Opinion: Barnaby Merrill’s Premier League End-of-Season (P) Review and Predictions

With most sides facing nine or ten more games before the end of the season, we can now comfortably call this the ‘run-in’ period of 2016/17’s Premier League campaign. The idea of a ‘run-in’ is nebulous and poorly defined, so I’m going to define it there. Like that. Defined. Bam.

I digress.

It’s time for a few late-season thoughts, predictions, and even some hot transfer tips, straight from the shadowy figures that haunt my dreams. One of them is called Jorge.

The Top:

After a few rather turgid years, this season saw high-profile arrivals to the managerial hotseat at Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City, and thus the billing was that of a touchline clash of the titans, with Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola locking horns with the more established triumvirate of Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino, and Jurgen Klopp. While the quality of football has no doubt improved, particularly at City, who were listless in their last season under Mauricio Pellegrini, the season has ended up as yet another stately procession to a title. Chelsea lost at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday, yet they remain seven points up on Spurs. As impressive as the White Hart Lane club have been, the idea of Chelsea dropping seven more points based on their machine-like performance since late September is unlikely, if not downright foolish.

Antonio Conte has done what all title-winning managers must do: Work out a solid, consistent system that gets the best out of the players available to him. A lot has been said about the supposedly magical powers of N’Golo Kante, but he is but one cog in the well-oiled Chelsea machine. Journeyman players like Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses have shone, while David Luiz has been shielded superbly in Conte’s back three. Crucially, Chelsea have been able to swap out various players and still achieve results; noted midfield fairy Cesc Fabregas came in for the powerful Nemanja Matic against Manchester City, and the Londoners eased to a 3-1 victory, while Eden Hazard has played on the left, right, and as a false nine. Chelsea have been the most consistent side, if not always the most spectacular, and are well worth their title win.

The chasing pack of Spurs, Liverpool, and Manchester City have all impressed and disappointed in differing ways. Spurs took a while to get going, but proved unstoppable from onwards, while Liverpool go forward brilliantly but remain leaky at the back. Jurgen Klopp’s reluctance to sign a proper midfield lynchpin remains confusing when Jordan Henderson is his first choice holder. Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, has not been able to transform City into world-beaters yet, and he must take some responsibility, particularly for his tactical experiments earlier in the season that took the wind out of City’s sails. City have an ageing and imbalanced squad, and while John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan, and particularly Gabriel Jesus all look worthy additions, they require more reinforcements that are capable of playing the type of football Guardiola wants, as well as more time to get used to the unique demands of Europe’s most experimental manager.

City are my tip for next season’s title. A steady partner for Stones, a long-term replacement for Yaya Toure, and a pair of new fullbacks would make them into the league’s best side by a long shot; and with the money available to Guardiola, you think he just might deliver that.

The effect of the managerial influx has not been to provoke a titanic title clash, but rather to make the battle for the top four arguably the most contested since 2009/10, when Aston Villa and Spurs joined Manchester City in a bid to break the ‘Big Four’ monopoly, with Spurs proving successful. There are without question six sides with a chance of making the top four, and they are the big sides mentioned previously. However, two teams will miss out, and at present Manchester United and Arsenal look like playing football on Thursday nights next season.

In my opinion, that’s how it’s going to stay. Manchester United are solid under Jose Mourinho but lack the necessary invention to break down defensive sides, particularly in home games. Mourinho has put together an impressive starting XI, but the replacements for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and particularly the integral Michael Carrick and impressive Henrikh Mikhataryan are lacking. Injuries have also played a role, and if there’s one signing United should try to make in the summer, it’s a new set of physios.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are doing what they seem to do every year-veering from the sublime to the ridiculous at will. Arsene Wenger’s powers are undoubtedly on the wane, and it seems his record of Champions League qualification will finally end this year. Arsenal would benefit from a new coach, but the difficulty is finding the right one. If the likes of Thomas Tuchel and Max Allegri aren’t willing to make the move just yet, it seems foolish to throw out a man who can at least guarantee respectable top-six finishes. The abuse this legendary coach has received is embarrassing, frankly, and while I wouldn’t like to cast aspersions, I get the feeling a lot of middle-aged fathers haven’t been seeing their children as much as they might like after they were seen marching through Islington holding “Wexit” banners and crying into cameras on YouTube. Arsenal have one of the league’s best squads, but dodgy selections from Wenger and uncertainty over the club’s future direction has dented what was a bright start. Next season will bring change in some form, and Arsenal just need to keep things respectable, as well as prepare for the task of replacing their star players in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.

The Bottom:

At the bottom, I change my opinion every single week. Before the international break, I thought the bottom three was set. But Hull City’s impressive win over West Ham has changed things once more, while Swansea and Crystal Palace keep on picking up points when it matters. Paul Clement and Marco Silva have been transformational appointments for Swansea and Hull, while Sam Allardyce has taken time to get results at Crystal Palace, even after splashing the cash in January. I think it will be Hull who take the final relegation place, but they have a bright future if they can keep their squad together, and keep Marco Silva in place for a promotion campaign.

Meanwhile, Sunderland and Middlesbrough are doomed. Turgid, defensive football has seen them struggle to pick up crucial wins, while Middlesbrough sacked Aitor Karanka too late to make a difference. The Spaniard wasn’t a bad coach, but his safety-first approach just didn’t cut it. You can’t expect to win relegation six-pointers if your default starting XI features three holding midfielders, and often a striker in Rudy Gestede who appears about as dangerous as an armchair.

Sunderland, meanwhile, deserve to go down. They have stunk out the Premier League for years, constantly doing just enough to stay up, before sacking last season’s saviour for a new man. Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce have all contributed to keeping the league’s most boring club up, but the appointment of David Moyes was one too far. Having built his reputation on a solid defence at Everton, Moyes has failed miserably at the two jobs he’s held between leaving Goodison and moving in at the Stadium of Light, to the point where one wonders if his success on Merseyside was more an exception than the rule. Dependent on the ageing Jermaine Defoe (whose goalscoring record is inflated greatly by penalties), Sunderland are a hodgepodge of rejects and strays from across Europe, and some time in the Championship will do them, and the Premier League, the world of good.

PREDICTIONS:

Top Four:

  1. Chelsea
  2. Spurs
  3. Manchester City
  4. Liverpool

Relegation Zone:

  1. Hull City
  2. Middlesbrough
  3. Sunderland

Transfer Tips:

Alexis Sanchez to Chelsea

Eden Hazard to Real Madrid

Virgil Van Dijk to Manchester City

Sergio Aguero to Real Madrid

James Rodriguez to Manchester United

Bonus Niche Pick:

Leon Goreztka to Arsenal

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