By Bill Thomas
The last ball in the Premier League season has barely been kicked but already, 19 football clubs turn their gaze nervously towards what’s coming their way in August with just Reading and Huddersfield still unsure of what lies before them.
That’s how quickly football moves at the elite level and just how fine the margins are between success and failure, as a quick glance through the division illustrates.
Even champions Chelsea will have question marks over them. The fact that European football is back is both a pleasure and a challenge for Conte’s team got through the season with a barely disrupted side, playing barely any midweek football. That changes next term and so, perhaps, will their priorities. Is the Champions League trophy a bigger pull than defending the Premier League? Either way they need more strength in depth and, perhaps, they will need to fill a void at both ends of the park with the futures of Costa and Courtois uncertain.
Tottenham have much promise about them but also the greatest sense of jeopardy given their impending move to Wembley and the dismal form they’ve displayed here in European competition already. This season coming is one of the biggest in Tottenham’s history for if the Wembley malaise continues, and Champions League football is not secured again, this time next year could see a major exodus from the club. If, on the other hand, they can make it into the top four once more, they could be on the brink of a very special few years on their return to the new White Hart Lane.
Manchester City and Liverpool are in similar positions, both delighted – not to say a little relieved – at securing a top four spot but both very aware that it was a season of under achievement – no trophies for either and a huge gap between them and Chelsea. It’s unlikely that either set of owners will tolerate that again. Guardiola simply has to win the title or reach the Champions League final, Liverpool have got to win a cup of some kind. Both are desperately in need of defenders, neither manger seems capable of finding one.
Arsenal seem in such a state that talking ill of them is the footballing equivalent of relieving yourself into an open grave but after finally slipping out of the top four for the first time in Wenger’s tenure, things seem to be so divided that only the manager’s departure can offer any hope of unity. Though as Manchester United have amply illustrated in the post-Ferguson era, replacing someone who has run every aspect of the football club for so long with not just another manager but another footballing culture is rather more easily said than done. The club is at a crossroads but the problem might be that, in the short term at least, every road leads to a dead end.
Speaking of Manchester United, while their cup fighting exploits have been enough to keep people happy in Mourinho’s debut year, its in the Premier League that they expect to excel and once again, they’ve been miles away, 24 points short of Chelsea. Mourinho’s innate caution has cost them dear, too many draws, not enough wins. Not only has it left them short of points, it’s not the United way and that matters at Old Trafford. Despite huge spending in recent times, the United squad still doesn’t inspire and though you’d expect Pogba to be far better next term, they’re going to have to flash the cash again to make any impact.
Everton will have a big fat circle drawn around September 1st for that’s the day they’ll know what next year is going to look like. Will they keep Barkley, can they keep Lukaku? Those are the fundamental questions for the Toffees who have had a strong season without ever looking like doing anything other than finish seventh. They’ve qualified for Europe, which will further strain their resources, but as has been the case for to long, they look like a football club treading water in the wait for a new stadium that can help them smash the glass ceiling above them.
Without wishing to be disrespectful, then you’ve got the rest. Between eight and 17th there were but six points and in truth, you can’t get a cigarette paper between them on any given day. Every single one will be horrified that Newcastle have come back up with Rafa Benitez in charge, because already you’d fancy them to finish eighth, which pushes one of their number into the drop zone. You’d also imagine West Ham will be better having got a year at the Olympic Stadium under their belts while Leicester will have even more money to burn after their Champions League exploits, which suggests the top ten might already be sealed off.
For the rest, reality is going to come breathing a little harder down their necks now that the last two seasons have seen the perennially hopeless Villa and Sunderland finally go. They’ll be hoping that Brighton and the play-off winners are just as hapless as Hull and Middlesbrough were this season because outside those two, there is no obvious relegation candidate.
Panic is already setting in with Watford having got rid of yet another manager and Sam Allardyce deciding that saving Palace two years running might be pushing it a bit. Expect the others to start throwing ever more extraordinary amounts of money at ever more journeymen footballers in a bid to find their way to safety, while simultaneously praying for the fixture computer to be kind in the opening months so they can generate a bit of momentum in the first half of the season the way West Brom and Burney did, thereby keeping the pressure off for much of the campaign.
Enjoy the summer. I doubt if those in the top jobs at the top 20 will.