Another season over, though we still have the prospect of the World Cup (English expectations low, although manager Gareth Southgate has made an impressive start in the job). So it’s time to look back at those Premier League predictions and see how they worked out. The table is in order of the predictions, with the outcome in brackets.
1 – Man City (1)
2 – Man Utd (2)
3 – Arsenal (6)
4 – Chelsea (5)
5 – Spurs (3)
6 – Liverpool (4)
7 – Everton (8)
8 – West Ham (13)
9 – Leicester (9)
10 – Newcastle (10)
11 – Southampton (17)
12 – Bournemouth (12)
13 – Crystal Palace (11)
14 – West Brom (20)
15 – Stoke (19)
16 – Watford (14)
17 – Brighton (15)
18 – Burnley (7)
19 – Swansea (18)
20 – Huddersfield (16)
So, I got the top two in the right order, but I can’t claim any great insight there. The sheer quality of the City team, bolstered by some key signings and with Pep Guardiola getting into the swing of Premier League life, made their victory the least surprising for a long time. De Bruyne and Silva, ably assisted by Sterling and Sane, were sensational for large parts of the season. Aguero, though past his best, still knew where the goal was, and new goal keeper Ederson made a huge difference to the confidence in defence. City are always good to watch – Pep has them playing the Barcelona way, adapted, of course, for the more frantic Premier League. Only Liverpool really worked them out. The 4-3 league game at Anfield was a season highlight, and of course Liverpool ended City’s Champions League dream. And the way that Liverpool did it was characteristic of their whole season: go for the jugular.
There is no doubt that Liverpool in full flow going forward rivalled City for the accolade of most entertaining football. Their front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane were exhilarating to watch. And no-one more so than Mohamed Salah. When he joined Liverpool from Roma we knew he was a decent player, a speedy winger. But the goal-scoring machine of this season? I’m not sure even manager Jurgen Klopp foresaw that. He seems to have all the skills: great speed, incredible balance and strength, which allows him to jink through a tight defence, and a ruthless eye for goal. Similar to Messi in a way; time will tell whether that comparison will stand the test of time. Liverpool’s recent defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions league final certainly wasn’t helped by Salah’s injury in the first half (step forward Sergio Ramos, cynical/brutal defender par excellence) although keeper Karius’s two tragicomic blunders administered the killer blow. That was Liverpool’s weakness all season: shakiness in defence. Buying Virgil van Dijk in January steadied things somewhat; but they will need further reinforcements to the back line if they want to challenge seriously for the Premier League title.
Winners of the grumpy and ungrateful stakes must be Man Utd. They came a comfortable second in the league, a considerable improvement on the previous season. But they did it often with dull, crabby football. Mourinho football, these days. In an era when attacking, pressing football is the height of fashion, Mourinho continues to plan for negating the opposition rather than making the best of the talents at his disposal. Or so the outcome would seem. The fans seem pretty disgruntled about it all, but will they ever be satisfied? They didn’t like Moyes, they didn’t like van Gaal, and now they don’t like Mourinho. Who would they like?
Spurs came third and had another decent season. Their football is good to watch too. But there’s a feeling of nervousness about the fact that they haven’t won anything yet. Will they hold on to Harry Kane after the World Cup; will they hold on to Dele Alli; will they hold on to their highly-rated manager, Mauricio Pochettino? They are in their new stadium next season. They coped well with Wembley; will they be able to do the same back in Tottenham? Questions, questions.
But not as many questions as face Arsenal. Sixth. Another season of huge underachievement. And now, finally, Arsene Wenger has retired. I think it’s the right decision for him, and for Arsenal. He is a great man and one of the best managers the Premier League has ever seen. But he and the team had stagnated, by their own high standards, for many years. The new manager is Unai Emery. When that was announced I wasn’t that excited, despite his success with PSG and Sevilla. My son, Kieran, a big Arsenal fan, admitted he was underwhelmed. But potentially it is a good appointment, and we should remember that Wenger was Arsene Who when he started. Won the double in his first season, which answered that one! So benefit of the doubt. But the club will have to back the manager with serious money if they want to get back to challenging for the title.
My worst prediction of the season was Burnley to be relegated. I couldn’t see that they had strengthened the squad much. But Sean Dyche has built a solid, disciplined team with a strong defence. They came seventh. So well done Burnley. I always like a team that plays in claret and blue…
I thought Huddersfield would go down too. Rock bottom, I expected. Wrong. A great manager, David Wagner. A spirited team – and crowd – which eked out enough points just about to survive. They beat Man Utd at home and held on for draws at Chelsea and City late on in the season. It’s a well-managed club: when they came up the Chairman promised Wagner he wouldn’t be sacked if they went down. That must have given the manager the confidence to take a few more risks. It paid off.
What a contrast with one of the teams which went down – West Brom. I had them down for a boring mid-table defensive plod under Tony Pulis – his speciality. Anti-football. In common with Sam Allardyce, who rescued Everton from early season plight and took them to an easy eighth. Reward? Sacked, for his awful football. Pulis went quite early, after a run of defeats. They got in Alan Pardew, also a bit old school, though of a more attacking mind. That didn’t work, and he was sacked, too, before the end of the season. A true Baggies man, Darren Moore, once a craggy centre back at the club, took over. He revived them, but it was too late. Clearly a totally mismanaged club.
Stoke went down too. Another surprise, really. They seemed to have become perennial mid-table survivors. Not a lovable team. And for Arsenal fans, a very hateable team, after the Ryan Shawcross tackle that almost ended Aaron Ramsey’s career a few years ago. Yeah, good riddance to them too. The other relegated side was Swansea. They only had themselves to blame. Sold their best two players and didn’t effectively replace them. They had flurries when they looked OK, especially after they changed managers, but it didn’t last. I can see them getting back next season, with some judicious investment of the parachute money.
I got a few predictions right: Leicester, Bournemouth and Newcastle. All flirted with relegation at some point. All but the top seven did. It’s a league of nervous wrecks – hence the number of managers sacked during the season. There is so much money on offer and no-one wants to lose it.
The great escape was Crystal Palace. They lost their first four games with Frank de Boer, sacked him and brought in Roy Hodgson, last seen taking England to defeat against Iceland in the Euros. He lost his first three, but then they turned it around and ended up a very creditable 11th. Well done, Roy!
The south coast teams both survived. Southampton looked doomed for a while – another surprise. They just survived. But if they keep on selling their best players, it will catch up on them. Brighton I thought might just stay up, as they were a good footballing team; and so it proved.
Which leaves the happy Hammers. Or should I say really very unhappy Hammers? It was a terrible season. My best of the rest prediction rivalled Burnley’s forecast doom for my worst. Slaven Bilic had to go mid-way. David Moyes came in and instilled enough spirit and discipline to get the results that took us eventually to 13th place. But it was desperate at times. I think my low point was watching the team lose 3-0 at home to Brighton. An absolute shocker. The only ray of light was the form of Marco Arnautovic once Moyes gave him a bit of confidence. He’s a moody player, but he has got everything as a striker when he puts his mind to it: pace, power, skill. I hope we hold on to him – he has become the fans’ hero, partly because he wears his heart on his sleeve. The successor to Paulo di Canio. Hopefully not as destructive in the dressing room.
Anyway, Moyes’ short term contract has not been renewed and we have Manuel Pellegrini. He’s a classy manager – took Man City to the title. Yes, he had the money, but you have to be able to manage the egos, get the team playing the right way. I feel like he’ll bring a bit of dignity to the club which has been sadly lacking. So, a moment for optimism. But not for the first time. And it usually ends in disappointment! But, maybe this time…?