Ah, it always sneaks up on you doesn’t it? One minute you’re enjoying all the incidents, the post-match jibes, the tetchy politics and then, just like that, the season is over. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on who you support) we’ve reached that moment of conclusion again. Now all that remains is a few loose, Wembley-based ends to tie up and then it’s straight into the summer break, which gives us some time to weigh up the season that was.
In a moment we’ll talk the specific exploits of each team but, before we get there, how was the season in general? As a neutral viewers spectacle it was decidedly solid, if not a knockout razzle-dazzle barnstormer. Maybe it would’ve fared better were it not the sequel to the absolutely barmy 2013-14 season, where the drama was abundant throughout. This year the championship was wrapped up early, the relegation trio all but formalised shortly before the final day and those all-important European places going mostly to the teams one would expect.
There were a few contained surprises to consider; Southampton’s exceptional performance in the face of pre-season tipping for relegation was of particular note, as was similar expectation-defying work from other teams such as West Ham. Apart from that though the real pleasurable footballing stories were confined to a micro-context, a bunch of smaller wonders happening within the club boundaries. So, in alphabetical order, lets take a closer look at some of the excitement and farce that was served up to us over this campaign.
Arsenal (Finished 3rd)
As has so often been the case, Arsenal failed to capitalise on the promise they built up pre-season. Although their 2013-14 season collapsed in fairly humiliating form towards the end, there was still a great deal of positive impressions to take from it. The two most oft-mentioned monkeys on their back, namely the trophy drought and the lack of cash-splashing, were rectified when they won the FA Cup in dramatic fashion and also managed to open up their pockets to sign Barcelona’s fantastic Alexis Sanchez, among others.
Yet their title challenge petered out before it even began. Thank the heavens they brought in Sanchez because with his Duracel Bunny-esque energy and desire to make his mark on a match he dragged them through an incredibly shaky 2014. It all culminated in a dire Winter period through which poor performances, crashing out of Europe against Monaco, multiple injuries and a bizarre smoking in the shower incident involving then No.1 goalkeeper Szczęsny brought a new level of disillusionment to Arsenal fans.
However, after the turn of the year, some of the injured players started to return, and Wenger fielded some players in the other still-vacant positions he perhaps didn’t expect to, such as the young right-back Héctor Bellerín and Francis Coquelin, arguably the club’s story of the season with his emergence from the wilderness on-loan to become a first team regular. Arsenal began to play a bit more of a careful game, going away to the big clubs and being more defensive than they had previously. A massive win away at Manchester City was the standout performance, and one that laid down a marker for the exceptional unbeaten run that was to come.
The season has ended strongly for Arsenal, with European football guaranteed and the added elation of a confident, unworried retention of the FA Cup. The question remains though: will the promise they’ve shown in the first half of 2015 transfer over to next season? The initial impression is yes. They certainly look sturdier than they did at this point last year, and the feeling around the camp is an optimistic one. However, you never really know with Arsenal and if they want to properly challenge next season they need to cut out the silly dropped points they still seem capable of.
Arsenal’s Season In a Word: “Arsenal”
Aston Villa (Finished 17th)
Sometimes the usual cliches are the ones that work the best so, if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to pull out the good old ‘a season of two halves’ on this one. Paul Lambert moving to Villa seemed so exciting at the time, fresh off of great success with Norwich. But the contrast between those heady days and the bleak 2014 he had in the West Midlands is a real shocking one.
He wanted them to play a positive passing game, to replicate at Villa park the same sort of football that had done so well at Carrow Road. It quickly became apparent that just wasn’t going to work. Slow, dire performances, off-the-pitch issues with short-lived assistant manager Roy Keane and an astonishing goal drought left the team looking completely devoid of confidence. The nadir of this period being a 5-0 loss away to Arsenal.
So of course, with relegation looming, Lambert had to go, and in came Tim Sherwood. People have had their doubts about Sherwood, but whatever your thoughts about his it’s clear his skills as a man-motivator are immense. He took a troubled team and imbued them with the confidence to dig themselves out of the mess they’d made. Christian Benteke became once again the fantastic goalscorer we know he is, youngster Jack Grealish came into the first team in great style and a flurry of other other players have looked completely rejuvenated.
Not only has he brought them away from the brink of relegation, he has also taken them to a rather unexpected FA Cup final. One they are certainly underdogs in against Arsenal, but not one they are without a good chance of winning. There are still lingering concerns; it remains to be seen whether Sherwood’s managerial style will work in the long-term, and the capitulation that saw them lose 6-1 away to Southampton was concerning. In the short-term though, it’s safe to say that Villa fans will be more than delighted with how things have turned around.
Aston Villa’s Season In a Word: “Turnaround”
Burnley (Finished 19th, Relegated)
Of the teams that struggled near the bottom this season, Burnley managed to firmly secure themselves as the neutral’s favourite with their tireless work-rate, manager Sean Dyche’s upbeat attitude and their ‘lets not go over the top’ transfer policy. Of course all of that will be cold comfort to them and their fans in the face of the reality of relegation. Yet going down for Burnley wont be quite the disaster it could be/could’ve been for other clubs.
There will be issues holding on to certain players, especially the much-fancied goalscorer Danny Ings. However they will be able to retain a good deal of their squad and their careful spending (on top of those parachute payments) will keep them safe from any serious money troubles. Perhaps though that prudent transfer policy did harm them at times. With just a little bit more work done to bring in players that were upgrades on their Championship squad or just allow for more rotation then they might have been in with a better chance of staying up.
However, not taking that risk is an understandable choice. One that could turn out to be very smart indeed if they consolidate next year and come back up again even stronger than before. Some Burnley fans would’ve wanted more from the season, and they’d be well within their rights to of course. Yet this was always going to be a struggle of a season for them with how the club is run and, in the end, it was the harsh tight margins of top-flight football that saw them fall short.
Burnley’s Season In a Word: “Hardworking”
Chelsea (Finished 1st, Champions)
Mourinho does it again. There were times where other teams were close behind in terms of points, yet the actual danger of Chelsea surrendering that lead was close to nonexistent. Even a few months into the season there was little question of who was going to be winning this title.
The classic defensive stability one associates with the cheeky Portuguese sod was present of course, but so was a newfound expansive attacking flair. The linkup play between Fabregas and Costa was telepathically lethal, they had solid striking backup in Loic Remy, numerous midfielders such as Oscar and Willian were reliable and, of course, that man Eden Hazard was perhaps the clear choice for player of the season. Hell, even their defenders contributed a fair few goals.
By the end of the season they looked shattered, but this was where Mourinho worked his frustrating magic. Is it dull for the neutral viewer when Chelsea shut up shop and grind out results? Sure, but they’d earned that right. Tearing apart the opposition in the first half of the season meant they were able to play it safe. And besides, defensive solidity is hard work too. John Terry, now in the closing years of his career, had one of his best season’s to date at the heart of that defence, playing every minute of every game.
Outside of the league events were disappointing. Victory in the Capital One Cup was a high point but rather soured by disappointing performances in both the FA Cup and in crashing out of the champions league. Both instances showcasing a listless Chelsea side that looked decidedly un-Mourinho, appearing not to be up for the occasion at all. Their loss at home to Bradford was particularly shocking.
The fans most likely wont care that much when they see their team lifting that Premier League trophy. One thing’s for sure though: Jose Mourinho will care. A lot. Despite their successes he will focus only on their failings and you can be sure they’ll be back next year, stronger and ready to retain that title.
Chelsea’s Season In a Word: “Dominating”
Crystal Palace (Finished 10th)
In myriad ways the events at Selhurst Park this season have played out much like a less dramatic version of Aston Villa’s struggles slightly lower down the table. Neil Warnock seemed to not know what to do with his players in the first half of the season, with a 3-1 home win over Liverpool being about the only real highlight. The losses and draws were flowing at an alarming rate and so, like Lambert, Warnock’s position became untenable.
And so, in came the prodigal son, Alan Pardew. One could be forgiven for wondering what Pardew hoped to achieve taking over Palace. Sure he has history as a player at the club, but the move seemed, at the time at least, as if it was taken more to get away from Newcastle rather than any strong desire to actually bring success to Selhurst Park.
How he proved his doubters wrong though. Pardew seems to have identified exactly where things were going wrong and has gotten exceptional results out of players like Dwight Gayle and Yannick Bolasie who showed promise but were drifting under Warnock. The football has been positive in style, with a heavy emphasis on strong wing-play, resulting in some real headline reults like their home win against Manchester City and an away demolishing of Sunderland. Even in most matches where they have lost or drawn the performances have been bright.
Again, like the impact Sherwood has had at Villa, it is unclear still whether or not Pardew’s short-term overhaul of Palace will lead to long-term success. However the positive feelings around Selhurst Park and the club’s board should serve the manager much better than the toxic atmosphere he left at Newcastle. As it stands Palace appear to have one of the brightest futures of any team in the league.
Crystal Palace’s Season In a Word: “Ascending”