What a perfect way for Chelsea to clinch the title. A clean sheet was almost a given but the fact that the goal came from a missed penalty that was then converted after the initial failure seems to give grist for just about any argument that you want to make about the new champions, positive or negative. There was the determination and organization necessary to keep a clean sheet. There was a beautiful passing move to create the penalty. There was the disappointing finish from the actual penalty. Finally, there was the resilience to score the needed goal when Plan A (the penalty) didn’t go the way that anyone would have hoped/wanted/expected. Then, of course, there was dancing and celebration among the Stamford Bridge faithful.
If you extrapolate that one sequence over the entire season, you have a perfect encapsulation of the Chelsea ride of 2014-15. The move at the edge of the area was the early part of the season with Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa taking the Premier League by storm and assisting and scoring respectively at will. Chelsea were beautiful to behold back then. There was the missed penalty that represents the doldrums that Chelsea experienced as Manchester City caught them in the standings at mid-season and they crashed out of the Champions League. The improvised goal was indicative of Chelsea doing just enough against Manchester United and Arsenal to ensure that they would be champions. Finally, the clean sheet was the work of John Terry, Nemanja Matic and the rest who take a lot of criticism for their part in Chelsea’s second-half of the season playing style but they executed if flawlessly and got to celebrate as a result.
While that sequence may be indicative of Chelsea’s season, all isn’t necessarily rosy at Stamford Bridge. You look at it on the surface. A title in hand. A summer to buy reinforcements to put additional distance between themselves and the other big clubs in the league. Plenty of money to do so and a massive stock of players who could be sold off to make the math work. A fairly young squad. It all seems quite positive, so what’s the looming issue?
The looming issue, as it always is when he’s present, is Jose Mourinho. It was nearly ten years ago that I wrote that the toughest opponent that Mourinho will face at Chelsea would be time. He was just winning his first Premier League title at the club and it was their first for fifty years so there was exhilaration in spades then. Despite two league titles in two seasons, Mourinho only lasted for a shade over three full seasons at the Bridge.
So, we’re in Year 2 of “The Mourinho Era, Part Deux” and there is euphoria again because Chelsea have only won the league title once since Mourinho left the first time. But how long will it last exactly? It seems unlikely that anyone in the Premier League is going to topple Mourinho if he continues to receive the backing of his boss. What seems more likely to derail this budding dynasty is the potential that Roman Abramovich, after he gets another title next year that comes with another heavy dose of grind-it-out, Mourinho football, will start wondering if there’s a better, more attractive way to achieve the same results.
We’ve seen that the answer to that question is generally “no” but you should never underestimate the power of outside influences on decision-making at that level. I’ve had senior executives that I was consulting for tell me that they couldn’t get a strategic plan past their owner/CEO/boss unless it was somehow rooted in the theories espoused in one of a few recent Harvard Business Review articles. The point being that it was less important to their bosses that the plan submitted be a good one but rather that it be one that they could tell their fellow CEOs or country club members that his most recent pet project was based on the Harvard Business Review article that they’d all read and decided represented the height of current wisdom.
This isn’t to deride the Harvard Business Review, I’ve liked a lot of articles I’ve read in its pages but rather to point out that people like Roman Abramovich are operating at an entirely different level than we mere mortals. What is important to him may be, and almost certainly is, a lot different than what is important for most people. Where you or I might look at what he has sitting in front of him and say “they could legitimately win the league title for five to ten years running if they play their cards right” which would create an unprecedented dynasty. Three consecutive would tie the all-time English record (held by Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United) and getting a fourth would put Chelsea in uncharted territory. To me, and probably to you, that seems like a solid reason to play out the string with Mourinho for a long period of time. Abramovich may feel the same way after seeing what it was like post-Special One the last time out. Don’t underestimate the possibility that after Chelsea play another stretch of pragmatic football at some stage next season and don’t win the Champions League that a conversation with some other fabulously wealthy person inspires him to turn on Mourinho and send Chelsea spiraling from its dynastic heights.
Barring Roman Abramovich over-reacting to a comment from some multi-billionaire, it sure looks like Chelsea and Mourinho are in good shape to be the favorites in the Premier League for the foreseeable future.
The Title Race
Chelsea – Enjoy the title! It will be interesting to see if we get a glimpse of Chelsea’s up-and-coming players over the final three weeks of the season. I’d like to see more of Kurt Zouma for sure and there are others – Dominic Solanke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Isaiah Brown, and Anders Christensen – that are likely to go out on loan next season who would be interesting to see in some capacity before the season ends since the Blues don’t have anything else to play for.
The Race for Europe
Arsenal – They haven’t played yet this week but they got a gift from West Brom as they put some additional distance between themselves and the Red Devils. Arsenal now sit two points in front of Manchester United with two matches in hand. Having a significant cushion means that even if Arsenal can’t break their jinx against United in the Premier League that they can still finish in the Top Three and guarantee themselves Champions League football. Arsenal’s string of fourth place finishes seem to have made them (or maybe their transfer targets or both) conservative before a spot in the knockout stages was confirmed. Finishing second or third would, at least theoretically, put them in a better position to do their business early this summer rather than waiting.
Manchester City – It wasn’t a pretty win against Spurs but given City’s recent road form, a win is a win. They could certainly claim that it should have been 2-0 with Aguero having earned a penalty that wasn’t called. Regardless, it still didn’t look like a team that is in good position to jump into a title race next season. It looked like Team Kun and we know that Aguero has had injury issues at some point in almost every season in the Premier League.
Manchester United – What a mess. Three straight losses. Three straight clean sheets against. A penalty saved. West Brom have revived themselves and have been a solid mid-table team for most of Tony Pulis’ time at the Hawthorns but there is NO excuse for United performing like that at Old Trafford against a team that aspires to “solid” and “mid-table”. Somewhere David Moyes is chuckling to himself on a beach in San Sebastian. Moyes may not have won in six matches himself but expectations are much lower at Real Sociedad and you get to live here. United aren’t safe yet in fourth and made their lives far more difficult getting to third.
Liverpool – Oh, how sweet it would be if the Reds could track down United late and steal away their Champions League place. They’re four points back with three to play. A once-daunting match-up with Chelsea might be less significant now that Chelsea have been confirmed as Champions. Crystal Palace at Anfield and Stoke City at the Potteries are the final two matches. It isn’t an easy path, especially if Chelsea decide to bring their A (or even B+) game. Contrast that with United’s final three matches – at Selhurst Park, Arsenal, and at the KC Stadium – and you can see a path for Liverpool. Hull City may be scrapping for their lives on the final day and Arsenal will likely be pushing hard for second. It’s still a long shot but there is, at least, a shot that still exists.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
QPR –They aren’t mathematically out of it but the Rs appear to be as good as relegated. Robert Green seems to have earned at least a reserve role in the Premier League for next season. Charlie Austin will certainly be the subject of a bidding war between clubs as high up the table as Spurs, Southampton, and Liverpool as well as those further down the ladder. Spurs and the Saints would be solid destinations but, personally, I’d like to see Austin somewhere like West Brom where a forward could be the thing to elevate them from mediocre to challenging for a Europa Cup spot. Leroy Fer will also get a lot of looks elsewhere around the Premier League with Newcastle seeming like a solid fit.
Burnley – Also not mathematically eliminated but for all intents and purposes relegated. Kieran Trippier, perhaps to Southampton when Nathaniel Clyne moves to Old Trafford, seems like the obvious summer transfer. Danny Ings doesn’t necessarily count as a transfer since he is out of contract but there will certainly be a lot of bidders for his services. Could Manchester City, in need of some English players even if they never actually play, be Ings’ destination after they shed two English squad players who never played, Joleon Lescott and Jack Rodwell.
Sunderland – They picked up a huge three points over Southampton but still sit just inside the relegation zone but with a match in hand. @Everton, @Arsenal and @Chelsea are all going to be extremely difficult fixtures regardless of how much or how little those clubs have to play for at that point in the season. The home match with Leicester City in two weeks’ time will be absolutely massive in the race to stay out of that third relegation spot. I still expect Sunderland to go down but with Hull City facing an equally daunting schedule, the win against Southampton gives them hope.
Hull City – We’ll find out more when they play Arsenal later today but @Spurs and Manchester United at the KC Stadium are both difficult tasks. Burnley, the obvious remaining source of points presents a difficult test even if they are mathematically eliminated as it’s hard to see that hard-working group check out early. If Sunderland are the favorites for the third relegation spot then Hull City are just a nose behind them.
Leicester City – As expected, the Foxes lost to Chelsea in mid-week but they made it five out of six by demolishing, you heard me right demolishing, Newcastle over the weekend. If you want a sense of just how bad Leicester City was for most of the season, they’ve picked up 15 points over the past six matches and they’re STILL only one point out of the relegation zone. The schedule is kind the rest of the way with faltering Southampton at the King Power Stadium, Sunderland, and then already-vacationing QPR on the final day. The Foxes should be safe but this is still the same group that was sitting on 19 points April 1 so let’s not get TOO excited just yet.
Aston Villa – Like Leicester City, Aston Villa have played much better of late with Christian Benteke banging in the goals. Despite 13 points since the beginning of March, Villa are still only two points clear. West Ham at Villa Park, Southampton at St. Mary’s and Burnley back at Villa Park on the final day looks like a reasonable path to survival. Assuming survival is booked then there is the matter of Arsenal in the FA Cup final and then keeping Benteke over the summer. Hard to imagine either of those last two things coming off particularly well but at least they’ll win themselves another season in the Premier League to figure things out.
Newcastle – That crept up on them quick, didn’t it. This was one of their big chances that you would have expected them to win about two months ago but they’re now firmly in the conversation for relegation sitting two points out of the relegation zone and in the worst form of anyone.
Newcomer of the Year – After adding new categories to the list last Monday, the format is changing slightly again this week with the space here dedicated to the performance of the week from each category with the standings for the year at the end.
It’s hard to think of Jermain Defoe as a “newcomer” given all the years of Premier League service he has to his name. Throw in the fact that he didn’t even score a goal and it makes his nomination here doubly difficult to justify. However, if you want to award this on impact, and clearly I do this week, then Defoe drawing a penalty from James Ward-Prowse that put Sunderland up a goal and a man in a crucial match for their survival then Defoe gets the nod.
Domestic Transfer of the Year
I was going to write about Jonjo Shelvey and his two fantastic assists here but how can you ignore Leonardo Ulloa who transferred in from Brighton over the summer and has been at the heart of Leicester City’s great form when it has happened. The club would certainly like to see him get more consistent as he managed the entire middle of the season without much production to speak of that eventually led to him being benched for a spell. As the Foxes have needed him, he has rebounded late at the heart of Leicester City’s past two wins notching three goals to help see his side out of the relegation zone.
Young Player of the Year
At 26, this player isn’t really “young” per se but I’m going to give him some press here since he has gone unnoticed for most of the season. This hasn’t been a banner year for midfielders accumulating big goal totals – Frank Lampard and Stevie G are now reserves, Yaya Toure has been a shadow of his former self, Angel di Maria has been a flop and Arsenal’s midfield have spread goals around rather than concentrating them with one or two players. Sitting here with Week 35 almost in the books, David Silva leads all midfielders with 11 goals with Christen Eriksen (10), and Nacer Chadli (10) just behind. It isn’t a huge shock to see Juan Mata next on the list at 8 but what is shocking is to see who he is tied with, Ki Sung-yeung. That’s more than Sterling, more than Cazorla, more than Gerrard, more than Lampard, more than Oscar or Sigurdsson or Henderson. Throw in that goal-scoring isn’t really his thing as a holding midfielder and one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more press this season. He doesn’t have outrageous defending statistics but it is worth considering that part of his contribution on the defensive end might be being in the right place to deter attacks rather than necessarily making tackles or intercepting passes. Just something to think about as we make a lot of fuss about Morgan Schneiderlin and William Carvalho this summer.
Player of the Year
On this title-winning weekend it seems appropriate to give a fifth of the trophy for PotY to Hazard, Fabregas, Costa, Matic and Terry. There is no dominant argument for any of the five but together they’ve been the perfect ensemble cast to bring the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge.
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Where we list those players who failed to tally any “major” statistics (goal, assist, clean sheet) but scored big in the more subtle categories like tackles won, passes intercepted, blocked shots, shots on target, successful crosses or corners won that can make a fantasy week in formats that reward these statistics. Occasionally, we’ll reward a player who gets an assist or a clean sheet if they also had a big “phantom” weekend.
The Arsenal match just started and I’d rather get the column posted than sift through five additional Phantom Point All-Stars:
- Boaz Myhill – It was another exceptional week for the West Brom keeper who won, got a clean sheet but boosted it even further with a penalty save and nine conventional saves. Coming off of weeks of 18 and 17 points in the Yahoo system, he managed 36 in Week 35 alone. What a run.
- Aleksandar Kolarov – Speaking of great three week runs, Aleksandar Kolarov is on an even better one than Myhill. He went 16 and 24 in Weeks 33 and 34 and then added 29 from six interceptions, three blocked shots, two shots on target, four successful crosses, three corners won, two tackles won, and the clean sheet. Heck of a match.
- Kieran Trippier – It’s Kieran Trippier’s weekly featured spot with the right back picking up 16 fantasy points including three blocked shots, four successful crosses, three tackles won, a corner won and a pass intercepted.
- Julien Speroni – He picked up the loss against Chelsea and, despite that, managed 16 fantasy points in the Yahoo format with six saves and the penalty save on Eden Hazard.
- Robin van Persie – Louis Van Gaal may have said that RvP was “winding down” after his penalty miss against the Baggies but he still managed six shots on target during the match to outweigh the penalty miss.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Arsenal only win when it doesn’t matter: This is the long-held narrative about Arsenal and why they haven’t won a title in recent years. To some extent, the timing will tell you that this is true but everyone who knows how to analyze data will tell you that correlation does not always equal causation. Teams are different and circumstances are different. It has been some years since Arsenal were legitimate title contenders. You can argue that Arsenal’s transfer strategy has led to their issues winning matches “when it counts” but look at what has changed since last season when Arsenal were clearly not title contenders based on their performances against big clubs. Alexis Sanchez arrived from Barcelona as a second exceptional player to team with Mesut Ozil. Francis Coquelin emerged to fill the long-standing gap at holding midfielder. Hector Bellerin emerged to provide depth at right back. David Ospina arrived to provide steady-if-unspectacular play in the net. That’s more than a third of the starting line-up that had to turn over to get us to this point in the season where Arsenal look like they could contend. If anything, the 2014-15 Arsenal squad over-achieved given the pieces they started the season with. Again, you can blame Wenger for not having the necessary pieces in place in August but as far as achieving on the pitch, this group has been about as good as you could reasonably expect if not a little bit better. Because of the club’s pedigree the popular narrative is that they should always contend but that’s just not the reality. If they can’t contend next season based on what has happened this season then there would be legitimate reason for complaint among the fans and the media.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – Not sure that you could define “riding quietly into the sunset” and better than a loss to Sunderland.
- This Week’s Good Points: Lots of good points as Leicester City, Sunderland, Aston Villa and West Brom all won with Hull City still to play.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City 27; Crystal Palace 20; Burnley 17; Hull City 16; Aston Villa 16; Sunderland 13; West Brom 13; Swansea City 12; Newcastle 10; Stoke City 10; West Ham 9; Spurs 8; Manchester United 8; Liverpool 7; Arsenal 6; QPR 5; Southampton 4; Everton 4; Chelsea 3.
- This Week’s Bad Points: The other end of the four big wins are on the wrong end of the equation with Everton, Newcastle, Manchester United and Southampton all picking up three bad points with Arsenal yet to play.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United 28; Manchester City 24; Spurs 21; Liverpool 21; Everton 17; Southampton 17, Chelsea 14; Arsenal 13; Newcastle 12; Swansea City 10; Stoke City 8; Crystal Palace 8; Sunderland 7; West Brom 6; Burnley 6; Aston Villa 5; West Ham 5; Hull City 3; and QPR 2.
- My Favorite Things – Penalty saves…Sergio Aguero’s attempt to volley going away from the net – the move was exceptional and if he could have kept his balance it would have been a goal of the year candidate from a technical point of view…Michael Dawson’s deflection (just happened as I was writing)…Jonjo Shelvey’s work on the edge of the penalty area for his two assists…Benteke’s continued run of goal-scoring form…Sergio Aguero again because he’s essentially carrying a team to a Champions League place by himself…Jonas Olsson being everywhere for the Baggies…Ulloa returning to form just in time after taking about six months off from being productive…
- My Least Favorite Things – Everything happening at Newcastle right now on the pitch…John Carver’s news conferences…John Carver’s qualifications to be a Premier League manager…People putting down Chelsea’s title because it wasn’t entertaining enough…Former Spurs (Huddlestone and Livermore) playing irresponsibly against their former rivals Arsenal, they just couldn’t give the ball away frequently enough…Sunderland’s defense clattering into each other to allow Southampton’s lone goal…the referee not awarding a penalty to City when he was brought down, it may not have been “intentional” but that still doesn’t excuse it, intent isn’t necessary, it was a penalty.
- What did we find out? Chelsea are Champions. Manchester United are a bit of a fraud and will have at least a little nervous time getting their Champions League play-in ticket stamped. Leicester City, Hull City, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Newcastle are going to have a hellacious run-in looking to avoid the final relegation spot.
- What’s Next? Who would have guessed that Hull City vs. Burnley would ever be the biggest match of any weekend but that’s what we’re looking at. Chelsea host Liverpool in their Sunday coronation party in a match that now means a ton more to the Reds than the Blues, especially if Manchester United conspire to drop more points at Selhurst Park in the late match on Saturday. The rest of the relegation candidates all play mid-table teams with little to play for which could produce some additional chaos and we’ll have it all on the NBC Sports family of networks and web sites.