So, it’s that time of the year to ‘fess up and check my predictions against the outcomes in the Premier League, with the season finishing yesterday. And it’s fair to say that they were even wider of the mark than usual – even though I thought I was being rather dull and conventional at the time, with one exception.
This was my top eight, with, in brackets, where the team ended up.
1st – Man City (3rd)
2nd – Man United (6th)
3rd – Arsenal (5th)
4th – Leicester (12th)
5th – Tottenham (2nd)
6th – Chelsea (1st)
7th – Liverpool (4th)
8th – West Ham (11th)
Well… only one of my top four made the top four. The only one that went against the grain of most forecasts at the time was the punt on Leicester, champions in 2015-16, remaining in the top four. They were pretty disastrous for most of the season, but recovered remarkably after Claudio Ranieri was sacked. I thought that decision was a shocker, but it certainly transformed the team. Player power, clearly.
Let’s have a look at where I went wrong. I guess my forecasts for the two Manchester teams were based heavily on the new managers – Guardiola and Mourinho – and, in United’s case, some significant player purchases. City came third, but definitely under-achieved. In most games I watched involving them, they were the dominant side in terms of possession and attacking, but just couldn’t convert their superiority into goals. And without Vincent Kompany for most of the season and with a dodgy goalkeeper – Bravo – they had a soft centre. Still the best squad, player for player, I think. Must do better next season – or goodbye Pep. United, on the other hand, were crabby, cautious, unexciting – all the things their fans hated under Van Gaal. They won the League Cup and may win the Europa League later this week; but I’ll be interested to see how long their fans tolerate Mourinho’s negativity next season. Really, with their squad and the amount it cost, coming sixth is really poor.
As for Arsenal, more of the same, but that bit worse. All the same issues still. Brilliant going forward when confidence is high, but a mood team, and still hopeless at defending at times. Especially defending from the front. The injury to Cazorla for much of the season hurt them, as did the loss of Mustafi from the back. But they should have had good enough cover. I do think that Arsene should retire with grace now, hopefully after winning the FA Cup on Saturday (though Chelsea stand in their way). They have failed, for the first time in 20-odd years, to qualify for the Champions League. A time to take stock and change the way things are done. They are stagnating. Apologists will say they got more points than last season, when they came second. Yes, but… it’s all relative. And they have lost ground.
Leicester I mentioned earlier. They had a good run in Europe, but something went wrong in the relationship between Ranieri and the players, and the players won. Shame on them, but football is a results game (cliche alert!) and they recovered to a position of easy safety, after contemplating the unthinkable – relegation in the year after winning the league.
Spurs I underestimated. I thought they’d burn out again. They didn’t – they got better at the end. They were lording it towards the end of the season – Kane scoring at will. That player who couldn’t pass or trap a ball for England against Iceland in the Euros now a world beater. They were so dynamic and a real pleasure to watch. My son, an Arsenal fan, doesn’t like me praising Spurs, but credit where it is due.
Which brings me to Chelsea. Bloody hell! 10th last season. In turmoil. Tentative start to this season, and blown out of the water by Arsenal on 24 September. And then manager Conte turned it around. Went to his preferred 3-5-2 system (the 90s are back in football, as well as music and fashion!) and went on the rampage. The result? Chelsea win the league with 93 points and 30 wins out of 38 – the most ever. Respect. Getting Kante from Leicester gave them stability in midfield, and that released the flair players, Hazard in particular. David Luiz became a rock in the back three, rather than an entertaining liability in a four. How to explain? And Costa, arsey as ever, concentrated a bit more on scoring rather than fighting. I can’t celebrate a Chelsea victory, but I acknowledge the achievement – the best team by a mile.
Liverpool did a lot better than expected too. Still a bit flaky at the back, but high energy and entertaining. Jurgen Klopp is getting them where he wants them to be. Some inexplicably poor results at home to lesser teams hampered any bid for the top spot, but getting into the Champions League is a good return for Klopp in his first full season. They’ll need serious investment to stay in the top four though.
Er, and then West Ham. What can I say? Awful for much of the season. Intimidated by their new surroundings in the Olympic stadium? Undermined by Payet’s behaviour and then departure? (Note – he still provided more assists than any other player, although he left in January, and stayed in the Premier League top ten). Hampered by some terrible buys last summer, like Andrew Ayew – £20m, unbelievable! Mismanaged? Maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh – they came 11th in the end. But with 45 points, against 62 the previous season. Let’s put it down to the new stadium transition – and hope.
I’m really not optimistic though.
You see, something happened this season. The elite became even more elite. Its membership does change – Spurs weren’t really there until the last two seasons; City bought their way into it a few years ago. But let’s look at the top six. In 2015-16 they amassed 417 points between them. In 2016-17 that figure increased to 477. Chelsea won the league with 93 points; Spurs got 86. Leicester won it the previous season with 81. Arsenal slipped from second with 71 points to fifth with 75. They sucked those points from the middle-rankers. In 2015-16, Liverpool, in eight place, got 60 points, Sunderland in 17th, 39. This season, Southampton in eighth got 46, Watford in 17th, 40. We have a squeezed middle! Will it last? Who knows? But money talks and talks. Everyone says how competitive the Premier League is; but this season the stats don’t really back that up. There are a few teams that are challenging for the top positions; and the rest are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.
Can West Ham get in that elite? With the “London” Stadium, that should be the ambition. Last season it looked possible. This season, relegation was a fear for much of the season. The whole management of the club doesn’t yet feel serious enough for a true push into the top bracket – in the way Spurs have done in the last few years. Can that change? I’m not sure. Historically, mid-table in the top division is where we belong. The only way that will alter is with a serious infusion of money, Man City style. And you know, I’m not even sure I really want that. It’s so fake. Even West Ham now have only one player in the first team who came up through the club – Mark Noble. There’s always talk of new stars – like Reece Oxford – but what happens to them? Out on loan and fade. The fate of so many promising young English players. And we see the impact on the national team. The pool of high quality players, with experience in the top echelons, is shallow.
Never mind, come August, we’ll be full of anticipation again – and there will be a new round of predictions, with the same chance of coming true!
The elite becomes even more elite.. but a knowledgeable guy like you predicting only one out of the top four suggests the league has a healthy unpredictability.
Contrast with other major leagues.
Next season any one of 6 teams could win the league in England.
In Spain (2), Germany (1), Italy (1),France(2) the likely league winners are far more predictable.
We are blessed with a fantastic league which is the envy of the world.
‘Tis true that the elite has expanded a little. And our league is rarely uncompetitive (that Chelsea v Boro game an exception). But our young English players are stifled at a crucial stage of their development – their early 20s.
Very good analysis, John. I agree with DC that we do have a maximum half-dozen contenders, though I would be very surprised if next year the champions were not either Chelsea, Man City or Tottingham. That’s still better than the other European leagues, as you say.
This makes Leicester’s achievement last year seem all the more remarkable. (Even suspicious?) Player power or not, I was still delighted that they ended up 49 points behind Chelsea, and in what is possibly their proper place (if admittedly 29 slots above Forest).
Talking of which, it seems to be that West Ham’s more sensible aspiration would be to win the middle mini-league, maybe scraping into the Europa League somehow through that. That gulf between Man Utd on 69 points and Southampton on 46 (with Everton stuck between on 61) is surely too big a gap to bridge: without wanting to sound harsh, West Ham just don’t have enough good players, and those that you do have either get crocked (Carroll, Antonio) or go sulky or AWOL. Sorting the London Stadium thing out next year might happen, but anything higher than 7th seems a long way off.
I’m sad enough to eagerly await your next round of predictions, which have been sent on August 16th, August 7th and August 12th in the last three years. So, mid-August, I reckon.
Re West Ham, I’m more worried about a relegation struggle than getting a Europa place. The team has weaknesses in all areas, especially up front. But at least we will be playing Huddersfield!