After years in the wilderness, the Premier League appears to finally be on an upward swing. With a wave of world class managers arriving and those already in place settling in, the quality at the head of the table has greatly improved. Leicester City could come from nowhere to become champions last year, but now the league has split into three distinct sections: the established bigger clubs at the top, all the rest on negative goal difference and Everton sitting alone between them in seventh.
While most years there’s a few decent upper midtable teams to challenge those typically above them, only Everton looked close and they didn’t exactly threaten. Watford looked strong early on but dropped off so sharply they finished just above the relegation zone, whereas Southampton have played this role in previous seasons – this year putting in a good showing in the league cup – although Claude Puel was shown to not be in the same class as predecessors Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Beyond that the rest of the league was pretty much just making up the numbers – a mixture of poor teams and solid sides without much hope of punching higher.
Player of the Season
A previous winner, Eden Hazard could have easily got this one again but it makes sense to go for his teammate N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman was among the best last season and his tireless work has won him back-to-back Premier League winner’s medals. While his contribution is primarily defensive, he’s also improved his passing – still not a creative hub but going forwards more often. His success is as much representative of the way the Premier League has moved in recent seasons, with less mimicry of the passing of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and more heavy pressing much closer to English football’s traditionally fast style. Although a calm head is still obviously valuable, closing down and regaining possession is more important than it was a few years ago.
Young Player of the Season
Dele Alli continued to impress. The 21 year-old had much of Tottenham’s creative duties resting on his shoulders and consistently met or exceeded expectations, also showing himself to be a deft finisher.
Goal of the Season
A season of acrobatic goals. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick against Sunderland showed excellent technique, albeit only necessary because he was offside, and Olivier Giroud matched it with his own against Crystal Palace. Emre Can came up with an inventive solution with his back to goal against Watford, hitting an overhead kick on the run, but Andy Carroll‘s effort against Crystal Palace comes out on top not just for its acrobatics but for the power that he gets on the finish – often bicycle kicks skim in off the shin but this thunders into the net.
Manager of the Season
Mauricio Pochettino impressed again but the only man to finish above him takes the crown. Arguably the least hyped of the new managerial arrivals, Antonio Conte adapted after some early hiccups to storm the league.
Disappointment of the Season
This dubious honour could have multiple recipients. David Moyes crashed and burned at Sunderland, but no one really has the expectations for him to disappoint anymore and Sunderland’s relegation has been a matter of when rather than if for years now. At the other end of the table Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho were expected to be more successful, yet those perceptions have been affected by the successes of those around them: Guardiola has set such ridiculous standards that he would always disappoint some, and a solid debut season as he builds his squad is made to look weaker when Conte hits the ground running with a set of players more suited to his style of play than Guardiola’s. Arsenal had pretty much the same season they have had for years now, which has become a problem in itself for Wenger, yet this time they finished outside of the Champions League spots because the competition has improved. With such heavy investment, Manchester United probably shouldn’t have been left chasing all year, however Mourinho, like far too many Premier League managers, has had to grapple with a squad that doesn’t piece together into a balanced cohesive team and with a league cup and Europa League under his belt the season should still be deemed a success.
This leaves Leicester City. No one expected them to retain their trophy or even put up much of a fight, however fighting relegation was a bit of a shock. Nevertheless, the disappointment isn’t strictly on-field. Claudio Ranieri guided the Foxes to their first ever league title in an era where that simply isn’t possible and is pushed out the door less than a year later. Ranieri’s kind uncle vibe adds to the upset, but his sacking shines a spotlight on the transience of football and with it that nagging feeling in the back of the head that nothing really matters and you and everyone you know will be dead in a hundred years. The upturn in form under Craig Shakespeare that saw them finish a respectable 12th suggests it might not have been the wrong decision, yet real gratitude for how difficult Ranieri’s achievement was would grant him a job for life – now he’s at Nantes.
Team of the Season
Honourable mentions: Jordan Pickford, Danny Rose, Philippe Coutinho, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Sadio Mane, Romelu Lukaku