Leicester's magic, Sunderland's survival act, managerial sack race: English Premier League season in review
The new champions have been crowned in form of Leicester City, Champions League spots sealed, wooden spoon handed well in advance, and a host of managerial sackings have been doled out, to outdo last year’s tally.
The 24th edition of the English Premier League, its most incredible yet, is over, for all practical purposes (Manchester United will play AFC Bournemouth in their final round on Tuesday night after a bomb scare at the ground forced postponement). The new champions have been crowned, Champions League spots sealed, wooden spoon handed well in advance, and a host of managerial sackings have been doled out, to outdo last year’s tally.
Oh, and what's the Premier League without a dash of final day drama? This time, it was thanks to Tottenham Hotspur bottling it up against relegated Newcastle United of the North East, presenting Arsenal with their 22nd straight St.Totteringham's Day. Yet again, they won the North London stakes, finishing second only behind the Champions of England, who ended their campaign with a draw at Stamford Bridge.
Just like 2015, the Premier League title was won courtesy an Eden Hazard goal. Except, how different has it all been! Leicester City, 5000-1 outsiders only a few months before, are now Premier League Champions. Here are some highlights from a truly remarkable season, one for the ages.
The League Table does not lie, but the Wage Table finally does
For the first time in the League's history, a side outside the top 5 on the wage bill table have been crowned Champions. A truly momentous occasion for the competition, a triumph for the underdog, and the competition’s first first-time champions since Nottingham Forest in 1978 - the longest gap among the five big European Leagues. Leicester stand firmly among the bottom 5 on the wage table, with every one of their architects of the season bought for a pittance from lower leagues across Europe or discarded by the big boys. It is a triumph that belongs to their scouting system as much as anyone else, and the Class of 2016 - Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater and co. - would never have to pay for a drink in Leicester for the rest of their lives.
What of the usual suspects, then?
City's leaky bucket problem
Manchester City, toppers of the wage table, duly outscored everyone else in the competition, with 71 goals. However, in the absence of Vincent Kompany, captain and defensive general, for large parts of the season, League newbies Otamendi and Mangala failed to hold fort when it mattered. On first look, the stats seem to contradict this - City's 328 shots conceded is the lowest in the league, with just 138 from within the six yard box (against a League average of 180). Whittle it all down to goals, and they lose the battle - 38% of those shots were on target (worst in the league), and too many of them ended up being goals (12% against the average of 10.8%).
These are fine margins in a title race, and how they repeatedly lost their way in Pellegrini's final season is unfathomable, with the talent at their disposal. City have all but qualified for the Champions League under Guardiola next season, unless Louis van Gaal's Manchester United, with a measly 1.24 goals per game - their worst ever in the League - can defeat Bournemouth 19-0 on Tuesday. Oh well.
The year of the counterattack
What happened, then? How did all this come to be?
The good old sit-back-intercept-and-counterattack made a welcome reappearance, in an era known for perfectly weighted passing, tiki-taka and all that razzmatazz. The sight of N'Golo Kante running tirelessly across vast swathes of the midfield was among the defining images of the season. Intercept. Pass. Drag marker. Run down the flanks. Leicester mastered that routine and had a defensive bulwark, along with the midfield duo of Kante and Danny Drinkwater dictating play, never shy of the odd slide tackle, and finding the perfect pass all the way up to twinkle-toed Riyad Mahrez, PFA Player of the Year.
Jamie Vardy's pace and anticipation, to go with Shinji Okazaki's perfect second fiddle a few yards behind him, ensured defensive lines were always unsure which way to go. As a result, Leicester converted the highest percentage of shots into goals (14% against the average of 10.8%), and the defence was among the meanest, conceding from just 7.8 out of 100 opposition shots. Simple enough, yeah? Retrospect is the only perfect science, and apart from putting numbers together, it does great disservice to Claudio Ranieri's side’s grit and unstinting effort, week after week, scrapping out one invaluable 1-0 win after another to get through the hardest parts of the season, earning themselves pizzas for clean sheets.
The other familiar narrative, that of sides dominating possession going on to win the league, was thrown to the winds too. Leicester won the league with all of 44.7% possession - 18th among the 20 sides - against an average of over 55% among title winners over the past decade. Tactically and statistically, it was an outlier of a season, compared to what we’ve known the League for, over the years.
Botched up title challenges
Right from the beginning, it was a case of Leicester leading the way, with different challengers turning up at different points of time. No one, not even Tottenham, who ran them close towards the business end with eye-catching football from an impressive, young squad, offered a meaningful challenge to threaten Ranieri’s side. If the League title were to be handed over on a monthly basis, Arsenal would be the greatest of all time. This year, they lost it in the new year, and the title challenge had teetered out along with their Champions League hopes by the beginning of March.
As always though, Tottenham offered a helping hand on the final day, catapulting their North London neighbours up to second place by the end of it all. Liverpool under Klopp have been Jekyll and Hyde for the most part, with their impressive Europa League run complemented by on-off success in the League thus far. About Manchester United, the less said the better – monotonous defensive stonewalling and sideways passing resulting in nought up front, game after game. They will finish fifth with a draw against Bournemouth, a position that is as much a result of the rest of the field’s ineptitude as their own performances. The lack of Champions League football next season is set to intensify murmurs about the future of Louis van Gaal with the club.
The Managerial Sack Race
Talking of departures, the league saw 9 different managers being sacked through the year, up from 5 last year. While a few, such as Jose Mourinho’s from Chelsea and Brendan Rodgers’ from Liverpool, were triggered by seemingly unending spirals into the abyss, some decisions were bewildering, to say the least. It is now routine for fans to fly banners over stadia, and if boards start reacting to these every time, this vicious, often self-destructive cycle is only set to continue.
Quique Sanchez Flores, dealt with a whole new squad at the beginning of the season, performed admirably before late season wobbles pulled Watford down to 13th spot, in addition to an FA Cup semi-final appearance. Still, he was shown the door. With the new TV deal kicking in, bringing with it increased spending power, it is an enigma why such impulsive decisions have come to rule our times. Watford, that too, are among the more stable clubs, with the fan-ownership rapport a prototype most clubs can only dream of.
Elsewhere, though, clubs that persisted with managers have been rewarded, not least Burnley, who comfortably earned promotion back into the league, under Sean Dyche. West Ham United under Slaven Bilic, were yet another highlight of the season, with a record 8 months unbeaten at home, outdone only by Leicester. They finished 7th, behind Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, who have been one of the stories of 2016. Faced with his job on the line around Boxing Day, their 4-0 defeat of Arsenal kickstarted a revival, granting him some much-needed second wind. AFC Bournemouth’s fairytale rise under Eddie Howe will continue in the top tier for another season, as they comfortably avoided the relegation scrap, finishing with 43 points.
Up in the North East – a season of contrasts
Sunderland spent as many days as Aston Villa in the relegation zone this season, and yet, are not the ones going down. Newcastle, record spenders in the January transfer window, ending the season behind only Manchester City on net spend, are down to the Championship. Having appointed Rafa Benitez late in the season, they have had fans pleading for him to stay on and rescue them from the depths. After a 5-1 win over title challengers Tottenham on the final day, it might yet be the morale boost for him to consider those pleas.
Sam Allardyce, who, in over 25 years of football management, has never managed a side below the Premier League, will continue to do so for another year, as Sunderland, after a successful January transfer window, pulled off yet another miraculous escape from the drop zone. It is their third consecutive season with an almost identical narrative, and they end with 39 points, in 17th place. With owners willing to invest in the club, and increased cash flows from the TV deal to pay off some of that rising debt, it is now a question of prudent investments, as they look to move up from season after season of battling for survival.
The clock has run down, chiming dilly ding, dilly dong, and it is curtains on yet another Premier League season, one that will forever be remembered as the year Ranieri won his first top-flight title, making thousands of skeptics worn down by years of homogeneity believe in the underdog again, in a league that has traditionally rewarded only those with the financial muscle.
Sources: Stats courtesy Statto.com and Opta, as of 37 completed rounds of the Premier League
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