LONDON – A Premier League season that began with justified hopes of a competitive, high quality battle between six heavyweight clubs with some of the finest coaches in football ends with a whimper on Sunday.
Even Sky Sports, who can normally upgrade the mundane into mind-blowing, will struggle to make the fight for third place a nail-biting finale.
More like Super Slumberday.
Chelsea is the champion, Tottenham the runner-up and that has been inevitable for several weeks. The title race was more of a procession. Manchester United will finish sixth, so all that remains is to see whether Manchester City, Liverpool or Arsenal finishes third, fourth or fifth. As City plays Watford (away), Liverpool hosts relegated Middlesbrough and Arsenal ends with a visit of Everton, which is guaranteed seventh place, breath should not be held for a late change of fortune.
Despite its wealth and Hollywood coaches, it has been a disappointing, underwhelming season for the Premier League. Chelsea has been by far the best team and only Tottenham offered any realistic challenge. Liverpool can be satisfied if it finishes fourth, as is probable, in Jurgen Klopp’s first full season. Arsenal flattered to deceive for the umpteeth time and the much-anticipated resuming battle between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho never got off the ground.
Leicester City was the last English team left in the Champions League, reaching the quarterfinals, with the other representatives from the richest league in the world — Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal — making early exits. Out of the first six group-stage matches, there were five defeats for England’s representatives, a win ratio of 16 percent. United has reached the final of the Europa League, but has under-achieved and under-entertained in the domestic league.
A year ago, Leicester finished 10 points ahead of Arsenal; on Sunday, Chelsea will most likely end the campaign seven points clear of Spurs. With the high-profile arrival of Guardiola and the return of Mourinho, Antonio Conte slipped under the radar, but the former Juventus coach maintained his remarkable record and has now won a league title in each of his last four seasons as a club manager.
Yet it was far from a smooth baptism in England for Conte, and eight matches into his career with Chelsea it lost 3-0 at Arsenal. At that time, Chelsea was 25-1 to win the title, yet that defeat proved to be the springboard for its incredible change of fortune. The Blues had started against Arsenal with a back four, but 10 minutes after halftime Conte brought on Marco Alonso and switched to the three-man defense formation that saw it lose only three more league matches.
Chelsea won its next game against Hull 2-0 though there was — unbelievably in hindsight — such a flurry of wagers on Conte to be the next Premier League manager to be sacked that bookmakers suspended betting.
After the loss at Arsenal, Chelsea won its next 12 top-flight matches including six initial shutouts before Tottenham ended the run on Jan. 4.
“We hit rock bottom [in the 3-0 defeat] against Arsenal,” said Conte as Chelsea celebrated its title victory earlier this week. “I saw zero of my ideas in that team. I had to change.” Victor Moses and Alonso became wing-backs with Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and David Luiz a three-man defensive unit. N’Golo Kante and either Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas were the midfield enforcers with Pedro, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard providing pace, power, penetration and precision finishing.
Conte’s coaching and low-key management has been beyond criticism. He has kept the influential club captain John Terry happy as a substitute, pacified Costa when he had a hissy-fit over a move to China, while he has improved the standard of every Chelsea player after the underachievement of finishing 10th post-Mourinho.
Not playing in Europe has been a bonus for Chelsea though the clubs who were thought to be its main competitors have made it easier for Conte and company by failing to punch their weight. Spurs have played some wonderful football, but unlike Chelsea have not learned how to turn away draws into wins. Liverpool looked impressive against the other top six sides,but ordinary when playing the league’s nowhere men.
Arsenal did what Arsenal does and its fans can expect more of the same when Arsene Wenger finally signs his new contract later this month. City started like Usain Bolt and it looked like the Guardiola factor had hit the ground running. The Catalan’s addiction to constantly changing his team did not help and the early promise evaporated amid errors by goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and a defense that needs serious surgery.
Mourinho is guaranteed his lowest league finish after a full season in charge anywhere. Previously his record with FC Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real was: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1. His reputation is on the line with next Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm because failure would leave United looking back on a far from special inaugural season with the self-styled special one despite having already won the League Cup.
Only in 2004/05 has United had as many 0-0 draws in a Premier League season as the six this season. Old Trafford has witnessed 15 league draws so far. Even if United beats Crystal Palace on Sunday, it will be its lowest ever total of wins in a single PL season (currently 17). The Theatre of Dreams has seen fewer PL goals (36) apart from Southampton (37).
This was not the sort of consistency anticipated when United made the Portuguese the successor to Louis van Gaal and allowed him to spend £150 million last summer, plus Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer. If United wins the Europa League, which carries entry to the Champions League, then Mourinho will have used his get-out-of-jail card, though it cannot paper over the cracks of a turgid nine months in the Premier League. The club record of 25 matches unbeaten within a single top-flight season is admirable, though half of those were draws and too often United fans thought they were watching the same game over and over again.
The master spin doctor gave supporters what they wanted to hear when he was appointed . . . how United was going to go for the league. . . Mourinho is now brainwashing fans into believing reaching the final of a competition which, in the past dozen years, Fulham and Middlesbrough have also achieved and finishing sixth is a decent season.
Mourinho’s body language has been negative and the only times he smiles or laughs is in a sarcastic manner on the sidelines after a perceived refereeing error (against his team, of course). He has moaned about the demanding schedule of games, but if you reach a European final it comes with the territory and United has a squad deep enough to deal with this.
He has said he will play a team of kids against Palace to keep his senior players injury-free for Stockholm. The Europa League final is, in many ways, a much bigger match for Mourinho than United and in United’s favor is that Ajax should be sponsored by Mothercare. In its last league game, Davy Klaassen (24) was the oldest player and the only one over 21 years of age.
Men against boys, perhaps, but one man’s head is very much on the Swedish chopping block.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.