The longest, strangest Premier League season in football history actually ends prematurely and predictably.
There was no twist, no surprise, not even the kind of controversial VAR call that has characterised the whole campaign. It all felt settled as the season ticked into what were drab final minutes.
The top four are the wealthiest four. The bottom three at the start of the day were the bottom three at the end of the day.
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That meant that one of the truly decisive moments in the relegation battle came on the very first day of Project Restart.
That date, 17 June, is what this season will always be remembered for. It saw the return of English football amid the complications of Covid-19, the first ‘Black Lives Matter’ gesture in the game and – more trivially – a moment that could have ripples for the sport, and reflects an ongoing discussion around it.
Aston Villa staying up by a point meant that the Hawkeye failure in their first match back, the 0-0 draw with Sheffield United, very directly kept them up. Had Oliver Norwood’s free-kick been judged a goal, Dean Smith’s side would have been relegated. That deflected Andriy Yarmolenko goal for West Ham United in the final minutes would have done it.
Of course, different circumstances would have meant totally different types of games, and Villa could reasonably point to the fact VAR earlier denied them a penalty in that same Sheffield United match.
It does seem strangely fitting that a season dominated by VAR, that ultimately succumbed to the worst off-field stoppage the game has seen, involved such a crucial use – and failure – of technology. This is football’s new reality.
Such narrative aptness will be little solace to Bournemouth or Watford. They succumbed to the long-term reality of the Premier League: that it’s impossible to stay in it for any length of time without serious money. The average is a mere four seasons, no matter what you do. Watford and Bournemouth represented very different models of how to run a club – Watford’s in the last week proving hugely controversial – but both still went down after five seasons. They had their run.
Bournemouth felt like they’d gone stale under Eddie Howe. Watford remained too chaotic, the Pozzo’s insistence on changing managers at the first indication of trouble eventually – and predictably – costing them.
Villa’s big spending ultimately paid off, but it’s difficult to think there was much correlation. Chief executive Christian Purslow will be massively relieved.
That points to another reality, and the most important. Money now dictates football more than anything, and to a greater degree than ever before.
That may be becoming a boring point that you are sick of hearing, but it is now creating real problems for the game, and threatening to make it much more boring than it should be.
Hence, after a season that threatened so many surprises and shocks, where old orders were supposedly going to be overturned… the top four are the wealthiest four.
Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might feel some vindication at where they finished, but their feats should still be put in that context. They aren’t the magnificent achievements they’re being painted.
No matter any temporary complications, it will always be easier for Chelsea and Manchester United to finish in the Champions League places than Wolves, Sheffield United or Leicester City.
United turned their season around by sanctioning the £70m signing of a star like Bruno Fernandes. It was similarly fitting he scored the decisive penalty against Leicester – a decision confirmed, of course, by VAR.
Leicester were already in serious decline by the time Fernandes was transforming United in February. It is remarkable that they will now be disappointed with a fifth place finish, an outcome they would have been delighted with before the season began.
That points to how they succumbed to football’s greater realities, too, but there was more to it than that. Questions must be asked about the manner of their decline. It’s similarly impossible not to wonder whether Brendan Rodgers now regrets not going to Arsenal when he had the chance. Leicester’s slide started then.
Just two points behind them, Jose Mourinho will feel his own sense of vindication at returning Tottenham Hotspur to European competition. His points return now looks an awful lot better than much of his football did. He has done a respectable job, and steadied the team.
There are bigger questions about how far they can go under his approach, which now seems so behind the times compared to what Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola do, but they are at least going back into Europe. That is genuinely crucial for Spurs given the expenditure on the stadium at a time when they can’t even use it to house supporters.
They weren’t far off the Champions League places in the end. That is another pointer to the reality that governs the game. With a mere 63 points required to finish in the top four, the big sides didn’t even need to be that good. They often weren’t. It is why the relegation threshold is now so low, at a mere 34 points. The weaker sides just can’t take as many points off the top sides in that way.
Few took any off Liverpool.
Their final-day win over Newcastle United ensures Klopp’s side end the campaign with 99 points, making it the third season in a row the champions have got more than 97 points. You couldn’t have a greater indication of the problem.
It’s a problem that played its part in making this final day more predictable than it might have been. And that amid the strangest Premier League season of all.
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