Sunday, 7 June 2015

Premier League End of Season Report Card

The Premier League may have come to an end a couple of weeks ago, but Barcelona’s Champions League triumph officially draws the curtain on the 2014/15 football season. 

Surprises were few and far between in a year that pretty much followed the script, but this campaign provided an insight into what should be a far more competitive top flight next time round.  

The season ultimately belonged to Chelsea, but success is always relative to the resources at your disposal, and a number of clubs will look back on their progress with fondness, while others will be forced into a busy summer plugging the gaps.

Here’s how each team fared and what to expect in the coming months:

Chelsea - 1st Place: A

Following the first trophyless campaign of his career it was job done for Mourinho’s Chelsea, whose domestic success compensated for an early Champions League exit. The Blues fully deserved the Premier League crown, setting the pace in their opening game at Turf Moor and showing a ruthless streak to maintain top spot throughout the season.

Success was built on a solid and experienced defensive foundation, which delivered the platform for the attacking flair of Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas to assist Diego Costa. In signing Costa, Mourinho solved Chelsea’s central problem by providing the top flight with a striker it hadn’t been exposed to before. A no-nonsense brute of a centre forward, Costa defended from the front by roughing up defenders and scored the goals to justify his swagger.

With Roman Abramovich demanding European success, Mourinho will not curb his expectations. The Blues are only going to strengthen this summer and will be the team to catch next season.  

Manchester City – 2nd Place: B-

This was the second time in three seasons that City had the chance to defend their title, and it was the second time they made a feeble attempt at it. Indeed, Manuel Pellegrini’s inability to inspire his side to a trophy could easily cost him his job.

It was a story of inconsistency for a team who at one stage looked like keeping up with Chelsea, and the next looked in danger of missing out on the top four. The spine of a side that has been so central to previous success didn’t perform, as injuries disrupted the form of Vincent Kompany and availability of Sergio Aguero, while Yaya Toure struggled to make the game changing impact that City fans have become so accustomed to. 

After another disappointing showing in Europe and the teams around them improving all the time, City’s ambitious owners will be under no illusions that they have to put things right this summer so that they aren't left behind.

Arsenal – 3rd Place: A-

The Gunners continue to play attractive football without building a genuine challenge for the title. Qualification for the Champions League should be considered routine rather than success for a club that now boasts the world class talent of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.

A poetic performance at Wembley demonstrated that Arsenal have the quality to add more silverware to their back-to-back FA Cup wins, and an away victory at Manchester City showed signs of improving ability to grind out results. However, in order for a full scale revolution to take place Arsène Wenger must transcend his comfort zone and add a ruthless streak to his elegant style of play.

A premature Champions League exit to Monaco proved that there is still work to be done at the Emirates, but one cannot help but feel that a prosperous summer will make the Gunners relevant to the title race next season.

Manchester United – 4th Place: B+

Following five points from their first five games and a Carling Cup exit at the hands of MK Dons, many were left wondering if David Moyes actually had been the problem at Old Trafford.  After such a lacklustre start to their campaign, few would have entertained the idea of United finishing in the top four.

However, a ten game unbeaten spell over Christmas demonstrated that Louis Van Gaal was beginning to implement his style of play on a squad that lacked confidence but possessed obvious quality. Wins over rivals City and a double over Liverpool exhibited United’s steady revival under the charismatic Dutchman, with performances starting to reflect the manager’s exuberant coaching methods.    

The bar has now been raised, but this has merely been a steady improvement rather than a chilling warning to United's rivals. The idea of a third consecutive season without a trophy will be unthinkable for a club accustomed to success, and if United are to spend big again this summer, Van Gaal must find a way to incorporate the big names into a system that eventually served him well in his first season of English football.     

Tottenham – 5th Place: B

Mauricio Pochettino oversaw a relatively uneventful first season at Spurs, where the emergence of Harry Kane overshadowed the fact that the gap between Tottenham and the top four is growing all the time.

The North Londoners flirted with the Champions League places without ever threatening to break through, and they simply don’t have the firepower to overhaul the teams above them. An electrifying home win over Chelsea showed signs of promise, but Pochetinno’s side will need to make performances like that a habit if they are to better themselves next season.  
Liverpool – 6th Place: C

The countdown of Steven Gerrard’s Anfield career was always going to provide the subplot to Liverpool’s season, and it’s safe to say that the midfielder’s farewell campaign couldn’t have gone much worse.

The Reds failed to make the top four, lost a semi-final at Wembley, and submissively exited Europe with barely a whimper. The frustration of their entire season was encapsulated in Gerrard’s thirty-eight second red card on his final appearance against rivals Man United.

More worryingly for Brendan Rogers, however, will be his side’s inability to adapt to life after Luis Suarez. After a massive step forward in 2013/14, Liverpool have taken two more back, and Rogers will be hoping for the opportunity to rebuild this summer. With the future of key players uncertain coupled with no recognisable leaders, one feels this will be a crucial transfer period at Anfield, and the Northern Irishman will have to ensure he brings in quality rather than quantity.

Southampton – 7th Place: A

Relegation favourites at the start of the year and Europa League qualifiers by the end of it, Southampton have been one of the stories of the season.

After a summer exile, new manager Ronald Koeman intricately rebuilt by combining some shrewd acquisitions with an abundance of young talent, and applied a system which enabled the Saints to express themselves going forward.

Koeman guided the Saints to their highest ever Premier League finish, and supporters of the south coast club were subjected to some wonderful free flowing football which they will be hoping to emulate next season.

Swansea City – 8th Place: B+

Garry Monk can consider his first full season in charge of the Swans a resounding success, as the young Englishman steered his side to their highest Premier League points tally. Despite losing top scorer Wilfried Bony halfway through the season, Swansea were still able to complete the double over Arsenal and Manchester United.

Up there with the best of the rest in the top flight, the real question will concern what the next step is for Monk’s men, and if they can better themselves next year by pushing for a place in the Europa League.

Stoke City – 9th Place: B+

Mark Hughes is beginning to shed Stoke’s long ball tag while maintaining the workmanlike doggedness which makes the Potters an opponent that no team enjoys meeting.

Hughes is building an experienced squad and after another season of consolidation, he’ll have ambitions to replicate his achievements at Blackburn by defying the odds and leading his side to automatic Europa League qualification.

Crystal Palace – 10th Place: B+

It was a season of two halves for the Eagles, as Alan Pardew took over an under-performing squad from Neil Warnock and inspired them to the first top ten finish in the club’s Premier League history.       

Pardew’s success relied on his ability to get the best out of what he described as the ‘mavericks’ at Selhurst Park. Indeed, it was the creative flair of Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie that was at the heart of Palace’s revival.

Palace fans will be wondering if it’s possible for the club to go one better next season, but Pardew wouldn’t have left Newcastle if he didn’t have high aspirations for the club he calls home. Fortunately, his ambitions match those of the owners, and they’ll want to ensure that the Eagles continue soaring up rather than down next year.

Everton – 11th Place: C

Having come within touching distance of a Champions League place last season, the Toffees will be thoroughly disappointed with their showing this time round. Somewhat mirroring the struggles of their Merseyside neighbours, Everton’s campaign never took off and eventually stumbled to a mid-table finish.

The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley struggled to reach the heights of Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge, and there was no cup run to compensate for the club’s shortcomings in the league. In order to settle the unrest among the Goodison Park faithful, Martinez will have to reshuffle his pack this summer and hit the ground running in order to get the Toffees challenging for the top six again.

West Ham – 12th Place: B-

After such a promising start to the season, West Ham won only three games in 2015, resulting in a decline from the dizzy heights of fourth in December to an underwhelming mid-table finish in May. This is by no means an underachievement, but Hammers fans will be left disappointed having seen glimpses of what their talented squad is capable of.

Sam Allardyce has since relinquished his post at the Boleyn Ground, and the club’s ambitious owners will be looking to bring in a manager who can achieve results that justify the money spent in recent years.

West Brom – 13th Place: B+

The appointment of Alan Irvine was always likely to be a risk given his inability to succeed at Preston and Sheffield Wednesday. Indeed, the hierarchy at the Hawthorns bit the bullet in December and placed their eggs in the basket of Tony Pulis, who comfortably maintained his record of having never been relegated.

Pulis pulled off the same trick he did at Crystal Palace the year before, turning the Baggies into a well-oiled machine that was difficult to break down and caught out their opponents on the counter. West Brom quickly left relegation fears behind, and an away win at Old Trafford before a 3-0 triumph over Champions Chelsea showed the giant steps the West Midlands club have taken under Pulis.

With expectations likely to be raised, it will be interesting to see if Pulis will compromise the conservative tactics that have served him so well in favour of a more expansive style of play.    

Leicester City – 14th Place: A

Bottom of the table going into April and still seven points adrift, one would be forgiven for assuming that Leicester would be occupying one of the relegation places at the end of May. Despite the fact that performances had been encouraging, there was little to suggest that the Foxes were about to turn these hints of promise into results.

However, Nigel Pearson – the man who ominously throttled James McArthur and bizarrely christened a reporter an ostrich – stirred his troops to one of the most remarkable revivals in Premier League history, winning seven of the last nine to finish a comfortable six points clear of the drop zone.

Despite his unorthodox behaviour, Pearson deserves great credit for turning Leicester’s season around, as do the board for reaping the rewards of standing by their manager. The Foxes now have a real chance to consolidate, and will need to get off to a better start next season to avoid having to pull off another minor miracle.       

Newcastle – 15th Place: F

Seemingly coasting towards a top half finish with Alan Pardew, Newcastle’s decline under John Carver can best be described as a shambles, and the Magpies can consider themselves fortunate not to be starting next season in the Championship.

The Toon Army suffered eight straight defeats under Carver which dropped them perilously close to the relegation zone, and only a final day win against an equally out of sorts West Ham secured their top flight status. 

It’s clear that Carver is not up to the task, but for any manager to stem the tide and succeed at St James’ the Geordies need to amend their lofty expectations, and realise that the club’s problems predominantly reside in the boardroom rather than in the manager’s office.

Sunderland – 16th Place: C-

Gus Poyet described last season’s escape from relegation as a ‘miracle’, but it certainly seems that the need for divine aid is becoming far too repetitive at the Stadium of Light. Indeed, the Black Cats showed no sign of improvement under Poyet, and the script was all too familiar when Ellis Short was forced to sack his manager in a last ditch attempt to stave off relegation.

Dick Advocaat may have kept Sunderland up, but it failed to mask what has ultimately been another disappointing season. The hierarchy at the Stadium of Light will be hoping that Advocaat is the man to help fulfil the potential of a squad that has regularly underachieved in recent years.

Aston Villa – 17th Place: C-

Under the guidance of Paul Lambert, Villa were on a slide towards the relegation zone that showed no sign of stopping. The introduction of Tim Sherwood galvanised a squad that was lacking motivation and, most significantly, the former Tottenham manager was able to get Christian Benteke scoring again.     

However, Villa fans will not view this lucky escape as a successful season, and heavy defeats to Southampton and Arsenal in the FA Cup Final served a stark reminder that Sherwood still has a significant rebuilding job to do. No doubt the new manager will be relishing a summer to clear out the deadwood and bring in the players he feels will help him succeed at Villa Park.

Hull City – 18th Place: D

One of a handful of sides in the bottom half who stuck by their manager, Hull were the victims of the revivals of teams around them. The Tigers were right to trust in the experienced Steve Bruce, but they left themselves too much to do with a run in that included four of the top six.

City’s squad never looked like one capable of consolidating in the Premier League, and much of their failure was due to an inability to strengthen in the transfer market. Record signing Abel Hernandez struggled to settle, while Tom Ince failed to live up to the hype that had seen him linked with Inter Milan. 

Back in the Championship after two years away, Bruce will know that he has a monumental task on his hands to bring the Tigers back up at the first attempt.

Burnley – 19th Place: B

Sean Dyche will take Burnley back to the Championship having done no damage to his growing reputation. Keeping the Clarets in the Premier League would have easily been the achievement of the season, but Burnley’s squad lacked depth and an over-reliance on their starting eleven proved their undoing.

Competitive to the end, supporters at Turf Moor will have fond memories of their second stay in the Premier League. Despite a memorable win over Manchester City, the spirited Clarets didn’t take advantage of the January transfer window and simply ran out of steam at the business end of the season.

With Danny Ings set to depart, Dyche won’t underestimate the challenge ahead, and will want to strengthen this summer while holding on to the core of a side that made life difficult for so many Premier League teams.   

QPR – 20th Place: F

QPR learnt that no team has a divine right to stay in the Premier League regardless of how much money you spend. A busy summer and a number of big name signings left Hoops fans optimistic of extending their stay in the top flight, but the season was lifeless from start to finish and the West Londoners rarely threatened to survive.

Not even ‘Arry could inspire the Rs who took until February to register their first away win. A slight improvement under Chris Ramsey but QPR lacked the leadership and togetherness required for a relegation battle.

Ramsey seems to have acquired a poisoned chalice, and will need to clear out the prima donnas at Loftus Road before placing faith in honest professionals who will chase success rather than the biggest pay cheque.   

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