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By Edwin Yeo
Whatever else, the 21/22 football season will go down in history as one of the best, if not the best. But probably not if you’re an Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United fan.
As a neutral though, you cannot ask for anything more than the drama we’ve seen this season, with the EPL title, Champions League qualification, Europa League qualification and the final relegation spot all going down to the final day of the league.
The emotional roller-coaster ride for both Liverpool and Manchester City fans on that last day must have been immense, especially over at Anfield. With 75 minutes gone and City trailing 2-0 to a Steven Gerrard led Aston Villa, Liverpool fans must have thought that their former midfield talisman would finally help Liverpool clinch the league title, something he never did as a player.
But by the time Mo Salah managed to get Liverpool ahead in their match against Wolves in the 84th minute, news was already filtering through about City’s amazing comeback against Villa, so you can imagine Liverpool fans not knowing whether to laugh or cry as Salah poked home to get his half of a Golden Boot.
There were many things that we learned this season, even as we’re still celebrating (or mourning) the season past, but I’ve narrowed it down to five, as that seems to be the most clickbait headline for football sites (thank you Football London).
Thing #1 - Making hasty decisions could work
And of course, the first lesson comes from Tottenham Hotspur. Let’s face it, Spurs had a disastrous summer. Managerless for most of the transfer window, Nuno Espirito Santo’s eventual appointment was more desperate than a 40-year-old virgin walking through Geylang. It was an appointment that excited no one, and even the most die-hard fans could only make half-hearted attempts at rallying support for the new manager.
Despite winning his first three matches, Spurs played droll football, save for the opening win against City. For most of the transfer window, Spurs fans didn’t know if Harry Kane was staying or going, and that certainly also affected Kane himself, because he was a shadow of his brilliant best when the window closed and it was clear he was staying at Spurs. On the player front, new signings Emerson Royal, Bryan Gil and Pierluigi Gollini didn’t look Premiership ready, though Cristian Romero showed signs of a quality centre back.
Just 10 games into the season, Spurs were 9th and had just lost 3-0 at home to a listless Manchester United and had only managed to score 9 goals in 10 matches. Chairman Daniel Levy had enough, and promptly fired Nuno. While I’m a big advocate of giving managers time, it was a decision no true blue Spurs fan could disagree with - he was like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
Faster than the Flash, Levy brought in Antonio Conte and it turned out to be a masterstroke in hasty decision making. Sure, Conte came with a reputation of being somewhat petulant and a manager who needs a big wallet, failing which he would walk out the door before it even closed. His credentials were not in doubt, but many had feared his temperament would see him axed even before his seat was warmed.
It turned out to be anything but that, as Conte imposed himself on a team that had no system, no tactics and worse, no belief in their own abilities. Today, Spurs easily play the third best football in the Premier League.
Heading into the final game of the season, and needing only a draw at bottom club Norwich to secure Champions League, Spurs fans collectively bit off all their fingernails as they evoked memories of their final day Spursiness, a legend in Premiership history. Stories about Lasagne-gate ran amok, and they kept reminding themselves of how they lost to bottom club Newcastle in 2016 on the final day to finish third in a two-horse Premier League race. Or how about that season where they actually did finish fourth but got knocked out of Europe’s premier competition due to Chelsea, then fifth, winning the Champions League.
For one week, Spurs fans were sleep-deprived, imagining Teemo Pukki scoring a 95th minute goal to sink Spurs into Europa League anonymity, and Arsenal fans celebrating St Totteringham Day for the first time in six seasons.
Conte was having none of it, and sent his Spurs out to clinically destroy Norwich without even stepping out of second gear.
Without doubt, the hasty and somewhat desperate decision to sign Conte has paid off big time for Spurs. Of course, they don’t always work - Watford fired two managers during the season and still ended up getting relegated - but you could also make a case that Burnley left it too late to fire the EPL’s longest serving manager.
But if you can get quality replacements like Conte, then making a quick decision often proves to be the smartest decision. Spurs fans will continue to have their love-hate relationship with ENIC and Levy, but this time, they at least corrected their own mistake speedily.
Thing #2 - Money buys you titles, and also the Europa League qualification
Many football fans, especially those from Liverpool, mocked Manchester City’s big-spending ways and attributed their success to buying trophies. Indeed, since 2012, City have been the second biggest spenders in the transfer market, with Liverpool winning trophies despite spending around half of what their rivals did.
They used City’s exit from the Champions League and their own qualification for the Final as an example of how money doesn’t buy you a fighting mentality, the type you only breed when you play football “the right way”. Never mind that there’s a world of difference in quality between City’s semi-final opponents and Liverpool’s.
Well, he who laughs last often laughs like The Joker, as City players showed exactly the type of fighting mentality to win the league title on the final day, coming back from 2-0 down with 15 minutes to go against a resilient Villa.
And sure, that’s what almost a billion pounds gets you.
But if we were scientific about this, because data actually doesn’t lie, a billion pounds doesn’t necessarily buy you titles. Just ask Manchester United, the top net spenders in all of Europe for the past 10 years. Despite boasting a squad consisting of the most expensive players in the world, and arguably the greatest player of all time, United limped to sixth, and were 40 minutes away from playing in Europe’s Mickey Mouse Cup next season. That they didn’t was down to Brighton coming back to beat West Ham, as United finished the season with yet another poor loss, this time to Crystal Palace.
Arsenal, too, despite being the fifth largest spenders, have not seen Champions League football since 2016.
It would be ridiculous to think money doesn’t make a difference - not everyone can splash £100 million on a single player - but it has to be money well spent and not on Harry Maguire.
The best signing for both Liverpool and City has undeniably been their respective managers. In that same time, United has splurged on Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Ragnick and soon Erik Ten Hag, whom no one knows whether he will be the next Mauricio Pochettino or Nuno Espirito Santo.
Until a team can get a world class manager, they can throw money at signing players and it still won’t take them back to glory days, especially not with monsters such as Liverpool and City in the league.
Thing #3 - Thomas Tuchel said there are five teams challenging for the title next season. No, there are two.
Yes, since Antonio Conte took over Spurs, they are the league’s third best team. He got 56 points in 28 games, only behind Liverpool’s 70 points and City’s 73 points over the same period. Of the five teams Tuchel mentioned, Chelsea themselves got 49 points, while United a distance behind at 41 points.
So yes, Conte’s Spurs are a clear third, but man, that gap between Spurs and the top two is as wide as the Grand Canyon. And City just added Erling Haaland to their strike force, which means that unless Spurs do some astute transfer business in the summer, that gap will only grow wider.
It will take a monumental collapse of both City and Liverpool for the rest to even smell their toes, and you simply cannot see that happening to the two best managed teams in Europe. All trophies available to English clubs this season, barring the outcome of the Champions League Final and the two European trophies no one cares about except for West Ham, have been won by Liverpool and City.
There is simply no reality to any other club challenging the top two in the coming season, but it’s more a case of whether they can systematically close the gap. Spurs can definitely do so with Conte at the helm, and were this any other season without a Russian war, Chelsea would probably have thrown more money into the squad to do so.
So don’t be fooled by Tuchel, the EPL title is staying in the North of England.
Thing #4 - “It’s in our hands” is the new “We don’t let it slip”
So, even when Arsenal got put in their place at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a match where had they won, they would have secured Champions League qualification, Arsenal fans were still saying it was in their hands to finish above Spurs and get that last spot.
Which, technically, was true. Despite that loss, they remained a point ahead of Spurs with two games left and if they just kept on winning, they didn’t need to worry about what Spurs did. And they only had a Newcastle side with nothing left to play for and an Everton side that might or might not have been fighting for their Premiership lives on the final day.
We all know what happened since, as Arsenal lost meekly to a Newcastle side that looked like they were the ones chasing a Champions League spot, while Arsenal was sipping cocktails on a beach. Spurs duly won their final two games and returned to the Champions League.
“It’s in our hands” was a phrase Arsenal fans kept saying, perhaps to console them from the thrashing they received at Spurs’ hands, and partly possibly mocking Spurs fans that despite that victory, Arsenal still had the advantage.
Clearly, they didn’t learn from Steven Gerrard’s now infamous “we don’t let it f***ing slip” huddle back in 2014, when Liverpool had just beaten City at Anfield to go three points clear of City and two ahead of then second place Chelsea. Gerrard, of course, literally slipped and let Chelsea’s Demba Ba score at Anfield 2 games later and lost at home to Chelsea, and that allowed City to back on top on goal difference. Of course, it was still neck to neck and Liverpool, in the penultimate game, travelled to Crystal Palace and raced to a 3-0 lead before Palace scored 3 in the final 11 minutes to end the match at 3-3, in a match that has since been dubbed as Crystanbul, a swipe at the famous Champions League final win for Liverpool in Istanbul where they too came from a three-goal deficit. City went on to win the title by two points.
Today, you can’t mention the word slip to a Liverpool fan without causing a small riot.
Safe to say, Arsenal fans won’t be putting anything in their own hands anytime soon as well.
Thing #5 - The rise of Newcastle
Among fans of the six top four clubs, the biggest fear is Newcastle, after having been bought over early in the season by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Shades of Manchester City, one would think.
At that point, Newcastle was rock bottom and soon after, Steve Bruce was sacked and in came Eddie Howe, who took over with the club having only gotten five points from 11 games. Since then, Newcastle went on to survive relegation extremely comfortably, getting 44 points from the next 27 games. In context, that’s more than United and the same amount of points as Chelsea managed in those games.
The January transfer window also saw some foreshadowing of what was to come. Newcastle signed four players on permanent deals and one on loan, and spent some £80 million, the most any club in the world spent that month.
Granted, they weren’t exactly top notch players, but they were the ones Newcastle needed, given that they were still second from bottom just prior to the transfer window. From January, they went on to secure 38 of the 44 points during Howe’s reign at the club.
Now, they aren’t going to win the league next season, but they certainly are going to make it harder for the big clubs to buy top players, given that their ambition now must be to break into the top six. If you look at Chelsea’s first purchases after getting Russian money, they went for big names such as Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastian Veron and Claude Makelele. City, similarly, immediately splashed the Abu Dhabi cash on Robinho, Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez.
Of course, many of these big name signings were flops, save for Cole, Makelele and Tevez, but nonetheless, these were big players at the time. It took Chelsea only a year after Roman Abramovic bought the club to win the title, but it would take Manchester City four years to do the same. Nonetheless, both clubs were mid-table fodder prior to their takeover. So yes, it would surprise no one that Newcastle has a similar trajectory in their future.
Newcastle fans would point to the fact that unlike Chelsea and City, the Toon Army had come close twice in the mid-90s to winning the title, but let’s face it, without oil money, no one really worried about Newcastle for some 25 years now.
So perhaps next season is too soon for conversations around the top four, though it would depend on the summer they have. One thing’s for sure, they will deprive the bigger clubs of some quality players, which would most likely then keep City and Liverpool on top for at least another season.
So that’s the season, folks. Have a good break, don’t read too much into transfer news and for goodness sake, don’t spend $149 just to watch your favourite team play holiday football.
This article, "Five things we learned from the 2021/2022 English Premier League season", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.