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Premier League Team Report 2017/18: Part One

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Another Premier League season has drawn to a close. Now the blue confetti has settled, it is time to take a step back and assess how satisfied each team can be with the campaign.

Arsenal

Gunners fans would not have been harbouring any genuine hopes of a title push at the start of the season, but they will nonetheless be profoundly disappointed with a campaign that saw them finish closer to the bottom than the top in terms of points. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect was the complete failure to be competitive against the top teams: the North London outfit managed a grand total of six points in their games against Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. Nonetheless, the season has given them reason to be hopeful for the future: Aubameyang has settled in very well since his January move, and in the closing weeks of the season looked to be striking up a strong partnership with summer signing Alexandre Lacazette. The team have at least some of the requisite tools to succeed as they move forward into a brave new world without Arsene Wenger.

Bournemouth

Officially, ‘AFC Bournemouth’ should have been first in this article, but such cheap tricks to appear top of alphabetical tables are not worthy of recognition. By contrast, Eddie Howe and his team deserve plenty of praise for another strong campaign: The Cherries ended up 12th, level on points with 10th. This was a slight drop-off from the 9th-place finish last time out, but the difference was only two points. Never once did they look at all in danger of relegation – this was their third straight season in the top flight, and at this point they look as if they are here to stay. Just as impressively, the manager has stayed true to his attacking philosophy; Bournemouth played some lovely football at times, including a memorable 3-0 win over Chelsea, and ended up with nine more goals than 7th-placed Burnley. Now that they are a truly established Premier League outfit, they will surely have their sights set on replicating the Clarets and making a push for European football next time out.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Staying up is the name of the game for any newly-promoted side, and Brighton met this objective. They ended the season on the magic forty-point mark, seven clear of the drop – this represents not only safety, but relatively comfortable safety. Chris Hughton deserves great credit for getting the most out of a fairly limited squad; the laudable defensive discipline he instilled is reflected in the fact that Brighton conceded fewer goals than eleven other teams in the league. This is particularly impressive given that they were on the wrong end of thrashings at the hands of a number of big clubs – they conceded nine in their two games against Liverpool. In fact, performance against the top six is the only significant area of improvement for The Seagulls; a win against Manchester United towards the end of the season suggests that they are already making positive strides in this direction. Particular praise must go to Pascal Gross, who was a creative revelation in his first season in England.

Burnley

It is easy to forget that this was only Burnley’s second season back in the Premier League. This gives some context to a remarkable campaign: Sean Dyche masterminded a seventh-placed finish, enough to secure Europa League football for his team. This achievement was built around a highly solid defensive unit, which is all the more impressive given the loss of Michael Keane to Everton over the summer. Ben Mee proved more than capable of filling his shoes, while James Tarkowski had a breakthrough season as his partner at the heart of defence. Nick Pope was also outstanding in the absence of Tom Heaton, earning himself an England call-up for the World Cup. At the other end of the pitch, however, there was far less to shout about. Remarkably, Burnley scored fewer goals than 17th-placed Southampton and just one more than relegated Stoke – this does not take away from an undeniably successful campaign, but attacking reinforcements are surely needed if Burnley are to stand any chance of balancing the league and Europa League next season.

Chelsea

Chelsea are making an unfortunate habit of failing to follow up on a title-winning season. Certainly their performances belied their status as reigning champions in this campaign – there were flashes of brilliance, but in truth the West Londoners looked off the pace from the start. In fairness, they followed up the 3-2 opening day loss to Burnley with a string of decent results, but after Morata’s form dropped off in a big way Conte’s men looked largely bereft of ideas. The nadir was probably the 1-0 defeat at the Etihad: there is no shame in going to Manchester City and losing, but Chelsea’s complete failure to show any attacking intent led many to conclude that Conte must go. The January signing of Olivier Giroud admittedly reinvigorated the side, and the squad deserve a degree of credit for their belated push for the top four, but they can have no complaints that they ultimately fell short. The final day 3-0 capitulation to Newcastle was a bleak end to a poor season – with key players threatening to leave, it feels as though the club may be at a crossroads.

Crystal Palace

It is hard to assess how much of a success Palace’s season was, given the dramatic alteration of their expectations after as few as four games. Prior to the start of the campaign, the club may well have been optimistically looking at a push for Europa League qualification – certainly they would have liked to be consistently in and around the top ten, happily impervious to the threat of relegation. There was hope that newly-appointed Frank de Boer could get The Eagles playing some genuinely attractive football, the sort that saw him make a name for himself with Ajax. Creeping doubts emerged before a ball was even kicked, however, as it appeared that the board were unwilling to give proper backing to their man in the transfer market; Mamadou Sakho was widely considered to be a good signing, but the only incoming deal actually engineered by de Boer was Jairo Riedewald. Sure enough, four games in, the relationship between club and manager had deteriorated to the point of no return. De Boer was sacked, not having accrued any points nor even a single goal with a team simply not equipped to implement his brand of football. The focus turned to avoiding relegation, a battle which was already an uphill one given the disastrous start: using this yardstick, Palace can be very satisfied with the campaign. Roy Hodgson came in and steadied the ship admirably – the appointment was always one which was going to place a ceiling on the team’s ambitions, but he emphatically met the brief of steering them clear of the relegation zone. In the end, the team managed a highly respectable 11th-placed finish. Wilfried Zaha was talismanic in this turnaround; Palace will have to hope that they can somehow hold on to him if they are to make any progress next season.

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Everton

Much like that of Crystal Palace, Everton’s season was one of tempered expectations. Their summer business looked quite good on paper, and there was a feeling that the spine might have been strengthened enough to improve on the already-impressive 7th place achieved in the last campaign. Richard Keys infamously declared that the signings could be enough to fire Everton above their city rivals. This dream quickly faded, replaced by something of a nightmare – Koeman’s season did at least last longer than four games, but he was shown the door before the end of October. Sam Allardyce came in, tasked with maintaining Everton’s ever-present record in the Premier League. In truth, the danger looked fairly remote even before ‘Big Sam’ was appointed, but he nonetheless ensured that the club avoided the drop and indeed eventually guided them to 8th. This is a relatively accurate reflection of the level the club is at; there was still great consternation amongst fans, however, largely due to the negative style implemented by Allardyce. The season must go down as an underwhelming one.

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield came up to The Premier League via a playoff penalty shootout victory over Reading. Many observers suggested that the squad was simply not ready for top flight football – the side finished the regular Championship season with a negative goal difference, and after sealing promotion lost one of their only prolific forwards to Burnley in the shape of Nakhi Wells. Nonetheless, The Terriers got off to a flyer in the 2017/18 campaign: they made the most of a kind run of fixtures, and occupied third place after the opening three games. Life inevitably got a little harder for Wagner, but the German had his team playing some nice football; the high-intensity play paid off with some regularity against fellow bottom-half teams. Results against the big clubs were generally harder for Huddersfield to come by, although there was a memorable win over Manchester United as well as a crucial late flourish that saw them take points off both Manchester City and Chelsea. This was enough to get them over the line and secure their Premier League status for next season, a feat for which the players and manager deserve great credit.

Leicester City

Leicester have been in something of a curious position ever since their extraordinary title win two seasons ago. In any vaguely normal circumstances, league winners would at the very least be expected to mount a top four challenge in the following years; Leicester were barely out of the Championship, however, and in truth did not have a squad capable of competing with the best outside of the perfect storm that was 2015/16. Allowances can thus be made for the 12th-placed finish last season – nonetheless, given the significant investment in their squad that has been possible since lifting the title, top ten seemed like a bare minimum target for The Foxes this time out. They eventually achieved this, ending up in ninth place, but it was hardly an emphatic improvement from the last campaign. Craig Shakespeare lasted just two months of the season before being replaced. Claude Puel oversaw an initial upsurge that removed any latent fears of relegation, but ran out of steam badly as the weeks wore on; it is telling that Jamie Vardy, who carried the team on his shoulders at times, ended up breaking the record for scoring and losing in the most games. All in all, it was a distinctly forgettable season for Leicester – far from terrible, but a long way from the heights to which fans may have started to expect.

Liverpool

Liverpool went into the season looking to break an unwanted pattern that had held for the best part of a decade. In recent times, the club has been unable to produce back-to-back qualification for The Champions League – everyone longs to be in the elite competition, but Liverpool squads of late have simply not had the depth to maintain the requisite league form while also progressing in Europe. On paper, it looked as though it might be a similar story: Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke were alarmingly high up the pecking order in the event of an injury to one of the key players, a problem that was only exacerbated by Coutinho’s departure in January. However, Klopp is finally convincing everyone that he knows best; the team continued to progress after the big money sale to Barcelona, thanks in no small part to the transformative presence of Virgil van Dijk in the back four. The newfound defensive solidity combined with one of the most lethal trios in Europe was enough to secure Liverpool a top four finish, which has to be considered a success considering the toll that their remarkable Champions League campaign has taken on the squad. Salah has obviously been the stand-out name, but throughout the team there is tangible progress. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s emergence in particular is highly pleasing. There is a feeling around the club that this time, Liverpool are here to stay at Europe’s top table.

 

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