Following on from his Premier League preview nine months ago, Nick Triani looks back at how the top coaches in the league got on amid an anti-climatic (and sometimes boring) 2016/17 football season.
The ultimate anti-climax
Anti-climax and anti-climax some more. The fact that in all intent and purposes the Premier League season for 2016/17 was all but over by January meant that for this football nut any sense of excitement ended up being in the small details. Chelsea cantered to the title, a seemingly endless procession of competent yet ruthless football. My Tottenham boys led the chase for some of it, playing with flair and steely resolve (and losing that Spursy tag in the process). But mostly the season was categorized by how some very expensive coaches and talent managed to lose the plot along the way – and really, that is putting a gloss on it. The PL maybe where the money is, but the Champions League was where the real drama lied as regards watching some fantastic football matches.
The managerial high noon
In my preview of this season (and a much discussed topic in general) I focused on the managerial arrivals for 2016/17 – the return of the self-proclaimed ‘special one’ Jose Mourinho at Manchester Utd, the mercurial and hugely successful Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and the animated and star of the preceding Euro Championships, Antonio Conte at the crest fallen 2014/15 season champions Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham – guaranteed that the Premier League arguably led the way with top draw football managers. This is even before we get to the last season’s unlikely champions Leicester City and their all-round-top-geezer manager Claudio Ranieri.
Added value Conte
Conte, after a tricky start with Chelsea, rejigged his formation (the very-in back three – a tried and tested formation for Conte), and Chelsea never looked back. As well as securing the PL title with an outrageous 30 wins from 38 games, Chelsea are in the final of the FA Cup and the double is something you wouldn’t bet against them achieving. Conte, with some shrewd buys – most notably N’Golo Kanté, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, whilst re-finding the flair of Eden Hazard and the brutishness of Diego Costa – got Chelsea back to where they should have been last season – and in all fairness improved an already very good squad. I thought Conte would struggle this season, but he showed his worth and his motivational acumen were second to none (seemingly a big part of football management nowadays) – especially with a Chelsea squad that has shown signs of moodiness in the past. Conte’s touchline animation also bought a lovely new high in managerial celebrations. Conte is simply a very classy operator. The football Chelsea played, meanwhile, was merely proficient and clinical.
Pep gets a reality check
Pep Guardiola arrived amid much fanfare and a reputation of being arguably the best coach in the world. But the Premier League has shown in the past that it doesn’t always play to the gallery, and Pep, in all honesty, suffered the most humbling season of his managerial career. With ridiculous amounts of money at his disposable, Pep spent a real fortune in recruiting players in the pre-season. John Stones for 50 million pounds now seems overpriced ( yes I realize this is an insane comment even in context, because yes, 50 million pounds would always be overpriced, no matter what). Leroy Sane has offered some joy as the season has progressed and the young Brazilian Gabriele Jesus seems frighteningly good. A sign of Pep’s financial wastefulness can be summarized with one name: Nolito
But the Premier League has shown in the past that it doesn’t always play to the gallery, and Pep, in all honesty, suffered the most humbling season of his managerial career.
The big failing on Guardiola’s part was the signing of former Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, which has to go down as one of the biggest managerial disaster decisions of recent football history. Bravo has been awful (and it’s hard to explain why -–he has been a great keeper in the past). At some point in the season Bravo had a run of games where he conceded every shot on target faced.
After a rollercoaster start where it seemed like City would win every game, they slowly became mired in a familiar complacency. Defensively, City were a shambles and missed the much injured Vincent Kompany, which confirms that amongst the stellar line-up Kompany remains City’s most important, though simultaneously unreliable player. City finished the season in third, trophyless and 15 points behind Chelsea. A distinct whiff of anti-climax summarises their season. A boon for the fans was that at times, the football was scintillating.
Jose Mourinho arrived at Manchester Utd last summer, the club he felt was his destiny to manage. It’s been a strange season for Jose where the club have won two trophies (the Charity Shield doesn’t count OK!) But the football has been conservative with an over-reliance on the evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s goals. The Premier League campaign has been humdrum and categorized by the team managing to draw a lot of games. I predicted Zlatan would be the flop of the season, and although the goal tally has been very good, it’s still open to discussion if the team look better going forward without him in the side.
Paul Pogba arrived in the summer as the most expensive signing in football history, yet was merely good, rather than outstanding. Wayne Rooney broke various goal scoring records yet was rightly underused and looked off the pace in almost every game I saw him play. The long unbeaten PL run displayed a new level of resilience, but we might have to wait for the free flowing football. Bright spots for Utd was the form of new defender Eric Bertrand Bailly, flashes of excellence from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the late season form of Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera’s reliable consistency. The levels these players reached has to be replicated from the rest of the team for Utd to seriously challenge next season. But at the final jump, against the backdrop of immense tragedy Mourinho and Manchester United turned their season around with their Europa League triumph.The money men who run the club will be happy. Surely, now Jose has to try and entertain?
I predicted Zlatan would be the flop of the season, and although the goal tally has been very good, it’s still open to discussion if the team look better going forward without him in the side.
Arsene Wenger had a trying season at Arsenal, where fan unrest and scrutiny over his future overshadowed an underperforming time for his team. Wenger at the least retained his dignity in a hostile environment, but unfortunately his team blew hot and cold. As I predicted in August last year, Arsenal failed to make the top four in the PL for the first time under Wenger (though that doesn’t reduce the feat of the incredible consistency Wenger has brought to the team over the years). With his future in the role of manager uncertain at the time of writing, the FA Cup still remains possible. That would definitely be a success for a team that this season have been very inconsistent. The general feeling I have for Arsenal right now is it could be a long way back from here. But the most entertaining aspect of Arsenal this season has been the emergence of Arsenal TV – honestly, football analysis from die-hard Arsenal fans who don’t hold back. Priceless.
Not so smooth Jurgen
Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool started the season with high expectations (when isn’t there at Liverpool?) – his team delivering an automatic blur of thrilling football which petered out sometime around Christmas. The addition to the team of Sadio Mané seemingly supplied the final spark for an attack that often whizzed passed opponents who were in awe of the lightning speed before them. Sadly, Liverpool couldn’t sustain this and a very prolonged period of patchy form either side of Christmas scuppered genuine title ambitions. More worryingly for Liverpool fans was a sense that Klopp was complacent (certainly in the games they should have won). Defensively Liverpool remain a work in progress. Qualification for next season’s Champions League has been secured, but with no European obligations this past season it looks like an opportunity missed as regards the PL. Klopp deserves to answer some questions – his record so far is not much better than predecessor Brendan Rodgers. Yes, Klopp is a positive figure and liked, but stubbornness as regards the exiled defender Mamadou Sakho (inspired on loan at Crystal Palace) reflects bad-judgement that doesn’t always work out for the team. How far could Liverpool have gone with Sakho patrolling their back line this season?
Spurs not Spursy
This season Tottenham Hotspur went unbeaten at home in the PL all season – and had their best home record since the 1950s. They won 17 games in a row at home in all competitions. They achieved their highest PL finnish ever (2nd) their largest PL points total ever (86). They only lost four games all season in the PL (all away from home). They finished above their fiercest rivals Arsenal for the first time in over 20 years. This was a year when Spurs broke so many records (too many to list here). Tottenham also had the best defence in the league and the second most potent attack, whilst Spurs still had the youngest side in the PL. Harry Kane scored 30+ goals in all competitions for the third year running (despite missing some months through injury).
This was a year when Spurs broke so many records (too many to list here)
In fact, Spurs were so consistently good, as a lifelong fan I have very little to complain about. Yes the CL campaign was disappointing (despite setting attendance records), and our summer transfer activity wasn’t great. Many people said this was a great team but won’t prove their greatness till they win some silverware. Personally, I couldn’t care about that. The football has been so good to watch most of the time, it feels like we’re winning something everytime we step onto the pitch. Mauricio Pochettino has not only encouraged a togetherness within the group of players, he’s bought a new mentality and a new resilience. Spurs have been a joy. The real challenge for Pochettino is keeping this talented side together and going again next season. It’s going to be fun watching them try. One senses Spurs won’t be so underestimated next time.
St Elsewhere II
I wrote this about David Moyes in my season preview: “The recently much discarded and humiliated David Moyes pitches his mast at Sunderland, a chance to re-establish his tarnished reputation perhaps?” Things got worse for Moyes. Starting your season by proclaiming your team were in a relegation fight from the off didn’t exactly spread much confidence. Moyes just seemed so lost all season and Sunderland were awful. Time to take a break from football David. Middlesbrough were equally dreadful, and while Hull City got the relegation everyone said they would get, the appointment of deceptively good-looking Marco Silva was shrewd, and they almost survived. Stoke City, West Ham, West Brom, Burnley and Bournemouth made up the numbers in a pretty unexciting way. Swansea flirted with the drop (as I predicted) and Big Sam Allardyce kept Crystal palace in the league then promptly retired. Everton improved considerably under Ronald Koeman, though seemed to crumble in most of their big games (barring the Manchester City thrashing). Southampton slipped just below their usual standards, but were ok.
The non-beautiful game
So it came to pass that the dream-like real time fantasy football of Leicester City winning the premier league would be shattered by the sacking of their wonderfully modest and zen like coach Claudio Ranieri. Yes, Leicester City struggled in the PL (and overperformed in the Champions League – the only real positive of their season.) But there was a sense of players downing tools rather than following Ranieri’s instructions a second time round. They should have put their faith in the man that had achieved so much for them. The Leicester City board should have also trusted the man that made their team a worldwide phenomenon. But money talks louder than giving someone a second chance. Ranieri walked (with dignity) and Leicester City improved (a bit).
So a season that was categorized by efficiency at one end (and the usual relegation incompetence) leaves us with a real sense of disappointment (besides my own team’s youthful entertainment). The prizes on offer in the PL ensured that risks were rarely taken and a ‘musn’t LOSE’ at all costs mentality prevailed. What a shame. Let’s be honest and admit the football wasn’t always great. The Champions League knockout stages really delivered this season with so many memorable games (the Manchester City vs Monaco 5–3 game was sheer football bliss). And El Classico second leg was probably the game of the season – such drama and an inspired Messi. Next season I’d like to see less pragmatism and a more gung-ho Premiere League. Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino probably adhere to this and hope others follow. The best we can do is hope for a new sense of endeavour.
My original season predictions (and what actually happened):
Winners: Manchester City. Chelsea actually won
Top Scorer: Harry Kane. Harry received the golden boot in style despite missing some 9 league games.
First to go down: Hull City. Sunderland were the first to go, with Hull finally succumbing with a couple of games to go.
Signing of the season: Paul Pogba. Pogba was solid more than anything else. N’Golo Kanté arrived at Chelsea from Leicester and again provided the glue the season’s champions needed. What a player.
First managerial casualty: Walter Mazzarri. Mazzarri was the last to go in the end. Swansea started their self imposed implosion by being the first side to sack their coach; in this case the very frail looking Francesco Guidolin in October. The American Bob Bradley replaced him. Bradley was well out of his depth and can probably go down as the worst PL coach in history.
Biggest flop: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Zlatan was actually very good in the end and 28 goals in all competitions was a more than decent return. So the biggest flop, or disappointment perhaps was Pep Guardiola. He spent more money than anyone else did yet didn’t strengthen the squad where it needed to be. Pep took the Premiere League for granted, and at times, couldn’t quite fathom why the league was so competitive, or why the PL wouldn’t lie down for him.