Premiership End of Season Grades
With their 2-0 defeat of West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Manchester City confirmed their second Premiership title in three seasons, as they finished two points above Liverpool, who came from behind to beat Newcastle 2-1 at Anfield on the league’s final day. To round off the campaign, here is a look at how each team fared compared to what their expectations were back in August; plus my picks for player, manager and goal of the season. (Photo: The noisy neighbors have a loud celebration)
1. Manchester City – Grade A
On the back of their league title, Manchester City also lifted the League Cup and qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time, although with the expenditure that the club has made on playing personnel that should be the minimum they achieve every season. For the first part of the year, it was the goals of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo that fired Manuel Pelligrini’s side to the top part of the table – though they did have to overcome some shaky away form in the early part of the season – but in the latter part of the campaign, it was the magnificent YaYa Toure who carried them over the line as he fired 20 goals from midfield, including a hat-trick against Fulham, which he rounded off with a fantastic 30 yard curled effort into the top corner. After he was dropped following a series of mistakes, Joe Hart did not make another error when he returned to the team and three clean sheets in the final four matches helped City ensure they suffered not more slip ups following their defeat at Liverpool and home draw with Sunderland. Despite two defeats to Chelsea, the blue half of Manchester looked like the strongest team in the division over the course of the campaign and were worthy winners. One big negative for the club is that they are now going to be sanctioned by UEFA for failing to meet the Financial Fair Play regulations and could have a limited squad in next year’s Champions League, as well as a hefty fine levied upon them (which will hardly help the balance sheet either, not that the Abu Dhabi investment group will be too concerned).
2. Liverpool – Grade A
For someone who grew up in the 1980s, it is a strange concept to think that Liverpool should be delighted by a season in which they won no trophies and were beaten into second place in the final week of the league season, but the progress they have made under Brendan Rodgers has been phenomenal. It’s almost impossible to remember that back in August, Luis Suarez was angling for a move away from the club and was suspended for the first five fixtures of the campaign as, by the end of it, he was picking up accolades as Player of the Year and had tied the Premiership goals total for a 38 game season, despite having missed those opening handful of matches. However, one note of warning for Liverpool fans comes from the summer signings that Rodgers brought in last year: Luis Alberto (£6.8m), Iago Aspas (£7m) and Tiago Ilori (£7m) all struggled to get in the team at all (though the latter is still only 21); Kolo Toure (Free) and Mamadou Sakho (£15m) played 18 and 20 times respectively in a defense that conceded more goals (50) than anyone in the top 8 other than Tottenham (51); while only Simon Mignolet – who had a good season despite the regularity he had to pick the ball out of his net – could be considered a definite success. The recruitment this summer will need to be more prudent if Liverpool are not only going to maintain a title challenge once again, but they must also cope with the added demands that playing in Europe will bring. This season, the Reds had only 43 competitive matches compared to: 57 – Manchester City & Chelsea; 56 – Arsenal; 54 – Tottenham & Manchester United. Liverpool will have at least six extra fixtures to contend with in 2014/15 as they enter the Champions League group stages, so strength in-depth across the squad will be vital for them to maintain the level they achieved this campaign.
3. Chelsea – Grade B+
The highlights for Chelsea this year were doing the double over the eventual champions, Manchester City; an impressive away victory at Anfield that put the title back into the balance; plus a Champions League run that saw them reach the semi-finals and get within 50 minutes of returning to a European final for the third season in succession. However, a trophy-less campaign for Jose Mourinho is always going to be something of a disappointment and uncharacteristic defeats against Sunderland, Stoke and Aston Villa proved to be very costly in their title challenge. While Chelsea had the best defensive record in the division – conceding just 27 goals – their sometimes negative style of play will become a frustration to even their own supporters if it does not result in silverware and their strikers, who were criticized by Mourinho throughout the campaign, were evidently not good enough. Out of all the strikers who are on the books at Stamford Bridge, only one broke double figures in league goals scored and that was Romelu Lukaku, who notched 15 in the Premiership while on loan at Everton. The problem with a trophy-less year for Mourinho (his second in a row as he failed to win anything in 2012/13 while in charge of Real Madrid) is that next season, the defensive tactics could be an ever-present feature of Chelsea and he could recreate their 2004-5 season, when they conceded just 15 goals in the league.
4. Arsenal – Grade B- or A
The variation on the grade comes down to whether or not they win their first trophy since 2005 this Saturday, when they take on Hull City in the FA Cup final at Wembley. In the league, there was much early season promise – well at least there was after the opening day loss to Aston Villa that saw supporters berating Arsene Wenger for his lack of activity in the transfer market. However, on the last weekend of August the Gunners beat Tottenham and then spent £42.5m on one of the best midfielders in the world, Mesut Özil, who had a big positive impact, even if his form tailed off a little in the first part of 2014. Had it not been for injuries to Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and, in particular, Aaron Ramsey, then Arsenal may have maintained their title challenge longer than March, when they eventually fell away from the leading three having been top of the table for longer than anyone else this season. Finishing fourth maintains their streak of both qualifying for the Champions League (17) and finishing above Spurs (19); while winning the FA Cup would make this campaign an unqualified success for the Gunners and ensure that Wenger is given a lucrative new contract this summer.
5. Everton – Grade B+
After having David Moyes at the helm for 11 years, this was an important campaign for Everton who brought in Roberto Martinez as manager last summer, following his departure from Wigan who had been relegated to the Championship. Instead of taking a step back, Martinez helped the Toffees take a huge leap forward as they played entertaining football, remained tough to beat at Goodison Park (where they lost just three times in the Premiership) and also did the double over Moyes’ Manchester United, including their first league victory at Old Trafford since 1992 and a victory at home that signaled the end of their former manager’s time in charge of the Red Devils. Next year, Everton will need to cope with the additional pressure of playing in the Europa League – meaning they will have fixtures on Thursdays and Sundays for at least the first half of the season – but if they can secure permanent deals for Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry – who both excelled during their loan spells on Merseyside – plus bring in a couple of new faces to strengthen the squad, then the progress they made this year could be built upon and the Toffees could be contenders for both a Champions League place and a domestic trophy.
6. Tottenham – Grade A+
The high-grade only relates to the campaign after Tim Sherwood took the reigns at White Hart Lane and proved himself to be Bill Nicholson reincarnated as he got the team playing attractive football and achieved the highest win-rate of any Spurs manager in the Premiership-era. Upon his appointment, suddenly the whole squad looked reinvigorated, especially Emmanuel Adebayor who went from pariah to match-winner under Sherwood, while the introduction of Nabil Bentaleb proved the former midfielder’s genius at spotting young talent and the extent of his knowledge of the club…okay I cannot keep this up, as anyone who has read anything else I have written will know – here’s the real one:
6. Tottenham – Grade C-
The sacking of Andre Villas-Boas was actually probably the second-worst decision to dismiss a manager that any Premiership club made in 2013/14 (for the worst, see: City, Cardiff) as the results that ended up with the Portuguese coach losing his job were not so bad in retrospect. Daniel Levy grew impatient following a 6-0 defeat at Manchester City; 5-0 home thrashing by Liverpool and a 3-0 loss at the Lane against West Ham. Of those, only the last one actually still looks bad at the season’s end as the teams that finished first and second in the league scored 102 and 101 goals respectively and thrashed many teams – including 5-1 and 4-0 against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. What was unquestionably poor was the manner of the performances under AVB, as the side struggled to score goals in the league and were struggling to adjust to new tactics that did not involve “give the ball to Gareth Bale and let him work his magic”, which had proved so effective prior to the Welshman’s transfer to Real Madrid. Although under Sherwood the side did play a more attacking brand of football, his lack of tactical nous was evident in the games against the biggest clubs and his win record was a misnomer in comparison to the standard of performances that were reached: the losses were brutal, while the victories – especially the come-from-behind 3-2 defeat of Southampton and 1-0 success at Stoke – seemed like much harder work and carried an element of fortune.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on Tim “Arsenal fan in a Spurs Gilet” Sherwood and he should be given the opportunity to manage the team next year to see if he can build on a relatively promising early start, but the lack of belief I had in the team’s ability to compete with the top four with him in charge did not come from anywhere except from what I saw on the field. Overall, six defeats against the Gunners and West Ham are evidence of a very frustrating season for us Spurs fans and, unless Frank de Boer or Jürgen Klinsmann are brought in as the new manager this summer, I can see it continuing next year as well. It looks most likely that the club will try to appoint Mauricio Pochettino – who has done a good job at Southampton, but I do not want him at White Hart Lane as I think he would be like David Moyes – unable to perform under increased pressure and scrutiny (I’m not saying the Spurs job is as big as Manchester United, but then Southampton are not on Everton’s level either). The only reason this grade is not worse than C- is because Tottenham qualified for the Europa League, which is at least better than happened in all but two of the years I had a season ticket at White Hart Lane (2002/3 to 2006/7) and I only got to enjoy on European campaign, so just being in the competition is something I consider a small measure of success.
One final note, the fact that we finished above Manchester United means that we have now finished above every other club in the English leagues in the time since we last finished in a higher place than Arsenal (1994/5). Oh and I was going to make a comment about Roberto Soldado’s first (and possibly only) season at Tottenham, but he is such an easy target that, in his honor, I will miss the chance to do so.
7. Manchester United – Grade D-
The failings of Manchester United were well documented and it was not really that much of a surprise that David Moyes lost his job as a result of the poor performances in every competition, but it was not like they improved that much under Ryan Giggs (two wins, a draw and a defeat in four matches). With Louis van Gaal waiting in the wings to take over after the Netherlands World Cup campaign is over, United could be back among the title contenders next season but they will need to address the obvious weaknesses in central midfield and defense if they are to have any chance of challenging for the Premiership crown once more. I am not sure what will have been harder for Manchester United fans to accept at the weekend, seeing their two biggest rivals duke it out for the Championship, or finishing the year five points below a mediocre Spurs team. Next season will be the first in more than two decades that the Red Devils will not be in any European competition, but the plan to play in a series of money-spinning friendly fixtures in various different countries could see the squad tired from traveling, without having the prestige and challenge of being in the Champions League to go with it.
8. Southampton – Grade B
The call up of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert to the England World Cup squad today shows the development that Southampton have made and the progress players have enjoyed under the management of Pochettino, who has installed an exciting, attacking style of play to the Saints. However, they seem to have been locked in a battle for 8th/9th place with Newcastle since the turn of the year, unable to challenge the teams above them in the table, but far above those embroiled in the relegation tussle. If this summer sees Shaw and Lallana depart the club (they have been linked to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively) then Southampton will need to replace them, just as they have had to do with Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale in the last decade. The summation of the Saints’ season could be found in their two fixtures against Tottenham, both of which they looked good in, could well have gotten more out of, but ultimately they lost each game 3-2.
9. Stoke – Grade B
It was a bizarre decision for the Potters to sack Tony Pulis last summer, as he had kept them in the Premiership since their arrival in 2008, but following a shaky start, Mark Hughes did manage to build on the work of his predecessor and even got Stoke playing some attractive football in the process. Ultimately, this is the best that the Midlands club could hope for as they were never in real danger of relegation, but to finish any higher than this would be a real shock. Once again, it was their home form that propelled them up the table, as they lost just three times at the Britannia Stadium, compared to 11 times on their travels.
10. Newcastle – Grade C
That mark might seem a little generous, given the fact that in 2014 Newcastle put in a series of abject performances that would have seen them relegated if they had not picked up more points in the first half of the campaign. Nevertheless, it would be hard to judge Alan “headbutt” Pardew too harshly, given that no first-team player has been signed on a permanent basis in the last two transfer windows and last year, they only narrowly avoided demotion to the Championship. Perhaps those in the north-east expect more from their club, but until Mike Ashley either sells Newcastle or invests more in players, a 10th place finish without any threat of relegation is really the best for which they can hope.
11. Crystal Palace – Grade A
Back in August, Eagles supporters must have been almost certain that they would end the season in the bottom three: all four of their previous Premiership campaigns had ended in relegation; plus they had a manager – Ian Holloway – who also appeared to accept that Palace would not be able to enjoy more that one season in the top flight and he was growing frustrated at his inability to bring in many of the players he wanted to sign for the club. By the first weekend of November, Palace had lost 9 of their 10 league fixtures and looked completely out of their depth, as did Holloway and the Eagles would doubtlessly have been relegated had they not made a change of manager. The appointment of Tony Pulis transformed Crystal Palace’s fortunes as the former Stoke boss led them to 11 wins and 5 draws in 26 Premiership fixtures – including a run of five consecutive victories that confirmed their top flight status for next season – and they ended up in the giddy heights of 11th place. Of all the teams that finished in the bottom half, it is Palace fans who have the most reason to be optimistic for the 2014/15 campaign, all thanks to Pulis.
12. Swansea – Grade C-
Although the Swans never seemed to be in any real danger of relegation, they were never really clear of trouble until the final fortnight of the season, when the failings of the bottom three – rather than Swansea’s own form – guaranteed they would not drop back down to the Championship. It was an up and down year for the south Wales club, who sacked Michael Laudrup midway through the campaign and replaced him with Garry Monk – but they also made it to the knockout stages of the Europa League in their first experience of European competition. In Wilfried Bony, they had one of the signings of the summer and his tally of 16 Premiership goals were a prime reason that Swansea maintained their top-flight status for next year.
13. West Ham – Grade C
Perhaps a little generous with the grading, but since the West Ham fans’ most hated club is Tottenham* and they beat us three times this season, the mark goes up a little. Also, although the style of play that Sam Allardyce has installed is not the flashy one that the Hammers fans would like to see, it has proven to be effective in helping them avoid a third relegation from the Premiership and they have established themselves in the division once again over the least two campaigns. Should they retain their manager and get a full season out of Andy Carroll next term, their expectations could be beyond simply beating Spurs and making the League Cup semi-final, as they could challenge for European qualification.
*In recent years, us Spurs supporters have been like Don Draper with Michael Ginsburg: “I don’t even think about you”. However, three defeats to them lot this year makes the rivalry a bit more two-sided for the foreseeable future.
14. Sunderland – August to Mid April – Grade F; Mid April – End of Season – Grade A+
At the start of the season, Paolo DiCanio was in charge at the Stadium of Light, a tenure that nobody could imagine having a successful ending and it was wise of the board to make a relatively early change by bringing in Gus Poyet in October. However, a Tyne-Wear derby victory over Newcastle and a trip to the League Cup final – achieved thanks to winning the worst penalty shoot-out I have ever witnessed against Manchester United in the semis – were rare highlights as Sunderland seemed set not just to be relegated, but to finish rock bottom of the division. The nadir was a 5-1 loss to Spurs at the beginning of April, but from then on they looked like a club reborn, making Poyet believe in miracles, which he had stated was what was needed in order for the Black Cats to avoid the drop. Nevertheless, a draw away at Manchester City, followed by victories at Stamford Bridge – marking the first time Jose Mourinho had lost a home Premiership fixture – and Old Trafford were enough to mean that home wins over fellow strugglers Cardiff and West Brom ensured they were going to avoid relegation with one game to spare.
15. Aston Villa – Grade D-
There is not much to look forward to if you are an Aston Villa fan: owner Randy Lerner wants to sell the club; manager Paul Lambert saw two of his assistants suspended pending an internal investigation and his own future looks in doubt; and the team managed just 38 points this season and would have been relegated had they not had fortunate home victories against Manchester City and Chelsea. On the plus side for the Villa faithful, Birmingham had an even worse year and only avoided dropping into the third tier of the English league system in injury time of their final match.
16. Hull – Grade B- or A+
Like Arsenal, the variation in grade depends on how the F.A. Cup final goes this Saturday (spoiler alert – the Gunners will win 4-0) but this has been a relatively comfortable season for the Tigers – back in the Premiership after a spell of three years back in the Championship – who were never in the bottom three after August. The highlight in the league was a 6-0 thrashing of Fulham at the KC Stadium, with all of the goals coming in the second-half and one of them was scored by Tom Huddlestone, which meant the midfielder finally got his haircut after a two and a half year wait. In January, Steve Bruce recruited well once again and the goal scoring threat of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavić should stand Hull in good stead for next season, even if they will both miss Saturday’s final as they are cup-tied.
17. West Brom – Grade D-
Not even a passing grade for the Baggies, reflecting the fact that they only avoided relegation due to the fact that there were three worse teams than them in the division and their total of 36 points would have seen them demoted in each of the previous three seasons. Sacking Steve Clarke in December was something of a strange decision and his replacement, Pepe Mel, was an inferior manager and it was not a surprise that today the club have also dispensed of his services.
18. Norwich – Grade F
Another club that made a bizarre managerial switch – it was not so much the notion of sacking Chris Hughton could be questioned, but to do so with only five games remaining all but doomed them to relegation. Hughton was hardly manager of the year candidate prior to his dismissal – summer signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel proved to be a particularly bad bit of business, scoring only once – but the goal they conceded against West Brom in his final match in charge was only the second they had allowed in the Premiership at home in 2014 (the other being from the penalty spot against Stoke) and in that time, they had kept both Manchester City and Tottenham off the scoresheet at Carrow Road. If the Canaries are going to avoid a lengthy spell in the lower divisions – they had dropped all the way to League One prior to their ascent back to the Premiership – they will need to appoint a canny boss who will be able to get them back up from the Championship at the first attempt – maybe Tim Sherwood would consider a return to another club where he once played.
19. Fulham – Grade F
All of the bottom three are getting F grades and all of them made poor decisions with regard to their managers over the course of the season. In the case of Fulham, that represented three different men: Martin Jol (10 points from 13 matches); Rene Muelensteen (10 points from 13 matches); and Felix Magath (12 points from 12 matches) – meaning they managed to have three incompetent managers in a single campaign. If you add in Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley – who were brought in as assistant head coach and technical director respectively, before both were sacked two months later – it is evidence that owner Shahid Khan has no idea what direction to take the football club and a change at board level is needed even more than another switch in the dugout.
20. Cardiff – Grade F
Vincent Tan’s Guide to How to Upset Your Own Supporters:
Step 1: Change the club’s colors from the traditional blue to red, for no good reason.
Step 2: Get rid of Malky Mackay’s right-hand man, Iain Moody, and replace him with an inexperience 23-year-old friend of your son’s, Alisher Apsalyamov as head of player recruitment. Especially popular when Apsalyamov then has to leave his role as his visa allowed him to be in the UK only on work experience, rather than as a full-time employee.
Step 3: Sack a popular manager (Mackay) who the fans spend several games supporting, even though he has taken the club to 16th place after 18 games in its first season back in the top flight in 50 years and has taken four points from the Manchester teams and won the South Wales derby.
After that triage of mistakes, the appointment of an up-and-coming highly rated young manager in the form of Ole Gunnar Solskjær could not undo the bad will that has been built up with the Cardiff fans and even that decision proved fruitless, as the Norwegian former Manchester United striker was unable to save them from relegation, while very few of the players he brought in proved to be successful. Following the conclusion of the season, Mackay apologized unreservedly for any offense caused to Vincent Tan over the issues surrounding his sacking (which had absolutely nothing to do with his settlement with the club I am sure) while the owner also suggested he would consider a switch back a to a blue home kit…but only when Cardiff return to the Premier League.
Some awards for the season:
Manager of the Year – Tony Pulis (Crystal Palace) – narrowly beating out Brendan Rodgers, who would have taken it should Liverpool have won the title. He can thank Steven Gerrard for slipping him into second place.
Player of the Year – The obvious choice is Luis Suarez, who scored 31 goals in just 33 Premiership appearances, but his form in the biggest games was found wanting and because of that, I pick YaYa Toure as the best player for 2013/14.
Goal of the Season – 5. Christian Eriksen vs Benfica 4. YaYa Toure’s third vs Fulham; 3. Jonjo Shelvey vs Aston Villa 2. Jack Wilshere vs Norwich; 1. Ross Barkley’s solo effort vs Newcastle (link only shows the ending but it was phenomenal)
Match of the Season – Crystal Palace 3 – 3 Liverpool
Signing of the Season – Wilfried Bony (Swansea)
Worst signing – 1. Roberto Soldado (Tottenham – Lamela gets a generous pass due to injury); 1a. Ricky van Wolfswinkel (Norwich); 1b. Kostras Mitroglou (Fulham).Courtesy of John Lally, USA www.politicalfootballs.com
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