Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday or Tuesday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
Well, here we are. Another Premier League season has come and gone. It has passed into the hands of history, just like 25 others before it, for us to decode and interpret. So how will we remember it?
That’s the question for the morning after. It always is. And the answer rarely, if ever, is straightforward. But I’ll remember 2017-18, among other things, as a season of turnover and change. Chelsea, last season’s king, floundered while Manchester City flourished. For the ninth season in a row, England’s top flight had a new champion. It’s the joint-longest run without a repeat since the 1960s and 70s.
And of course, there was turnover on the touchline, headlined by Arsene Wenger’s resignation after 22 years at Arsenal. Including Wenger, 11 managers lost or left their jobs, a Premier League record for a single season. A 12th, and maybe even a 13th, could follow in the coming weeks. Unprecedented pressure led to unprecedented managerial carnage. More on that in a bit.
But any summation of the 2017-18 campaign must begin with the team that scored its final goal. With the last kick of its record-breaking season, Man City got a third digit to commemorate it. One hundred was the most important number of the past nine months. Because its the mark of the greatest Premier League team ever, and, yes, the most impressive season in English history.
1. City’s century is a bigger accomplishment than Arsenal’s Invincibility
We are out of adjectives to describe City’s excellence. Out of characteristics that explain its dominance. Out of talking points and narratives. But now we have one more number: 100. A century of points, the most ever in England’s first division, and two off the equivalent record in other top European leagues. Nobody has ever been better.
There remains an obsession in England with Arsenal’s 2003-04 Invincibles, and understandably so. An unbeaten season is a unique accomplishment. But that doesn’t mean it’s the pinnacle. That Gunners team drew 12 times, and claimed only 90 points. It won 26 games compared to City’s 32. It scored 73 goals to City’s 106.
Any preference for invincibility over triple digits highlights an odd soccer fixation with results. The idea of getting a result groups draws together with wins, when in reality, quantitatively, a draw is twice as close to a loss as it is to a victory. The fixation is valid in knockout competitions. In a league setting, there are very few situations in which settling for a draw is an optimal strategy.
Which is likely one of many reasons City always played to win. It didn’t go to Anfield and shut up shop; it didn’t try to hang on at 2-2 in the Manchester Derby. As a result, it lost twice. But it won countless other games that propelled it to a title and into the record books. Points are what teams play for. City won 10 more than 03-04 Arsenal. There is no valid argument for those Gunners over Pep Guardiola’s men. None at all.
2. Wenger’s time had come, but not before he made the modern Premier League
The strange reality of Arsene Wenger’s downfall at Arsenal is that many Premier League fans – and especially American converts – never knew Wenger at his height. They only knew the “specialist in failure,” as Jose Mourinho once famously said. They didn’t know the Invincibles; only the man who clung to, and survived based on, their immortality for far too long.
And what they probably don’t realize is that Wenger made the product they adore. He, more than any other individual, was responsible for the Premier League’s globalization. Globalization, more than any other characteristic, has been responsible for its international marketability. Its marketability is responsible for the lucrative TV contracts. The influx of foreign stars, the influx of TV money that allows clubs to bring them to England, and the entertaining football they play has upped the quality of the league top to bottom, and put it on a pedestal at the top of the sport.
Wenger was behind so much of that. Arsenal’s squad on Aug. 1, 1996, featured 24 Brits who would go on to play for the Gunners that year and just two foreigners. It was par for the Premier League at the time. Wenger looked abroad immediately. Twenty-two years later, he leaves a roster comprising 17 foreigners and just eight Brits. He leaves a league that has followed his lead away from 4-4-2s and long balls, into the modern age.
The league followed him, then overtook him, lapped him, and vanquished him. It turned him into a relic of a bygone era, the last of a dying breed. He had to go. And it will take the Gunners years to undo the damage of Arsene’s last stand. But the response to his resignation has been beautifully balanced. The tributes have been extensive. Because every Premier League manager and player knows that Wenger is a reason – one of many – why they are where they are, making as much money as they are while doing something they love.
3. Why the Premier League had unprecedented managerial turnover
Wenger lasted 22 years. With the clock at Arsenal reset to 0, and the clock at Chelsea soon to follow, the average managerial tenure at the 2017-18 Premier League’s 20 clubs will soon be one year and 238 days, or 1.65 years. That, surely, is an all-time low.
It’s also no coincidence. Because revenue shares for Premier League clubs are at an all-time high. Pressure to stay in the top division and capitalize financially, therefore, is at an all-time high. And it’s governing how clubs make decisions. Survival has become an at-all-costs priority, even if the prioritization of it inhibits long-term growth. That’s why the gap between the six clubs untroubled by relegation and the others will continue to grow. Some used to dream of challenging the Big Six. Perhaps Everton still does. The rest are increasingly content to tread water.
4. All three newly-promoted teams stayed up
Perhaps short-term thinking elsewhere is one reason that all three newly-promoted sides secured another season of Premier League football. They arrived in the top flight with identities and stuck to them. Huddersfield, for example, knew from the moment its celebrations began last May at Wembley that it was going to be in for a fight. So it didn’t panic when points began to dry up.
But this is less about newly-promoted teams as a class and more about the individual clubs. It’s also an outlier. In fact, it was one small piece of a remarkable, never-before, never-again stat: all 16 newbies in each of England’s top five leagues, from the Premier League right on down to the National League, avoided relegation this year. That’s a stunning collective achievement.
5. What happened at Chelsea?
For the second two-year window in a row, Chelsea went from table-toppers to top-four outsiders. Antonio Conte spoke explicitly over the summer about avoiding a “Mourinho season.” Even with warnings at the front of his mind, he couldn’t.
But this regression was far more foreseeable. The Blues toyed with fine margins throughout Conte’s tenure. In 2016-17, everything on the margins went right. This year, it simply didn’t. Diego Costa didn’t win points singlehandedly, because he was at home in Brazil, then back in Madrid. Performances throughout the squad dipped as minutes and European travel piled up. Output at either end of the pitch fell more in line with underlying numbers. Conte’s unorthodox leadership, shall we say, probably didn’t help. But there wasn’t anything too surprising about the champs slipping to fifth.
6. Did Manchester United really improve in year two under Mourinho?
It wasn’t just Chelsea. Many of the year-over-year trends toward the top of the table fell in line with what last year’s Expected Goals numbers would have predicted. Tottenham regressed slightly. Liverpool improved slightly until the season’s final month-plus. City roared to the top of the table. Chelsea plummeted. Arsenal remained well off the top-four pace. Everton took a step back.
Those same underlying numbers can inform three early 2018-19 predictions, even before the summer transfer window reshapes the league: 1. Manchester City will come back toward the pack, even if not all the way into it; 2. Manchester United will find itself in a scrap for Champions League qualification, not a title race; and 3. Burnley will not finish in the top half.
The second of those three is the most intriguing, because United, by many estimations, took strides in year two under Mourinho. But so much of the improvement was some combination of luck and David De Gea. How much of each? That’s what we don’t really know. And it’s why we can’t really be sure how far off City’s pace United actually is.
7. Three underplayed Premier League goodbyes
Wenger’s farewell got the headlines, but three outstanding Premier League playing careers may have ended this past month as well. Yaya Toure, the most important player on the most successful teams in Manchester City history, is departing the club. Michael Carrick, for so long the most underrated and low-key elegant midfield in England, is hanging up his boots. Wayne Rooney is reportedly off to MLS.
And when you think about it, those three players are three of the most influential Premier League players of the first half of this decade. Carrick was the overlooked engine of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great teams. Rooney’s résumé and stature speak for themselves. Toure won City its first trophy in ages, and drove City right up to United’s side – perhaps now even past its crosstown rival.
Toure could stick around in England. Rooney, too, could be back. And none of the three exits on its own truly marks the end of an era. But all three come with significant doses of nostalgia.
8. Yes, Jurgen Klopp is definitely the right man for Liverpool
There will always be naysayers. And there will always be stats for them to mindlessly spew. The number of choice for Jurgen Klopp’s detractors right now is 75. That’s Liverpool’s 2017-18 point total. It’s one fewer than last year’s.
But Klopp, to rational observers, proved his worth this season. He validated the idea that he and Liverpool are a match made in heaven. He has the Reds on course to challenge for trophies year in and year out. The evidence is in the details.
Liverpool’s Achilles Heel last season was its inability to consistently thrash inferior opponents. It dropped 28 points against non-Big Six foes. Its inability to adapt its high-octane style to their countermeasures was troubling.
In 2017-18, that was a non-issue. Prior to April, when Liverpool turned its attention to the Champions League, the Reds had dropped just 13 points against the Other 14. Their record against the top five – 1-3-4 – is what held them back. But given their European success, there is nothing to suggest that mark represents a trend or a long-term worry. Liverpool will and should be the second-favorite for the 2018-19 title.
9. Can anybody challenge City next year?
Factoring in expected regression, the bar for Premier League title contention is probably a hair above 90 points. Let’s say it’s 92 or 93. Who besides City can get there?
Liverpool, with Naby Keita and perhaps a record-breaking signing in net, absolutely could. The case for any other team, though, rides on either fluky occurrences or Mourinho magic. The latter has been mysteriously absent for three years. United is nowhere near the unit it should be, and suggestions that the game has passed Mourinho by aren’t unfounded. Tottenham, arguably the second-best team in England this year, seems to have peaked. Chelsea could rebound, but not all the way into contention.
The stat all the way back in the intro – that the Premier League hasn’t had a repeat champ this decade – suggests assumptions of impending dynastic success at the Etihad are foolish. The Citizens are 8/11 – or 58 percent – in early betting markets to lift a second straight trophy. A lot could go wrong. A lot elsewhere could go right.
But never before has the Premier League seen a team this dominant. Barring unforeseen offseason turmoil, rarely will the league have seen a reigning champ this stable. The Premier League was City’s in 2017-18. And until further notice, it still is.
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