Mathematically speaking, it isn’t over but with Leicester City grinding out another 1-0 win and Spurs dropping two points at Anfield, it sure feels over. The amazing thing is that we’ve had to get ourselves from “no way, they can’t win it” to “looks like they’ll at least make the Champions League” to “maybe they COULD do it” to “they’ve pretty much done it” in record time.
NBC Sports ran a “Premier League Download” that did a nice job of going through this transformation using the words of pundits on both sides of the Atlantic at various times throughout the season. Early in the season there is the usual chorus of dismissals for the usual reasons. They aren’t a brand name. The squad isn’t big enough. Two guys can’t carry a team all season without breaking down or slumping. We’ve never heard of most of these guys. We see mid-table clubs rise briefly all the time and they always sink back to the bottom.
Finally, somewhere around February or early March it dawned on the punditry that this might just be happening. That meant one of two things…1) get on board and be a relatively early adopter or 2) be the grumpy person who refuses to watch what’s going on while assuming that a “big brand” will eventually make everything right with the world again and save you from having to think about the possibility that everything you thought you knew about football and sports in general is flawed.
That’s really what this season has been about, breaking us out of the stereotypes that we’ve held for so long. What all have we (hopefully) learned?
There’s no such thing as too big to fail. Manchester United, even with a “world class manager” isn’t too big a club to fail (and flail). They have a lot of resources to throw at getting back to where we expect them to be but money and glorious history don’t count for much in the face of incompetent management at multiple levels.
Mourinho isn’t infallible. Even the seemingly magical combination of Chelsea’s money and Jose Mourinho’s genius can blow up. I’m still not sure we know how to explain this one but it happened and it should have us questioning how seriously we should take anything that happens at Chelsea going forward. Can they get back to top four? Clearly. Does it feel like there’s any danger of a Manchester United-under-SAF-like run of dominance in their immediate future? Not really.
Money can’t buy love (or a title). Spending hideous quantities of money on top of some very good players already on hand doesn’t guarantee you anything. You can apparently undermine a talented roster with a combination of injuries, aging and alienating the manager/ensuring that the players have little incentive to give their all for the manager.
Don’t believe the hype. Perhaps this is no great shock but a big club buying a big World Cup star from a big country can go horribly wrong if that player is being asked to take a big step up in competition. We seem to fool ourselves on this count regularly but playing well on the international stage is perhaps as big a red herring as exists in the game today. It’s rare that a player plays more than one or two matches in a tournament against international opponents that can field a team that we would consider “Premier League quality”. Having a huge match against Costa Rica or Algeria or Australia followed up with one big performance against a Germany or Italy or Argentina really means that a player has had one credible match. As we see every season, lots of players have one big match in them. Paying huge for Memphis or Marcos Rojo or Andrey Arshavin (to go back a few years) based on a big tournament performance is the height of foolishness in the transfer market.
You can go home again, but apparently only briefly. It looked like Alan Pardew was really on to something at Crystal Palace and then the honeymoon wore off and Alan Pardew reminded us why he was extremely available for the Palace gig in the first place.
You can win with kids. Leicester City doesn’t feature a particularly young roster but Spurs has youth up and down the spine of the starting group. Jan Vertonghen’s absence has meant that Spurs have been starting Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Kevin Wimmer in central roles down the stretch. Wimmer is the eldest of that group at the ripe old age of 23. Spurs probably won’t win it all but they’re damn close and could still do it with an incredibly young core.
There’s value in the transfer market. Every window, Arsene Wenger feels obligated to remind us of how little value there is in the transfer market. Most seasons prove him wrong but this season in particular has brought the joys of Dimitri Payet, N’Golo Kante and Christian Fuchs for less than the cost of a single Marcos Rojo and half the cost of a Nicolas Otamendi. There’s value out there, but only so many clubs willing to look under enough rocks to find it. Really, most of us probably thought that Victor Moses was going to be a significant player for West Ham when they landed him on loan but between Payet, Lanzini and Antonio all arriving at Upton Park, Moses is something of an afterthought.
Being newly promoted is hardly a curse. Every season pundits who, I assume, can’t bring themselves to actually watch the Championship blindly predict that two or three of the newly promoted sides will “go straight back down”. Apparently, many mistake membership in the Premier League for competence and it just isn’t so. Only three teams can go down no matter how many actually deserve to go which means that there are bad teams with baggage waiting at the start of each new season. At least newly promoted sides have a season of success to build on (in addition to a big chunk of new cash) when they make the move up. Think about it this way, which position would you rather have tried to stay up from? Starting the season with $100million and an entirely empty roster or Sunderland’s bloated, mismatched roster with all the salary obligations (and resulting spending restrictions) that entails? I think I might have just preferred to start from scratch.
Finally, fantasy and reality can meet. Congratulations to colleague Zach over at Never Manage Alone. Over the weekend he added player to his role of fantasy pundit. Zach turned out in defense for the AFC Nautilus reserves in Holland on Sunday and picked up a clean sheet in their 2-0 win over ASV Arsenal (even in deep reserve action, Arsenal are struggling). My reporters on the ground tell me that he had two clear chances created but that his forwards left him hanging depriving him of two assists to go with his clean sheet. If any of you have a Dutch 6th division fantasy team, I’d be picking Zach up ASAP, looks like huge upside to me.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Leicester City – Nothing from Vardy, Mahrez, Okazaki or Albrighton and still the Foxes got another win. Claudio Ranieri hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for turning a swashbuckling side that made their initial mark last season in that crazy 5-3 win over Manchester United into the sort of defensive juggernaut that would make even the most traditional Italian fan take notice. Fuchs to Morgan isn’t going to win you many but at this point any port in a storm will do and it only needed to win Ranieri and Leicester City this one. Someone else will get it done against Sunderland next weekend.
Tottenham – It isn’t so much that a draw at Anfield is a horrible result. It isn’t. It’s that Liverpool had the better chances and Spurs don’t have the margin of error available to be taking moral victories from draws. If the beginning of the season is your frame of reference then finishing second or third and in the Champions League is a great outcome for Mauricio Pochettino and company but given where they sit right this minute, not at least making Leicester City sweat every last minute of the final six weeks seems like a huge opportunity wasted.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Arsenal – It’s hard to devalue the Gunners after they got a measure of FA Cup revenge over Watford in the form of a 4-0 victory but Leicester City picking up another win seems to edge the Gunners out of the title race in all ways other than remote mathematical possibility. Alex Iwobi continues to look like the real deal and Mohamed Elneny also looked very solid at the base of midfield. Any praise has to be couched with the caveat that Watford have been pretty useless, FA Cup victory over Arsenal aside, for about six weeks now.
Manchester City – Like Arsenal, it’s hard to say anything bad about a team that wins 4-0 but it was too little too late in terms of thinking of City as anything other than a contender for a Champions League spot. They did what they had to do to keep their neighbors at bay. Nice to see Kevin De Bruyne back and wasn’t that goal a nice re-introduction to City supporters and fans of great goals everywhere?
Manchester United – The Red Devils were hideous to watch but just THAT much better than Everton who were that much more hideous to watch. Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and David De Gea should just pack up over the summer and start their own club rather than continuing to waste their time with the mediocrity that currently surrounds them at their respective clubs. It seems a shame that one of United and City are likely going to take up a Champions League spot next season. Neither really deserve one.
West Ham United – Definitely a day of mixed emotions for the Hammers. Their team supplied the goal of the weekend from regular contributor Dimitri Payet who looked like he might have provided the winner with a free kick that looked like a masterfully taken golf drive around a dogleg than a set piece. What looked like it might be closer to the corner flag than the far post curled in so much that Wayne Hennessey, WHO WAS GUARDING THE FAR POST, couldn’t get to a ball that went directly to the far post with no deflection. That just doesn’t happen. That isn’t even tried. It was, on an individual level, the same sort of amazing that Leicester City’s entire season has been. And then Dwight Gayle, Dwight Gayle of all people, went and ruined a perfectly good West Ham narrative by drawing Palace even and seeing the Hammers sink two points further from potential Champions League glory next season.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – Bye, bye Remi. Wherever you are now, it has to be better than where you were. Nice to see the boys show up for the caretaker manager. What? They lost 4-0? They’re not coming back up anytime soon.
Newcastle United – It was a crazy match at Carrow Road on Saturday. Everything you could hope for from a “relegation six pointer”. Five goals. The home team went ahead twice only to be pegged back dramatically with the second of those two times being in the last five minutes of regular time. There was a stoppage time winner with no little controversy related to a potential handball that would have stopped the winning move before it turned into a shot. All of this is great entertainment unless you’re a Newcastle supporter and were on the wrong end of the outcome. Whether it is that they aren’t good enough or aren’t particularly inspired doesn’t matter at this point. Ultimately what matters is that Newcastle are seven points (or six points plus 8 goals to the good) from safety and their final seven matches are @Southampton, Swansea, Manchester City, @Liverpool, Crystal Palace, @Aston Villa, and Spurs. Southampton, City and Spurs are all better teams who will feel they have something to play for. Liverpool is a better team and Jurgen Klopp will presumably have the current squad playing for their jobs down the stretch. That leaves a potential total of nine points from Swansea, Palace and @Villa. All Norwich would have to do between now and the end of the season would be win one more match and even if Newcastle wins all three of their “winnable” matches they’d still go down. Not a pretty picture unless they can start taking points from better teams.
Sunderland – They got a point but it’s hard to be too proud of anything against an opponent who plays no wide players and doesn’t offer up even a single shot on target. They have two points on Newcastle which helps but the schedule is hardly kind. The Black Cats host leaders Leicester City next weekend followed by a HUGE trip to Carrow Road. They then go Arsenal, @Stoke, Chelsea, Everton and @Watford. Watford seems to have packed it in for the season feeling pretty safe but unless they get a win at Carrow Road, it’s hard to see anything but relegation in Big Sam’s future.
Norwich City – Not only do they have the lead in the race for safety, they have the easiest run-in of the group by a pretty substantial margin. Next week they travel to Selhurst Park to face a Palace team that hasn’t won in the Premier League since December 19th. From there they face Sunderland at Carrow Road. That’s six points that are somewhere between “achievable” and “expected”. If they can pull three points from those two matches then they’re probably safe. If they pull four or more points then it’s pretty much all wrapped up. The final four matches are @Arsenal, Manchester United, Watford, and @Everton. None of those are easy per se but looking over the Canaries’ last six matches vs the last seven of Sunderland and Newcastle you have to like the chances that Alex Neil and his squad stay up.
Crystal Palace – Remember when the season was halfway to complete and Crystal Palace were fifth on 31 points? It must seem like forever ago with Palace supporters having witnessed 12 matches played and only three points to show for them. Was the first half of the season the mirage? Has the second half been a sustained slump? Hard to know where it all went wrong but it has gone wrong enough that we at least have to acknowledge that Palace are in the relegation conversation even if it might only take one more draw to see them to safety. The fact that they’ve only managed three draws in their past 12 matches means we at least have to have this conversation.
What’s Next? Next weekend is bookended by two fascinating matches. Arsenal finally get an opportunity for revenge against the West Ham side that announced their intention to have a memorable season with a huge win at the Emirates on the opening day of the season. Think Petr Cech will want to get back in time to reverse Arsenal’s fortunes from his Gunners debut? I think he might. The weekend concludes with Spurs hosting Manchester United in a match that will leave United supporters jealous of the talent Spurs have accumulated on both the pitch and the sidelines. Harry Kane to United seemed like an inevitability when he started emerging but 15 more months of United bumbling and Spurs winning makes one wonder why he’d even consider it at this point. In-between those two matches, Leicester City have to avoid a potential trap at the Stadium of Light and Norwich have a chance to salt away safety at Selhurst Park. As always, it will be interesting.