Cruyffian principles of this inexperienced Dutch side. They then went and knocked out Juventus who, in their recent acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo, banked on the excellence of the individual to try and conquer Europe. That didn’t work, and Ajax marched on.
Only then were Ajax, like Barcelona the night before, eliminated by the collective will of their opponent – this time a Spurs team part-filled with fringe players and outcasts. Their match-winning, frenzy-inducing goal came via the most unlikely route. Moussa Sissoko, who has spent much of his Tottenham career before this season confined to an odd cameo appearance, hit the ball forward. It was brought down by Fernando Llorente, a man who ran himself into the ground whilst fulfilling a role his ageing limbs and particular talents should have prohibited. His knockdown found its way to Dele Alli who, through injury and volatile form, has had his share of doubters. And his swift touch was collected by Lucas Moura, a man who has played second fiddle to Harry Kane his entire Spurs career, a man many thought would never live up to his younger promise.
This group of footballing pariahs came in when nobody else could and helped their team, pushed on by a fortuitous tide, to get over the line. This is reflective of this season at large, though there have, of course, been moments of brilliance and matches won by an individual who demanded it so. Vincent Kompany, in microcosm, may well have won City the title with his 30-yard howitzer against Leicester.
But, largely, success has found its way to those who are built on the foundation of the collective, not the individual. This presents an unnerving paradox for most of the Premier League. The formula for success involves building the best cohesive team available. But if all the clubs outside the elite commit to this same path, just without the equivalent financial or directional nous, will they ever catch up?
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