Monday 10 June 2024

End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points)

Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crystal Palace, really. Brighton must await the Premier League introduction of Eastbourne Borough before living a derby that doesn’t necessitate the naming of a motorway. 

Once again, the manager is front and centre, Roberto De Zerbi waving goodbye to the fans on the final day, ending his season and a half tenure due to differences with the board. 11th in a season of Europa League football is no mean feat, especially without Encisco and March for the bulk of the season and Mitoma for the second half of it, not to mention the summer sales of Mac Allister to Liverpool and Caciedo to Clearasmudlake Chelsea for £100,000,000 (Caceido becoming the latest player to score from the halfway line at Stamford Bridge and not win MOTD’s Goal of the Season.)

Evan Ferguson scored a hat trick early on but that proved a false indicator for this season at least, Welbeck still popping up as the biggest goal threat. Anyone who’d’ criticiser Brighton for not “kicking on” from their top six placing and FA Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out appearance last season needs to wise up. Like their made up rivals, they have established themselves as part of the Prem furniture while progressing. Of course, it can all change quickly. Who will come in to steer the ship? The full-time Chelsea manager before Poch is still available…

12th: Bournemouth (48 points)

Just a few weeks into the season under new manager Andoni Iraola, when The Cherries looked as flaky as they’d ever been during their stays in the Prem over the last calendar decade, the ever in-the-moment Alan Shearer compared their struggle to the resurgence at Wolves under Gary O’Neill, who’d been replaced by Iraola in the summer: “It’s looking like a pretty embarrassing decision”, big Al grimly observed.

Well, I appear to have reached Bournemouth before Wolves in this club-by-club rundown of positional standings. Well done again, Al! 

Notwithstanding heavy defeats at Man City and at home to Arsenal, it would have been tempting of course, to pillory the employment of a Johnny Foreigner over One of Our Own, much like the dismissal of Nigel Adkins for the Argentinian Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton in 2012-13 just as Bournemouth’s south coast neighbours were appearing to hold their own back in the Prem. Little did we know that one day Pochettino would rise to the heights of leaving Chelsea by mutual consent.

Yet, the 6-1 defeat at the Etihad in November was followed by a 7 game unbeaten run, the highlight of which (probably) was a 3-0 win at Old Trafford and also included a hat trick at Nottm Forest by Dominic Solanke, emerging as a 20-goal Premier League striker just when it seemed he was destined to always take second Billing. The form table put them behind only City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Iraola was suddenly spoken of as one of the Brat Pack of Basque region managers/coaches now in the Prem, alongside Guardiola, Arteta and Emery. Summing up Bournemouth’s season on the final Match of the Day, Shearer sternly conceded that they’d “had a good season after the controversy of Gary O’ Neill losing his job.” Oh, Alan! 

13th: Fulham (47 points)

Still no Wolves, eh?

A second successive consolidation in the Prem for the West London inoffensives. Does this move them out of the 'yo-yo club' category? How long is a piece of yo-yo string? 

Marco Silva found a way to compensate for losing main man centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic to the blood money league - Rodrigo Muniz weighing in with 9 goals - while fatefully keeping hold of midfielder Palhinha, who'd seemed destined to go to Bayern Munich before the August window shut. The Portuguese midfielder reportedly had a change of heart when Harry Kane arrived at the Allianz Arena, his about-turn grounded in the sudden belief that Fulham now had a better chance of winning a trophy for the first time in their history than Bayern adding to their 11-years-in-a-row Bundersliga domination or any cup at all they entered.      

Theoretically, Fulham decided the title race, taking four points off Arsenal, fortunately catching the runners up in their two periods of uncertainty. The 2-2 at The Emirates was followed by a 5-1 tonking at The Etihad (international break in between), Silva receiving his latest in a flurry of red cards when protesting about the routine injustice that most teams face against the champions. City then beat Fulham 4-0 in a May stroll. 

Will Silva’s side make it a hat trick of spells in the Prem at the end of next season? Same as all the clubs in this mid-lower section of the table, this may depend on how bad the promoted/returning clubs are. 

14th: Wolves (46 points)

Wolves! Welcome! 

Of course I’m not mocking you, Wolves, I’m mocking Alan Shearer. I have a lot to thank Wolves for: for being there, ravaged by injury, when Arsenal needed a tonic after defeat by Munchen preceded by defeat by Villa: for being a goal down at home to Spurs in the 90th minute and winning 2-1: for forcing through a vote to end VAR. Gary O’Neill was the acceptable face of the moaning manager, and I enjoyed the thrill of him taking on the PGMOL in seemingly every game where the last farcically bad decision by a ref or VAR, or a non-decision was overshadowed by the next. He got a bit addicted to it in the end, seeming to search out the injustice, but really you couldn’t blame him for being on high alert. If Newcastle and Manchester United tried to contest the monopoly of injury misfortune, then Wolves had no company under the lone rain cloud. 

There were, though, bright spells. Mathias Cunha looked a very important asset for any club in this zone just outside the danger zone, one that scores goals regularly and with the promise of doing it for a few seasons yet. Sarabia looked decent up front too, while the ball-carrying exocet missile Pedro Neto engineered goals and wins, including against Man City. The shot hamstrings look to be a problem, which may see him leave for a bigger club where he can be used more sparingly and crafted. Ait Nouri wowed as a defender with silky touches, one of the very best players around that sounds like half of a Jimmy Nail number one hit in 1992. 

O’Neil did at least have a big smile on his face when they won at Bournemouth in October, scoring a late winner through another goal threat, Hwaang Hee-Chan, after Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook had been sent off 9 minutes after half time at 1-1. This may have been a rare case of Wolves being on the right end of a refereeing decision, but they must also be accountable for their improper treatment of Barcelona academy product Nelson Semedo, who after five seasons believes he is still part of a club partnership at Camp MoliNou. If you're reading this, Nelson, you ain't ever going back.     

15th: Everton (40 points)

The Toffeemen reached the benchmark 40-points that famously avoids relegation (unless you're West Ham Utd) despite a fluctuating 8 points being shaved off their total thanks to Financial Fair Play breaches. In the same way that news of Manchester City being investigated over 115 charges last season galvanised their title charge, the injustice felt by the legally-savvy Goodson faithful generated an upturn in form. A literal low point was a 6-0 loss at Chelsea, though coming out on top of a Merseyside title decider seemed to be the fans highlight. Manager Sean Dyche was typically sacrosanct throughout the whole affair. "These are the harsh realities of existing in an industry where you don’t have Manchester City’s lawyers”, he allegedly said. “This is a situation I’ve inherited, not one I invented. We’ve all got firefighter suits on. But with many hoses. We have more than one fire extinguisher at this club. I understand it’s not 1985 anymore, or 1987, or even 1995. We’re not naive. Please don’t call us that. There’s room to improve, it’s about progression. We’re doing everything we can with the extinguishers available. If they want to take our life-preserving equipment away, we as coaching staff and players can’t control that. I’m not a miracle worker. I’m Sean Dyche. A worker”, he allegedly added.

16th: Brentford (39 points)

Five months without Ivan Toney, three without Bryan Mbeuno, a whole season without Rico Henry, weeks without Ben Mee and yet Thomas Frank’s team have secured a fourth season in the Prem. They somehow found the goals and kept the discipline to stay competitive. It’s no mean feat, and one that doesn’t get mentioned much. Perhaps they like it that way, staying in the shadows, keeping their head down. They gave Arsenal two tough games and even worked out how to get Neal Maupay to score a couple. Maupay’s clownish beef with Villa goalie Emiliano Martinez at the Community Stadium was a rare moment of hilarity in the Premier League. You’d think Martinez would be more grateful, Maupay having caused Bernd Leno’s long-term injury that brought Martinez into the Arsenal team and an FA Cup winners medal at the end of that 19-20 season, leading to his move to Villa and subsequent Champions League football next season. 

17th: Nottm Forest (32 points)

Mike Baldwin, played by Johnny Briggs, once implored the Rovers Return regulars to “get a lifeboat” for Tommy Harris “before he drowns in self-pity”. Fortunately for Nottingham Forest, the puncture-ridden dinghy’s of Burnley, Luton Town and Sheffield United ensured they kept afloat.

The four points deducted for FFP breaches wasn’t the driver for the babyish displays of paranoia that deflected from some promise during the season. They gave Arsenal a fright at The Emirates on the opening day of the season, would have drawn 0-0 at home to Liverpool had it not been for the visitors reaping ‘good process’ karma in the 99th minute and had the chances to get a result against Manchester City (comments by Guardiola that Forest would have scored had it not been for the dry pitch were sad and petty.)

Not so good was the legal talk following Ivan Toney repositioning the ball at a free kick and the owner taking to Twitter to blame ungiven penalties at Everton on the VAR operator, Stuart Atwell, being a Luton fan. Employing ex ref Mark Clattenburg as Director of Refereeing Against Us wasn’t exactly a gladiatorial move either. Maybe it was all to generate an us against them mentality, maybe they don’t care how they come across? 

Dismissing Steve Ovett for Nuno Espírito Santo was a surprising move a couple of years after Spurs have given up on the ghost after just three months there, his last impression in the Premier League. He did slightly better than Ovett, though seemed quite smug about achieving survival at the end of the season. 

18th: Luton Town (26 points)

If you’d have told me at the beginning of the season that Luton Town would be relegated…well, yeah, most would have believed you. That it seemed at one point in the season that they might have the resolve and the guile to stay up is a big compliment to them. They had both of those things, but sadly, and understandably, not the squad depth. Injuries at the turn of the year piled up, and of course they had all the emotion of dealing with captain Tom Lockyear’s heart-related collapse at Bournemouth.  

The Hatters gave the ‘big boys’ something to think about, only losing to the last header of the game, 4-3, at home to Arsenal, drew 1-1 with Liverpool and, also at Kenilworth Road, narrowly lost to Man City. There was also a stirring 4-4 comeback at Newcastle. Ross Barkley, in a deeper lying position, reminded of us his quality, 30 years old and displaying consistency that was always said to be his downfall. The fans’ song for him, Ain’t Nobody Like Ross Barkley, is one of the best we’ve heard for years. 

Adebayo up front was building a reputation as a striker to be feared before becoming one of the injury victims, but without that regular/semi-regular goalscorer on top of the many absences, even a manager as cool as Rob Edwards couldn’t turn the tide. They will be back in the same division as their local rivals (albeit not in the same county) Watford next season, but the regard for those two clubs should be contrasting. Edwards, like most managers, has recently been Head Coach at Vicarage Road, and also like most of them was given only a couple of months to prove himself. Watford will delight in their drop, just as they had dropped from the Prem the season before, but Luton’s spiralling down the league and out of it, and then surge all the way back up it (a bit like Watford in the eighties) should only be applauded. 

19th: Burnley (24 points)

101 points last season in The Champ under Vincent Kompany, just 24 for the non-Dyche-Prem team this, scoring half the number of goals. Perhaps the best thing you can say about this Burnley side is that it is not a Sean Dyche Burnley. Not that that's a bad thing of course -  sometimes there's beauty in dealing with harsh realities. But the evolution has begun and they are on the right track, which sounds like a Dychian thing to say, but we can assume that the adjustment will continue under whoever replaces Kompany, who has gone to Bayern Munchen, which may suggest that the curse of Kane will not be lifted any time soon, but that's not Burnley's problem, and in any case it's actually nice to see a huge club taking a bit of a risk on potential (it worked for Chelsea with Villas-Boas due to sacking him and giving the job to Roberto Di Matteo, who won the Champions League and was then himself sacked the following season, a situation that was replicated with Thomas Tuchel, who then went to Bayern Munchen and has now been replaced by Kompany...what a fun merry-go-round we live in.) 

If I'm honest, I'm struggling to think of any Burnley players other than James Trafford (the goalie who ended the season in reserve), Jay Rodriguez and Aaron Ramsey (and I only know of him because I thought it was the Arsenal one for a while.)

Good luck The Clarets next season!   

20th Sheffield United (16 points)

What’s the record for lowest ever points total; Derby with 8? Watford 15? Sunderland 15? Either way, it’s a good job Sheff are prudent with their FFP business. They conceded 104 goals, 4 more than the famous Swindon achievement of 100 goals in 93-94. Or maybe that was more than a century, ‘over a hundred goals’? Does it even matter? Man City have won 7 out of 8 Premier Leagues and that doesn’t mean anything. 

Sheff were one of only three Prem teams to sack their manager this season, when normally it’s into double-figures, although Watford being in the division below could explain that, as well as the cost of compensating managers as FFP began to show some balls. Chris Heckingbottom was replaced by the man he replaced, Chris Wilder, who doesn’t seem likely to hit anywhere the heights of 19-20. Accusing a fourth official of eating a sandwich reminded me of the time Phil Brown of Hull City whinged to journalists about the suspended or injured Cesc Fabregas wearing a leather jacket and jeans. 

Coming up from the Champ for next season are Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Southampton, two of whom were in the Prem last season, so perhaps Sheff could be back the season after next, along with at least one other of the two in front of them. Or maybe the series of Right Hammerings - 8-0 at home to Newcastle, 6-1 at home to Arsenal, a 2-1 embarrassment at Spurs - will encourage a season or two of transition before they are ready, in common parlance, to ‘go again’.

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