·29 May 2023
·29 May 2023
Pep Guardiola dominated, about 10 managers overachieved, Brighton and Brentford were brilliant and even Arsenal bottled their way to stunning progress.
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Pep Guardiola Only Sir Alex Ferguson had ever won three top-flight English league titles in a row. No manager had ever won three top-flight titles in a row in England, Spain and Germany. Only three managers have ever won more English top-flight titles overall.
Pep Guardiola, while adhering to the rule of three, might yet end this season with a suitable Treble.
It started with Joao Cancelo at left-back, Nathan Ake in the centre, John Stones and Bernardo Silva on the bench, Jack Grealish on the periphery and doubts as to whether the champions could adjust their playing style to accommodate a battering ram instead of a collection of silky, wispy creative keys.
It ended with unhappy players shifted out, bit parts being upgraded to crucial roles, tactical tweaks and adjustments – Ake at left-back to counter one-v-ones was a masterstroke – and Manchester City approaching something close to their ultimate form.
This season has not been their best in terms of goals scored or conceded, nor points or games won. They have played better, more attractive football in previous campaigns. But this inevitable, irrepressible iteration of a winning machine is the most mature, sensible and thus daunting and efficient Manchester City have been. A problem-solving Guardiola side that can deal with and appropriately respond to setbacks over the course of a season on all fronts is a dangerous beast that requires perfection to topple over 38 games.
The worst thing for the chasing pack is that it still feels like they have more gears to work through if necessary. Manchester City have truly mastered the art of the marathon sprint.
Erling Haaland This season legitimately started with Haaland being forced into a rivalry with Darwin Nunez. The Manchester City striker beat his Liverpool counterpart’s goal tally for the entire season by October 2.
Gary O’Neil When Gary O’Neil left a cushy gig in the Liverpool academy to become Bournemouth first-team coach in February 2021, Cherries manager Jonathan Woodgate spoke of the positive impact “an outside pair of eyes” could render.
While his contribution to the club’s promotion the following season should not be underplayed, it took another 18 months or so for Bournemouth to benefit from that fresh outlook – and more importantly a different voice.
O’Neil was the perfect ying to Scott Parker’s anti-motivational yang. Realising that telling his players they were absolutely sh*te might not be the best approach, O’Neil instead sought to highlight and focus on their strengths. The six-game unbeaten run which came immediately after that crushing 9-0 defeat to Liverpool was longer than any sequence without defeat Brighton managed all season (five games).
It is also remarkably funny that the heaviest defeat Bournemouth suffered in 37 games under O’Neil (4-0 v West Ham) matched the biggest loss Parker suffered (5-1 v Benfica) in 12 Brugge games this season after being sacked while telling the Cherries he “can see some more” thrashings.
“They need some help,” Parker said after the 9-0 at Anfield. O’Neil was soon in to provide it, steering a team that was doomed to relegation in August to a position where they almost caught Chelsea and have been outside the bottom three since early April.
For a manager who only turned 40 this month to deliver on that ultimate objective, with wins over Liverpool and Spurs along the way, is a remarkable achievement, regardless of what comes next.
Eddie Howe Newcastle beheading to the Champions League. And it is worth reiterating that inevitable though that outcome seems, even those actually at the club never expected it to be reached so soon.
That much is evident in their media-managed budget leaks, which started out suggesting the Magpies would be frugal and sensible in the transfer market before a sudden discovery of those buried war chests upon European qualification.
Eddie Howe has already outlined his desire for a ‘marquee signing’ and while the inclination is to believe he is dreaming of bringing in Conor Gallagher or Kieran Tierney instead of Kylian Mbappe, it is upon those practical foundations he has already built an excellent team with potential to improve.
But for all the importance of Bruno Guimaraes, Sven Botman, Kieran Trippier, Nick Pope, Alexander Isak and those many others tempted to Tyneside since the takeover, Howe’s brilliance is born in the progress of those he inherited. None of Fabian Schar, Miguel Almiron, Joelinton, Sean Longstaff, Jacob Murphy, Joe Willock and Callum Wilson were assumed to be good enough for this calibre of club yet their contribution has been invaluable and each have enjoyed their best seasons to date.
Perhaps that makes Howe their perfect manager: a coach with obvious ability but who was previously thought too limited at Champions League level. Next season will reveal all on that front but on the basis of this campaign alone he has already exceeded what most expected him to achieve at Newcastle.
Newcastle fans After years of being told (coincidentally by friends of either Mike Ashley or Steve Bruce) that they won’t be happy unless Newcastle win the Champions League, how exciting it must be to finally have the opportunity.
Arsenal Mikel Arteta told his players to “shut your mouth and eat it” after a “f**king embarrassing” defeat to Newcastle confirmed their capitulation last season. Losing six of their last 12 games was confirmation for many of a soft centre, a fundamental weakness, an inherent psychological flaw as the Gunners failed their campaign objective of Champions League qualification.
The message need not be as harsh and cutting this campaign but dropping 15 points in the last nine games to squander the title makes for an uncomfortable parallel nevertheless.
Still, crashing into a bar raised during a season is better than tripping under one set firmly in place months ago. Arsenal fans would undoubtedly have taken a runners-up medal in July – and few backed them for it – even if the circumstances in which they came second are tinged with regret and disappointment.
There is still plenty of time to contemplate what could have been and why it wasn’t. As that sense slowly fades, Arsenal can celebrate what was and anticipate what still might be. As much as they ultimately bottled it, those 248 days in the lead showed how foolish it would be to cap expectations there. This was no fluke.
Arsenal could be in for a busy summer window
The Gunners are being linked with plenty of players as the likes of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey could depart.
0 seconds of 1 minute, 11 secondsVolume 90%
Brighton “Why not?” said Brighton chief executive Paul Barber in the summer of 2021 when asked whether the club could qualify for Europe by 2026. On their current trajectory – 16th, 41 points, 40 goals scored, 46 conceded and nine wins in 2020/21 to 9th, 51 points, 42 goals scored, 44 conceded and 12 wins in 2021/22, and now 6th, 62 points, 71 goals scored, 51 conceded and 18 wins – the title would be a low bar in three years’ time.
That is, of course, not how it works for clubs outside the gilded elite, who must nail every single decision to continue their forward momentum for fear of one slip starting a spiral. Leicester and Southampton have shown that the gravity of the Premier League ladder can only be resisted for so long.
But there is something about Brighton which makes their brilliance seem so irresistibly sustainable. The infrastructure, the knowledge, the unique approach to scouting and player pathways – it’s all there and these ripe fruits are the result of more than a decade’s worth of labour.
Tony Bloom took over in 2009 and this has been his most life-affirming season yet as chairman. Brighton made £127.6m from sales (more than every team bar Manchester City) and spent £41.3m on signings (less than every team bar Crystal Palace), yet they have improved markedly while playing football marvelled at and envied across the country, having lost their manager early in the campaign.
Their ceiling remains both impressively high and tantalisingly unknown; the Champions League is the next logical step and that is far from out of the question. Brighton have a World Cup winner among at least five players who clubs would conceivably pay £50m or more for either now or in a year or two, with their seemingly constant conveyor belt already preparing the next fleet of talent to replace them.
Some clubs have used cheat codes to reach this level and there is no point pretending otherwise. Brighton have developed their own game-breaking mechanics which elicit jealous glances rather than talk of asterisks and arguments. It is great to see objectively the best-run club in English football be suitably rewarded.
Steve Cooper In a season of immense churn for the playing squad, Nottingham Forest benefited from the opposite approach when it came to their manager. Twisting their way to 29 new first-team signings is fine, but only because they stuck by Steve Cooper.
There were times when a parting seemed inevitable. Dreaded as they are, Cooper has survived two votes of confidence to finish 16th, with each of the four teams below having sacked at least one manager this season.
Five straight defeats heading into October led to rampant speculation before a new contract, while public backing was offered amid private panic in April when Forest slipped back into the bottom three following an 11-game winless run.
Through it all, Cooper has navigated unique challenges with calm and focus, absorbing the pressure of the Premier League to take a few statement wins while delivering a final and a cup run.
For his first season in the top flight, that’s mightily impressive. For his fourth season of club management at any level, and with the hope of an entire city behind him, it’s preposterous.
Erik ten Hag Erik Ten Months became Erik Seven Nil but ultimately Man Utd have been fully vindicated for finally placing themselves in the care of an adult who does not allow his ego or self-interest override the greater good.
The tangible success speaks for itself: a first trophy for the club in six years satisfied those who only measure management in trophy terms, while Champions League qualification ticked a necessary box.
But the abstract victories were arguably more resounding and important. The coaxing of a broken squad through an act so simple as enduring their punishment to show this was a weight of responsibility for all to bear; the impeccable handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo situation; the seamless phasing out of the club captain for an oft-criticised new signing he specifically championed; the professional but compassionate approach to Jadon Sancho; the gradual overriding of a capacity for collapse which still exists but is being slowly coached out.
A Premier League rival famously once rejected Ten Hag due to his ‘no more than adequate’ command of the English language, as well as an apparent lack of charisma. The Dutchman might lack the soundbites which made some of his predecessors at Old Trafford so engrossing but Ten Hag’s presence and force of personality has already marked him out as the most suitable Man Utd manager in a decade.
Unai Emery Perhaps Steven Gerrard is an easier act to follow than Arsene Wenger. It’s almost impossible to say. But the mini Premier League career rehabilitation enjoyed by Unai Emery this season has been a quiet delight away from the spotlight.
The Spaniard simply cannot be denied European qualification, no matter how hard anyone tries, nor how high he employs his defensive line. A figure of fun who never felt like a natural fit for Arsenal has slotted in seamlessly at Aston Villa.
Despite managing just 25 games and inheriting a team in 16th, Emery has more points than the entire bottom half managed all season, and as many wins as both Brentford and Fulham.
With his PPG record (1.96) extrapolated over an entire campaign, Villa would have finished fourth. The challenge will be to replicate such stunning form over a full season but the evidence so far suggests Emery is up to it.
Thomas Frank When the Premier League Manager of the Season nominations were made, and even afterwards when the notable omissions had their cases furiously put forward – how the f**k were Bruno Saltor and Adam Sadler overlooked? – Thomas Frank remained on the outside of a conversation he should have dominated.
Brentford finishing in the top half of the Premier League should not be normalised. Brentford losing fewer games than all but Arsenal, Newcastle and Manchester City should not be accepted. Brentford having a chance at qualifying for Europe on the final day should not be disregarded. Brentford losing arguably their best player in the summer but still improving should evoke far more than a shrug at best.
The Bees have completed their collection of Big Six scalps, spent relatively little and not dropped below 11th all season despite operating on the lowest wage bill in the division. The deeper you look, the harder it is to argue anyone did a better job than Frank.
Fulham The only team other than Manchester City to win all six of their games against the bottom three. That’s one mightily effective way to avoid relegation.
Julen Lopetegui The fourth manager to guide a club that was bottom of the Premier League at Christmas to safety. Bryan Robson went down with West Brom the following season, Gus Poyet was sacked by Sunderland in his next campaign, and Nigel Pearson didn’t even make it that far after Leicester dumped him in the same summer.
with Julen Lopetegui at Wolves, but they went from doomed to comfortable mid-table team under him so fair play.
Sean Dyche Five wins as a Premier League manager this season, by two slightly different scorelines: either 1-0 or 5-1. Thirty-one and one of Dyche’s 77 top-flight victories have come through those respective methods. But however it happened, he did the bare minimum and dragged Everton over the line.
Jesse Marsch Left (was sacked by) Leeds in 17th, before holding talks with Leicester and Southampton and rejecting both. The man cannot be relegated.
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