By Shane Thomas
One of the most common misnomers in sport is the word "great". Greatness is often ascribed to a sporting event or occasion when what one means to say is "eventful" or "dramatic".
There's no doubt that this past Premier League season was chock-full of excitement and drama, but great is was not. Greatness comes from a high standard of excellence. So while this season wasn't the greatest (that probably goes to either the 1998/99 or 2007/08 season), the past nine months were arguably the most dramatic seen on these shores. In the order of where each club finished in the league table, let's go through the clubs:
(1st) MANCHESTER CITY:
Thrilling football, Carlos Tevez going A.W.O.L, fights at the training ground, a mid-season collapse, "Why always me?", Roberto Mancini declaring the title race over all the way until that unforgettable final day, and THAT game against QPR, things were never dull at The Etihad this season. At times their attacking play was brimming with fluid brilliance, but their failure to have adequate support for the improving Joleon Lescott and the imperious Vincent Kompany was negligent of Mancini and the City board.
At the height of their electrifying attacking form, Mancini gave a near-prescient interview where he openly expressed worries of his team's "arm getting short", an Italian colloquialism for choking. Had it not been for Kun Aguero's sliver of calm in the last-minute of City's whirlwind season, the Italian wold have been proven to be correct. It's something that Mancini will have to address if City are to become a force in Europe as well as in England.
STAR MAN - Sergio Aguero: My Pre-Season Prediction - 2nd
(2nd) MANCESTER UNITED:
One supposition that should be corrected is the theory that this was the weakest United side in years. Wrong. The United outfit from last season were worse, and they still won the title and reached the Champions League Final. The successes of last season may have proved to be detrimental to the club long-term, as while this was a superior United squad, the improvement was only slight.
One thing we shouldn't omit is the rotten luck they had with injuries. United finished the season with the most deleterious set of absences of any club in the Premier League, so they deserve credit for pushing City so close. Sir Alex Ferguson remains one of football's greatest ever alchemists, and with key players missing for much of the campaign, he warrants praise for extracting resurgent seasons from Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick.
But the reliance on Wayne Rooney, and a returning Paul Scholes is alarming, and you only need to see United's woeful European performances to see the problems they face. They were outplayed by FC Basel, given a huge scare by Ajax, and were humiliated (twice) by Athletic Bilbao. The maxim about there being "no value in the market" has to stop. United must reinforce their personnel next season, or face being left behind by Manchester's noisy neighbours. The fact remains that they had one hand on the Premier League trophy, and then threw it away after losing to Wigan and drawing with Everton. To paraphrase Mancini, "United's arm got short."
STAR MAN - Wayne Rooney: My Pre-Season Prediction - 1st
After their worst ever start to a season under Arsene Wenger, and embarrassing defeats (for different reasons) to Manchester United and Blackburn, Arsenal looked to be circling the drain as a top level club. Arsene Wenger was criticised for going on a mad trolley dash on the last day of the transfer window, but make no mistake, Arsenal's season wouldn't have recovered without it. Arsenal's purchases bolstered what was a threadbare squad, and almost on the fly, they managed to change their style from a possession based tiki-taka, to a more direct style with width, that got the very best from Robin Van Persie.
However, Arsenal remain short of top quality, and were maddeningly inconsistent. While they did well to take what proved to be the final Champions League qualification place, a lot of it was down to the failings of their rivals. When it came to the crunch, only the Gunners had what it took to stagger over the line. But this was a season where they got away with it. It won't happen again.
STAR MAN - Robin Van Persie: My Pre-Season Prediction - 5th
(4th) TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR:
They played some lovely stuff in the first-half of the campaign, but the fulsome press they received was always on the dangerous side of hyperbolic, due to a combination of Spurs being perceived as a new addition to England's elite, and many of the tabloid press' relationship with Harry Redknapp. However, the way they fell apart from the 40th minute of the North London derby at The Emirates was alarming. Spurs went into a complete tailspin during March, and even when Arsenal dropped points against Norwich, the Lilywhites were unable to take advantage.
With Redknapp set to stay at White Hart Lane after missing out on the England job, he must ensure that he has enough depth in his squad to deal with the demands of qualifying for the Champions League. You wonder if people will be as willing to overlook his - and Tottenham's - shortcomings if they underachieve again next season.
STAR MAN - Younes Kaboul : My Pre-Season Prediction - 6th
(5th) NEWCASTLE UNITED:
The tangible proof that sporting predictions make the best of us (as well as people like me) look foolish. Many felt that with the crop of players who were key in getting Newcastle promoted all leaving the club, the Magpies were set for a relegation fight. But Alan Pardew proved why he was many people's choice as Manager of the Year for taking the club to the precipice of Champions League qualification.
What Pardew did was make sure that the players he did have at his disposal were a close-knit unit, and well-organised defensively. He also had good luck with injuries, but the latter would have meant little without the implementation of the former.
And then there's Mr Graham Carr. In conjunction with Pardew, they found good players for great value in the transfer market, which isn't only to their credit, but to the detriment of other clubs, who should have had the sense to move for the likes of Yohan Cabaye or Papiss Cisse if they had competent scouting and a clear club philosophy. Newcastle will do well to repeat their success, but they deserve nothing but kudos for what they achieved this season.
STAR MAN - Yohan Cabaye: My Pre-Season Prediction - 15th
It's tough to analyse a season that defied all rationale. You employ a new manager to move the club into its next phase of development, but don't empower him to carry out his tasks, and then sack him. You then put his right-hand man in charge, due to lack of alternatives, and you win the FA Cup & the Champions League. And despite all this, you still may not give him the job full-time.
It's impossible to know what's going on at Chelsea, where decisions are often made on whim. Chelsea are an example of the idiom, "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." Yet somehow this camel plodded on and achieved the greatest season in the club's history. I guess, all told you have to consider this campaign a success for Chelsea, but like Arsenal, you get the feeling that they won't get away with it again.
STAR MAN - Ramires: My Pre-Season Prediction - 3rd
Everton are the lovable friend who shows up to the party just that little bit too late. Once again, they tread water for the initial part of the campaign, as David Moyes continues to try and wreak blood out of a stone. But the acquisition of Nikica Jelavic in January added the goal threat that has always been Everton's problem. They became a much more threatening proposition, taking points of Tottenham and Manchester United. However, their resurgence came too late to make a run for a top six finish,
But despite finishing above Liverpool, the side from across Stanley Park seem to still be Everton's nemesis. The Toffees took a beating in the Merseyside derby at Anfield, and after leading in the FA Cup semi-final & being on control of the game, Everton seem to cower under the pressure, and Liverpool came back to win 2-1. Is Everton's biggest problem their lack of financial investment or their inferiority complex in the bigger games?
STAR MAN - Sylvain Distin: My Pre-Season Prediction - 8th
While not a Liverpool fan, I've always had a soft spot for the club, so this season was a disheartening one for me to watch. Their handling of the Luis Suarez affair descended into farce, and Kenny Dalglish seemed to be combining managerial duties with his one-man show, "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People."
But personal feelings aside, the Carling Cup success can't overlook that this was a horrid season for Liverpool. Their inability to win on a regular basis at Anfield reached such absurd levels, you could have been mistaken for thinking you were watching a Jean Renoir film. The loss of Lucas Leiva was cruel luck and badly unbalanced the team, but their summer purchases hardly helped. If Newcastle made the best use of the transfer market, Liverpool were at the opposite end of that spectrum.
Right now, Liverpool are grand ship, but rudderless and without direction. From the board through to new manager, Brendan Rogers, Liverpool must have clarity on what kind of club they are trying to be, and then commit fully to that modus operandi.
STAR MAN - Martin Skrtel: My Pre-Season Prediction - 4th
Maybe the Premier League's most impressive understated outfit. Martin Jol moved the side on from how they played under Mark Hughes, but did so without disrupting the squad (bar Bobby Zamora). Players like Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey had a new lease of life under the Dutchman, while Karim Frei and Pavel Pogrebnyak could be a major part of Fulham's short-term future.
It shouldn't be underestimated just how well Jol did, as the spine of the squad that reached the Europa League final under Roy Hodgson isn't getting any younger. If Jol can continue the transition next season, Fulham can remain as a regular Premier League destination, especially with the imminent arrival of Financial Fair Play, which is set to hurt sides like the Cottagers the most.
STAR MAN - Clint Dempsey: My Pre-Season Prediction - 12th
(10th) WEST BROMWICH ALBION:
For those antediluvian types who view a Director of Football model as anathema to a good team, West Brom remain the perfect riposte. But because it doesn't fit the mild xenophobic narrative of some sections of the media, it fails to get strong press coverage.
Not every side can aim for the stars, and West Brom are the perfect model for footballing responsibility and security. But this doesn't mean that they are boring, as you can see some of the most enterprising football in the country played at The Hawthorns. Before departing for England, Roy Hodgson showed how adept he is at assembling a crop of medium to good players into an effective team. And team is the key word. As long as West Brom remain a united outfit, they should be a periodic presence in the Premier League for years to come.
STAR MAN - James Morrison: My Pre-Season Prediction - 11th
(11th): SWANSEA CITY:
Let's hope that this wasn't an one-off from Swansea. While I predicted their open style of play would entertain, I felt the likelihood of them conceding goals would do for them at this level. But Brendan Rogers found a huge flaw in my judgement. He backed his players to able to keep possession on a regular basis, and what many fail to understand, is that it's the best way to defend, as how can the opposition score if they don't have the ball?
It meant that striker Danny Graham wasn't needed to score a hatful of goals, and while he had a good season, he was more important to the team's pattern of play rather than being a lethal finisher. And with Leon Britton, Joe Allen and the luminescent Gylfi Sigurdsson operating as the division's most impressive midfield, Swansea gave us some of the most glorious patterns of the season. It didn't even make the shortlist, but as far as I'm concerned, there was no finer goal in the country than Leroy Lita's header against Blackburn.
STAR MAN - Leon Britton: My Prediction - 20th
(12th): NORWICH CITY:
Unlike Swansea, Norwich's impressive season was no surprise to me, but that doesn't make their campaign any less auspicious. Paul Lambert has shown himself to be one of the British Isles most outstanding managers (just what on earth do they put in the water in Scotland that produces such skilled bosses). Since taking over at Carrow Road, Norwich have been on a constant upward curve. What impressed most about Lambert and his players was their malleability, dependent on the match situation. They often switched from a flat midfield four, to a diamond shape, and in the latter stages of the season, played a 4-5-1 formation to good effect against the two North London clubs.
However, Norwich are yet to have the same ingrained club philosophy as teams like Swansea and West Brom. With Lambert now departing for Aston Villa, and Grant Holt handing in a transfer request, you feel that the Canaries have had the rug pulled out from under them a touch. It's a slightly sour end to what was a fine last nine months.
STAR MAN - Grant Holt: My Prediction - 16th
A bit of a mixed bag from the Wearsiders. Losing the Tyne-Wear derby affected the team badly, exposing a brittle temperament at the club. Steve Bruce was sacked and replaced by Martin O'Neill. In the Northern Irishman's first game in charge, they trailed Blackburn 1-0. O'Neill brought on James McClean for his debut, and his bright introduction to English football helped precipitate two outstanding late goals from David Vaughan and Seb Larsson, with Sunderland picking up the win.
Would they have remained in relegation trouble if it wasn't for that victory? Maybe, but I can only appraise what did happen, not what might have happened. Under O'Neill, Sunderland were revived. They were a typical O'Neill side; dogged, disciplined, and resolute. Yes, they were also quite boring, but not every side can play expansively. It's the clash of styles that makes the Premier League interesting.
STAR MAN - Stephane Sessegnon: My Prediction - 7th
(14th) STOKE CITY:
Stoke can look back at another season of progress, and I'm sure fans will never forget the night they competed with the Spanish giants, Valencia. But there are the faintest warning bells beginning to ring at the Britannia Stadium.
After being eliminated from both the Europa League and the FA Cup, many of Stoke's players seemed to down tools for the remainder of the season - apart from the visit of Arsenal of course (a bitter hatred that could last for generations). While Stoke were never in danger of being relegated, they gradually slid down the table. With players like Rory Delap, Danny Higginbotham, and Ricardo Fuller no longer a major factor at the club - or not a factor at all, Stoke are in something of a transitional phase. And they're not bulletproof. Tony Pulis has to carefully analyse whether the playing style meshes with the personnel he'll have at the club next season, as he can't singularly rely on Peter Crouch's goals to keep them away from danger.
STAR MAN - Peter Crouch: My Prediction - 9th
(15th) WIGAN ATHLETIC:
Some may bemoan the media's fawning over Wigan, simply because Roberto Martinez seems a nice sort, and the entertaining way they play the game. However, look closely at what Wigan & Martinez did in the final third of the season, and it's easy to see why many have waxed lyrical about them.
I always felt that Wigan were nice to watch, but were far too open. However, Martinez was working on a style to get the best out of all aspects of the team. And it took him a while, but eventually he got there. Changing the formation to a nominal 5-4-1 (a formation I hadn't seen since the Czech Republic reached the final of Euro '96), it gave sufficient weight of numbers to keep out attacks, and freed up the flair players to hurt the opposition.
However, it's reductive to just put it down from the switch from 4-5-1 to 5-4-1, as the players weren't executing in robotic-straight lines. They defended deep, and then attacked with pace and intent. When going forward, players were given the responsibility to be flexible, and frankly, even the best sides had no answer to the areas of the pitch that Wigan players were appearing in. It was superb outside-the-box thinking, and even more impressive when you look at the personnel. Many of Martinez's players aren't very good, and yet he had the likes of Gary Caldwell looking like Franco Baresi.
STAR MAN - Shaun Maloney: My Prediction - 17th
(16th) ASTON VILLA:
They say the league table doesn't lie, but there would have been something karmic about Aston Villa being relegated. There's nothing wrong with cutting back financial investment in the squad - when Financial Fair Play arrives, most clubs outside the top six will have to do the same. But you then have to implement a contingency and philosophy for your club to adequately progress. It was clear that Villa had neither. I feel a degree of sympathy for Alex McLeish, as he was given little money to spend, and was forced to rely on a crop of talented but frail youngsters.
However, he failed to get the best out of them, and the money he did have to spend, he squandered. The second Darren Bent was injured, Villa were sinking fast, and only stayed up due to the failings of others rather than their own competence. It's back to the drawing board for the Midlanders. The season was a total write-off, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
STAR MAN - Shay Given : My Prediction - 10th
(17th) QUEENS PARK RANGERS:
Another team that you felt were fortunate to stay up. QPR's approach to survival was scattergun. Buy a ton of players, and when that didn't seem to work, change the manager and buy more players in the January transfer window.
QPR have some good players, and a good manager, but the squad is bloated with names who are overpaid, mediocre, or both. Mark Hughes must streamline his squad and figure out a specific pattern of play. If he achieves this, the R's have what it takes to find themselves ensconced in mid-table. Otherwise, another relegation battle awaits.
STAR MAN - Jamie Mackie: My Prediction - 18th
(18th) BOLTON WANDERERS:
I can only imagine that last August brought a lot of broken mirrors in the Coyle household. It was rotten luck to lose two players to broken legs before the season even began - especially given that one of them was the superb Chung-Yong Lee. However, they lost important players from the previous season, and their transfer strategy to replace them was atrocious.
Bolton seemed to be a club that always felt it was a little too good to go down. The thing is, you keep believing that, and you're liable to lack the necessary tenacity for a relegation battle. Eventually you find yourself mired in the bottom three for most of the season, and you end up making plans for trips to Huddersfield. The lower leagues are littered with sides who thought the same thing. They never returned to the Premier League. Sadly, expect Bolton to follow suit.
STAR MAN - Adam Bogdan : My Prediction - 14th
(19th) BLACKBURN ROVERS:
I'd love to know the process in becoming the Premier League's resident "circus club". Is there a ceremony, a ritual sacrifice of animals, a clandestine passing of the baton? Regardless, Blackburn occupied the space once filled by Newcastle and Portsmouth, and seemed to exist to enrage their fans, and cause supporters of every other club to regard them the same way as an auditioner on the early stages of a reality TV show.
The personal abuse of Steve Kean was emetic, but we can't ignore that he was ill-equipped to carry out the job of manager. If he remains as Blackburn boss, I hope he's learnt his lessons. And the same goes for the owners. Otherwise we won't see Blackburn back in the top-flight for a generation.
STAR MAN - Yakubu: My Prediction - 19th
(20th) WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS:
I can only surmise that the actions of Jex Moxey and Steve Morgan in sacking Mick McCarthy without having a Plan B was all part of research for a book entitled, "How to get a Football Club relegated from the Premier League."
Assistant Terry Connor - a man with the saddest eyes in the world - was given the biggest hospital pass in the division. He was never equipped to keep this group of players in the league, and the players seemed to have little inclination to steer Wolves to safety. From the boardroom to the pitch, the club were a shambles. Good riddance.
STAR MAN - Michael Kightly: My Prediction - 13th
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