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Football

The Finishing Line

Winners, losers, in transition and on-the-rise. Some end of season thoughts on some Premier League teams.

The Gunners – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

It must be nice to be an Arsenal supporter. Although some may mock the statement made by Arsene Wenger that finishing among the Champions League places is like winning a trophy, the fact remains that Arsenal have been remarkably consistent for 17 years in a row. I guess one could summarise Arsenal by saying that they are consistent in their inconsistency in winning silverware. In 2014, Arsenal may finally have a chance to get a huge monkey off their backs if they manage to lift the FA Cup trophy which they will contest in a few weeks.

Arsenal started the 2013/14 season with a demoralising defeat to Aston Villa and Wenger was immediately under fire (“Wenger Out!”) for failing to adequately strengthen his team during the summer – this was in direct contrast to neighbours Tottenham Hotspur who had brought in a caravan of new players following the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

However, it was Arsenal who had the last laugh as they pulled off a marquee signing by landing Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. Arsenal proceeded to play some entertaining and exciting football, led by the reinvigorated rampaging Aaron Ramsey, as they sat at the summit of the Premier League for 128 days (“In Wenger We Trust!”). Arsene Wenger denied that Arsenal tend to fall apart during February of each year, but the evidence appeared to point to the opposite as they were soundly thrashed 5-1 by Liverpool and then humbled by Chelsea as they lost by a tennis score. The Gunners then entered their usual phase of the season where they were challenged by a team (usually Spurs, this time Everton) for fourth place, before

Chelsea – Not so Special now?

Jose Mourinho’s “little horse” comment seemed to become a self-fulling prophecy as the Blues ended the season without silverware. Chelsea managed the difficult part well – they had the best results against the top seven teams in the league but struggled against the rest. Chelsea, it seems, are the anti-Arsenal as the Gunners are best against the rest, but struggle against the best. From the article by Sporting Intelligence:

But while Chelsea are the best against the best, they are the worst of the best against the rest. Bottom of the pile. Sub-standard. Lacking. Not what you might call special. And arguably that has or will cost them the title this season.

The first graphic is self-explanatory but it shows Chelsea winning eight and losing only one of 12 games against fellow top-seven sides at an average of 2.25 points per game. And it shows them picking up fewer points per game against the ‘other 13′ – the ‘lesser teams’, at 2.13 points per game.

Five defeats in particular against the ‘other 13′ have cost them dear: defeats at Newcastle, Stoke, Villa, Palace and then of course at home to Sunderland. None of the other top seven have lost more than three games against the ‘other 13′.

Chelsea had some high points during the season, such as the form of Eden Hazard in the early part of the campaign, the new-old signing Nemanja Matic and a reinvigorated defensive unit led by John Terry. However, they suffered from a consistent goalscorer with the hapless Fernando Torres not really helped by Demba Ba or Samuel Eto’o. The indefatigable Frank Lampard is no longer the willing midfield runner who weighed in with 20 goals per season, and Chelsea have struggled to find goals to replace those.

The damage was done by failing to beat Sunderland and Norwich – had Chelsea managed to beat those two teams they would have been crowned champions. For a manager of Mourinho’s calibre, those two results are not acceptable. The need for a striker has already been acknowledged with rumours that Chelsea are in the market to sign Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa before the World Cup kicks off.

Manchester Red – Lost in transition

The red half of Manchester must be breathing the biggest sigh of relief that this season is finally over. As everybody and their grandmother predicted when Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it was always going to be a challenging season for the Red Devils although nobody (except hopeful Liverpool fans) expected it be so bad. Musa Okwonga summed up David Moyes’s almost full season in charge with an apt headline “David Moyes: the infrequent highs and copious lows”. As Okwonga wrote in his piece, Moyes wrote his own obituary by making statements that were more reflective of a plucky underdog than one of the biggest football clubs in the world:

Following the 3-0 loss to Manchester City, Moyes stated that they aspired to be at the level of their local rivals. This statement would have been unthinkable under Sir Alex Ferguson, and was an admission of inferiority that no one should ever make in Moyes’ position. It was also somewhat telling in that it suggested Moyes was more comfortable in the role of plucky underdog that he had so long occupied at Everton.

In addition to the above, Moyes was also ridiculed for his exuberant celebration against the mighty Fulham team that battled relegation for most of the season. Although David Moyes received a significant portion of the blame for the disastrous season, there were many out there (including myself) who felt that the players failed to take responsibility and played well below their best for the majority of the season. Part of the problem for the Manchester United players is that there was a lack of confidence throughout the campaign – for a group that had won the Premier League only last year, there was very little leadership or unity for many games during the season.

This off-season will be a big one for Manchester United as they bid farewell to some veteran players like Nemanja Vidic (with Patrice Evra rumoured to be not far behind) and try to strengthen the team ahead of the new campaign. However, the team will not be playing in Europe at all having failed to qualify for the Europa League. Some are looking at this as a positive – it certainly helped Liverpool this season as they had fewer distractions. A new manager has not been officially appointed, with Dutchman Louis van Gaal odds-on favourite to take the job. This transition period post-Ferguson will take some getting used to for a body of supporters who have grown accustomed to gorging themselves on silverware.

Manchester Blue – Blue moon rising

Congratulations to the champions.

A successful first season for Manuel Pellegrini and plaudits to Manchester City for staying calm and doing what needed to be done in the final games of the season. City have spent inordinate amounts of money putting together a squad of world-class players and Joleon Lescott. As Roberto Mancini discovered, it’s a great thing to have loads of cash to spend but it is extremely difficult to manage a significant number of egos and to keep everyone happy. Manuel Pellegrini managed to achieve a good balance between keeping his star players (Kompany, Toure, Silva, Aguero) motivated and ensuring that the fringe players (like Dzeko) were ready to step up when needed.

The squad depth was invaluable for City as demonstrated by Alvaro Negredo’s loss of form post December 2013 – the Spaniard who could not put a foot wrong in the first half of the season was displaced by the in-form Edin Dzeko during the title run-in. Yaya Toure was the team’s top scorer, and should have won the league’s player of the season accolade (in my opinion) for his all-round displays and technical excellence. The fact that he ended up third in the voting (behind Steven Gerrard?) is a mystery to me. Manchester City were not reliant on one or two goalscorers (like Liverpool) and there were contributions from all areas of the pitch.

Many will remember the 102 goals scored by Manchester City, including some memorable thrashings like the 4-1 over Manchester United and the 7-0 over Norwich, but the team also ground out some gritty 1-0 wins like the victories over Stoke City and Crystal Palace. Where Chelsea failed to win against the likes of Crystal Palace, Norwich and relegation-threatened Sunderland, Manchester City kept their composure.

The next big challenge for Manchester City is to go further in Europe and to retain the Premier League title. The team looks like they are playing for each other and if Pellegrini can keep the players happy, the sky could be the limit.

Merseyside Blue – Onward and upward

Everton manager Roberto Martinez believes that the club had an outstanding season and who can deny that? The transition period for a new manager can be quite tricky (we’re looking at you David Moyes) and it would not have been a shock if Martinez had taken some time to get used to a new team and bed them in. The Spaniard, however, made full use of the the loan system to bring in Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and Gerard Deulofeu which added some experience and technical ability to the ranks of the Everton team. Martinez also changed to a more exciting attacking style of play, which won plenty of plaudits from many observers. Everton were also bolstered by impressive campaigns from their player of the season, Seamus Coleman as well as the emerging talent of young Ross Barkley, which should bode well for the future of the squad.

Everton stayed in the race for fourth place for most of the season, but faltered towards the end and finished in 5th spot. The season should be regarded as a success as the Toffees garnered their highest ever points total in the Premier League and qualified for the Europa League. Martinez will need to work some magic in the transfer market as his loan signings will return to their parent clubs, but with the flair and man management he has brought to Everton he should be able to convince a few players to join his ranks.

Merseyside Red – The audacity of hope

What a season for the red half of Liverpool. Thrills and spills in copious quantities.

For most supporters, the objective was to reclaim a position in the Champions League competition where Liverpool felt that they belonged. It has been a calamitous couple of years since the departure of Rafa Benitez, the ill-fated appointment of Roy Hodgson and the ill-advised appointment of “King” Kenny Dalglish.

With the controversial Luis Suarez suspended for the opening games of the season, the workload fell squarely on the shoulders of Daniel Sturridge, who took up the challenge and served up ten goals in the opening eleven games. Suarez was soon back and the duo proceeded to serve up some entertaining and attractive free-flowing attacking football. Although the strikers received a lot of plaudits, there were brilliant contributions from young Raheem Sterling who showed increasing maturity throughout the season as well as Jordan Henderson who thrived in the role of box-to-box midfielder and added dynamisn and plenty of vision. Captain Steven Gerrard stayed injury free and started pretty much every single game in his adopted role as a holding midfielder, with manager Brendan Rodgers making noises about him being “the best in the world”. Liverpool were lucky to have no significant long-term injuries during the season with their paper-thin squad and lack of European competition which allowed them to maintain momentum.

For every ying, there is a yang – and as good as Liverpool were going forward, they were two times worse defensively. Statistics sometimes only tell part of the story but for Liverpool they provide the most telling reason why they fell short in the title challenge. 50 goals conceded in a season – only Tottenham (51) and Stoke City (52) in the top ten conceded more goals. There is a reason why no club has lifted the league trophy having conceded so many goals in a single season. With four games to play Liverpool were still in charge of their own destiny, but that all changed with a costly slip from Steven Gerrard in the game against Chelsea and then an Arsenal-esque capitulation against Crystal Palace, having led 3-0 until the 79th minute.

The main problem that Liverpool had during the latter stages of the season was the increased expectations. If the team had trundled along without getting into an 11-game winning streak and simply done what Liverpool normally do during the season by drawing or losing to lower-placed opponents, the expectation would have been a battle for fourth place and qualification for Champions League. The turning point, I think, was the win against Manchester City where many people started to dream of that long-awaited title as Liverpool won a top-of-the-table clash. The second place finish a mere two points behind Manchester City ended up feeling like a what-could-have-been season.

Brendan Rodgers will now have added pressure going into a new season. The bar of expectations has been raised and he will need to show that this past season was not merely a fluke. Whether or not Luis Suarez will honour his contract (rumours already in heavy rotation about a Real Madrid move) remains to be seen, but if Rodgers can bring some balance by sorting out the leaky defence and strengthening the squad then the future could potentially be bright.

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About Ticha Pfupajena

I'm beginning to get the sense that my career as a professional footballer may not happen. As a result, I'll try write about football and sports instead....

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