Top ten questions posed by the 2018/19 Premier League season

Date published: Wednesday 22nd May 2019 8:35

10) Just how much more angry will VAR make the game?
Sorry, we have to.

Refereeing controversy isn’t new; VAR rage certainly is. While the Premier League season trundled along to the sound of low-grade irritation – Mike Dean this, institutionalised FA bias that – the Champions League was punctuated by some almighty controversies which echoed around for days.

None were more divisive than the decision to rule out Raheem Sterling’s late goal in the quarter-final against Tottenham. And that was a correct decision.

Here lies the problem and, ultimately, why this will inevitably become thunderingly dull within months of the new season beginning: fans don’t accept it. Sergio Aguero was offside before that goal was scored and had it been allowed to stand, Tottenham would have been cheated out of (what has become) one of the stories of the season. Within the same game, of course, Fernando Llorente’s crucial goal was also allowed to stand, despite a vague suggestion of handball.

On the one hand, VAR is wrong when it’s right, because it interferes with the natural order of the game, creating delays and pausing organic reactions. On the other, when it fails to penalise incidents that would never have been spotted in real time, it’s also wrong and an absolute outrage. It can’t win.

Given the global mood and the mass intolerance for anything which people don’t agree with, there couldn’t be a worse time for the Premier League to adopt VAR. Another avenue for the conspiracy theories and paranoia?  It’s not just football that doesn’t need that.

 

9) How far will Southampton’s reinvention go?
Ralph Hasenhuttl was the perfect tonic for Southampton at exactly the right time. His fresh ideas were welcome and necessary, but – tonally – he also cut an important contrast to his predecessor. Mark Hughes’ press conference began and ended with excuses, there was always someone else to blame, but Hasenhuttl has a more authoritative air; he brought accountability back to the south coast and that was reflected in the honesty and endeavour of the team’s performances.

And in the results. On reflection, the true measure of his success was being able to rescue Southampton despite their muddled squad and with a group of players who, with a few exceptions, he would never have signed. The summer brings with it the opportunity to remove that disconnect. Les Reed is gone, the collection of duds imported under his direction will likely follow, and the club will hopefully provide Hasenhuttl with the resources required to play the fast, fluid football he prospered with in Leipzig.

It’s too early to proclaim this the start of a proper ascent, but there was just enough style in Southampton’s 2019 performances to pique interest. There’s something in this relationship. The club will have to align its other departments if that something is to be properly revealed, but there’s a promise at St Mary’s that hasn’t existed for some time.

 

8) Will a stronger bottom half alter the approach of the nearly-doomed?
This has been a weak Premier League season. Not only did Burnley, Southampton and Brighton all survive with 40 points or less, but the gap between them and the bottom three felt like a chasm. Huddersfield were relegated before the end of March and Fulham fell just three days later, meaning that only one place remained in play during the final months of the season. On top of which, Cardiff’s limitations meant that Brighton eventually survived almost by default.

The bad news is that avoiding relegation will be more of a challenge next season; the teams coming up are better in theory and that extra competition will demand a response. Southampton we’ll get to, but Brighton and Burnley – possibly even Newcastle and Crystal Palace – may have to endure minor reinventions this summer if they’re to remain at this level.

Mainly because it feels like a tipping point has been reached. What those sides all share is a preference to play on the back foot, a lack of attacking craft, and it seems as if more teams in the upper mid-table region are pivoting towards something more progressive. Wisely, too, because throwing punches against the elite has proven fruitful for Wolves and Watford, West Ham have also knocked over a few bigger sides, and Everton’s record against the top six at home was excellent in the new year.

Next season, anyone who just curls up into a ball and hopes not to get hurt will likely just be trampled. There’s too much power in the league now, too many sides have access to players who can gut even the most organised defences. Goals will be the currency and most likely, as they did this season, the three who score the fewest will all go down.

 

7) Will English players’ Premier League involvement continue to recede?
To temper the optimism surrounding the England team, Gareth Southgate sounded a warning note this week. Prompted by data which recorded the falling participation of English players in the Premier League (33.2% of starting spots in 2017/18, down to 30% this season), he urged clubs to arrest the slide and ensure the continued development of a gifted group of players.

It’s a pertinent time to raise the issue, because the homegrown talent pool has arguably never been deeper. And yet, contributing to that 30% has been Ademola Lookman’s troubling situation at Everton, Phil Foden’s minimal role at Manchester City, and the time it took Maurizio Sarri to trust Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi. English football may have reason to feel better about itself, but many of its old nemeses – limited playing time, cluttered pathways – are still at large.

The new season will bring further questions. If Derby Country do not win their play-off final, where will Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori play their football? What about Reiss Nelson, now that his loan at Hoffenheim has ended? What happens if Manchester City set their sights on Declan Rice and snatch him away from West Ham? What then for a player who has already shown himself able to anchor an international midfield?

Tom Davies. Jake Clarke-Salter. Tammy Abraham. Kieran Dowell. Reece James. These are all players at critical development stages, and yet none of them have a definitive place in any side. Some will be loaned, others – like Abraham – will have to sustain themselves on a fraction of the minutes they enjoyed in lower divisions. Southgate is right to be concerned.

 

6) How will UEFA’s presumed sanctions affect Pep Guardiola’s future?
UEFA’s intentions remain vague. The New York Times’ report is now confirmed and Manchester Ciy have indeed been referred to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber. Clearly the organisation has an appetite to issue a Champions League ban, but whether they actually do and how severe it would be remains unclear. Any sanction would also presumably be met with strong legal resistance from the club themselves, so implementation would be a further hurdle.

As hypothetical as this remains, the potential impact on Pep Guardiola’s future is real enough. The recently completed domestic treble was a wonderful, unprecedented achievement, but it also represented his effective completion of English football. Beyond breaking points records and goal tallies, what other mountains are left for him to conquer?

By best estimate, his own clock will be starting to tick too. He managed Barcelona for four years before succumbing to the Camp Nou’s oppressive atmosphere and then, after a sabbatical, coached Bayern Munich for just three seasons before being tempted away towards another challenge.

Season 2019/20 will be his fourth in English football and even though City have been designed specifically to house and harness his abilities, the nature of his coaching style may not be sustainable over long, semi-dynastic periods – and that seems particularly pertinent if a continental ban is forthcoming and he’s denied the opportunity to lead another chase of Manchester City’s white whale.

 

5) Can the newly-promoted sides avoid the temptation that destroyed Fulham?
Fulham have created the example for how not to do promotion. Don’t throw away everything that worked in the Championship. Don’t increase the club wage bill to the point at which relegation potentially becomes a catastrophe. Don’t alienate your fanbase.

The blueprint is clear: try to avoid relegation, but make sure it’s only a sporting failure if you can’t.

In that context, Norwich and Sheffield United are interesting propositions. The former are the better side, but each are constructed on something other than just heavy spending. Both sold highly influential players in the summer of 2018, both adapted and grew while still making a profit. City under Daniel Farke’s coaching, which blended so seamlessly with the club’s innovative scouting, and United under Chris Wilder, whose homegrown aesthetic belies a complex side playing intelligent, attractive football.

These are teams that have manoeuvred rather than bludgeoned their way back to the top flight. But then, that’s exactly how Fulham were being described only a year ago.

Can they remain clear-minded in the rarer air? On recent precedent, they’ll need to avoid the dizzying madness that the broadcasting contract can inspire.

 

4) Is there danger in Tottenham loosening the purse strings?
Tottenham will finally spend some money this summer and, in time, perhaps that will show just how remarkable their 2018/19 really was. As limiting as their squad has been, though, and as much as that told in the final weeks of their season, with the ability to strengthen comes a different kind of challenge.

After all, their passage to the Champions League final was underwritten by continuity rather than star power and by coaching flexibility instead of a range of individual options. Spurs have some necessities: they must strengthen their full-back positions and they desperately need a pair of midfielders, but weaving those players into the fabric of this side might be an awkward job and could even threaten the balance of a group who have achieved well beyond expectation.

In two weeks’ time, Tottenham could be European champions. A thrillingly ridiculous prospect. With that, though, would come the difficulty of re-motivating a side who have reached the pinnacle of the club game and who would most likely – and understandably – slacken once in possession of a major title. Essentially, how do Spurs keep hold of their intangibles once they finally grasp something real?

It’s raw pessimism, a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t scenario. Equally though, if it’s accepted that Tottenham are more than just their line-up and that their results have come from something other than blunt footballing power, it must also be acknowledged that their chemistry is in rare balance and must be preserved at all costs.

 

3) Can a civilian side break into the top six?
The cup final provoked fatalistic introspection across the media and that was likely because of who Manchester City destroyed: Watford may have finished the season in 11th, but they are one of the league’s up-and-coming sides, and the sight of them being so comprehensively overwhelmed emphasised the gap which now exists between the top of the table and the middle.

But that was a slightly false economy: City are a level above at least four of the top six and their excellence is not representative of that group as a whole. Is it possible for that private party to be crashed next? Absolutely. Watford probably have further to go than we original believed and Everton’s recruitment remains too unproven to be trusted, but one imagines that Wolves will heavily outspend Arsenal – whose non-Champions League budget is suspected to be around £40m – and are in position to capitalise on Chelsea’s transfer embargo.

And Nuno Espirito Santo’s side aren’t that far away. Their progress depends on keeping their midfield intact, which means resisting inevitable interest in Ruben Neves and also hoping that Joao Moutinho remains young at heart, but if they were to add two or three from the Jorge Mendes stable to the existing pile, then making the required leap isn’t out of the question.

In fact, a quick glance at Gestifute’s client list poses some interesting what ifs: Nelson Semedo is certainly not living his best life at Barcelona and, while now qualified for the Champions League, Valencia’s financial situation means that they would have to at least listen to any sensible enquiries about Goncalo Guedes.

These are not rumours, just thoughts – but they’re interesting ones. Wolves conceded fewer goals than Arsenal and Manchester United this season and their team mechanics are already among the best-oiled in the country. Imagine if they really loaded their guns, imagine the damage they could potentially do.

And is it so far-fetched? Combine one of the brightest managers in the country with Fosun International’s considerable wealth and hardening ambition, and then continue to use the world’s most influential agent to plot the course forward. Suddenly that glass ceiling doesn’t seem so tough.

 

2) Can Manchester United get any worse?
The presumption is that they’ve bottomed out. That, having missed out on the Champions League and discovered the full extent of their recruiting inefficiencies, United will blunder towards sensible reform almost by default.

Will they, though?

At the time of writing, there remains no progress on the sporting director front, other than to say that Rio Ferdinand’s candidacy is still being taken seriously. On the pitch, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ethereal brand of coaching is guiding a side not fit for purpose, full of wavering focus and riddled with imperfection. And, with each passing day, Solskjaer himself  moves closer to his tearful goodbye, to the Di Matteo departure which his receding tactical credibility surely renders only a matter of time.

The transfer market opening teases the possibility of a quantum leap up the table, but most likely it will just be a continuation of the same – the process by which the club have loaded their squad with under-invested, over-paid players who are just about alluring enough to keep the sponsors paying, but not actually good enough to alter the trend.

Can it get worse? Absolutely. Maybe that’s what United need, too. While sixth place provides a Europa League spot and the illusion of hope, a further drop would demand a more nuclear response, in which the entire football department is detonated and rebuilt. As it is – and has been the case for some time – the prevailing internal mentality seems to be that, with enough commercial revenue flowing in and with enough Ferguson DNA on the training pitches, the club will just glide back to the game’s summit on the thermals of their past.

It’s not much of a strategy and, you suspect, until United have been properly humbled there won’t really be one.

 

1) How do Liverpool bridge the gap to Manchester City?
The mistake is to believe that these two teams are separated by just a single point. They are now, but once the new season begins it will be one point on top of whatever advantages Manchester City have extracted from the transfer market. Jurgen Klopp won’t exactly be back to square one, but he will be tasked with finding a fresh set of solutions to what increasingly seems like an unsolvable problem. 97 points and still no title; it’s an unprecedented situation.

We’ve covered this before. Liverpool can’t compete stride-for-stride with City in the transfer market, so instead they must continue to depend on their internal chemistry. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were all very good players before they arrived at Anfield, but it was the system into which they were dropped which made them stars. Over the last 18 months, Klopp has solved two problem positions by paying the store price – for Virgil van Dijk and Alisson – but that’s hardly typical. Instead, his team’s energy has depended on unlikely rises from within: on the extraordinary form of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, on Jordan Henderson keeping pace with the club’s evolution, and on Georginio Wijnaldum becoming a far better player than anyone anticipated. More broadly, on the incubating effects of the atmosphere he’s created and the accentuating force of his football.

So do the same again, double-down on what works best. Save for a few back-ups, this squad is fully loaded and, in Naby Keita and Fabinho, with potential to grow into. Seal the doors and windows, resist the path that Guardiola and City will surely take, and hope that whatever intangibles that breeds are sufficient to make the difference next time.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

 

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