With Manchester United tying up the title and one of the tightest, most dramatic, relegation battles in premiership history, so comes to pass another season of the premiership. And what a season it was! It included ridiculously over-priced transfers (Torres, Carroll), bizarre sackings (Hughton), contract face-offs (Rooney vs Fergie), super-injunctions (inherently anonymous), multi-million pound takeovers (Kroenke of Arsenal) and the introduction of the inimitable Mario Balotelli, who at times kept the daily soap opera of football running single-handedly!
Oh, and there was also some rather fine football on show too. Though not consistently, the top 4/5 played some wonderful football; a relatively low title-winning margin personally showing the competitiveness of the league rather than the ‘mediocrity’. As demonstrated by the wildly erratic, plum-mid-table, Sunderland, those in the mid-table were far from boring plodders. And the teams at the bottom also provided the league with much colour too, especially Blackpool, whose spirited shoe-string squad cemented their place as ‘second team’ in hearts of seemingly everyone with their admirably gung-ho brand of ‘you score 4…we’ll score 5’ football. Personally, the league will be a lot less colourful without them, literally and figuratively. In this article, I give end-of-term reports on the top 6:
United were far from the seemingly invincible team that they have been in past title races, but continually managed to pull results out of the bag due to some abstract brand of ‘Champions spirit’, if you will. As Alan Hansen always (and rightly) lauds, Sir Alex specialises in this. This was a title won as much through infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment, opportunism and ‘never say die spirit’ (see for one their Giggs-inspired comeback from two-down on a grim night at Bloomfield road), as it was through quality (not to mention a fair bit of luck too). They have, however, played consistently good football elsewhere, in getting to the F.A cup semi-final (only to lose to rivals City) and in reaching the Champions League final at their home-from-home (old joke, I know, but as a jealous Gooner, I couldn’t resist). Yes, Barcelona’s mesmerising passing made it a ‘men vs boys’ contest, but very few teams recently have come off as anything better than adolescents against this Barca team which, for my money, rank as the second greatest ever, eclipsed only by the great World Cup-winning Brazil ’70 team.
Stars: Van der Sar and Giggs continue to defy their age by putting in consistently great performances, the latter from his newly-realised position in the middle of the park. In front of the ever-reliable Van Der Sar, Vidic was, as usual, a rock, even if he occasionally displayed the movement of one too. Nani has continued to fill the significant void left on the wing by one Mr. Ronaldo by adding end product to his undoubted skill. And up front, United have been spoilt for choice. Berbatov has seemingly strolled, literally at times, to being the Premiership’s joint top scorer thanks in no small part to a staggering 5 against Blackpool. Javier Hernandez has been signing of the season; his estimated £7m transfer fee a mere snip for the frequent ‘poacher’ goals and permanent ‘last man’ threat. The ‘Little Pea’ is such a perfect foil to Berbatov and Rooney, the latter having improved greatly in the second half of the season after the settling of the contract debacle.
Flops: On his few appearances, new signing Porteguese winger Bebe has seemed entirely unworthy of the ‘new Nani/Ronaldo’ tags bandied around him. Evans often seems out of his depth and Gibson also does not quite look like a United player, as demonstrated by the harsh fan abuse which caused him to shut down his newly-opened Twitter account.
After a solid start playing attractive football, slightly atypical of Chelsea in recent years, they collapsed like Dominoes over the winter, plummeting out of the European spots. With little help from their megabucks flop Torres, they mounted a quietly impressive late run from February which, as rivals slipped-up, earned them second place finish, having lost the late top-of-the clash at Old Trafford. Alas, a decent 2nd place in the league and Quarter-Final exit in the Champions’ league was evidently not enough for the ultra-demanding powers that be. Thus, Ancelotti was given his marching orders.
Stars: The backline has been typically solid, conceding the league’s joint lowest goal tally (with City). In the absence of a ‘20-goal’ forward this season, midfielders have been left to pick up the slacks. Malouda has impressed, bagging a very healthy 13, as has Lampard with 10, though he has not up to his usual stratospheric standards. Kalou has also popped up, often as a sub, to score 10.
Flops: Torres is the obvious, much-ridiculed flop with only 1 goal in his 14 starts, but the whole frontline has struggled to gel, perhaps as a result of too many big egos clashing. Anelka has bagged just 6 from his 32 appearances and Drogba 12; a little disappointing by his own standards. Indeed, arguably, they have all been upstaged by the on-loan Sturridge.
In contrast to the massive egos and transfer fees off the pitch, Manchester City have been steady, solid, yet rarely spectacular on it. At a relatively low 60, their league goals tally lies a good 18 below United’s total, but their parsimony defending goal (joint lowest conceded goals and most clean sheets at 18) has ensured many one and two-nil victories which has brought them the F.A. Cup and Champions league football with their 3rd place finish.
Stars: Of particular mention in their oft-changing rearguard is the ever-present, safe hands of Joe Hart, who has cemented his place as a world-class keeper. Going forward, Yaya Toure has to a large extent justified his astronomical wages with his surging presence and David Silva has often been a creative force. Tevez has had a very good season, being at times scrapping and at times spectactular and ending up as joint top scorer with 21.
Flops: Hard to mention flops with city because, with the size of their squad, they can afford to keep mediocrity (even better) hiding behind the proverbial curtains on the bench (see for one, Shay Given). That said Dzeko hasn’t justified his hefty January price tag, scoring just 2 in his 15 appearances. Undoubtedly entertaining, Balotelli could fit in either category, going as he does from brilliant and talismanic one week, to blundering and uninterested the next.
Arsenal were doing well up until about late February when they were still in serious contention for all four trophies. Then they had the seemingly customary ‘bottle job’ as the wheels fell off and they lost the League Cup final (courtesy of a horrendous, last-minute defensive cock-up), crashed out of the F.A cup and Champions League to the respective superiority of Manchester United and Barcelona and threw away the league too. The latter was largely down to throwing away points at home in goalless draws with Sunderland and Blackburn and the unbelievable draw with Liverpool. In this game, Arsenal scored a 95th minute penalty… only to concede a very clumsy one in the NINETY-NINTH minute which Kuyt converted.
Stars: Nasri had a stellar start to the season, though failed to quite match these astronomical standards upon returning from injury. In his first real season in the first team, Wilshere was very promising, even if his inexperience occasionally showed, especially in his sometimes rash tackling. Van Persie hit the ground running upon his return from injury managing to bag a very impressive 18, considering. Arshavin was intermittently impressive, as was Fabregas when fit.
Flops: In the long absence of Vermaelen, none of the backline covered themselves in glory, particularly Koscielny and Eboue. Goalkeeper was a particularly problematic position, with newcomer Wojciech Szczesny the best of a bad bunch. Especially in big games, Denilson just isn’t up to the task of ‘enforcer’, which Arsenal so sorely lack a world-class example of. After a good start, Chamakh faded and Bendtner was his usually faltering self.
Spurs gamely fought for their second Champions League spot in two years, which indeed they occupied at various points of the season. But, perhaps due in part to the mental and physical toll of their European adventures, they were edged out by the literal and financial strength of City.
Stars: Dawson was a consistent presence at the back. Van Der Vaart proved a mere snip at £8m, claiming 9 assists and 13 goals in his 28 starts. Alongside Lennon (who’s recently acquired the ability to cross), skilful Modric and speed-merchant Bale, so electrifying in Europe, Van Der Vaart marshalled a very creative Spurs midfield.
Flops: Gomes, though often brilliant, is still prone to horrific errors, such as the ones he made against Real Madrid and Chelsea. Crouch and Defoe’s respective totals of 4 goals are quite paltry, though the former did link well with the midfield, especially Van Der Vaart, and the latter was injured for much of the season.
Under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool started the season disastrously, lacking both the creativity and drive necessary for a Champion’s League finish which the club so desperately craves (even feels it has some sort of God-given right to). Indeed, by January, they were languishing not far above the relegation zone. But then, on the 8th of January, Hodgson left and ‘King Kenny’ returned to his beloved Kop! He evidently put some fire back in to the hearts of the players (and fans) as, with the help of the incoming Carroll and Suarez, they subsequently rose up the table to finish in sixth.
Stars: Since his £23m arrival in January, Suarez has proved he is worth every penny, putting in far superior performances to the ones Torres was (and indeed continued to do at Chelsea). His movement is so brilliant that he could probably find space in a telephone box and his touch ain’t bad either (see his trickery to set up Kuyt against United). Kuyt scored 13 and, as ever, was a tireless workhorse all season, whether deployed wide on the right or as an out-and-out striker as he often was before the arrival of Messers Suarez and Carroll. Mereiles and Maxi Rodriquez were two particularly rejuvenated by Dalglish’s return to the Kop. After fairly non-descript starts to the season, their performances improved drastically, going on to score some crucial goals to end with 5 and 10 respectively.
Flops: It’s hard to really pinpoint where the blame lies for the early-season slump because it seemed like a largely collective malaise. That being said, Joe Cole, admittedly plagued with injuries, seems a shadow of his former self and N’gog has yet to mature into anything resembling a world-class striker.
D+ (E in 2010, A in 2011)