Premier League Team Report 2017/18 – Part Two
I got as far as Liverpool in the first part of my Premier League team reports for the season – let’s pick up where I left off.
There is only so much that can be said about City’s remarkable season that has not been written already. In truth, the myriad of broken records speak for themselves: most points, most goals and most wins are just the headlines.
It would be remiss not to point to the eye- watering amounts spent by Pep Guardiola, but there have been many teams throughout history with a financial advantage over the rest of the field – few have conquered all before them in such an emphatic manner.
Not only this, the football was truly beautiful at times; it was not a carbon copy of the era-defining philosophy the manager implemented at Barcelona, but if anything the Bavarian streak taken from his Bayern days made Guardiola’s tactical setup all the more lethal.
Sterling and Sane epitomised this more explosive element, both showing glimpses of true greatness at times. Behind them, two men already firmly established as greats orchestrated the play exquisitely: Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva are very much the heartbeat of this side, which deserves all of the accolades it has received.
Any season in which City can be praised so effusively is unlikely to be a good one for Manchester United. Mourinho’s side did finish second, runners-up behind their city rivals, but the gap between the two positions was another record that fell this season: United never looked in the title race, as there never really looked like being a race.
The failure to be competitive can perhaps be reluctantly tolerated for a season, but this club has success in its DNA – it certainly is not used to being overshadowed by the other team in town. Fans will be particularly disappointed by the style of play that they were made to witness. Mourinho is an arch-pragmatist: this can be tough to watch at times, particularly given the artistry unfolding at The Etihad, but for many it is justified when it gets results.
Put simply, although it was effective in many of the bigger games, on the whole it did not get results. Thus, all the fans are left with is a team that is not enjoyable to watch and is not winning any silverware.
Flare and trophies are the foundations upon which the club is built; despite the season being acceptable on paper, there is a feeling that Mourinho is eroding the team’s identity. Supporters will surely feel that something has to change next time out.
Rafa Benitez was already loved on Tyneside for sticking with The Magpies after they dropped into The Championship, and for orchestrating their immediate return – he has moved closer to legendary status after an astonishingly good first campaign back in the Premier League.
The squad, in truth, did not look good enough to be particularly competitive. The expectation was certainly a relegation fight. Instead, Benitez masterminded a top half finish; the January loan signing of Martin Dúbravka inspired a strong second half to the season, and 10 th place was sealed on the final day with an emphatic 3-0 victory over erstwhile champions Chelsea.
Ayoze Perez scored a brace, which was a fitting way to sign off a campaign in which he proved many doubters wrong. Jamaal Lascelles was another key figure – his performances have drawn attention from some of the big six, but fans will be hopeful that their captain stays put to provide the spine to Benitez’ typically organised side.
They will also hope that Mike Ashley provides the money needed to strengthen in key areas over the summer. Tenth is a great building block on the way to restoring Newcastle to something like their former glory.
It was undoubtedly a bad season for The Saints, but they can take solace in the fact that it was not quite disastrous. Relegation was a very real threat after a dreadful first half to the campaign; the Virgil van Dijk saga cast a shadow across the whole club, and whilst they deserve respect for trying to hold on to their best talent it was ultimately highly counter- productive.
His sale in January, bizarrely, acted as something of a catalyst: Wesley Hoedt and Maya Yoshida were able to form a relatively settled partnership, latterly joined in a back three by young talent Jan Bednarek. However, problems persisted at the other end of the pitch. Southampton sorely lacked a clinical front man, and it cost them dear – Shane Long cut an isolated figure when selected, while Charlie Austin was plagued by injuries.
That said, they were able to turn to the largely out-of-favour Manolo Gabbiadini when it really mattered: he pounced on a bouncing ball to stab home the winner against Swansea, in so doing all but ensuring another season in the top flight. Southmpton will be relieved to have got over the line, and will now look to regroup for a better year next time out.
Stoke started the campaign with a win against Arsenal, but it proved to be one of just seven that would be racked up all season. There is very little that is positive to say about it – Mark Hughes had the team playing poor football yielding very few results, and Paul Lambert was unable to turn the tide in any significant fashion.
The only genuine bright spark was Xherdan Shaqiri, who will surely not stay now that The Potters are Championship-bound; it is a very important window for the team now as they look to ensure they do not drift into obscurity.
The problems are not restricted to an overreliance on the Swiss international up front – the back line, traditionally Stoke’s strongest asset, conceded the joint-most goals in the division.
Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron, both now well into their thirties, are no longer capable
of keeping up with the pace at the top level. Given that Kurt Zouma’s loan is coming to an
end as well, investment is bound to be needed all over the pitch.
The Welsh outfit were perhaps a little less hopeless than Stoke, but they ultimately suffered the same fate. Relegation is a bitter blow for a team that had become a mainstay in the top flight since promotion in 2011, but in truth the side no longer bears any resemblance to that which won the hearts of the neutrals under Michael Laudrup, Gary Monk and then Brendan Rodgers.
That this proved to be the final season for club stalwarts Angel Rangel and Leon Britton was sadly fitting – it is the end of an era for The Swans, who will have to reacquaint themselves with life in The Championship. For fans, the most urgent desire will be a return to the old way of playing.
It was their club who blazed the trail for showing that good football leads to good results, and it is painful to see that they have lost their way. A new striker will be high on the list of priorities: the romantic return of Wilfried Bony did not prove to be a success, while Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham also failed to have the desired impact despite a bright start.
The trend of steady progress presided over by Mauricio Pochettino continued for Tottenham this season. Fears over a whole season at Wembley proved to be unfounded – Spurs lost just twice at home, while also managing some memorable victories including a 4- 1 triumph over Liverpool.
This ultimately proved important, as they finished two points above the Merseyside club to secure third place. There is a nagging worry that the side continue to be over-reliant on Harry Kane, who had another remarkable goal-scoring season that was bettered only by Salah, but provided they can hold on to him there is no reason why the progress cannot continue into the next campaign. Christian Eriksen is another star name they could not do without; this was probably his best season in North London to date, and he is turning into a truly world class player.
Dele Alli could perhaps have offered more, but it is easy to forget he is still young: provided Pochettino can hold it together, it is a team with a bright future. Davinson Sanchez proved a great addition to the project. It is tough to mitigate the impact of a long-term injury to Toby Alderweireld, but by and large the young Colombian managed it. He will need to be similarly impressive next time out, given that it
looks like the Belgian is headed for the exit.
Watford’s season, as has so often been the case since their return to the top flight, can be divided into two very distinct halves. The first was highly satisfactory; promising young coach Marco Silva had the team not only picking up results but picking up plaudits for their style of play, and The Hornets were in the top four after eight games.
It looked as though the Portuguese might be able to truly establish himself at Vicarage Road for longer than a season. Instead, he was gone by the end of January, becoming the first coach not to last a full campaign since Watford were promoted back to the Premier League. Results and performances took an alarming turn for the worse after Everton had reportedly looked to appoint Silva – the owners kept patience for some weeks, but in the end felt as though themanager’s head was elsewhere and opted to let him go.
Javi Gracia oversaw enough of a revival to all but secure Watford’s safety, but without the looming threat of relegation performances became lacklustre once more. An eventual 14 th -placed finish was far from inspiring, and the board may be left once again looking for ways to reinvigorate the side over the summer.
Patience is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern game, but equally complacency can be a vice: West Brom are a cautionary tale in this regard. The Midlands club had a squad that had repeatedly proved itself at lower-mid-table level in the Premier League, and Alan Pardew came with Premier League experience to his name when he replaced Tony Pulis in November.
Nobody in the upper echelons of the club appeared to have considered relegation from the Premier League to be a genuine possibility until it was too late; fan doubts about Pardew were abundant from the moment he was appointed, but even as dire results continued to flood in these did not find their way up to the boardroom.
Eventually, after a winless ten games and an abysmal eight points from a possible fifty-four, Pardew was shown the door. This only gave caretaker-manager Darren Moore six games to save the season, however, and he took over with the club a gargantuan ten points from safety.
It is to his immense credit that he came fairly close – Stoke ended up going down before The Baggies, and the final gap to safety ended up being just five points. This still equated to a rock bottom finish, but fans will at least be buoyed by Moore’s emerging talent – he has now been given the job on a permanent basis, and supporters will be hopeful that he is capable of overseeing a quick return.
David Moyes had become almost as much of a laughing stock as Pardew following his time with Manchester United and Real Sociedad, and he was met with similar scepticism when he was called upon to steady the ship in mid-November. However, Moyes has been able to leave with his head held high rather than with his tail between his legs – he oversaw a solid turnaround, taking a team that were in the relegation zone when Bilic departed to comfortable safety in 13th .
In truth, the squad should never even have had to worry about going down: there is genuine quality in the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Arthur Masuaku and Javier Hernandez, but performances were simply not up to scratch until the Scotsman took charge.
Arnautovic in particular was like a man reborn: this is bittersweet for The Hammers, who will surely struggle to hold on to their star man, but he did enough to secure their Premier League status for another year. There were few standout moments along the way, but the supporters will have enjoyed taking four points off Chelsea. If the core of the squad can be held together, along with the addition of a few much-needed reinforcements, fans have reason to be optimistic that new boss Manuel Pellegrini can give them something to get excited about next season.