The most disappointing thing about the final day of the Premier League season is that pretty much all of the major issues have been decided. Chelsea were confirmed as Champions thanks to their 1-0 win at West Brom last Friday evening, and it isn’t just a desire to be magnanimous that means that we should congratulate them, they were simply the best team across the entire campaign.
At the start of the season the major focus was on Manchester where it seemed almost certain that one of Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola would lead their expensively assembled squads to the title. Instead it was the understated, at least off the field, Italian pragmatist that showed the others the way. Although it has to be said that for the first couple of months of the season Chelsea looked nowhere near good enough; successive defeats at home to Liverpool and then away at Arsenal suggested that the title was going to be a distant dream for another season.
Then came the much-cited tactical change, a reversion to the system that had served Conte so well in the past, both for club and for country, sparked a transformation from wallowing fallen champions to title favourites as they reeled off win after win, thirteen in total taking them to the summit of the table and a lead that they would never relinquish.
Of course it won’t be long until the focus of analysis turns, if it hasn’t already, to how Conte’s team will fare in next season’s Premier League and Champions League? Certainly their lack of European involvement has been used by some to show that in some way Chelsea had it easy this season. However to attempt to be critical is to ignore the size of their achievement. While it must be conceded that the majority of the squad that Conte inherited had been Champions two seasons previously, it is easy to forget just how far they had fallen. The magic of this title win was based on astute tactical (re)organisation, ensuring that each individual player knew exactly what was required of him and his role, the addition of the supremely talented one-man midfield that is N’Golo Kante and a reinvigoration of the spirit, belief and attitude of the squad.
While of course both Manchester clubs will invest and attempt to go again, Conte’s track record and pedigree coupled with owner Roman Abramovich’s usual readiness to back a manager he sees as likely to be successful, suggest that Chelsea will be ready for the fight.
It is of course still mathematically possible that Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal could perform their usual end of season trick and sneak into the top four at the death, but this would require a major disaster by Liverpool and/ or Manchester City in their final games. Unfortunately it seems that the Gunners, despite a strong run through a seemingly tough set of fixtures, have simply left their customary charge for minimum acceptability too late this year. It looks almost certain to be the Europa League for us Emirates-attenders next season and while I suspect we will see swathes of empty seats akin to what we have witnessed in recent midweek home games against Leicester and this week more starkly for the visit of Sunderland; I for one am remaining pragmatic, assuming Wenger actually takes the competition seriously, it may prove to be a nice change to play some different teams in the group stage and maybe even have a chance of progression beyond the first knockout stage.
The relegation picture was settled when Hull City’s thrashing at Crystal Palace saw them join Sunderland and Middlesbrough on the way to the Championship for next year. Almost immediately speculation started on where their impressive young manager would be plying his trade next season, with Watford, having dispensed with the services of their eighth manager in five years, seemingly the favourites.
So as we head into the final day of the Premier League action for a couple of months the only issues to be settled are the final make-up of the top four and who will win the Golden Boot, although Harry Kane’s four goals last night may have settled that. It would seem a challenge, even for the Premier League hype machine, to make that seem dramatic; thankfully us football obsessives still have the FA Cup, Europa League and Champions League finals to hold our interest before we head into the football-free months of summer.