Monday, May 25, 2015

Over and out: the 2014-2015 Barclays Premier League season

© Simon Poulter 2015
So that’s it. 2014/2015 over, more or less. Cue, then, three full months of transfer speculation and managerial rumours, interspersed with pointless pre-season friendlies, with it all heaving off again 75 days hence whilst most fans are working on their sunburn in the Mediterranean.

This has hardly been a vintage Barclays Premier League season, and I even say that as a Chelsea fan still dusting off the celery leaves after today’s victory parade.

Obviously, I’m extremely happy that the Blues won the league. Because it’s what we watch football for. I genuinely don’t care that Chelsea have at times been - like every other football team when they need to be - liberally pragmatic. I don’t care that other football fans have had the temerity to call us boring. Because we, not they, got to enjoy the carnival at Stamford Bridge yesterday and in the streets around it this lunchtime.

© Simon Poulter 2015
I know there are footballing perverts out there who ponce on about how football should be like a Borough Market artisan cheese rather than a box of easy-peal Darylea triangles, but Chelsea simply did what they had to do and those who follow them wanted them to do: win.

Not our fault if Manchesters United and City, Arsenal and, at various points, the likes of Swansea, Southampton and even, ambitiously, West Ham couldn’t mount a full challenge.

That sounds arrogant. It’s not meant to be: the reason this hasn’t been a vintage season is because in the first half no one could catch up with Chelsea, and when they had the chance in the second half, didn’t seem able to. Or bothered to.

The last word, possibly, I’ll say on Chelsea is that even if they are far from being the most popular team in the world - a status forged of a variety of self-made and tribal factors - you’d have to be terminally blinkered not to raise a hat to the tactical nous of Mourinho, the brilliance of Hazard, the inspired signings of Costa and Fabregas, and the resilience of a back four which included a John Terry written off by Rafael Benitez almost two years ago. The football writers and the players themselves have voted their acknowledgement of Chelsea’s achievements this season by awarding accolades on Mourinho and Hazard. Perhaps the boo-boys will now take respectful note.

Despite the somewhat averageness of the Premier League this season, it hasn’t gone short of bright spots elsewhere: who’d have thought that a Southampton denuded of so many of its players last summer would have remained so wonderfully competitive? Hats aloft to Ronald Koeman, that pedigreed Dutchman who, like so many of his compatriots now in management must surely fancy his chances one day at one of football’s ‘royal’ clubs.

Hats off, too, to Gary Monk, who turned on its head the idea that, as a newbie to management he would be a lamb to the slaughter. Not only that, but he also managed to hold down a part-time job as lead singer of the Kaiser Chiefs. And at risk of sounding as patronising as everyone else when praising Sean Dyche at Burnley, an honourable mention must go to the unfancied promotee who played with determination and style, and did more to deserve staying up than some who have remained.

Which leads me to Newcastle: everyone in football knows about Newcastle. Once the very essence of a football club happy enough to turn up and enjoy themselves, even to the extent that they didn’t seem to care about titles. However, the dysfunction and toxicity that has surrounded Newcastle United for too long - and it’s been fairly obvious where the blame has laid - doesn’t show any sign of abating. Which is why it brings a certain bittersweet pleasure to see Alan Pardew doing so well at Crystal Palace after just a few months in charge at Selhurst Park. And the club he left behind? Let’s just say that if you don’t get your arms around dysfunction, it will bite you on the arse, and leave teeth marks for a long time.

That, inevitably, is the cue to consider Liverpool. For all the wrong reasons, this will be a season to remember. A season when last season’s promise was never fulfilled; when last season’s heights were never repeated; when this season’s early potential, despite lacking the bite of Suarez, was exemplified by Brendan Rodgers ambitiously going for a three-striker attach of Sturridge, Sterling and the bravely acquired Balotelli, and ended so ignominiously with 6-1 hosing at Stoke City. Part of me feels genuinely sorry for Steven Gerrard’s 17-year tenure at Anfield to end so gloomily. But then ungraciously, part of me isn’t that sentimental about the miserable Scouse git.

I could go on about Liverpool, especially the misplaced sense of entitlement that still labours in and around Anfield Road (Gérard Houllier may not have been the best manager in Liverpool’s recent history, but he was spot on, 11 years ago, when he identified a lingering obsession with wanting "to go back to the '70s and ‘80s”). The tragedy of all this - and to be fair, it’s not all Rodgers’ fault - is that Liverpool has simply become a commodity, a famous name passed around like a party favour from one corporate entity to another, to the extent that no one anymore knows whether the problem lies with the owners, the club, the manager, the players (and their agents…), the fans or a combination of all of them.

Other clubs have pulled themselves out of a similar mire this season: Aston Villa, in particular, have done so simply by appointing a can-do manager. Tim Sherwood hasn’t completely turned Villa around, but he’s done enough to put smiles back on faces in Birmingham. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who doesn’t say the same thing about Sherwood - that he’s a born leader and a born communicator in equal measure, and those two factors alone are enough to suggest that he could do great things more at Villa Park. I’m a big fan of anyone who can transform club, not necessarily with a large transfer kitty, but by being able to instill - or even reinstall - a sense of purpose, pride and self-belief in a club. You can see that Sherwood has done just that at Villa, just as Pardew has done the same at Palace. We all know there have to be winners and losers, those who stay up and those who go down, but it’s always pleasing to see a manager parachute in and not only transform the playing capabilities of a club, but also its spirit.

And what of Tottenham, who unceremoniously rejected Sherwood in favour of Mauricio Pochettino? As a Chelsea fan I am permanently poised to go “Ha-ha!”, like The Simpsons’ Nelson Monte, whenever the chance arises (the same applies, in varying degrees, to Liverpool, Manchester United and Rafa Benitez).

So, I have been periodically chuckling away at Spurs pocketing 100 million euros for Gareth Bale and buying, well, basically bugger all with it. And, yet, Spurs have this season finished a decent fifth, were Capital One Cup finalists and worthy league winners at home over Arsenal and, in a brilliant performance, Chelsea. It shouldn’t be forgotten just how young this Spurs side are. When Harry Kane is considered one of the ‘older’ players at just 21, there is much to come from Tottenham, as long as its own history of corporate tinkering doesn’t get in the way again.

I promised not to go further on Chelsea, but I can’t end without mentioning the teams that should have challenged the eventual champions: first up, Manchester City. Last season’s champions were, simply, a disappointment. Chelsea may have come out of the traps like a rare gas in August, and City at least showed the intent to keep pace with them, but when given the opportunity to exploit their London rivals’ weaker post-Christmas form, as they lost Costa and Fabregas to suspension and injuries, they simply couldn’t find the gears. That Sergio Aguero’s 26 league goals earned him the Premier League Golden Boot belies the fact that behind him slouched a comparatively moribund team of title defenders. Blame will surely fall on Manuel Pellegrini - it’s not like he didn’t have the players who’d won the league just the season before. It was a genuine surprise that they failed to ignite a serious challenge this term.

No matter how much gloss is applied, City’s neighbours Manchester United can only be so-pleased with this season. It was clearly a marked improvement on the last one. United may still be a work in progress, and Louis van Gaal’s blowhard management may have returned some of the club’s missing mojo, but there was still too much rough with too little smooth. And the ludicrous pre-season splurge only really seemed to be an attempt at throwing money at the problem of man management that had clearly plagued United under David Moyes. Still, a fourth place finish and a return to Europe, with last summer’s signings having a full season to settle in could raise the potency of van Gaal’s side next term.

And while we’re on the subject of lobbing dosh about, I can’t neglect Arsenal. Not that Arsène Wenger exactly went nuts with the chequebook last summer, but by his standards, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy and (inspiringly) Danny Welbeck, on top of Ozil 12 months before, was like a Wenger remake of Brewster’s Millions by comparison. Only the most rose-tinted spectacles would suggest that this has been a season of major progress for Arsenal.

It wouldn’t be churlish to say that their season has been mediocre, even if they did end third, with Saturday’s FA Cup Final to come. The trouble with Arsenal is that we’ve been there every season for as long as I can remember. Close-but-no-cigar. Showing promise, but no product at the end of it. Even those who maintain that Arsenal are steadily growing in potency must accept that such growth has been at a tectonic speed. Yes, top three; yes, the Champions League again; yes, a shot at silverware. But, Arsenal fans, are you really where you should be? Here’s to August 8, when we start to find out, all over again.

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