Monday 27 May 2024

Premier League review, club by club Part 1 - 1st-10th

‘You’ll never win the raffle if you don’t buy a ticket’, somebody once said. I don’t know who, but it was first heard pre-National Lottery, or at least when the National Lottery was in its infancy, or relative infancy; these days people would most likely replace ‘raffle’ with ‘lottery’.

This isn’t to say raffles are moribund, like the Pools and Bob Carolgees. The school disco, for one, is a guaranteed source of despair for hundreds of primary age children when their number/s don’t come up, denying them a Little Miss colouring book to justify the £1-a-strip outlay. For a number of consecutive years, my first son would greet the end of a winless raffle by growling while ripping up every one of his unsuccessful tickets, oblivious to the bewildered audience looking his way as I laughed through the mortification. 

By now you may have directed your eyes back to the title of this piece, to confirm that you are actually reading about a review of the outgoing Premier league season, club by club. Don’t worry, we’ll get onto it, I just wanted to talk about losing raffle tickets to explain, in a very Peter Beagrie way, why I haven’t seen even one Premier League match this season (while still insisting I have the credibility to judge all the teams in it.) In my privileged position as an Arsenal Red member, I entered all the ballots for tickets for my friend and I that fell outside of the Category A ‘big games’ (you’d actually have had to have to won the lottery to be able to afford those); that’s 14 ballots. Every time came that dreaded ‘unfortunately…’ email. ‘We recommend that you continue to enter the ballot for future games’. Quite. Otherwise there would be 0 chance, right? I haven’t actually seen a Premier League game since April 9th 2022, when Arsenal lost to  Brighton & Hove Albion managed by Graham Potter. This is the only time I’ve seen Leandro Trossard score at The Emirates. 

Still, I’ve watched MOTD (most weeks, though often not all of it) and there’s been a few live games on terrestrial telly, so I’m at least as qualified as Dion Dublin to make public opinions. 

Ok, let’s do it in order of Prem finishing places…

Champions: Manchester City (91 points)

One day, someone as obviously intelligent as Kevin De Bruyne might realise to his horror that he gave all the best years of his talent and soul to a club owned by people who marginalise women and imprison gays and pollute the air with fossil fuels. “This beautiful club” proclaimed KDB after a milestone goal this season, as beautiful as an institution can be if you turn a blind eye to its foundations. Perhaps he might be lucky enough to get to Pep Guardiola’s age and still stay blissfully ignorant. PG, after all, hasn’t worn that yellow ribbon in support of oppressed Catalans for some years now. 

2nd: Arsenal (89 points)

Runners up two years in a row, and will be a decent bet to make it a third, just like Arsene Wenger’s trio of next besters between 98-99 and 00-01. Wenger’s team eventually won the league and FA Cup double in 01-02, and perhaps this awaits Mikel Arteta’s clinical beasts in 25-26 if PG announces his retirement at the end of the season or something. I wrote them off as early as August after dropping points at home to Fulham. It was an odd time, back when Gabriel was on the bench and Thomas Partey at right back, prompting one of those many wizened BBC Sport followers to declare that Arteta was “trying to be too clever.” A comment that came from ‘Scooby Stu’. Other home London derbies cost them, drawing with Spurs (again 2-2) and losing to West Ham 2-0, Moyes’ men having three shots, one a saved penalty. The three-act awarded goal at Newcastle was another blow, though the Villa defeat at The Emirates in March felt like the killer. It came after the CL quarter final against Bayern Munich, while that weekend City played Luton at home, dropped KDB, Foden and Silva and won 5-1. The initiative was back with them and it wasn’t being relinquished, obviously. 

Undefeated against 1st and 3rd, winning both at home and enough points gained to have won half of the Premier League titles, yet, in the cold light of day, not enough enough. 

3rd: Liverpool (82)

I didn’t want Liverpool to win the league (as much as I don’t want anyone to other than my own team) or for Klopp to have a fairytale end to his Anfield story, even though I like Klopp, simply because I didn’t think they were worthy. It’s perhaps a nonsensical point, no team wins the league by accident, not even Leeds in 91-92. They were always going to organically drop off eventually if they weren’t up to it. It is also perhaps an unfair view. Surely a title in Klopp’s last season with one of his weaker sides would have been a David Pleat poetic justice-type event considering the seasons they amassed over 450 points and still came 2nd. One measly defeat, courtesy of one ball a millimetre shy of crossing the line not sufficient to take the trophy in 19-20. This time out, up until the African Nations Cup, Salah was in typically sensational form but returned with an injury and barely a shadow of himself, culminating in a touchline row with Klopp while about to come on at West Ham. Jota and Gakpo and Nunez threatened to keep the momentum going but, two seasons in, the £64 million Uruguayan still hasn’t broken out of the erratic finishing that Salah himself and before him, Luis Suarez, quickly overcome with dramatic results. Perhaps he still will, though in his best days he is generously labelled an ‘agent of chaos’, which is spin for ‘couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’. Except for at Newcastle in August, where the Reds’ 10 men came from behind to win, which was an early highlight of the season. Has been nice to see Klopp smiling again of late. The charm and charisma and whole-face belly laugh had seemingly been drained of all life by the darkness of City, but his legend is secured. More points gained than Leicester City in 15-16.

4th: Aston Villa (68)

I was a little surprised when Unai Emery’s arrival at Villa Park in January 2023 was greeted with such optimism by the supporters, as shown on MOTD 2; had they not seen how his tenure had unravelled so bleakly at Arsenal? Well, clearly they knew better. Or perhaps there was a sense that anything but Steven Gerrard was a level up, sitting as they were one point above the relegation zone. Of course, in between times, Emery had won a fourth Europa League, adding to the three with Sevilla, and by the end of that half season in Birmingham, Villa bagged a top seven finish to enter the Europa Straw Hat, Bean bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s My Trousers League (as won by West Ham, therefore adding to the lustre.) True, an opening day 5-1 pasting at Sandro Tonali’s Newcastle might have had many betting that the vampiric Patridge had reached another early Premier League peak, but sadly this proved unfounded. With the inexhaustible Ollie Watkins coming good on the previous season’s promise to actually hit the ball at the goal occasionally, the ferocious team ethic had a cutting edge that kept them clear of a Tottenham side who are in transition (again.) For me, the question mark over Emery is how he deals with it when things take a turn.

5th: Tottenham Hotspur (66)

The last two ‘previews’ have seen me witter on about the managers, one in his first full season, another in his last. In this entry, I’ll start with Ange Postecoglou, who arrived in the summer at Spurs as an anti-appointment to the previous trophy-hoarders (at other clubs), Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. At least, that isn’t quite the truth, seeing as Ange had just won the league and cup with Celtic, it was just that that seemed almost like not winning a trophy. An Australian with experience only in his homeland, Greece and the Scottish league, one theory was that Daniel Levy had run out of money paying off Pochettino and Nuno Espírito Santo and Mourinho and Conte. But Spurs didn’t lose their first game at Brentford, then beat an already unravelling Man U 2-0, and when a Maddison-Son inspired jolly at Burnley saw them hit top spot on Match of the Day, an otherwise respected Guardian columnist mentioned the league title in the same sentence as his team/one of his teams. Another respected Guardian writer cited Maddison as potentially the signing of the season. Highlights of their rise to the top of the table after 10 games included a 2-2 draw at Arsenal, a 113th minute winner at home to Sheffield United and another last-gasper at home to Liverpool thanks to “good process”.

Then came the inevitable medium-term injury to Maddison, and one to Bentacaur (caused by Matt Cash’s calculated late lunge, resulting in a yellow for the offender and weeks out for the victim) following on from two senseless red cards at home to Chelsea for the otherwise cool-headed operators Romero and Udogie, seeing them lose for the first time. The magic box of Spursiness was opened up, treating onlookers to the latest unravelling delights as they gradually slid down the table. But not too far. Even if, in the same sense that Arsenal’s pursuit of City was just a trick of the light, Spurs ran into a false wall whenever the chance to catch or pass Villa was offered up, 5th and Europa League under a manager who has traditional Spurs principles, and speaks well with sound values (among them a distaste for VAR and the potential for referee announcements of decisions “Oh my God!”) puts them in a far better world than in recent seasons. Not that you’d know that speaking to some of their Romero-headed fans. 

6th: Chelsea (63)

Feeling instant disbelief at a Chelsea manager being sacked seems a bit like one of those unhelpfully ingrained preconceptions in childhood that, as an adult, you  have to shove aside to let common sense in. Chelsea only lost three games from January-May under Mauricio Pochettino, who guided a mish-mash (but not Poch-botch) piñata-selected  squad through a much-mocked, oft-hilarious season to a top six finish and European qualification (albeit for - thanks to Man United’s FA Cup Final win -  the Europa Straw Hat, Bean Bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s my Trousers, Itsy Bitsy, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini Vase); amidst the rubble, there were signs of hope: 4-4 and 3-3 draws against Man City, 2-2 at home to Arsenal, 6-0 at home to Everton, an assertive performance and unfortunate late defeat to City in the Cup semi final and, of course, the stellar season from the delightful Cole Palmer, 22 goals and all. So of course Chelsea sacked Poch in a bid to start all over again with someone else. How often does this have to happen before it’s no longer a shock reflex?

7th: Newcastle United (60)

Never will someone like Keiron Trippier realise that there was anything wrong with giving the last few years of his career to people who specialise in executing people and imprisoning women for promoting equal rights.

8th: Manchester United (60)

Ah, there you are! Why so far away, I never thought I’d find you?!

Eighth is the lowest United have finished in the Premier League, although they ended lower under Sir Alex Ferguson, 11th in 89-90 when they won the FA Cup in his third season, as Ten Hag has won it in his second. At the time of writing, Ten Hag is still the manager but we live in different times now. A kamikaze season has followed Ten Hag’s first campaign, when two defeats in the opening two games was followed by a win against Liverpool and, further down the road, a successful ousting of Ronaldo, a League Cup Final win, a third place finish and the resurgence of Marcus Rashford. The worthiest successor to SAF had apparently arrived (I’m putting the phone down, Jose.)

Then this season happened. There had been snapshots of disaster even in the previous season, 4-0 at Brentford, 7-0 at Liverpool, and though they escaped Anfield this time with a 0-0 despite absorbing 30 shots at their goal - a sign of things to come without always the clean sheet - there were home defeats to Bournemouth, West Ham and Fulham and a 4-0 drubbing at Crystal Palace. There were 14 defeats in all, with a -1 goal difference. No stand-out league triumph to stem the blood flow this time, although they were perhaps hard done by at Arsenal in September, Alejandro Garnacho’s injury time  ‘winner’ ruled out for the most borderline of offsides and then Declan Rice and Gabriel Jesus scoring twice in quick succession. Perhaps that’s how these things turn, which seems to have been the point Ten Hag has repeatedly been making, although strangely through the prism of a nondescript penalty area challenge on Rasmus Hojlund rather than the Garnacho moment. That and the injuries. You have to consider the injuries but personally I double-down here because Arsene Wenger was never allowed that excuse, it was always his fault when half the squad was injured. In fairness to Ten Hag, he doesn’t seem to have been allowed it either. Is it the style of play causing the injuries or the injuries determining the style of play? My Arsenal fan experience kicks in too, when I read the criticism and mocking they get, which is phenomenal. Ten Hag does his best to deflect, looking every inch in his roll-neck the 70’s crime boss, claiming that his mob’s total massacre was part of the plan, that letting Championship side Coventry City come back from 0-3 to 3-3 and then, it seemed 3-4 until the VAR overturned a Garnacho-esque offside was just how he saw it pan out in his mind. I have to say they provided so much entertainment in the Cup though; aside from the Coventry semi and the uplifting defeat of City in the Final, the game plan of allowing Liverpool unlimited space and possession in the quarter final finally worked (somehow) with a last minute 4-3 win. I was delighted to see it, as I was the win against City, which perhaps says where United are right now. Another last-minute 4-3 came shortly after the semi, losing at Chelsea thanks to Subbuteo defending. They have good young players, Garnacho, Mainoo, Rashford on his day; Fernandes is the talisman. Hojlund didn’t quite take the league by storm, as he threatened he might midway through the season. “Another injury”, Ten Hag would argue. Perhaps he deserves another go next season.

9th: West Ham United (52)

There is no such doubt about the aforementioned Moyes’ Weat Ham future, he is out, ten years after being out at Old Trafford, to be replaced by Julian Lopetegui, formerly of Spain, Real Madrid and Wolves. Moyes will be pleased with his contribution to the East Londoners, relegation avoidance in his first spell, and in the second, 7th place and a European trophy in the Miggins thing. The fans seem pleased too, to see him go. A top half finish isn’t enough, there just wasn’t enough of the academy about Moyes’ philosophy, leaning as it does more towards the Allardyce way of thinking. There have been glimpses of excitement when Kudas, Paqueta and Bowen have combined, although given some of the footage of Paqueta’s yellow cards, we may have seen the end of that budding trio. Bowen’s 22 goals is the stand out achievement, will be interesting to see if it garners interest or, as with Son Hoeng Min at Spurs, he is destined to produce the numbers for the same upper middling London club.

10th: Crystal Palace (49)

Where would Vieira’s Palace be right now? As good as bang mid-table? Steve Parrish will consider that uncertainty vindication of the route that has led to Oliver Glasner’s arrival from Eintracht Frankfurt. Parrish will be hoping that Glasner can some day repeat his Europa League success with Frankfurt at Selhurst Park. Not that Parrish gave Europe much consideration before. Roy Hodgson’s ill-health worked out well for him and Palace. It also coincided with the return to fitness and form of Eze and Olise, and an entirely unexpected monster run of form from Jean-Phillipe Mateta, who ended up with 16 goals and setting up 5 compared to half the amount of goals in his previous three seasons. A freak anomaly or a sign of things to come? 11 years now, Palace have played consecutive seasons in the Premier League. 

This concludes Part 1 of the AFONI’s Premier League review, club by club.

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