Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Glad it's all over

So that’s it. Done until August. Or July. Or the end of June, depending on where your club sits geographically or hierarchically.

The 2012-2013 football season is, more or less, over, bar a Champions League Final at Wembley between two German teams (so twice as guaranteed to end with penalties), and the Championship Playoff Final two days later at the same venue.

Has it been a vintage nine months? No. Not when its highlight has been the retirements of a manager and the replica shirt salesman who once played for him.

Not when the Premier League is won four weeks early by an in-development Manchester United, with the reigning champions failing to put up much of a fight.

And not when the wooden spoon positions of third and fourth become so critical to clubs' fortunes that they become performance objectives in their own right, fought over like the last grains of rice in a famine.

The 2012-13 season has, to be honest, been pretty mediocre. And that mediocrity hasn't been helped by the recurrence of racism as a core issue, the brief flare-ups of old-school hooliganism, and players and their clubs doing little to protect their reputations from their own behavioural misdemeanors.

Added to that, we've witnessed the sorry, greedy, paranoid state of affairs in which by March, 103 English league managers and coaches had been sacked, resigned or, to use that old chestnut, departed “by mutual consent”. What kind of season is it when onetime European champions Nottingham Forest fire four managers, and that chickens-in-a-basket case Blackburn Rovers end up with their fourth their season since August?

Like a Grand Prix, it is rare these days to end a football season feeling completely satisfied. Tired, yes, out of pocket, certainly, but after the requisite 38 games (or 69 if you're Chelsea...), it's difficult to look back completely objectively and say "that was brilliant from start to finish". Because, short of 20 teams taking it down to the wire at either end of table, seasons tend to be as attritional as a French battlefield in 1917.

So, to formerly shutter this term, What Would David Bowie Do? presents its club-by-club end-of-term opinion on the Barclays Premier League 2012-13, in the process offering no apology whatsoever for the longer rant about Chelsea than anyone else (at least it's spared you a separate post...):

Manchester United (89 points, goal difference +43) Champions

On the opening day of the 1995-1996 season, that football sage Alan Hansen told Match of the Day viewers that "You can't win anything with kids" after a somewhat juvenile Manchester United team went down 3-1 to Aston Villa. That United team went on to win one of the club's 11 league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson.

United looked similarly young this season, and history repeated itself with a defeat, at home on the opening day. It would appear that Hansen's retirement from Match of the Day hasn't come soon enough. But enough about him.

This may not have been a vintage season for Manchester United, but in his customary manner, SAF fixed his one main problem audaciously by bringing in van Persie, and blooded more youngsters in to the extent that the likes of Phil Jones ended the season looking like he'd been a first team regular for years. United's season ultimately prevailed, but you have to wonder what a more spirited title defence from City would have achieved, and what if more teams like Chelsea had gone to Old Trafford and played United at their own game.

I'm not going to add to the already universal lament for Sir Alex, save that despite all we have vituperatively aimed at him from the terraces down the years, his remarkable record at Manchester United does speak for itself. Less so the largely mute savant Paul Scholes - an inspirational midfielder at times, an unguided cluster bomb on occasion - whose eventual retirement deserves recognition. So, too, David Beckham. OK, he hadn't played for United in ten years, spending that time in Spain, Italy, California and France shifting merchandise for Adidas, but it was at Old Trafford under Ferguson that one of football's greatest stars was created, along with a modicum of ability.

Manchester City (78pts, GD +32) 2nd

Chelsea responded to their first league title in fifty years by winning another one in 2006. Manchester City responded to their first league title in 44 years by becoming increasingly dysfunctional, with their much respected manager Roberto Mancini losing his focus (Balotelli) and his political nouse in both the boardroom and the dressing room.

Finishing second is never a bad thing, but as successive managers at Stamford Bridge have found, second is always second best in the eyes of ambitious and success-greedy proprietors who believe that their investments owe them a right.

Getting sacked was an astonishingly cruel outcome for Mancini, but with Manchester United not being as rampant this season as their points and securing the title prematurely might suggest, the 11-point, 11-goal deficit with their neighbours became enough of a gaping chasm to expose a team that could have done much better with the right management approach. To end the season with a management clearout before the final game suggests a poisonous atmosphere

Chelsea (75pts, GD +36) 3rd

If I were to believe the club and it's patronizingly-titled "Interim First Team Coach" for the last seven months, all that Chelsea set out to achieve this season was achieved.

The reality is somewhat different. Winning the one trophy that, at the beginning of the season, wasn't even amongst the seven Chelsea were contending for, is an unnatural victory.

Of course, as a fan, I am delighted they won a consecutive European trophy and joined the small elite of clubs to have won all three of the continent's major silverware. But, still, Chelsea  as ever the masters of dysfunction, what with their handling of the Clattenburg affair, the aftermath of the John Terry racism mess, and the annual managerial switcheroo. Keeping Roberto Di Matteo only long enough to pay lip service to his successes as interim boss (yeah, only the European Cup and FA Cup...) was hardly a shining moment of endearment to the fanbase, which they worsened by hiring the most divisive individual they could have possibly chosen. Rafa Benitez says - with some justification, I'll concede - his appointment has been vindicated. I would say that third place and a second-choice, default trophy only vindicates the decision to make him an interim coach.

Performance-wise, Chelsea regressed this season. Yes, I know, 69 fixtures and all that, but if that stretched the side so much, why did they have virtually a full 11 out on loan, with Romalu Lukaku banging 'em in for fun at West Bromwich Albion and Thibaut Courtois helping Athletico Madrid to the Copa del Rey and third place in La Liga? What, too, was the point of replacing Di Matteo with Benitez when the waiter's record hasn't been fundamentally any better - an identical win ratio of 57% over a similar number of games in charge.

Did Chelsea progress at all over the course of this season? Yes, in spots. Eden Hazard eventually settled in to become a lethal component of an attack, with Juan Mata making himself indispensable and justifiably the club's player of the season. Fernando Torres still spent most of 2012-13 as a grumpy teenager, but despite not scoring in the league between December and last Sunday, a 23-goal haul for the season is not at all bad.

Further back, Chelsea was, at times, a defensively gaping chasm this season. But at least give to Benitez for converting David Luiz to holding midfield, where his discipline improved out of all recognition, and he began to appear destined to become one of the club's big personalities, a latter day Joe Allon, and even a captain in the making.

Mention should also be made of Nathan Ake, the Dutch teenager who not only emulates Ruud Gullitt's former hair-do, he also emulates Gullitt's midfield presence. And finally, hats off to Paolo Ferreira: as loyal a servant as you'll find these days in football, he played out his contract at Chelsea without complaint or going on strike, serving as a true squad player as well as providing invaluable support and mentoring to the club's young Brazilians. Obrigado!

Arsenal (73 pts, GD +35) 4th

There is a scene at the end of the terrific World War II movie The Bridge At Remagen where Robert Vaughan, playing a somewhat sympathetic German officer defending a Rhine crossing from the advancing Allies, is carted off by the SS to be shot. In his final scene, Vaughan's Major Krüger asks an SS goon whether the planes he can hear are German or Allied. "Enemy planes!" comes the curt SS reply, to which Krüger, with a downbeat look on his face mutters, "But who is the enemy...?" before being shot. I mention this only because Arsène Wenger has, at many times this season, carried the same look as Vaughan's in that final scene.

As the season has worn on it has been obvious that Wenger's Arctic-tog Millets sleeping bag-come-overcoat wasn't for keeping out the cold but protecting him from his own side's bullets. He has, on occasion, looked quite forlorn and helpless, the perfect presentation of that line "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" from Pink Floyd's Time. The problem is, how much of this has been his own fault? On paper - and certainly if you are a Spurs fan - achieving Champions League football for the 16th consecutive season is a glittering prize, but crucially, it is still the only reward Arsenal can claim after eight dismal years without so much a silver teaspoon in the trophy room. And that just isn't good enough. Arsenal are still a brilliant side led by a brilliant manager, but at times it's like finding Hendrix playing bar room blues in a provincial pub.

This is simply where Arsenal shouldn't be. Two positions higher, they'd be runners up. Three, champions. The 12-points separation between Manchester United and Arsenal isn't such an unassailable gap, but then that only inflames the situation further. What difference would a striker have made to those 12 points? What difference would some flair in midfield have made? Would some better options for creativity have made things better?

"Boring, boring, Arsenal", is how we used to chide visiting Gooners, but more for the disciplined way they got on with being annoyingly more successful than ourselves. Now that 'boring tag' seems to apply to a team that will happily achieve another tilt at the Champions League, taking the nice little welcome package that comes with it, and still do nothing about making one of football's great clubs perform like it.

Only Wenger can really answer these questions. Fourth is no disaster, and no one team actually deserves anything, anyway. But even to this Chelsea fan, the look on my face this season as I've looked across London has been as flummoxed as that on Wenger's. Except that it's his job to fix the problem.

Tottenham Hotspur (72 pts, GD +20) 5th

Much rested on André Villas-Boas's young shoulders this season when he stepped into Harry Redknapp's shoes at White Hart Lane. Clearly, the chemistry at Chelsea had been all wrong - would Spurs be any better? Clearly, yes, and although fifth place and another crack at Europe's second-string competition is not ideal (it was the same result that got Redknapp fired), AVB has restored Spurs to be a genuine top-four challenger this season, as Redknapp had done before his mojo departed in early 2012.

It would be tempting to say this season has been all about Gareth Bale for Tottenham, but it's patently clear that without him, Spurs are lacking somewhat, and can't rely totally on Adebayor and Dempsey, or Parker, for that matter, to create chances. Hanging on to Bale has to be Tottenham's inter-season priority, with a much needed talent refresh elsewhere a close second.

Everton (63 pts, GD +15) 6th

David Moyes has done all he can do for Everton. His appointment as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor is what we all expected - including, apparently, Ferguson himself. As demonstrated at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Everton - despite their apparent threadbare finances - are no-nonsense grafters in the manner of their manager of 11 years, playing robustly and effectively when consensus would say there's no need. Losing the substantial Fellaini would be a bitter blow, Leighton Baines even worse, but Everton - for all their modesty - have been left in creditable shape by the only possible candidate for the vacancy at Old Trafford.

Liverpool (61 pts, GD +28) 7th

For those still stuck in the era of big hair and bigger moustaches on Merseyside, to end seventh behind Everton but with a greater goal difference must be agony. It must be even harder to accept that in Luis Suarez, despite his headline-grabbing, arm-chewing antics, Liverpool had one of the Premier League's star assets this term. Brendan Rodgers even managed to return Daniel Sturridge to something approaching the quality he should have shown at Chelsea. But those aside, a disappointing season for the mighty Reds. Inconsistent and lacking the kind of strength across the park that Liverpool would have had without question in eras past. On the upside, Jamie Carragher retired, so we'll no longer have to put up with his scally whining.

West Bromwich Albion (49 pts, GD -4) 8th

OK, to be third at the end of October was the sort of start Baggies fans could have only dreamed of. And we have been there before with unfancied sides enjoying the nosebleed reaches of the table within the season's first three months. To end eigth may be disappointing, but put into context, not to be sniffed at either. Steve Clarke is still learning the art of management, and learning how to deal with player fallouts like Peter Odemwingie's ridiculous show-up at QPR (which he must be relieved about now...), which suggested an unhappy dressing room.

Swansea City (46 pts, GD -4) 9th

Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rogers and, this season, Michael Laudrup have made Swansea a team to keep a close eye on. Though never realistically likely to bother the upper echelon - for now - this term Laudrup (and a ball boy) helped them to the League Cup (their first trophy in 101 years) and produced a Top 10 finish. The signing of Michu was a big statement of a club with a very healthy attitude to development and, although the final third of the season didn't bring quite the same momentum of results as the first two-thirds, Laudrup has established himself as yet another Swansea manager with a future, and the club, an even better attacking package than ever before.

West Ham United (46 pts, GD -8) 10th

For a side connected, it would seem, by bungee rope to the Championship, Big Sam has instilled some stability - not to mention restored 'Ammers' customary robustness on their latest return to the Premier League. Tenth place may appear like the mid-table mediocrity Coventry went season-after-season pursuing and securing, but it reflects their solid home form (which took points off the two Manchesters and Chelsea) as well as their somewhat weaker performance on the road. The departure of Carlton Cole might indicate a bigger clearout by Allardyce, but the first priority must be pinning down Andy Carroll.

Norwich City (44 pts, GD -17) 11th

Chris Hughton's dismissal from Newcastle in December 2010 still sticks in the craw of many, so it appeared that his appointment to Norwich, succeeding Paul Lambert, promised to be the sort of "good guy lands good club" story. And so it has proven, sort of, with Norwich pulling off creditable home wins over Manchester United and Arsenal, and, despite some relegation wobbles, coming to a halt in 11th. Norwich fans will want more, of course, or at least less hovering around the Championship trap door that has detracted from their game, but the potential for Norwich to be a top half player is there for their taking.

Fulham (43pts, GD -10) 12th

We all love Martin Jol. Big old Anglophile bear of a manager. We all find his "...and ah think..." interviews endearingly frank, which is no great surprise from a Dutchman. The trouble is, Fulham have hardly progressed under him. His squad has aged and even with Dimitar Berbatov/Andy Garcia in the ranks, Fulham have failed to look anything more than mid-table pedestrians. Jol may pay the price for this, with an unsettled Gus Poyet at Brighton possibly considering the 'other' west Londoners his next career development platform.

Stoke City (42 points, GD -11) 13th

No vintage season for Stoke. Not so long ago they were the Premier League's Awkward Squad, possessing the disruptive ability  to bruise the egos of clubs with bigger purses and bigger reputations. This time around they've looked less than average at times, prompting questions about whether Tony Pulis had taken them as far as he could. Developments, yesterday, at the Britannia Stadium said that they had. Sir Alex Ferguson lasted 26 years at Manchester United, the result of a perfect storm of club, finances, players bought and players brought through. Tony Pulis lasted just seven years by comparison, but even that is a lengthy stay in this day and age, when simply establishing your side as a Premier League fixture isn't enough. Directors want more, and the supporters want even more in the way of team development..

Southampton (41 pts, GD -11) 14th

Much like the Little Britain sketch in which serial ASBO collector Vicky Pollard complained that she didn't have a "brahn baby" like every other girl on her estate, Premier League clubs could be forgiven for missing out on the phenomenon of being taken over by a mad but wealthy foreign owner who promptly goes about creating dysfunctionality like an unwanted outbreak of acne in adulthood. Thus, Southampton acquired their very own sugar daddy, Markus Liebherr, who subsequently established Italian banker Nicola Cortese as club chairman, and then they set about securing Saints' long-term future. Keeping Nigel Adkins in place as manager maintained at least two seasons of stability at the club with renewed ambition, but his generally-deemed unfair sacking in January, suggested another foreign owner gone nuts. But unlike, say, the Di Matteo/Benitez transition, the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino has at least endeared the fans, especially with the team's adoption of attacking football. What won't go down well, inevitably, is a precarious bottom half finish, with that term "safety" being a more acceptable term than "almost".

Aston Villa (41 pts, GD -22) 15th

Villa have had a truly baffling season. From Premier League staples, they started taking on water quite ominously. The 8-0 Christmas defeat to Chelsea - a fixture that normally gives Villa rich pickings and damns the incumbent Chelsea coach to an Abramovich payoff - was a low point from which they only just managed to recover in the nick of time in the final two weeks of the season. That said, Paul Lambert is in the luxurious position of having a club owner who recognises that his manager is trying to build a young new team. It will take time, as the disjointed performances this season have exposed, but in Christian Benteke they have a precocious talent to build around or behind. For now, 2012-13 may simply be a season for Villa to draw a line under and build on.

Up and down the land, the final day of the 2012-13 season was notable for its so-what results, the odd last-minute escape and a handful of retirements. Of them all, none were more poignant than that of Stiliyan 'Stan' Petrov, the Villa captain diagnosed with acute leukaemia - "this crazy thing" as he calls it. Football wishes him every success in continuing to fight it and fight for those who also have it.

Newcastle United (41 pts, GD -23) 16th

How Newcastle ended up 16th (and that could have been a lot worse) from their fifth-place finish last season is an abject lesson in how easily - and quickly - it can all go wrong in the Premier League. No sooner had the club tied itself to Alan Pardew for a six-year contract, than the points started dropping like Christmas tree pine needles on Boxing Day. Another club which hasn't been without its own form of owner meddling-induced madness, Newcastle's bright start almost ended in relegation, the football equivalent of the office lift's cable snapping. The New Year influx of young French talent may have been good news at the time, but their apparent failure to gel appeared to be major factors in the telephone number-score defeats inflicted in the second two-thirds of the season.

Sunderland (39 pts, GD -13) 17th

If this season's verdicts seem to draw mainly on the instability of so many clubs, then it's no accident. Managerial firings well into the season have now become so commonplace that we're pretty blasé about them. The sight of Martin O'Neill - arguably one of the most respected gaffers in the game - struggling to arrest Sunderland's slide with a squad seemingly lacking any of the passion and nuclear reactor-like drive of the Northern Irishman was a pity. So what do they do next? Bring in a manager with no Premier League experience and a historic sympathy towards fascism. Not since the FA bungled their attempted appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari as England coach has a managerial arrival been such a PR disaster. To his credit, Paolo di Canio kept Sunderland out of relegation - just - but only by coming second in the 'mini league' fighting for Premier League survival in the lower reaches. In the process, it would appear, di Canio has applied his own version of tough love. Time, and next season, will see whether his approach has been the right one. For now, this season has to be marked down as a very poor one for Sunderland.

Wigan Athletic (36 points, GD -26) 18th Relegated

Yes, yes, yes. It was all very Hollywood to see Wigan beat Manchester City in the dying seconds of the FA Cup Final. Yes, yes, yes, we Brits love an underdog. Roberto Martinez is one of football's most likeable and erudite managers, and Dave Whelan, apparently, one of those old school, local-boy-made-good chairman (unlike that porky upstart across the country at Newcastle...). But, romance aside, Wigan left it too little too late to fight themselves out of the drop. Always a good side to watch, always - by reputation - a good side to play for under Martinez, it just didn't go right this term. When they had to dig themselves out of trouble, the response was brilliant. Just too late. If Whelan can keep Martinez, and the core of the squad, they'll be back.

Reading (28pts, GD -30) 19th Relegated 

Have I mentioned dysfunctional clubs already? Oh well, have another one. Same story, promoted, start to flag, didn't invest, replaced the manager with almost a clone of his predecessor, and still found themselves going straight back down to the Championship. Sadly, Reading's Premier League season was simply one of underachievement, and they paid the price.

20th Queens Park Rangers (25 pts, GD -30) 20th Relegated 

Manchester City and Chelsea could easily look down the cliff face that is the Premier League and see QPR losing their grip and plummeting back to the Championship. While QPR's equally minted rivals have an infinitely stronger tenure on their elite league status, QPR's season has served as a stark reminder that, no matter how much money you throw at the problem, and even bringing in Harry Redknapp to work his Houdini magic, if you don't have your playing assets kicking the damn ball in the right manner, you will get sucked out of the top flight as fast as you were blown into it on a gilded magic carpet.

Things were a mess when Redknapp walked into Loftus Road, as Mark Hughes' heals were seen skidding off into the distance. Hughes, yet to truly demonstrate the same managerial form he had running Wales in his first coaching job, left his successor in November with a team who appeared happy to slide inexorably towards the Premier League exit, while continuing to cash Tony Fernandes generous cheques. Jose Boswinga - a flash-in-the-pan right-back at Chelsea - took on the mantle of representing best QPR's mercenary player profile, with his ridiculous refusenik stance showing that Redknapp had, like Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen (and forgive another war movie reference), been handed the worst of the worst.

While it may seem generous not to blame Redknapp, blame for result after lurid result must be placed squarely on the players' shoulders. For once, the accusation that a team gets a club relegated, not the manager, has been proven correct. If Fernandes has the ability to do so, he will let Redknapp rebuild in the Championship, while ruthlessly discarding those who patently don't want to be at QPR, haven't wanted to be there, and shouldn't be there any longer.

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