Dean Smith finally got it right when it mattered for Aston Villa, Chelsea look ready to step up, and big summers ahead for Tottenham and Arsenal…
Last Updated: 26/07/20 10:53pm
Smith got it right when it mattered
For Aston Villa, this was a tale of two seasons. The second, the 10-game stint since football restarted in mid-June, saw a distinct change of tack, and their reward is Premier League survival.
Yes, it took a three-month break for Villa to become defensively solid, to realise they could not go toe-to-toe with every opponent, to open games up and get carved apart, but Dean Smith should be credited for opting for a style of play he is relatively unfamiliar with.
Villa fan Smith, who lost his father to coronavirus during the lockdown, has been admirable since football returned. He admitted he had watched every Villa game during the break, and realised a more defensive approach was needed, but his side took just two points from six as football returned, losing against Chelsea, Wolves, Man Utd and Liverpool, as you might expect.
Villa’s change since the restart
|(Per game)||Before restart||After restart|
|Shots on target faced||5.6||2.8|
|Errors leading to shots||0.85||0.2|
The criticism was weighty, the chance of survival low, but Smith still liked what he saw, and stuck to his guns.
For Villa’s final four games, Smith essentially stunk the place out as his side played more negatively but controlled games; they nicked two wins and grabbed two draws to stay up by a single point.
For context, since the restart, Villa are conceding 0.9 fewer goals per game, eight fewer shots per game, and nearly three fewer shots on target.
This is what it means. 😍 #AVFC pic.twitter.com/IaemNWWaeL
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) July 26, 2020
“We used the pandemic the best I feel,” Smith told BT Sport. “I lost my father in that period, so there was a lot of disappointment – but we worked very hard, because we knew we had to be defensively better.”
The challenge for Smith is take his learnings into next season, with or without Jack Grealish, and if he gets the chance deep into next season. Smith’s future may look stable having achieved his aim of keeping Villa in the division, but don’t rule out the club looking elsewhere for a new head coach if they struggle in the first few months of the 2020/21 campaign.
For now though, it’s time to celebrate. Asked what Grealish’s future holds, Smith said: “Getting drunk with me!”
Lampard and Chelsea ready for next step
Context is everything and over the course of a season which has lasted almost an entire year, it is worth remembering the expectations on Frank Lampard when he took charge of Chelsea at the start of just his second season as a manager. With Eden Hazard sold, a transfer ban and a remit to work with the club’s young talent this was seen as a season of transition.
Along the way there have been slip-ups and big defeats which have underlined the major work required to transform Chelsea back into title contenders. Inconsistent form and repeated errors in defence have highlighted the need for players from outside of the club to be added to what they already have.
But ultimately their two-goal hit just before half-time against Wolves has seen them seal a top-four finish and the bonus of Saturday’s FA Cup final with Arsenal makes this a successful season for Lampard and Chelsea. With Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech signed and their Champions League status set to make acquisitions of the required defensive personnel easier, Chelsea now have a strong platform to kick on again.
There will be less sympathy and more scrutiny next season. This season of transition will be replaced by a season of expectation. Lampard would not have it any other way. But he and his squad will have to learn from this campaign, improve again, and move up to the next level.
Ole did it his way
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer channelled his inner Frank Sinatra after guiding Manchester United into the Champions League.
He did not quite grab the microphone and serenade the journalists with a rendition of ‘My Way’ in his post-match Zoom press conference, but those two words were the clear takeout.
Although he would never dream of making the narrative about himself, there was a twinkle in the eye of the United boss. This very writer said United had hit a new all-time low when losing 2-0 to Burnley in January – but that seems an age ago now. Solskjaer knew this third-place finish was a vindication of his methods as they head into next season unbeaten in their last 17 Premier League matches.
Despite fears that he might face the final curtain earlier in the season, Solskjaer is going nowhere now – this just could be the start of something special at Manchester United.
Will Cherries be picked off after drop?
Bournemouth scored 56 goals last season, but they managed just 40 this time around. A lack of goals, a crippling injury list, contractual issues with Ryan Fraser and an abysmal away record all contributed to their sad demise.
The five-year fairytale is over, but it is at the back where the Cherries have been unpicked with, for the fifth season in a row, the defence shipping over 60 goals.
Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports: “From set-pieces, they’re the best in the league. Scoring from these scenarios is very innovative and they’ve been good from set-pieces throughout the five years in the Premier League.
“But when you think of an Eddie Howe team, you think of the football they play, and their attacking players. Weirdly, before today, no side had scored fewer in open play and you can’t quite fathom that with the players they have.
“Their open and expansive style of play is why they’ve conceded over 60 again, but it’s been the lack of goals and the absence of the way they used to open teams up that has cost them.”
An emotional Howe admitted his squad contains “some incredibly talented players” who he feels “can provide the club with a really exciting future” – but the fear now will be retaining a group good enough to make an immediate return.
Silva lining for Manchester City?
The Premier League title is long gone, Manchester City’s abject title defence is at an end, but, while Liverpool were confirmed as the best team in England, the argument that Pep Guardiola’s team play the best football remains.
Proving that is the challenge placed in front of Manchester City now, as focus shifts quickly on to the culmination of the Champions League, with four games in August standing between them, that elusive prize and European immortality.
After a testing domestic season, their final-day demolition of Norwich suggests the recently dethroned champions are in position to seize that chance.
They possess Europe’s in-form player Kevin De Bruyne, fresh from equalling the Premier League assist record, while the appetite to give club legend David Silva the send-off his glittering career deserves could well provide the shiniest of silver linings to City’s season.
Leicester feeling unfulfilled?
Brendan Rodgers and Jamie Vardy towed the party line in the aftermath of missing out on the Champions League, praising the achievement of the club for their second highest finish in the top flight for 57 years. But deep down they will be cursing.
Leicester had been in the top four for 298 days until dropping to fifth in midweek as a sharp decline in form since the resumption put paid to their Champions League dream. At one stage they even held 14-point lead over Manchester United as recently as January 31. Their season fizzled out after taking just two points from the last 21 available.
So, it is the Europa League for them.
It’s like opening a box of Celebrations on Christmas morning and only finding a Bounty left. Very tasty, very nice, but a case of what might have been.
More to come from Spurs and Jose
“From a personal point of view. I am happy because I think since I arrived, we would be fourth which is good with all the problems we had,” said Jose Mourinho after Tottenham sealed Europa League qualification with a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace on the final day.
There was plenty of negativity when Mourinho was appointed to replace Mauricio Pochettino, but, with plenty of ups and downs along the way, he has taken Spurs from 14th to a sixth-placed finish and European football for next season.
It certainly was not perfect, but Spurs and Mourinho got the job done! Now, attention turns to next season, which is just over a month away.
Mourinho will be hoping his side, with a few additions, can pick up the form they have shown in recent weeks.
New additions are going to be crucial, though, with Spurs’ squad needing some new faces in the coming weeks. It promises to be a busy month but one Mourinho will relish after securing European football.
Arsenal have a big summer ahead
Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Watford secured an eighth-placed finish, the best they could have hoped for on the day but their worst in a quarter of a century. There were two more goals for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the overall performance underlined the urgent need for improvement.
Mikel Arteta’s men appeared to be cruising when they scored three first-half goals without reply, but they never looked comfortable defensively and in the end they were fortunate to emerge with all three points.
David Luiz continues to be erratic, conceding his fifth penalty of the season for Watford’s first goal only a week after he produced an outstanding display against Manchester City in the FA Cup. But he was not the only Arsenal player to struggle. In fact, Watford exploited flaws right across the defence.
Arsenal will need a far better performance to beat Chelsea in next weekend’s FA Cup final, but what’s even more important than that is that they strengthen their squad sufficiently this summer.
The starting line-up is not strong enough and there is not enough quality depth either. Losing the FA Cup final and missing out on Europa League qualification would put added strain on the club’s finances, but a failure to strengthen during the off-season could leave them even further from where they want to be.
The summer ahead could be pivotal.
Southampton show glimpse of potential
Southampton have been one of the Premier League’s success stories since the restart. They had long-since bounced back from the team that was thumped 9-0 by Leicester last October, but not to the level Ralph Hasenhuttl has seen them reach in the final weeks of the season.
Over the last eight games, the Saints have picked up only one point fewer than champions Liverpool, and finally found their feet on home soil – of their six wins at St Mary’s across the season, two of them have come in the last three games.
If this is how things are going to continue next season, we could be back to the Saints that won so many admirers in the days of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. After all, this is the first time they have breached the 50-point barrier in a season since the latter left in 2016.
“The guys invested a lot in the lockdown but also afterwards. With the ball we are getting better and better,” said Hasenhuttl after their final-day win over Sheffield United.
But aside from the team, he had a word for both of his goalscoring strikers too. Where the Saints scored only nine goals in their opening 10 games, they have 16 in the most recent 10. Three of those have come from Che Adams, who had flattered to deceive for much of his first Premier League season but, like the club as a whole, has shown signs of potential more recently.
“I’m very happy for Che,” Hasenhuttl said. “It’s a good start for him – hopefully we can build on it. For Danny [Ings], one goal is what I think he was missing [from winning the Golden Boot]. When you score 22 goals for Southampton in one season, I think that is amazing.”
If they can build on that firepower, and add to their new-found solidity – even if that is without Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – then the Saints may well go marching on.
Watford owners in the spotlight
“Not good enough.” That was Troy Deeney’s blunt assessment of Watford’s season after their relegation was confirmed at the Emirates Stadium. The Hornets showed plenty of character, fighting back from three goals down, but they could not get the win they needed. The damage was done and the Championship now beckons.
Questions will be asked of the club’s Pozzo owners, who made the controversial decision to sack Nigel Pearson ahead of their final two games of the season, and those owners must now decide who to bring in in his place. It will be their seventh appointment of the last five years.
Whoever does take the job faces a major challenge in the second tier. Watford’s best players, namely Ismaila Sarr and Abdoulaye Doucoure, are sure to attract interest, while Deeney admitted in his post-match interview with Sky Sports that he may have played his last game for the club.
Negotiating the rigours of the Championship will not be easy without those players. The decision to part ways with Pearson, a manager with experience of winning promotion from that division, looks increasingly ill-judged.
Wilder’s challenge to Blades after unforgettable season
Long before the final ball was kicked – long before the Premier League’s belated restart even – it had already been an astonishing campaign for a Sheffield United side roundly tipped to finish bottom of the pile.
Staying up would have been a stunning achievement for Chris Wilder’s modestly-assembled newcomers but they never spent a day in the relegation zone, instead, unfathomably, putting the squeeze on the rich and powerful in a European race they hung in until the penultimate round.
The Blades conceded just 39 Premier League goals – the fewest of any promoted side in the history of the competition. Only Liverpool and the Manchester clubs took more points from top-six teams. A ninth-placed finish is their highest in the football pyramid since 1975.
They have married teamwork and technical ability in a bewitching system that has put them back on the map.
The enforced break and the circumstances in which football resumed took its toll on a small squad fuelled by their fervent supporters; three defeats after a series of barnstorming victories against the sides around them showed minds and bodies were flagging.
But Wilder summed up an overriding sense of satisfaction, saying: “I’m proud of the way we’ve attacked it. We’ve represented the club in brilliant fashion. We’ve had to do an enormous amount of things right to get into the top 10.”
The green light has just been given to an overdue training ground revamp but investment is required on as well as off the pitch. “If we want to continue the journey and become an established Premier League club, we need to get better players in,” Wilder said after the final whistle at St Mary’s. The work will already have started for the Blades’ relentless boss.
Everton some way off realising European ‘dream’
It was a meek end to what has ultimately been a very underwhelming season for the blue half of Merseyside. The 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth means Everton finished the season in 12th, their lowest position in the Premier League since finishing 17th in 2003/04.
Despite this, Carlo Ancelotti believes there are the hallmarks of a team that can be considered among the European contenders next time around.
“I have positive considerations about my six months here as I found a club organised with ambition and a good group of players,” he said after his first home league defeat in charge after 12 matches at Goodison.
“We have to fight for European competition, this is still the dream and this is the strong hope that we have. We have to be competitive as we were far away from these positions despite getting a little closer towards the end. For next season, the goal is to stay there.”
A club of Everton’s size should be aiming to be in European contention moving forward, especially with a new stadium on the horizon, but the inconsistency has been a major stumbling block.
The quick turnaround does not offer Ancelotti much time to improve his options at Everton, but he will sit down with director of football Marcel Brands in the coming days to draw up what could prove the most important summer of business in the club’s illustrious history.
“We are working on this,” Ancelotti said. “We know and everyone knows the squad has to be improved. We have time to think about this and we have to improve it before the new season starts. We know the market is open until October 5 but I don’t know if it’s possible to have the squad ready when we start in the middle of August. It will be the best scenario possible.”
Liverpool end the season on a high
What is there to say about Liverpool that hasn’t already been written, said or celebrated? They won their first league title in 30 years, amassing a superb 99 points – just one shy of the record held by Manchester City – and breaking their club record for the most points won in a season.
Their victory at St James’ Park was their 14th away league win of the campaign – another club record – and like a few of Liverpool’s performance, it was not always pretty but they got the job done against a Newcastle side on an end-of-season dip.
For only the second time since Mohamed Salah joined the club in 2017, none of Liverpool’s star-studded attacking trio started the game, but Liverpool showed that even without them, they can still find the net. Even Virgil van Dijk was on the scoresheet with a looping header, notching up his best goal tally for a Premier League season (5).
Divock Origi also broke a 24-game scoring drought with a fine finish but, of course, Liverpool looked their most threatening when Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah were introduced for the final 25 minutes. While Liverpool did good work without them, introducing the trio showed just how vital they are to Liverpool’s attacking play and in an empty stadium, it seemed to be even more prevalent.
It has been an unprecedented season for many reasons but that applies to Liverpool’s success on the field too. Of course, they won the Premier League for the first time with an 18-point winning margin over Man City, again just one behind Pep Guardiola’s side who won the title with a 19-point gap in the 2017/18 season. Jurgen Klopp has made Liverpool believe like he promised them four-and-a-half-years ago. Now, it is time to hold onto that and keep winning trophies.
Norwich back to the drawing board
If the high of Norwich City’s season was September’s 3-2 victory over Manchester City, then the Canaries’ humbling 5-0 defeat in the reverse fixture at the Etihad served as a final reminder of the challenge facing Daniel Farke.
Norwich’s plucky campaign delivered some memorable highs, none more so than that stunning victory over the champions, but they were in scant supply throughout a testing campaign that brought the club’s recruitment policy into sharp focus.
When it came down to the crunch Norwich simply did not have enough quality to sustain a survival bid. On the final day of the season they could only name an eight-man substitutes’ bench that featured six academy graduates and two goalkeepers.
The abundance of talent Norwich have in the dugout and on the pitch is a source of encouragement after a record fifth relegation from the Premier League, but whether Farke is able to help the Canaries bounce back at the first attempt will hinge on whether he gets the backing he has been crying out for all season.
Dyche frustrations lost in success?
The teams appeared polarised at the full-time whistle. Yes, Burnley are masters of capitalising on few chances and eking hard-fought points. With such a shallow squad, their achievement this season is nothing short of phenomenal.
The Clarets have an England stopper between the sticks, one of the league’s toughest centre-backs in James Tarkowski and the emerging Dwight McNeil, a rock-solid team and clinical strikers to boot.
But one senses Sean Dyche has grown dangerously weary by a lack of support in the transfer market. He has made fewer than two substitutions per game since the restart; that is both a statement and a necessity.
On the pitch, a host of veterans knit the side together admirably. On the bench, a raft of untested youngsters wait in the wings – but there is no slack in between. Burnley need more depth to go again.
Meanwhile, Brighton had suffered a dip in form recently but emerged 2-1 winners in this season finale, which produced three delightful goals – topped by Yves Bissouma’s opener.
But the Seagulls looked young, fresh and hungry, while prospects Aaron Connolly and Tariq Lamptey wrecked havoc with relentless bursts through Burnley’s rearguard.
Brighton are clearly a club in transition, both tactically and in personnel, while Burnley are crying out for an injection of the latter. It is easy to forget that when you glance at the final league standings.
What now for Newcastle?
It has certainly been an up-and-down season for Newcastle. Steve Bruce was not exactly welcomed with open arms, but there were wins against Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea along the way.
But it is a potential takeover that brings an air of uncertainty to Newcastle’s summer and leaves you wondering what could happen to them next. Any new owners – or lack thereof – will have a huge affect who they could sign, who might leave and if Bruce even stays in a job. Mauricio Pochettino had been touted as the new owners’ preferred managerial candidate.
In his post-match press conference, Bruce said: “We need clarity [from the Premier League] on whether it is going to happen or not. How long do we want? It is a frustration and the club needs that clarity, so let’s hope that we can get that in the next few days or weeks or whatever it will be.
“I’m a Newcastle lad through and through and I want the club to do well. That’s been the same since I was a kid so to be the manager has been a pleasure so far. Let’s see where it takes us in the summer.”
Newcastle ended the season without a win in six games, but have finished comfortably in 13th place. Against Liverpool, Dwight Gayle sensationally scored inside 30 seconds – his fourth Premier League restart – but Newcastle just did not have enough in their ranks to spring a final-day surprise of the recently-crowned champions.
With that being said, Bruce has worked wonders with the squad available to him, with injuries to first-team players sometimes nearing double figures, and should be given immense credit for the job he has done. That includes the signing of Allan Saint-Maximin, who has been a revelation, last summer, and Jonjo Shelvey continues to show his class in midfield.
But the final word on what could come next for Newcastle goes to the manager, who added: “If it [the takeover] is not going to happen, we need that clarity quickly so it can be business as usual.”
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Source : Sky Sports