After losing their first game at Spurs, Man City remained unbeaten on the road; Arsenal’s fifth-place finish was highest ever achieved by a team who lost their first three; Norwich ended with a goal difference of -61; Watford conceded 46 home goals, the most of any side in PL history
Friday 27 May 2022 12:28, UK
At the end of a season that saw Manchester City retain their title, Burnley, Watford and Norwich relegated and Liverpool come closer than any English side ever has to winning the Quadruple, Sky Sports' football writers hand out end-of-season grades to all 20 Premier League clubs.
Another season of steady progress under Mikel Arteta, despite falling just short of the Champions League places. The Gunners had dragged themselves back into the top-four race prior to meeting Tottenham in mid-May - with that game ultimately establishing who got a seat at the table of Europe's elite and who was forced to settle for the next best thing.
All six of Arsenal's permanent signings were aged 23 or under last summer and epitomises Arteta's commitment to youth, although some would argue therein lies the root cause of their end-of-season stutter. They crave leadership or a figurehead to turn to when things are not falling their way. The average age of Arsenal's starting XI was the youngest in the top flight by quite some distance (24 years 230 days) last term and therefore a focus on supplementing that youthful vibrancy with experience in the next transfer window would serve Arteta well. Intricate passing moves which end up in mouth-watering goals (Emile Smith-Rowe at Chelsea) are back, though, and signal the start of a return to the Arsenal of old.
Aston Villa went into the campaign with aspirations of finishing in the top half of the Premier League for the first time in 11 years, especially after spending nearly £100m on nine new players in the summer. However, five consecutive defeats in the autumn spelled the end for manager Dean Smith and had the club facing up to a battle against relegation.
New boss Steven Gerrard successfully navigated the team away from that fate and has helped to bring some degree of optimism back to Villa Park with his attacking brand of football, plus his ability to persuade the likes of Lucas Digne and Philippe Coutinho to join the cause. However, a run of just two wins from their last 11 league games saw Villa finish 14th and means they go into next season with plenty of room for improvement.
What a breath of fresh air Brentford have been - the only promoted team to exhibit any staying power this term, 74 years after their last top-flight foray. A sensational opening-night victory over Arsenal set the tone for the season, as Thomas Frank masterminded a series of standout results to finish 11 points above the drop zone and five shy of the top half. They will need to guard against 'second season syndrome', which has plagued the likes of Sheffield United and Leeds in recent campaigns, but the Bees look destined for continued success.
They play an attractive, almost endearing brand of football, which benefits the appeal of the Premier League greatly - commendable on such a shoestring budget. Christian Eriksen was an inspired January addition and typified the feel-good factor running through the fabric of Brentford's brand new Community Stadium - a wholesome story which neatly sums up their rise to the big time.
It's impossible to give Brighton anything other than the highest grade after Graham Potter led them to their best-ever league finish. The Seagulls progressed from the lower mid-table placing they had recorded in the previous four seasons to finish ninth this term, despite an 11-game winless run in the first half of the campaign and a six-game losing streak in the new year.
Potter's side made up for those spells by recording a series of impressive results against the league's big hitters, including victories at Arsenal and Tottenham and a 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United at the Amex Stadium. If Brighton can hold onto Potter and exciting talents such as Marc Cucurella and Alexis Mac Allister, then the future is bright on the south coast.
Most of Burnley's season makes for fairly grim reading. Perhaps sacking Sean Dyche was the wrong call in hindsight, although the Clarets won three league games on the bounce for the first time since April 2019 under the stewardship of Mike Jackson. Burnley are a side who scarcely pulled off big results but often managed to take points off teams around them - hardly an innovative approach but it worked, until now.
Suffice to say Burnley's trump card came unstuck this term. They only won four of their 18 matches against bottom-half sides, which is well below the necessary when staying in the Premier League rests primarily on beating three other sides' points tallies. Anecdotally, it's entirely possible that Dyche will reappear in the top flight before Burnley, although a disastrous opening 21-game run which contained one lonely victory ultimately spelled the beginning of the end for the club's six-year stay. A record that won't easily be forgotten.
Chelsea's campaign is possibly the hardest to grade as there was simply so much drama packed into nine months. There's no denying that going toe-to-toe with a generational Liverpool side in successive cup finals and securing Champions League football for a fourth successive season, all while the club's future was in serious doubt, was an impressive feat. But on the other hand, how pleased should a club that went into the season as European champions be with losing two cup finals and failing to mount a push for the Premier League title for the fifth season in a row?
The underwhelming performances of record signing Romelu Lukaku were another disappointment, as was seeing their bid to retain the Champions League end at the quarter-final stage. Lifting the European Super Cup and Club World Cup ensured the trophy cabinet remains well stocked, but Chelsea would have hoped for more when they began what turned out to be a rollercoaster of a season.
Preparing for life without Roy Hodgson looked tricky last year. Twelve months on, Crystal Palace are thriving under Patrick Vieira's enigmatic style. A 12th-place finish and an FA Cup semi-final appearance at Wembley represents evolution at Selhurst Park, albeit with room for improvement.
Let us not forget the last major change in Palace's hierarchy proved to be somewhat of a misadventure, with Frank de Boer's tenancy lasting just four league games and spanning an underwhelming 77 days. Honourable mention goes to Conor Gallagher as the Eagles' star performer, however the development of permanent acquisitions deserves equal recognition - watch out for the continued rise of Eberechi Eze, Marc Guehi and Michael Olise next season.
Everton may have ended the campaign on a high after avoiding relegation with a euphoric comeback win against Crystal Palace at a rocking Goodison Park, but the fact they were even in danger of going down means this season was a disappointing one for the Toffees.
In hindsight, the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was a huge mistake, and he left less than seven months after arriving, with the club facing up to the reality of losing their Premier League status for the first time. Frank Lampard came in and united a fractured club, but the former Chelsea boss now has a big summer ahead of him as he looks to rebuild a squad that recorded Everton's worst league finish in 18 years.
By stark contrast to their first season back in the Premier League, Leeds have failed to live up to their billing. Disaster was averted on a dramatic final-day shootout with Brentford, but assessing their campaign as a whole reveals major frailties. The impact of a threadbare squad, the loss of Marcelo Bielsa and an unforeseen great escape are all themes that best summarise Leeds' abject season.
Bielsa underpinned everything that was good about Leeds when securing a momentous return to the top flight in 2020; a football purist who had restored the Yorkshire club to its former glory after a 16-year wait. "He is the best manager in the world," midfielder Kalvin Philips exclaimed when Leeds won promotion. Moving on from the Argentine has been a difficult task, not least because his imprint is on the club's philosophy off the pitch and its playing style on it. The unpredictability of Leeds made them so hard to play against, but that was rather stripped away this season. Jesse Marsch now has an entire summer to impart his methodology on the squad he inherited in February, with improvement needed across the board if the Whites are to avoid a repeat of this season's dice with danger.
Some may argue this grade is generous, but there's a strong case to be made that Leicester have become victims of their own success. The Foxes' wage bill is estimated to rank in the middle of the Premier League pack, so an eighth-place finish is no underachievement by that metric. Brendan Rodgers also oversaw a Community Shield victory against Manchester City to follow last season's historic FA Cup success, while they reached the semi-finals of the inaugural Europa Conference League.
An inability to defend set pieces helped to ensure Leicester had the leakiest defence in the top half of the Premier League, and Rodgers has been open about his desire to freshen up his squad, meaning the manager has things to work on this summer. But the feeling remains that the Foxes' 2021/22 campaign was probably more impressive than it seemed to be at the time.
Trophies, trophies and potentially more trophies. A domestic cup double is already in the bag for Liverpool, but what they really want their hands on is Champions League silverware, with the competition reaching its climax on May 28. After missing out on the Premier League title by a single point, this weekend's showdown against Real Madrid has the potential to be Jurgen Klopp's crowning glory. Expectations were high from the outset and they've matched them, although you get the sense that this season will be predominantly judged on Saturday's European showpiece. It won't complete a Quadruple, but a historic treble isn't vastly far behind.
The acquisition of Luis Diaz in January represents another triumph for the Reds this season; he plays his part in their prolific front three as if he's been a permanent fixture for years. Six goals and five assists in 25 appearances has added an extra spark to Liverpool's three-pronged attack, and he may well make the difference when Klopp's side inevitably go toe-to-toe with Man City in the hunt for more honours next term. Oh and Mo Salah is staying - that's vital!
Pep Guardiola's overseeing of Manchester City's fourth title in five seasons means we are in the midst of one of the most dominant spells by a team and manager in Premier League history. City's consistency - as well as the fact that they and Liverpool are streets ahead of the other 18 sides - means we can sometimes take their brilliance for granted, but holding off Jurgen Klopp's team to win the league yet again is a seriously impressive feat.
However, the stunning late collapse at the hands of Real Madrid that ended their pursuit of a maiden Champions League casts a shadow over the campaign, while Guardiola will be unhappy at his side's failure to win one of the domestic cups for the first time in five seasons. But with Erling Haaland on the way, don't be surprised to see City's league dominance continue.
There is little place to hide in the red side of Manchester. Having been eclipsed by their sky blue neighbours some years ago, Manchester United's decline reached new lows this season. The Red Devils finished the campaign with their lowest points tally in Premier League history, while Ralf Rangnick left the club with the lowest win rate of any United boss to manage in the top flight. Perhaps not many supporters, or pundits for that matter, would have linked United with silverware this term, but none predicted the sheer scale of the demise that unfolded.
A rebuilding job is what faces incoming manager Erik ten Hag this summer, with suggestions a complete squad overhaul is necessary to get United back on the pathway Alex Ferguson so famously carved out when his side reigned supreme for so many years in the 1990s and 2000s. A profoundly humbling season reached its head on the final day as Rangnick bid farewell with a 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace - what a damp way to go out.
It's hard to picture a fanbase that are more optimistic than Newcastle's seem to be right now, which is interesting given their side have just recorded their fifth successive mid-table finish in the Premier League. Perhaps starting the season without a win in their first 11 games - a run of form that led to Steve Bruce's dismissal - means finishing 11th is more creditable than it seems.
Newcastle supporters may argue that Eddie Howe deserves an 'A' for dragging the club away from relegation danger, but the former Bournemouth boss only won one of his first nine games, with the victories only coming more frequently once the new owners began spending in the transfer market. In truth, a combination of Howe's methods taking hold and new signings raising the quality of his squad was likely responsible for Newcastle's improvement in the second half of the season - but with greater resources will come greater expectations.
Another opportunity to become a Premier League mainstay has come and gone for Norwich, just as it has done many times before. Deja vu perhaps? The Canaries have now achieved, or rather accumulated, a Premier League-high six relegations. Maybe a modicum of comfort can be taken from the fact that Fulham, fellow yo-yoers, will be in the top flight next season thus eliminating some competition when attempting to be reinstated - although the second tier is packed full of promotion contenders next term.
What is possibly most disappointing is that Norwich failed to improve on 2019/20's showing. In fact, across the past four seasons, the Canaries have finished either 20th in the Premier League or first in the Championship. For now, a one-season stay is all they can muster. But expect Norwich to be in contention again next year, as their pattern of inevitability cycles on. They are at least in good hands under Dean Smith.
The fact Southampton have recently parted ways with three of their first-team coaching staff says a lot about how their season unravelled. Some highs, juxtaposed with a multitude of lows. What appears to dog Saints year on year, season on season, no matter who the manager, is inconsistency. Early season promise pales into insignificance, or a brilliant run of mid-season results ushers in an end-of-season collapse. It's difficult to know what Southampton side will arrive on any given day. Consider a 6-0 drubbing against Chelsea and a 1-0 victory over Arsenal all in the space of a week in April.
Certainly, Ralph Hasenhuttl's style is exciting; aggressive press, youthful exuberance, abundance of goals (at both ends of the pitch). But it feels as if that philosophy is unsustainable across an entire season. The naivety of youth plays its part - Saints have the third youngest group by average age (25.71) - but that fact alone cannot shoulder all of the blame. What is impressive, however, is how Hasenhuttl has guided Saints away from relegation fodder on an extremely modest budget - if backed in the summer by the club's new ownership model, there could be a turning of the tide on the south coast. But don't count on it.
Tottenham's season began with victory over champions Manchester City in Nuno Espirito Santo's first game, but that was as good as it got for the former Wolves boss, who was sacked after just four months on the back of five defeats in seven games. The dismissal of Nuno after such a short spell in charge was a recognition by Spurs they had made a mistake in appointing the Portuguese, but replacing him with Antonio Conte proved to be a masterstroke.
The charismatic ex-Chelsea boss immediately led Spurs on a nine-game unbeaten run in the Premier League and, although four defeats in five in the new year threatened to derail his reign, Conte got his side back on track in spectacular fashion, leading them into the Champions League at the expense of bitter rivals Arsenal. Exiting the Europa Conference League at the group stage - albeit on a technicality - was probably a blessing in disguise for Spurs, as it allowed the notoriously meticulous Conte more time to drill his players on the training ground. Spurs' wage bill places them outside the top six in the Premier League, so finishing fourth - particularly given Conte arrived mid-season - should not be underestimated.
Watford's eighth Premier League season ended with their fourth relegation, and their lowest-ever points total in the competition. Sacking Xisco Munoz - who had led the Hornets back into the top flight - after less than two months seemed harsh, while appointing Claudio Ranieri was a risk, given his previous spell in England was an unsuccessful 17-game run as Fulham manager.
It was a risk that didn't pay off, with the Italian lasting just 14 matches at Vicarage Road, as was replacing the 70-year-old Ranieri with the 74-year-old Roy Hodgson. It was clear long before the season's end that Watford's fate was sealed and that it had been one job too many for the retiring former England boss. Three managers, 23 points, 77 league goals conceded and just two home league wins ensured it was a campaign to forget.
Another tough one to grade. In many ways West Ham have overachieved this season, although many of a Hammers persuasion probably won't see it like that. They ultimately fell short of continental glory, but gave fans a first taste of European clamour since 1999. Club stalwart Mark Noble, who announced his retirement this season, is leaving behind the club in its best position for years.
David Moyes' stock continues to rise. Jarrod Bowen's form has been rewarded with a first England call-up. Declan Rice goes from strength to strength. Another stab at Europe is guaranteed next season. There's plenty to be pleased about and yet somehow it could have been much more. There will be regret over Eintracht Frankfurt's Europa League success and it was a chequered end to the Premier League season, but all in all, reasons to be quietly positive at the London Stadium.
Wolves are another side that appear to be suffering from the increased expectations that back-to-back seventh-place finishes - plus a run to the Europa League quarter-finals - under Nuno Espirito Santo created. In reality, finishing 10th - three places higher than Nuno managed last season - in Bruno Lage's first campaign, all while having a wage bill that ranks in the bottom half of the Premier League, is no small achievement.
Wolves also took points off Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, but a record of just 38 goals in 38 games meant they were hardly one of the league's great entertainers. Finishing the season with just two points in their last seven matches means there remains plenty of room for improvement for Lage ahead of his second season.