Thank goodness for Leicester City. Yes, it was the most magical story in the Premier League this season as well as being, perhaps, the most magical overachiever story in the sports world in a long time and certainly over a ten month season. Over and above giving us such an excellent story, Leicester City occupy rare territory in this Premier League season in that they were an unqualified success. If you look at the rest of the league there is almost no one else who can claim that they also have had an unqualified success of a season. Let’s take a look.
The Good – There’s pretty much nothing but good here. Exciting play. Big comebacks. A title. Champions League qualification meaning that they have a fighter’s chance of keeping their best players. An owner wealthy enough that he can push things forward at whatever pace he chooses and the squad have given him reason to believe that money spent will be well spent. It was a party all season at the King Power Stadium and we got to ride shotgun for it.
The Bad – Hard to come up with any dark clouds hovering over the Foxes’ season.
What’s Next? – Trying like crazy to keep Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante while also building the sort of depth necessary to add Champions League to their list of competitions for next season.
The Good – Finished second which is the best finish for the club in their time at the Emirates. Pipped their bitter rival Spurs for second place on the final season of the match thereby helping to undermine what was looking to be an unqualified success of a season across North London. Blooded a potential future star in Alex Iwobi and a solid reserve attacker in Joel Campbell and saw solid returns from Mohamed Elneni who looks like a more than adequate player at the base of the midfield.
The Bad – In most circumstances, the description above would look pretty good but not at Arsenal. As regular readers know, I’m a Gooner, and I can’t imagine a less satisfying feeling around a season that ended the way that this one did. Moving past Spurs on the final day and finishing second should have caused enough glee to last throughout the summer and beyond but I can’t shake the feeling that I think most supporters have that there’s more danger in Arsene Wenger using the final three matches to talk himself into Olivier Giroud remaining as the lead forward and counting more than he should on Jack Wilshere. Maybe the belated St. Totteringham’s Day pushed supporters on the fence back into the #WengerKnows camp but it’s hard to see someone 20 years into his stewardship of a club changing enough to take that final step from this season’s second to next season’s first.
What’s Next? – Groundhog Day at the Emirates with lots of places where Arsenal should be looking to upgrade including forward (again), holding midfielder (again), and center back (again) while trying to quell the rumors that Alexis Sanchez is unsettled.
The Good – Until yesterday, Spurs’ season was probably next in line behind Leicester City’s to be considered an unqualified success. A serious, and unexpected, title run. The discovery of two more rising English stars in Eric Dier and Dele Alli to go along with Harry Kane. Champions League football for next season. Confirmation of new stadium plans. Signing the manager to a long term extension.
The Bad – That “until yesterday” part should really be changed to “until the final three weeks” when Spurs showed that they still have serious issues with maturity and depth. The rashness of Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele that saw the two players suspended for the run-in exposed some weaknesses that generally solid health for much of the season covered up. In particular, Dembele, who was integral to Spurs’ midfield when it was at its best, represents a huge risk. The risk isn’t so much his temper, which hasn’t been an issue before, but his health which has been sporadic back to his days at Fulham.
What’s Next? – With a squad comprised almost exclusively of B+ and up players who are very well suited for Mauricio Pochettino’s system, finding upgrades to the starting eleven who are equally strong system fits will be difficult. Finding better depth across midfield and behind Harry Kane is of paramount importance. A Kane injury of any significant duration would be catastrophic for Spurs given the current construction of the squad.
The Good – They got Pep. Kevin De Bruyne looked to be worth every one of the boatload of pennies spent on him last summer. Kelechi Iheanacho was a revelation coming up from the academy.
The Bad – Beyond those three items, there isn’t a lot to love given the spending done and the expectations at a club like City. The squad is aging rapidly. Zabaleta and Yaya look cooked. David Silva, 30-years-old and slight of build, only managed 23 starts in the league. Vincent Kompany, also 30, only managed 13 starts. Raheem Sterling was a significant disappointment in his first season as was Nicholas Otamendi. There was also no second season step forward from Eliquim Mangala or Fernando.
What’s Next? – The NBC Sports punditry indicated that they didn’t think City required an overhaul heading into next season but I disagree. In Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Joe Hart they have three reliable star performers. In Iheanacho and Sterling they have some strong potential. Beyond that, it isn’t clear that they have anyone who should be considered significantly above average once you discount the injuries that have held back Kompany and Silva. They can probably wait one or two more windows to address the outside back positions but the spine of this team must be overhauled.
The Good – Unintentional though it may have been, Manchester United blooded a number of potentially useful youth players this season. Marcus Rashford was far and away the highest profile of the academy players who came through but Tim Fosu-Mensah also looked very comfortable and a player who certainly has a bright future at United or elsewhere in the Premier League. Oh, and Anthony Martial was just awesome and we can only imagine how much better he might have been with a competent attacking team around him. David De Gea stuck around and was his usual exceptional self. Maybe an FA Cup to show for their troubles.
The Bad – This could be its own column and almost certainly will be at some point soon. The dreadful lack of attacking prowess. The rapid decline of Wayne Rooney. Everything about Memphis Depay. Louis Van Gaal’s stubbornness. The continued ineptness on the transfer market (Martial aside). The lack of Champions League football for next season. The Jose Mourinho saga. The potential that Van Gaal might get another season at the helm. The mess that was the final day (which we can say now that we know that it was a training device and no one was in danger)
What’s Next? – Figure out the managerial situation and then commence with closing the many holes in the squad. A holding midfield partner for Morgan Schneiderlin and an upgrade over Jesse Lingard in midfield are the priorities as well as decisions on what to do with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata who Van Gaal never seemed particularly certain about position-wise.
The Good – I’d put the Saints at second place in the “unconditionally happy” race this season. They overcame yet another summer of having their best talent picked over by bigger clubs and finished in either fifth or sixth depending on what happens with Manchester United’s final match. Regardless, they are in the Europa League for next season and have locked down Virgil Van Dyke to a long term deal to prevent him from following Dejan Lovern and Toby Alderweireld out the St. Mary’s door.
The Bad – The only minor regret will have been the slump experienced in the first half of the season due to the absence of Fraser Forster due to injury and the reconfiguration of the spine of the defense after losing Alderweireld and Schneiderlin over the summer. Jordy Classie had a disappointing first season in the Premier League. The form over the second half of the season (second best to Leicester City in the league) might leave some Saints supporters wondering “what if” in a season when the big boys underachieved significantly.
What’s Next? – It could be a quiet summer assuming that Ronald Koeman doesn’t jump ship. The Saints could use a couple new toys including depth in holding midfield and at center back as well as a good orthopedic surgeon for Charlie Austin’ s knee. Keeping Sadio Mane or replacing him with a similarly dynamic wide player (Nathan Redmond?) is probably job one.
West Ham United
The Good – Probably third in the “unqualified success” standings given what was expected at the start of the season (which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t much given the uncertainty around Slaven Bilic as the new manager). They found a star in Dimitri Payet. They proved that they have quality depth in a lot of key positions. They made two other sneaky strong attacking acquisitions in Lanzini and Antonio with Antonio looking like he could be everything we’d hoped Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would turn into. They finished the season with their best point total in the Premier League era. Headed to the Olympic Stadium and lots of new revenue streams with a lot of momentum.
The Bad – There’s a bit of “Spursy-ness” to the conclusion of the Hammers’ season. With Europa League qualification in their control, they couldn’t beat Stoke City to put the icing on the delicious cake that was the 2015-16 season. Dropping points at Stoke City is famously not an extremely embarrassing thing but this was hardly a cold, rainy night in the Potteries.
What’s Next? – There is lots of depth and moments of quality from the Hammers’ strike force but an upgrade to this group in the form of someone who can be counted on to at least approach 20 goals is the next step in developing this squad. Keeping hold of Aaron Cresswell, Reece Oxford and Payet will be the other agenda items for the summer.
The Good – Most of the good for the Reds this season has happened outside the confines of league results. The appointment of Jurgen Klopp. The Europa League final and the potential of a Champions League berth for next season are big deals. Among the players, Roberto Firmino’s second half of the season was great as was the promise shown by Divock Origi late in the season. Liverpool supporters come out of the season with hope renewed but not a ton in the Premier League to actually hang their hats on after finishing 8th.
The Bad – Christian Benteke was a flop. Player acquisition strategy and the manager never really seemed to be synchronized. The defense and holding midfield continued to frustrate leaving Liverpool vulnerable to shockingly bad results at times.
What’s Next? – Time for Klopp to start bringing in “his players”. He has a track record for identifying and developing stars on a budget in the same way that Spurs have come up from the second tier to the top tier over the past two seasons with Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. Perhaps Divock Origi is Klopp’s Kane but he’ll need to add a couple more impact players before Liverpool can be considered serious contenders for the top four.
The Good – The transformation from Pulis-ball to something more entertaining continued with occasionally spectacular results. Bringing in players like Shaqiri who are capable of goals like the crazy 30+ yard chip he scored from a wide position must make it far more enjoyable to be a Stoke City supporter in 2016 than it was in, say 2010. Marko Arnautovic was, perhaps, the embodiment of the transition blending skill with a physical style on the wing to break out with eleven goals. Another top half finish that seems to be about as much as the Potters can realistically hope for.
The Bad – The injuries, especially to the defense, were devastating over the second half of the season. Bojan took a decided step back in performance this season. Shaqiri seemed plagued by niggling muscle injuries. Like Southampton, there’s a mild lingering question of “what if” in a season when the Potters did finish above the defending Champions.
What’s Next – Keeping Marko Arnautovic is definitely the big summer priority. He was Mark Hughes’ most consistent attacking performer. After that the job should be evaluating the long term health of the defense and deciding how to supplement that group to ensure that Mark Hughes has his first choice group more frequently.
The Good – Not a lot of good came out of this season for Chelsea other than the discovery that Willian can really strike a set piece.
The Bad – If Leicester City supporters can look back on the 2015-16 season as an “unqualified success” then maybe Chelsea supporters would be justified in calling 2015-16 an “unqualified disaster”. The Jose/Eva debacle. Flirting with relegation for nearly half a season. Eden Hazard not scoring until April. Huge, and hard to explain, regressions from Nemanja Matic and Thibaut Courtois who went from being considered among the best young players at their positions in the World to fighting for starting spots. The Kurt Zouma injury. Branislav Ivanovic aging rapidly.
What’s Next? – Antonio Conte arrives and he will have to decide how to rework the squad. Defensive reinforcements are almost certainly required at multiple positions as is a forward that can compete with/back-up Diego Costa. The big questions will be what Conte sees in Courtois, Matic, Fabregas and Hazard who have fluctuated wildly over the past two seasons.
The Good – Um…they finally decided it was time to let Roberto Martinez go. They got new ownership that looks like it won’t be as cash-strapped as the previous group. There’s young talent here. Goodison Park was featured in one of my favorite movies of 2015, Creed.
The Bad – Seriously, most of this past season was pretty rotten at Goodison Park. The results, including a hiding from Liverpool in the Merseyside derby had supporters calling for Martinez’s head long before the ax actually fell. John Stones regressed significantly. Ross Barkley stagnated. Romelu Lukaku seems likely to be on his way this summer.
What’s Next? – There should be a lot of money coming to the club between presumed sales of Stones and Lukaku along with the new TV deal. The problem is that those sales will leave them needing a massive overhaul to even get them thinking about the top half next season. To make things worse they will need to decide on a manager before all of that happens so that whatever buying is done is aligned to what their new manager wants to do. Ronald De Boer is the favorite but I personally prefer a Quique Sanchez Flores/Troy Deeney package coming from Watford to Goodison. Flores showed he knows how to organize a defense without stars and what he was missing at Vicarage Road, the creative midfield layer, already exists to some extent at Everton with Barkley, Deulofeu, and Lennon.
The Good – I was a little shocked to discover how high up the table the Swans finished given how rotten they were under Garry Monk. The appointment of a manager who picked up points at a top half clip after his appointment was a big deal. The arrival of Andre Ayew was the other big win from 2015-16 with the suspicion that Leroy Fer will turn out to be another strong acquisition even if he didn’t make a huge impact this season.
The Bad – Pretty much everything that happened under Monk. They were looking for all the world like they were going to go down without a fight. The squad isn’t exactly chocked with youngsters on the rise like Southampton or Spurs.
What’s Next? – The Swans need to get back to doing what they do best (OK, third or fourth best in recent years) which is mining the transfer market for quality bargains that fit their system. This time they should do it with a focus on central defense and a center forward who can actually keep scoring at something approximating the clip that Bafetimbi Gomis was on early before he fell off a cliff.
The Good – You’d have thought that securing a second season of Premier League football without so much as a hint of worry about relegation would throw the Hornets into the realm of “unqualified success” but apparently that’s not how the Pozzo’s roll. Deeney and Ighalo were great and the defense was tight over the first half to great effect.
The Bad – As is the case with clubs whose success hinges on thin margins, there was regression over the second half. Deeney and Ighalo were merely good and not great. The rest of the squad failed to pick up the goal-scoring slack and even stout defense wasn’t good enough to keep churning out points without goals. The manager paid the price at the end of the season and will not be back.
What’s Next? – Having two stars so integral to club success makes life difficult. The Hornets will have to keep Deeney and Ighalo in an environment where there is a ton of money floating around the Premier League. They will also need to bring in more attacking talent in the midfield without giving up too much of the solid defense that got them their second successive season in the Premier League.
The Good – They didn’t get relegated. They blooded a couple of youngsters late. Salomon Rondon looked like he started to adapt to the Premier League over the second half of the season and especially late. When looked at through the lens of West Brom having been a “yo-yo club” until fairly recently, that’s solid progress.
The Bad – The Saido Berahino drama continued with the club getting little from the player on the pitch and likely seeing his value falling while the player probably saw his opportunities diminish as far as the type of teams that are likely to come calling this summer. The style of play continues to be classic Pulis which means that any entertainment offered is purely accidental.
What’s Next? – At some point Jeremy Peace needs to make the Stoke City decision. Are the Baggies content to merely exist in the Premier League on a regular basis or do they want to aspire to something more? This is probably not the summer that they are going to make that choice which means more engineering around the margins of a dull squad with a likely focus on shoring up a defense that doesn’t seem to match the group that Pulis had at the Britannia.
The Good – The first half of the season and the FA Cup run have been massive highlights as has the arrival of a legitimately good player in his prime in Yohan Cabaye and a young player with significant potential in Wilfried Zaha. When teamed with Yannick Bolasie there is significant attacking potential.
The Bad – The period when Bolasie was injured, most of the second half, showed how dependent Palace is on their star performer. The forward position has been a wasteland. The goalkeeping situation hasn’t instilled confidence in anyone either.
What’s Next? – It’s nice when a club has its summer work so clearly defined. If Alan Pardew can upgrade the forward position with someone who can be counted on for even as much as 15 goals while keeping Bolasie then the summer will be a huge success. The problem is that finding reliable forwards isn’t easy.
The Good – They stayed up. They stayed up without Callum Wilson for most of the season. They stayed up for Callum Wilson and Max Gradel for most of the season. Did I mention they stayed up? Seriously, that was an excellent managerial job because there’s certainly not a lot of talent being hunted from this group even after they successfully stayed up. We’re going to put the Cherries with Leicester City, Southampton, and West Ham in the “unqualified success” group.
The Bad – Really not much to complain about here other than the injuries. Matt Ritchie was a bit of a disappointment in his maiden voyage in the Premier League but that’s more a bummer for fantasy managers than for the real world.
What’s Next? – Assuming that they can keep Wilson the Cherries are in the somewhat unique position of having evidence that their current starters can survive a Premier League campaign while three incredibly important players – Wilson, Gradel and Tyronne Mings – are all set to return to full fitness at the start of next season. The old “they’re like new signings” saying is certainly appropriate here. Adding one or two quality players to the group, perhaps in the holding midfield or central defense, would position the Cherries for a run up the table if their attack is healthier in 2016-17.
The Good – They stayed up…just barely…again. They seem to have bought well in January in the form of Khazri, Kirchoff and Week 37 hero Kone. Jermain Defoe, eventually, did what Jermain Defoe does. Patrick Van Aanholt showed why Chelsea bought him after a rough start to the season under Dick Advocaat. They resuscitated Yann M’Vila’s career. They stayed up.
The Bad – Most of what we saw in the first 30 or so weeks of the season. Another year of managerial musical chairs ensuring that there is no cohesive strategy but rather a series of band aids. No surviving squad has been managed more poorly from a buying and selling of players standpoint than this one.
What’s Next? – With Big Sam potentially representing a multi-year managerial solution, there’s at least some hope that there will be some cohesion in the summer window. Goalkeeper, right back, center back, and a box-to-box midfielder are all required as well as competition/cover for Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini.
With Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa all being relegated, I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time discussing how successful their campaigns were. They weren’t. The only potential ray of hope would be if Newcastle managed to snare Rafa Benetiz, a real, professional manager for the next two or three seasons. Presumably he would only take the job with some significant assurances of a professionally run club from Mike Ashley and that would be a great start at St James’ Park. I’m not holding my breath.
Random Closing Thoughts
Goodbye! – Farewell to classy veterans Mikel Arteta and Tim Howard. There are others who will surely be leaving the Premier League but these two have been excellent professionals on and off the pitch. It may be hard to remember the pre-injury Arteta who was a creative force for Everton. That he was able to write a second chapter to his playing career as a deep-lying midfielder was a testament to his excellence and focus on team above himself.
Howard won’t be retiring but returning to the USA to finish out his career in MLS and likely start the broadcasting career that he has clearly been working toward with NBC Sports over the past few seasons. Howard was one of the first American MLS players to be recruited by a big European league and, even more significantly, was the first American to start regularly for Manchester United. His time at Everton has proven him an above average Premier League player but, for me, it will be the barriers he broke early in his career along with his performance for the USA that I’ll remember him for the most.
What did we find out? It is still possible to dream. More importantly, within the Premier League there may be a limitation on the notion that money = championships. The rising imbalance of revenue for Premier League clubs compared to their Spanish, German and Italian brethren combined with the fact that the absolute best players in the world still flock to teams outside of the Premier League elite like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus and now PSG may mean that there is less of a difference between the talent available to a “mid-table” English club compared to one of the big four/five/six. More money will still mean that the larger clubs can still afford to be wrong a little more frequently than their smaller brethren. What may change is the difference between a Southampton that gets 75% of its transfer decisions right and can but a few £20 million players from mid-table German or Spanish teams and an Arsenal side that gets 50% of its transfer decisions right and can buy a few £40 million players. If that gap narrows then I don’t mean to imply that we’ll have “another Leicester City” anytime soon (I’ve already made my position on the unlikelihood of that clear) but that we might legitimately have a “surprise” Champions League qualifier on a more regular basis. The days of the closed shop “top four” is certainly over with Leicester City and Spurs the first to break the barrier with Southampton and Liverpool looking the next most likely to be in the conversation.
What’s Next? Despite the “Final Day” having come and gone, there’s actually a lot left to go before we hit what will be a crazy summer. Manchester United will presumably play their final match of the season against Bournemouth. The Europa League final will happen on Wednesday. The FA Cup this coming Saturday. Then, we’re off to a summer of tournaments – Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario – and what should be one of the craziest transfer markets in memory. Money + Tournaments + More Money + New Managers at Big Clubs is going to equal a feeding frenzy that even the biggest transfer rumor mill hater is going to find at least a little fun.