It’s a month now since the 2019-20 Premier League season finally ended, after a hiatus of three months between 13 March and 17 June as a result of the pandemic. And it’s little more than two weeks before the 2020-21 season begins, notwithstanding the fact that the Champions League final was only last weekend. After the drought, the flood.
Time, I think, to reflect on the season just gone and to dig out those predictions to see how I did.
During lockdown I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, amongst them the BBC’s Football Daily. When there was no actual football to talk about the podcasts were a mixture of nostalgia and a lot of agonising about whether the season should resume at some point. The debate around that subject focused at first on the moral position, with every comment prefaced with football’s essential triviality in such troubled times. Some of that was lip service, I think, given the participants’ passion for the game; but I think it was also wrong to dismiss football in that way. Of course it is only a game when all is said and done; but it is also something that unites and divides, brings joy and despair and, at times, a sense of wonder. It is an endless source of debate and conversation; and, for many people, provides an anchor – and meaning – in their lives. It’s a passion play where you never know the ending. The anticipation can be as good, if not better, than the actual games – I give you England’s World Cup exploits over the years as an example of that.
As talk grew of a resumption to the season, the discussion on Football Daily moved from morality to money. Of course it did – at the top level it may not be all about money, but it sometimes feels like it. The clubs were being criticised for wanting to resume because of the money. In the Premier League, and to a lesser extent the Championship, that was about the TV money – if there were no games, Sky and BT and all the others would want their money back. The clubs were characterised as venal; but wait a minute, why shouldn’t clubs, with huge expenses, hundreds of employees, want to resume their business? Just like any other business, given the chance. Without that TV money some clubs would have been in very serious trouble indeed. So, it seemed to me that it was entirely reasonable that they should want to get back to playing, if it could be done safely and without causing undue pressure on the health and emergency services.
Safety – testing the players, maintaining social distancing, availability of medical staff, police, and so on – rightly became the focus of the discussions once a date was set for resumption. This is where the financial divide between the top two leagues and the rest of the sport was brutal: the lower leagues simply could not afford the costs of regular testing and all the other precautions. Amid much acrimony, the rest of football was terminated, apart from a few promotion play-offs. Other countries had taken earlier decisions to cancel all football – France and the Netherlands, for example. The Scots did too. But the four biggest leagues – those in England, Spain, Italy and Germany – all re-started. The financial stakes were too high not to, when there was a choice.
Germany, which had coped with the virus better than most, was in the vanguard, resuming in mid-May. The other leagues could watch and learn. I watched the first game live, Borussia Dortmund v Schalke 04 – the Ruhr derby. It took a little time to get into the swing of it, but it was a good game and I soon found myself engrossed in it. Dortmund won 4-0, with some excellent finishes. While I didn’t watch much of the Bundesliga after that, the appetite was whetted. Football did have a part to play in the gradual emergence from lockdown.
And so the Premier League circus resumed, on 17 June, with two fixtures that hadn’t been played because of the League Cup final: Aston Villa v Sheffield United and Manchester City v Arsenal. That point I made earlier about anticipation versus the actual kicked in right away though: I’d really been looking forward to the resumption and the glut of games, but I didn’t watch either of the openers. I had better things to do. My lockdown routine hadn’t involved football. It couldn’t just barge its way in. Of course I’ve watched a few live games since, but mostly I’ve relied on the Match of the Day roundups. Just like normal.
The games haven’t exactly been normal given the absence of fans; but I’ve found that if the game is good enough, or you have a stake in it – watching West Ham in my case – you don’t really notice the lack of atmosphere. Or you quickly get used to it. The sound effects used by the TV companies have helped. They’ve been good at modulating the sounds in response to incidents and getting a few chants going – perhaps not the ruder ones! I know some people prefer to watch without the effects, so they can hear the players’ shouts and managers’ instructions. I get that; but I find the background noise helps me focus on the game rather than being distracted by the empty stands.
The other impact of resumption for me was that Football Daily became less interesting, now that it was again about the football! Post-match interviews, VAR controversies and so on were no match for the more philosophical discussions that went on when there was no football. Those discussions were exploring and testing the essence of the game; now we were back to reacting to events. Entertaining enough, but without the same depth.
But what of those predictions for 2019-20 that I made back in August 2019?
Could do better would sum it up.
I picked five of the top six correctly, but that’s not really very hard. I didn’t have Leicester, though in my commentary I did say I thought they had a good chance of a top six placing, under Brendan Rodgers’ management. The one I got wrong was inevitably Arsenal. I put them third, as I usually do. They came eighth, their worst performance since 1994-95, when they came 12th. My son, who is an Arsenal fan, puts the blame entirely on manager Unai Emery, who was sacked in late November. Mikel Arteta, who was appointed just before Christmas, is deemed the saviour. He hasn’t exactly turned the results around. But they did have a decent post-lockdown run and won the FA Cup. So anticipation is high for the new seasons, as it always is. I’m not sure I’ll be putting them third this time though.
I correctly called Chelsea and Tottenham in fourth and sixth respectively, though I would never have imagined that Spurs would sack Mauricio Pochettino in November and bring Jose Mourinho in as his replacement. Jose did seem like damaged goods as far as the top echelon of the Premier League was concerned, but you can’t keep a good man down. Sixth place wasn’t bad when the team were 14th when Pochettino was sacked, but the jury is still out. Mourinho’s defensive philosophy doesn’t seem a fit with Spurs, but maybe he and the club will adapt to each other and win some much-coveted silverware. Frank Lampard had a good start at Chelsea and gave youngsters like Mount, Abraham, Tomori and James a chance. They were a bit soft in defence, which will have to be put right. They’ve made some exciting purchases just recently, which I’ll cover when I do my predictions for next season. I must mention though, that West Ham did the double over them. And I was there for the 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge at the end of November! In classic West Ham style, it came after the team had lost five and drawn one of the previous six games. Even better, I’d put a couple of bets on which won me £120!
While I put Man Utd fifth, I did say they had potential to come second. So third was a good compromise. They rediscovered a bit of their joie de vivre, especially after Bruno Fernandes joined the club in the Christmas transfer window. He brings an art and unpredictability to the midfield that has been lacking for some time. The youthful forward line of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood has also stirred the United faithful’s imagination, although they ran out of steam a bit towards the end of the season, and found themselves in a head-to-head battle for a top four slot with Leicester in the last game. They won the game, and Leicester ended a successful season with a sour taste, dropping out of the top four at the last, having been there for much of the season. Not enough depth in the squad; and a bit too reliant on Vardy for goals.
I picked the top two, but in the wrong order: I thought Man City would do it again. But Liverpool were unstoppable this season. A juggernaut. The gloating from the fans – including all those pundits on the BBC and Sky – became pretty unbearable, but given that it was the first title win for 30 years, I guess the rest of us have to be understanding. They were so desperate to do it, and it would have been cruel indeed if this season’s competition had been terminated. Manager Jurgen Klopp made all the right noises about the title being nothing compared with the safety of people during the pandemic, but in the end I was pleased for them. They are an excellent team, playing good football. They deserve the victory. I have friends of a Man Utd and City persuasion who would disagree vehemently with that statement, but as a humble Hammer I am able to give credit where it is due. The team is interesting. It’s based on a strong defence, two outstanding attacking full backs, and a fluid, incisive front three, all of whom are capable of individual brilliance. The midfield is prosaic but effective in pressing the opposition and moving the ball into the right areas. I wonder if that structure will work so well again next season, but I’ll return to that when I do my predictions.
City weren’t exactly bad this season, but they lost something compared with 2018-19. It’s never easy to sustain the same level of performance each year, so maybe a bit of slippage was inevitable. I suspect the main focus was on the Champions League, but they blew that in the recent semi-final against Lyon – a real missed opportunity. The big weakness was at the back, with Laporte absent injured for much of the season. Losing Aguero for the Champions League was a major blow too. They’ll be back next season – they gave Liverpool notice, beating them 4-0 in July. While Liverpool had relaxed after winning the title, City really did slice them apart.
I was hopeless on the relegation front this season. I had Crystal Palace, Brighton and Sheff Utd to go down. They came 14th, 15th and 9th respectively. The first two I just thought had had their time in the Premier League and lacked the firepower to stay up. In the event a new manager, Graham Potter, enlivened Brighton and an old one, Roy Hodgson, made Palace hard to beat. Sheff Utd were another matter. I, like many others, thought they were nailed on to come last. But, under Chris Wilder, they played superbly and quite innovatively, using their defenders to attack a lot more than you would expect from a side coming up from the Championship. The break in proceedings did them no favours – they tailed off a bit. Otherwise a Europa League place might have been theirs, and Arsenal’s position would have been even worse. West Ham have a bit of history with Sheff Utd, over the Tevez affair – the fine West Ham received at Sheff Utd’s instigation nearly bankrupted the club. But again, credit where it is due. Chris Wilder is undoubtedly one of the managers of the season.
And that brings me on to West Ham. What a shambles! Some good performances after the break – especially the 3-2 win over Chelsea – staved off relegation, but only just. Two good additions to the squad in the Christmas window – Jarrod Bowen from Hull and Tomas Soucek from Slavia Prague – helped a lot, as did Antonio’s burst of goal-scoring, including four against Norwich. At the beginning of the season I thought the additions of Haller and Fornals to the squad would be positive and forecast seventh place. I knew I was being a little optimistic, when that meant having Leicester and Wolves below us. They came 5th and 7th; we came 16th! We started the season quite well, with Manuel Pellegrini still in charge. But it soon started to go wrong. No part of the team was working well, and the defence was especially poor. Haller was slow and stranded up front, apart from a couple of games when he and Antonio gelled. But Antonio was often injured. Felipe Anderson seemed to have lost the will, and Fornals struggled to make his mark. Wilshere and Lanzini were diminished by injuries. It was looking grim. Pellegrini was sacked on 28 December, after a home defeat to Leicester, the ninth loss in twelve games. David Moyes, who had saved West Ham from relegation before, was reappointed. He was let go in order to bring Pellegrini in. He must have enjoyed the moment when the club asked him to come back. In his first game, on New Year’s Day, we beat Bournemouth 4-0, and all looked well with the world. I watched the game in a pub in Lyme Regis, Dorset. We were staying there for the New Year. There was a rather fierce looking Bournemouth fan sitting opposite me. His fierceness turned to despondency by the end. His team were beginning to slip into a decline that eventually saw them relegated.
Under Moyes the defence improved and Fornals started to look stronger. Declan Rice remained the best player – quite imperious at times, even in a mediocre team. But relegation remained a serious threat and just before the suspension of the league, after an unlucky 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, we were 16th, and only out of the bottom three on goal difference. A tough start on resumption, with games against Wolves and Tottenham, left us on the verge of the relegation zone (luckily Bournemouth and Villa were just as bad) but then the recovery began with that unexpected 3-2 win against Chelsea. There was still a home defeat to Burnley to come, but otherwise the results were good. A 3-1 home win against Watford ensured safety and condemned them to relegation, unless they could beat Arsenal in their last game. They didn’t.
David Moyes deserves a lot of credit for turning the team around and must now be given the backing to get the team back into mid-table if nothing else. Small steps. Not exactly what you’d be hoping for from a team based in the magnificent London Stadium, but we are where we are. At least we are still in the Premier League – unlike Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich.
I didn’t predict any of those teams to go down. I had Watford in 15th and Norwich in 17th – so at risk, but surviving. The consensus about Norwich, who had won the Championship, was that they were a good footballing team. And they did play nice football. But they were hopeless in defence. Their manager, Daniel Farke, always seemed a bit bewildered in interviews. He didn’t have a plan B when Premier League forwards found his team out – and defences did the same to his forwards. Watford were a team I’d predicted for relegation before, but they seemed to have a capacity for survival, despite frequently changing managers. They were at it again this season, including, bizarrely, sacking Nigel Pearson with two games to go. They lost both and went down. No great loss to the Premier League. Bournemouth, on the other hand, were rather mourned. No-one had really expected their implosion. Manager Eddie Howe was much respected. West Ham were interested in him when they sacked Pellegrini. There had even been talk of him being a future Arsenal and even England manager. His teams played good football, which made up for a slightly wobbly defence. They seemed to be mid-table fixtures. But this season it started to fall apart. They were hit by a string of bad injuries; but some of their stars – Fraser, Wilson, King – also underperformed. Heads turned, perhaps, by transfer talk. Their decline became inexorable. They won their last game, away to Everton, but unfortunately for them, Aston Villa were playing a West Ham team who had done the job of staying up. Villa sneaked a 1-1 draw and that sent Bournemouth down. Eddie Howe – Mr Bournemouth for so many years – resigned shortly afterwards. Bournemouth were always a team punching above their weight in the Premier League, but they had lasted for five years (as had Watford). I think they will struggle to get back.
So, a most unusual, hopefully a unique season. The new one will still be playing behind closed doors for some time. But at least it is happening. It all kicks off on 12 September. Before then I shall attempt some predictions for this campaign. The only thing I can be sure of is that most of them will be wrong!