Sunday, May 11, 2014

The sport of gentlemen: Premier League season 2013-2014 in review

The accepted convention is that you write a review of the domestic football season after all the games have been played. That way, you know who won what, who got relegated, and who came away with a big fat nothing.

But as we entered the very last day of the 2013-2014 Barclays Premier League season, I really couldn't be arsed. We knew that either Manchester City or Liverpool would win it and that Arsenal, who spent 128 days at the top of the league, Chelsea, who blew the chance to stay there with a home defeat to Sunderland, and Manchester United who won it last time and…well…would all be looking back stoically on the games they lost, the opportunities they made a mess of and the decisions that cost them dear.

That City made the inevitable happen and won doesn't deny Liverpool some moral victory. If memory serves, very few pundits were prepared to credit them with a chance of winning the title this season, and yet Brendan Rodgers not only persuaded Luis Suarez to stay as the fulcrum of their attack, but also brought an end to the moribundity that has been Liverpool as potential title contenders for so long. And on that note, I'll come back to Arsenal later.

One thing we can say is that this has been arguably the most nuts Premier League season in the competition's 22-year history. At its outset last August, Manchester United were still revelling in their 20th league title, adjusting to life without Sir Alex Ferguson, and putting their might behind the anointed David Moyes.

38 matches later, United are not even a part of the European qualification, Moyes has already been sacked, and English football's great behemoth is, unusually for them, licking wounds being freshly salted by Manchester City's compelling win. No matter what dash of paint they put on the season at Old Trafford, it has been a disaster.

Moyes' sacking was a sadly inevitable outcome in a game where executive trigger fingers are now impatiently itchy. Personally, I think Moyes would have got there eventually, but today "eventually" is not a concept proprietors have time for. Louis van Gaal - should it be he - will have his work cut out to raise them from the sullen mess.

Before I comment on any other team, I suppose I have to talk about my Chelsea. Their greatest achievement this season has been José Mourinho's expectation management, exemplified by a somewhat Cantonaesque equestrian analogy. The fact remains that with a squad so chock-full of playmakers that even Juan Mata was deemed surplus, not to mention the addition of the most decorated African footballer of all time, Samuel Eto'o, Chelsea should have done a lot better.

In fact with half its squad again out on loan this season, Chelsea have had an embarrassment of riches. They need a couple of decent strikers, that's true. A failure to kill off sides has been part of their undoing. But when this squad loses to Sunderland at home, Palace, Villa and Stoke away, and records life-enhancing results against City, Liverpool and Arsenal, something is wrong in the motivation department. And for that we must look to the team management. Just because Chelsea have ended this season potless should not lead to some illogical campaign to oust Mourinho, or for Ambramovich to sack him as others burst sheets of bubble wrap. But, seriously, next season? Get some motivation, will you, when the title is actually - if unexpectedly - in your grasp.

Speaking of Palace, ending 11th place after a seemingly downward trajectory that removed Ian Holloway and brought in Tony Pulis just proves that a change of management in-season can work. What, then, does that say about Norwich (Chris Hughton, sacked in April), Fulham (Rene Meulensteen, appointed in November to replace the sacked Martin Jol, and then sacked himself in February) and Cardiff (Malky Mackay sacked by the Bond villain-in-the-making Vincent Tan in January) who were all relegated amid the awful bloodbath of managerial sackings, once again, this season.

The one manager that has stuck stubbornly to his job, presumably through some kind of Jedi control over the obvious, is Arsène Wenger. Wenger's maintenance that the gap between Arsenal and the three teams who ended the Premier League season above them is "nothing" and can be overcome next season by graft, rather than expensive acquisitions is now becoming something of a bore.

I do, actually, hope Arsenal win the FA Cup next Saturday, as much as I wished they hadn't in 2002 (look it up). Perhaps it will remind all at the club that success is something fans of all club crave, and just lurching from season to season with lame old excuses disguised as professorial ponderings is not enough.

Arsenal, at the end of the day, have been hampered this season by...Arsenal. Yes, they suffered from injuries. It happens. But they have also suffered from the continual profligacy that meant they lost, vitally, to the top sides, the inverse of the Chelsea situation, which makes it even worse.

"Finally!", we all heaved a sigh, when Wenger got out his cheque book and signed Mezut Özul for £42 million. "And...?" we added when it was clear there would be no one else joining with him. No acquisition can be expected to turn things around in a season, but the signing of Özul gave a brief hint of ambition at Arsenal, which has been ridiculously extinguished in another season that will end with tired explanations.

Moving across North London, you have another football club that is its own worst enemy. When Tottenham Hotspur signed André Vilas-Boas in July 2012, on the other side of London, many Chelsea fans sniggered. Partly out of the hope that Villas-Boas would make a mess of their arch-rivals as he had of Chelsea, and partly out of seeing Spurs make the same mistake as Chelsea in hiring a coach who someone - nobody is quite sure who - had positioned as football's new Messiah. Which he wasn't and clearly still isn't.

That he went just before Christmas says more about the lack of any managerial strategy at the club (although Spurs aren't alone there...). Tim Sherwood has been an OK choice as replacement, but he still has a lot of work to do in developing his executive relationship skills.

There is always a sharp intake of breath when a former player takes over - at a youngish age - the club he played for. One of the reasons I've resisted calls for Gianfranco Zola to become a Chelsea manager is that you just don't want to see someone who commanded such respect and adulation on the pitch dealing with the feral brickbats of life on the touchline. Because when it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong.

And so Spurs' season has ended with another forgettable sixth place. A significant chunk of change was earned from the sale of Bale (I just love writing that), but like a lottery winner blowing it all in a flash on expensive cars and holidays, Tottenham have nothing to show for their windfall.

This crazy football season has been mostly about the title race, but the manic square dance to avoid the drop at the bottom has had its moments. Not least, Sunderland. When they dispensed with the services of Paolo DiCanio and his questionable politics, I was delighted to see Gus Poyet take over...up to a point.

Poyet was a tremendous No.8 in a Chelsea shirt - like Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, a midfield powerhouse with a tendency to shoot from out in the middle of nowhere and score. He was treated disgracefully at Brighton & Hove Albion, but in joining a somewhat poisoned chalice like Sunderland, there was no guarantee of lasting refuge, especially with Sunderland not so much rooted to the floor of the Premier League, as already drawing up the list of hotels for the team to stay in during the following season in the Championship. Poyet proved the doubters wrong, and Wearside gets to enjoy another season in the top flight.

Boringly (though justifiably), Manuel Pellegrini will no doubt win Manager Of The Season, but if there is any justice, Poyet - along with Pulis and Rodgers - should at least get honourable mentions.

So what, then, can be said about Pellegrini's result of winning the Barclays Premier League in his first season? Quite a lot, actually. For a start, Manchester City have somewhat won it by stealth. At the time Pellegrini was appointed, the news was being dominated by the abdication of King Alex and the installation of the Boy David. Down south, José was returning to Chelsea - apparently because he wasn't going to Manchester United - and declaring himself "The Happy One", a more placid, less confrontational version of his former self. Hence getting a £10,000 fine for saying positive things about referees.

At City, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd [readers - "Are you sure about that?"] took on an unassuming profile, both for himself and his club. But the end result tells a different story. 102 league goals is hardly victory by stealth.

It's the way Pellegrini went about it that deserves as much merit as the players themselves. For a start, the early days of the 2013-14 season were not exactly the most promising for City: despite dominating anyone who visited the Etihad Stadium, their away record was woeful. Indeed, at times it was hard to even consider them title contenders.

But slowly and surely, Pellegrini brought about consistency by applying the pressure where it counts - at the front. The goals fell like raindrops in a squall, and City's defence found in Joe Hart a goal keeper rejuvenated, successfully putting those gaffes behind him.

Unless I've been simply looking elsewhere, City seemed to creep up on the title. While Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool were vying with Liverpool, City seemed to sat there, like some wild animal encroaching on its unsuspecting and more obvious prey. Liverpool were that creature. While they went about their romantic allusion of being in some silverware desert, and English footballing birthright hanging over them that gave them some divine access to a league title they hadn't won since their 18th in 1990 (in other words, they've never won the Premier League), Negredo, Aguero and Dzeko were wreaking havoc in goalmouths up and down the land.

If you ignore, then, some of the self-induced melodramas performed at the clubs that ended Sunday reflecting on a season in which they ended in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th places, Manchester City have thoroughly deserved it. This may have been Manchester United's season in terms of front page and back page news alike, but across Manchester, the team in blue has done it the way purists and neutrals always love to see a team do it.

As no less a footballing sage as Gary Linker said tonight on Twitter, "Much credit must go to Manuel Pellegrini. Living proof that you can be a gentleman, play attractive attacking football and be a winner!". Take note, José.

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