Changing of the guard in the Premier League
Nobody thought it was possible, but Leicester’s remarkable surge from relegation survivors to champions in the space of a year may suggest that there is a wind of change in the Premier League.
Claudio Ranieiri took over a team that were a mere 5000/1 with Bookies.com to win the title, and while many were surprised that Leicester had turned to a manager who had endured a short, ill-fated stint in charge of Greece, the Italian managed to transform them into deserving league winners.
Finishing ten points clear at the summit and losing just three games all season illustrate the remarkable scale of their achievement which has stole all the headlines, and although it remains to be seen what the next chapter of Leicester’s fairytale story holds in store, it may signal a new dawn for other teams outside of the archetypal top four to force their way in.
Leicester are certainly not the only team to have caught the eye this season, with Tottenham, West Ham and Southampton also enjoying superb campaigns as the big clubs continued to falter. Some will argue that the 2015/2016 Premier League season will be a mere flash in the pan based on the belief that the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United will come back even stronger, but it takes away the substantial credit that the four aforementioned teams deserve for putting themselves in contention for Champions League football.
Their success has been refreshing to see, with neutrals enjoying the sight of teams who are not considered to be contenders giving as good as they get with the big guns; watching the likes of Leicester and Tottenham hit the heights also reflect the considerable increase in quality across the board, with the considerable sums of money involved in the Premier League allowing clubs to become more competitive.
Tottenham may have let their local rivals Arsenal leapfrog them into second on the final day of the season following a shock 5-1 defeat at relegated Newcastle, but their emergence bodes well for the future at White Hart Lane. Mauricio Pochettino has transformed the team into one of the most eye-catching in the Premier League, with their fluidity and style of play winning many admirers as they pushed Leicester all the way.
They should not look back at their campaign with disappointment and regret given that nobody got close enough to Leicester during the final months of the season, but Pochettino’s belief that it is his duty to build a team around English players bodes well for the future of club and country. Five Tottenham players have been selected by Roy Hodgson for this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament, with Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli likely to play key roles if England are to have any chance of fulfilling their darkhorses tag with Bookies.com.
It is also fitting that ten of the last eighteen England debutants have been nurtured by Pochettino, and when comparing them to other nations, the supreme confidence and form that every Tottenham player (not to mention Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater, who have also been selected by Hodgson) will take with them to France could make England one of the most exciting teams to watch this summer.
It should not be forgotten that in a Premier League season full of shocks and surprises, Southampton and West Ham were firmly in contention for a top four finish, with the latter having the chance to finish as high as fifth if Manchester United lose their re-arranged fixture against Bournemouth.
This speaks volumes for the fantastic progress made under Ronald Koeman and Slaven Bilic respectively, with both teams really catching the eye with fantastic performances that often saw them get the better of more illustrious opponents. West Ham made a habit of slaying the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City, but although they may feel disappointed at finishing seventh and therefore missing out on Europa League football next season, Bilic has clearly steered West Ham in the right direction.
The Hammers could represent great value for a free bets offer next season, and with the club moving to the Olympic Stadium this summer, it may take two or three signings on the same level as Dimitri Payet, who will represent France at Euro 2016 after an outstanding season, for West Ham to assert themselves even further as potential top four contenders.
The same could not be said for those who were considered amongst the strong favourites to win the Premier League title, as they all fell well short of expectations. Chelsea’s dramatic fall from grace from league champions to being right outside the relegation zone at Christmas speaks volumes for how meekly their crown was defended, and although Guus Hiddink deserves huge credit for returning to the club as caretaker manager and putting them back on track, incoming manager Antonio Conte has a big summer ahead of him. There is a feeling that Chelsea cannot be as bad next season, but they, like every other elite club, should not take it for granted that the likes of Leicester and Southampton will simply roll over and allow them to re-assert themselves at the top of the table.
Arsenal may have been able to celebrate pipping their fierce local rivals to second on the final day, but the season has to be considered a huge opportunity missed. Arsene Wenger’s side may never get a better chance to end their long wait for a Premier League title, considering that all of their main rivals never came close to mounting a serious challenge. However, old habits came back to haunt Arsenal; Wenger’s tactical stubbornness and seeming unwillingness to spend money in key areas, combined with a lack of mentality and failing to produce the goods when they were expected to put in a big performance are all hallmarks of why the Gunners have not won the league since the “Invincibles” season of 2003/2004.
Manchester City could also be included among the teams who found consistency hard to come by, but some would point to the fact that Manuel Pellegrini’s side were in a good position to challenge Leicester before the announcement that Pep Guardiola would be taking over as manager in the summer. It derailed the team at the worst possible time, with a number of key injuries and a slump in form leaving them clinging on to fourth spot by the skin of their teeth. Guardiola’s first task will be to bring in defensive reinforcements, with Manchester City looking incredibly vulnerable and error-prone without captain Vincent Kompany at the back.
If the league table is not enough to convince people that this season has seen a monumental and unexpected power shift in teams, the PFA Team of the Year speaks volumes for how much has changed. Only David De Gea (Manchester United) and Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) were included from the teams that were rated as strong favourites to win the title before a ball had been kicked, with Payet from West Ham joined by four Tottenham players (Kane, Alli, Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose) and four from Leicester (Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Wes Morgan).
It remains to be seen whether the champions and other teams that have surged to prominence can build on their success next season, but they have provided the benchmark for other clubs in the Premier League to believe that, with the right application and effort, they too can make a case to signal a new dawn for English football.