With 90 percent of the season complete, Premier League teams everywhere are analyzing this season and are preparing for the next. For teams still in the hunt for European places
or trying to stave off relegation, these last few games are still crucial contests. Other teams, with mid-table security already guaranteed, are testing out players in new positions, or fielding youngsters who may be ready to step up to the senior squad next season. In this late-season edition of The Beautiful Game, let’s break down the major lessons from this Premier League season.
Top Teams Can Be Built With Foreign or Domestic Players
Chelsea, the likely champions, regularly deploys a team of expensive international talent. Only one Englishman, Gary Cahill, is typically featured in the Blues’ starting 11. Yet the club’s Italian manager, Antonio Conte, has instilled unity and developed a winning mentality.
Below them, Tottenham Hotspur should finish second, and their squad revolves around English players like Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Kyle Walker. These homegrown stars have proven that Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham should be a title contender for years to come.
The Manchester Clubs Are Still a Bit Off the Pace
Manchester City and Manchester United — two of the best teams in England — came up short in several areas this season. United struggled to score goals, and as a result, drew a number of games against beatable opposition. City’s high-powered attack succeeded, but its goalkeeper and defense leaked goals in key matches. Both teams will surely splash the cash in the summer and come back stronger next year.
European Games Affect League Focus
Should Chelsea hold on and claim the title, the last two champions will have not been in a European competition in their championship season. This reflects an increasing trend of European commitments (and therefore mid-week games on the continent); this additional travel causes injuries, which affects team performance in the Premier League.
Last year’s surprise champions Leicester City advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League this season, but flirted with relegation in the Premier League. Only after their elimination from European competition have they hit their stride and moved away from the relegation zone, which is strong evidence that European games affect league progress.
Old School: Still Cool
One of the more surprising success stories this year was Tony Pulis’ old-school West Bromwich Albion side. The Baggies currently sit in eighth place, an excellent achievement. The team is built in typical Pulis style, with old, slow central defenders featured throughout the backline, and a strong focus on defense. Many of their goals have come from headers on set-pieces, another tactic that was more common in the league’s early days. Pulis’ former striker Peter Crouch, the tall and old Englishman, also had some success at the Welshman’s old club Stoke City. This was a year in which the old-school approach was back in style.
End of an Era
A number of long-term records fell this year. Tottenham will finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 seasons, meaning Arsenal fans’ annual celebration of “St. Totteringham’s Day” — the day that they clinch finishing ahead of Spurs — is postponed. Manchester United is in the midst of a 25-game unbeaten run in the league, with 13 wins and 12 draws over that span. While it is impressive to go without losing for so long, the team will regret some draws that could have been wins. Lastly, it increasingly looks as if this summer may be the end of the Arsene Wenger era at Arsenal. The Frenchman has managed the club for more than 20 seasons, and is an icon in North London, but may be on his way out after a below-average season. Only time will tell.
Same as it Ever Was
Lastly, some things just do not change. Sunderland had another awful season, but instead of a late-season surge to ensure Premier League status, they have continued to stink and will be relegated to the English Championship. Middlesbrough might join them; the Teessiders have employed the same overly defensive scheme all season. When its weaknesses — namely that they almost never score goals — became clear, neither ex-manager Aitor Karanka nor caretaker boss Steve Agnew changed anything. Meanwhile, Joey Barton got suspended again in his return to English soccer, and Crystal Palace had another very streaky season, with periods of excellent form, followed by a group of terrible performances.
It was a fascinating season, and the few remaining games promise to entertain. After the offseason, we’ll be back in the fall with more soccer analysis, here in The Beautiful Game.