Neal Thurman

Matchday Wrap Up

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Overreaction Monday - Finale

Monday, May 22, 2017

That's a wrap! While Chelsea and Arsenal will still contest the FA Cup next Saturday and Manchester United will face Ajax in the Europa League final on Wednesday, the story of the Premier League season has pretty well been told.  Chelsea were worthy champions.  Spurs were valiant runners up who unexpectedly pressed Chelsea until a bad night at the London Stadium in early May.  Sunderland, Middlesbrough, and Hull City certainly "earned" their relegation fate.  The top seven teams in the league were clearly better than the "rest" who, from 8th to 17th, were separated by a grand total of six points.  So, where will the interesting stories come from next? Let's peer into the crystal ball and see what we should be watching over the summer from top to bottom.



There's honestly not a lot of massive interest here.  Yes, Diego Costa may leave but the Blues won't let him leave without an equally enticing replacement lined up along the lines of a Romelu Lukaku.  Given the pipeline of young talent and the funds available to spend in the transfer market, the Blues will be at or near the top again next season.  They will certainly add depth now that they have Champions League to contend for but with Antonio Conte indicating that his family will be moving to London it's hard to imagine that either he or Eden Hazard will be leaving Stamford Bridge this summer. 



This is where it gets really interesting because Spurs are in a similar position to the one that Arsenal found themselves in toward the end of the Invincibles era.  Spurs are clearly a cut below the biggest clubs in the world when it comes to revenue, spending power and glamour as it pertains to recruiting new players.  Like Invincibles era Arsenal (or Klopp's Dortmund), they have a core of exceptional talent and a reputation for being able to unearth and nurture talent at a level that the likes of Chelsea, United, City, Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern, etc don't and rarely care to given their spending power.  The problem is that Spurs, like Arsenal, actually has to sustain itself as a business withing financial constraints.  


The current generation led by Kane, Alli, and Eriksen will see those financial constraints eased by the move to a new stadium, Champions League proceeds, and huge jumps in television money coming into the league but at the end of the day, premium talents flock to one of a very few clubs and, for all of their improvement, Spurs isn't one of those clubs.  Given his history at the club you could see Harry Kane deciding to become a club legend and staying his entire career at White Hart Lane/New White Hart Lane.  The issue will come when those stars not as personally bonded with the club - specifically Dele Alli and Christen Eriksen - get their heads turned by one of the real big boys.  The same goes for Mauricio Pochettino.  


The problem with being outside that small cadre of "big clubs" who compete for Champions League titles every season is that there is a limited supply of exceptional talent in it's prime available.  Spurs have done an admirable job of building a young, exceptionally talented core at the precise moment they have a chance to really vault themselves into the spot Arsenal has owned for approximately two decades.  The problem, as Arsenal supporters know well, is that that position can be frustrating once you've been there for a while.  As your players like Henry, Fabregas, and van Persie at Arsenal or Alli, Eriksen and Kane at Spurs emerge as exceptional, they will be picked off by bigger clubs.  That puts the onus on Spurs to continue to find undervalued players to replace the departing star talents.  Dortmund has had at least some level of sustained success doing this in Germany but after Klopp's "first generation" moved on to Bayern and elsewhere they have fallen pretty close to be German for post-Invincibles Arsenal. 


My hope, even as an Arsenal supporter, is that Spurs supporters enjoy last season, this season, the one coming up at Wembly and every one that they get to see all or even most of Kane, Alli, Eriksen, Son, Wanyama, Dier, Dembele, Walker, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Rose, Lloris and Pochettino together.  It's hard to see it lasting too much longer and, almost as much as Leicester City last season, it is a wonder to behold a club where all phases of the club - executive management, recruitment, management, and players - are so well aligned that it can overcome the finances and history that are stacked against a club like Spurs challenging the establishment. 


Manchester City

It feels like we're somewhere between a third and a half of the way through one of those home makeover shows.  You know, the ones where they start off with a neglected property with a few beautiful features in a nice neighborhood and revive it into being an incredible showpiece.  In Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva there were certainly some exceptional features to build on but, like the typical money pit renovation, Pep Guardiola found that there was a lot more to do than he expected when he took on the project. Two of his key additions - Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane - looked great over the second half which should mean that defense and depth are really the order of the day heading into the summer.  Given the money available, it's hard to imagine that City will have trouble taking another step forward so long as Pep proves he can do better than John Stones when evaluating where to point City's wallet.  



Like Spurs, Liverpool are in a tough spot.  The Liverpool name and the history it brings with it may make it seem more likely that they rather than Spurs will remain a mainstay in the top four but it is still a precarious situation.  Spurs supporters looking for a ray of hope for long-term success can look to a management team that has acquired and/or developed young, English talents on a small budget including Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Kyle Walker, and Danny Rose.  Guys like Divock Origi will be something of a litmus test to see whether Jurgen Klopp can repeat what he did at Dortmund by bringing along younger talents on a budget. I have no doubt that he can contribute the same thing he did at Dortmund but the extent to which he was involved in actually finding that talent as opposed to just nurturing it is unclear.  Liverpool's transfer record in recent years has been spotty.  There have been hits like Coutinho, Lallana, and Sane but there have been big misses like Sakho, Benteke, and Moreno.  Liverpool, even with Champions League football, aren't Manchester United or Chelsea and don't have the money to outbid the market for the Paul Pogbas of the world.  This means that, like Spurs, they will have to depend on a combination of buying younger/unproven talent and nurturing it or finding players ideally suited to the manager's style and hoping that fit to a system can overcome raw talent. 



The storylines about what comes next at Arsenal have all been written and I can't say I'm particularly excited to rehash them all.  For the first time in two decades they won't be in the Champions League but all the signs are pointing to Arsene Wenger remaining on as manager.  Perhaps the big question is whether he is joined by a Director of Football or some other, similarly titled person to help share the responsibility of leading such a massive enterprise.  Until we know more about how that works out the details are barely worth speculating on. 


Manchester United

The 90 remaining minutes of Manchester United's season has a fascinating capacity to change the narrative on the success of their season.  If they beat Ajax as you'd think they should then they've returned to the Champions League and can begin the task of forgetting the details of how that goal was accomplished.  They will have not only a silly amount of money available to rebuild their squad but the carrot of the biggest club competition going to ensure that they aren't turned down due to competitive concerns.  With Champions League football Antoine Griezmann seems like a reasonable possibility to replace Zlatan and Rooney.  With Champions League football you wouldn't bet against Jose finding the sort of holding midfield destroyer that he enjoyed with Claude Makelele at Chelsea or bringing in someone like Willian to push Jesse Lingard to the reserve role he should be in at a club with the ambitions of a Manchester United.  The model starts to look more and more like the Real Madrid Galactico scenario.  It's still hard to see a scenario where United catch up to Chelsea, Spurs, or even City next season based on what we saw this past season but with Champions League football you can at least see them starting to close the gap and put real pressure on Liverpool and Spurs to make every move count.


If United lose on Wednesday then, yikes, things could get pretty ugly. 


Oh, and it will be fun following the performances of the players who leave Manchester United this summer.  I'm particularly optimistic that Anthony Martial ends up elsewhere because he would be fun to watch outside of the shadow of Jose Mourinho's usage of wide players.  I'm also very curious to find out who Chris Smalling is as a player in other circumstances.  He showed obvious potential under Van Gaal and regressed hugely under Mourinho.  Seeing him at Everton as Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka age out would be very interesting. 



What a fascinating summer this will be at Goodison Park.  It's hard to see a scenario where Lukaku stays which means that this will be the equivalent of the summer Gareth Bale left Spurs.  They'll have a ton of money to spend to strengthen and only time will tell if they're able to use that money to replace the production of one exceptional talent.  Steve Walsh, the architect of Leicester City's title winning side, is in place to turn that Lukaku money (and maybe Ross Barkley money too) into a flood of under the radar prospects.  This could set the Toffees up for years to come if done right.  Or it could see them fall back significantly if done wrong.  The most difficult thing about this for Everton supporters will be that there might be a year or two of regression while waiting for the new signings to come through.  Not like Everton are likely to attract players in the prime capable of replacing the likes of Lukaku. 



How do you judge Claude Puel's season?  The narrative coming down the stretch has been "Puel out!" based on some pretty rotten results over the past six weeks.  Fair enough but give the guy credit for making due with his 3rd and 4th choice CBs to start the season after VVD went out injured and no replacement for Jose Fonte was really forthcoming.  There is also a reasonable question as to how much say Puel has over the transfer policy.  Nathan Redmond is a nice piece but he wasn't a ready-made replacement for Sadio Mane.  Gabbiadini played pretty well for a small stretch but the first Grazianno Pelle replacement, Charlie Austin, barely played.  That's a lot of talent to be down on a mid-table club for the supporters to expect results similar to an Everton as far as points earned. 



A ninth place finish is pretty spectacular.  The question is what to expect next given budget limitations.  Can the Cherries unearth a few gems in the transfer market to push them forward or will 46 points next season look more like 14th place with the occasional brush with relegation?  The mechanics of this season's final table makes Eddie Howe's season look like a great one but the margin is incredibly narrow.  The same can be said for a lot of other clubs in the vast "middle" but given where Bournemouth were expected to finish and where they did finish the illusion is probably more pronounced in this case. 


West Bromwich Albion

Tony Pulis looked like he'd turned a corner for a while as it regarded both style and results.  Then 40 points was achieved and the only real highlight after that was the thrashing of Arsenal that ultimately kept the Gunners out of the Champions League.  Injuries to Matt Phillips over the second half of the season played a big part in the decline but that seems like a thin margin to base a transformation on.  This summer will be fascinating as we see if Pulis tries to continue his push forward with more attacking reinforcements or reverts to type and combs the market for reinforcements at center back to play right back, center back, left back and a few midfield positions.  Gareth McAuley can't go on doing this forever so you have to assume there will be at least one more center back coming in. 


West Ham United

After all of the drama they managed to finish 12th.  Not horrible considering they only had their talisman, Dimitri Payet, for 18 Premier League matches (17 starts).  Throw in a lot of injuries and while you'd never believe it based on the narrative it's hard to be too critical of Slaven Bilic.  Now, the next step is actually finding some players, especially a forward, who is reliably healthy and interested in playing for the Hammers. Replacing Mark Noble who regressed significantly from being a nice, inspiring player of middlign talents to being a well below average central midfielder.  


Leicester City

As much as I'd love to shower praise on Craig Shakespeare and see him get the permanent job at the King Power Stadium, I'm not sure that it's really merited.  Yes, the results were good after he took over but I'd be worried that this is just a slightly larger sample size than what we saw at Hull City with Mike Phelan.  Let's not confuse being a great permanent manager with anything being better than carrying on with a dysfunctional situation.  Like Chelsea's rebound this season under Antonio Conte, half of the work was just getting rid of the other guy.  Conte took the Blues forward from there for sure but only one of the wins that Shakespeare picked up - Watford, @West Brom, Sunderland, Stoke City, @West Ham, Hull City, and Liverpool - was really something even marginally surprising given the talent on hand.  Even the Liverpool win, while nice in the context of Leicester City's season, wasn't THAT huge a shock considering how the Reds did against lesser teams.  My point is that a defending champions, even one as tenuous as the Foxes, SHOULD have picked up pretty much all of the points that Shakespeare did.  If I were owner of Leicester City, I'd not repeat the mistake (OK, one of the mistakes) that Hull City made this past season and appoint the caretaker.  I'd pitch Marco Silva or someone similar who looks to have a real future in the game on the merits of a squad with the likes of Mahrez, Vardy, and Albrighton and with the resources to jump back into the top half and a potential Europa League spot.  


Stoke City

A big step back this season and a pretty huge concern that the stylish transfers just aren't working.  Shaqiri has been a massive tease showing great skill on the rare occasions that all of his muscles are working properly.  Berahino, Bony, Affelay, Bojan, and Imbula have been expensive failures while holdovers like Crouch and Walters from the blood and guts Stoke City era have been more effective.  Mark Hughes is a middling Premier League manager dependent entirely on the level of talent he has on hand.  The Blackburn sides that earned him the City job way back when were certainly a nice blend of brawn and beauty for an upper-mid-table side but he doesn't seem to be able to find  the same sorts of talents.  In the absence of lots of other potential candidates, I suspect that Hughes will get another go at reworking the squad but it has to be frustrating all around that the big move to a more attractive style hasn't yielded results, or even entertainment in a losing effort. 


Crystal Palace

My bet to make a big move up the standings for next season.  The pieces are in place for a legitimate run to challenge a Lukaku-less Everton as the "best of the rest".  They had the same potential to start this season but it took nearly the entire season to recover from Alan Pardew being Alan Pardew.  With a summer transfer window to remodel the defense to match the attack already in place I have high hopes for a limited but fun-to-watch Palace side emerging a year later than expected.  


Swansea City

Will Gylfi stay or will he go?  He has indicated that he's happy to stay but everyone says that.  If Everton make a big offer that includes Europa League, more money, and some significantly better teammates it's hard to imagine that the Iceland international's head won't be turned.  If he does leave then the Swans appear to be in big trouble.  The depth of talent just doesn't seem to be there and the consistent management approach that saw them survive turnover both in management and on the pitch seems to have faded badly.  We'll see how the summer unfolds but despite the improvement under Paul Clement the Swans seem to be in some serious danger ahead of next season.



The Clarets are what they are.  They will certainly give maximum effort under Sean Dyche but it's hard to imagine that they'll have as much fortune at home next season as they did this season.  The string of home clean sheets was something to behold and should be applauded but I wouldn't expect a repeat.  The club can signal intent by making some smart investments to move forward but it wouldn't be shocking to see them consolidate their financial gains and bed in to continue their yo-yo-ing back and forth between the Championship and Premier League after a second season in the top flight.  How they use any money made from the sale of Michael Keane will give us a pretty good sense of their strategy.  If they invest in a couple of youngsters who could eventually grow to replace Keane in a season or two then they're probably going to be a Championship club again soon.  If they buy a Premier League stalwart or two with the money in an attempt to stay up then we'll know their ambitions have changed somewhat.



You never know what you're going to get from Team Pozzo other than lots of squad moves and a new manager.  It's almost like one of these anthology TV shows like American Horror Story or True Detective.  The title stays the same but there's little to no continuity from season to season.  Troy Deeney will almost certainly be there next season but that's probably about all we can count on.  The attractiveness of the job has to be diminishing with every successive season that a manager is relatively successful (by either having gotten the Hornets to the top flight or kept them there as way the case with the past three managers) with modest talent but gets sacked anyway.  Hard to see why anyone would sign up to play in what appears to be a pretty dysfunctional situation unless they didn't have many other choices.  


With Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull City down, we'll leave analysis of the newly promoted sides until we find out who will be joining Newcastle and Brighton next season moving up to the Premier League.  The summer will be filled with detailed analysis of the season just past, transfer rumors, previews of the upcoming season and everything else we can think of to keep ourselves sane until we get our Premier League fix back in just over 80 days.  Enjoy the summer!


Cheers - Neal

Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.
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