It stopped and restarted but that wasn’t just why this was a Premier League season like no other. The sheer dominance of Liverpool, on way to their first league title in three decades, had made the title race a predictable affair midway through the campaign. At times, it felt like Juergen Klopp’s team was too good for the league.
Liverpool’s dominance, however, overshadowed the highly competitive nature of the league, which ended on Sunday, below the top two that included Pep Guardiola’s second-placed Manchester City. Consider this: on 66 points third-placed Manchester United finished closer to the relegation places – a gap of 32 points – than to Liverpool who aggregated 33 more. The narrow gaps between teams placed third and below illustrate how tightly contested the season was. The race for the Champions League berths culminated in a thrilling final day with United and Chelsea clinching the two remaining spots behind Liverpool and City.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City — reeling from injuries to key players such as James Maddison, Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira as well as the suspension of Caglar Soyuncu for the final three games — ran out of steam in the homestretch. They were in prime position to finish among the Champions League places – earlier this year, Leicester were 14 points ahead of United with 13 games to play — but they ended four points behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Leicester late capitulation played its part in former champions Chelsea and United securing seats in Europe’s premier competition next season.
United’s late surge, propelled by an in-form front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, new signing Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba’s return from injury, must have delighted the Old Trafford hierarchy. Champions League football means a significant rise in revenue after a season in the Europa League, the continent’s second tier competition. The amount changes each season but the 32 teams that qualified for the Champions League main round in 2018-19 got 15.25m euros each; there are millions to be earned from television revenue and coefficient income which is calculated on previous Champions League appearances.
All this means more money available to invest in the transfer market and also to trim some of the pandemic-induced losses. Solskjaer will have the confidence of his bosses going into the transfer season and will look for key additions in United’s quest to reduce the gap with Liverpool and City.
But United will do well to not be swept away by the delight of securing Champions League status. They finished with just two more points than their worst ever tally in the Premier League era: the 2013/14 season when they ended on 64 points under David Moyes being their worst. Only once has a team in Premier League history finished third with fewer points than United’s 66 this season and that was Liverpool in the 1997/98 season when they had 65 points.
Having shipped out eight players, in sales or on loan, the lack of depth in United’s squad was exposed on a few occasions this season. Solskjaer was unable to rest to some key names such as Fernandes, Rashford, Martial and Harry Maguire. United are expected to go for big names like Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish in the transfer market this summer. They could also add depth to the squad. But before all that United will look to secure the Europa League title next month.
LAMPARD LAYS FOUNDATIONS
Frank Lampard had arrived at London’s Stamford Bridge under the shadow of a transfer ban and with the club having lost its best player from recent years, Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid. Chelsea showed glimpses of eye-catching football but struggled defensively throughout the campaign.
Poor form of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and a lack of experienced names in the backline didn’t help. The club conceded 54 goals, the most by any team in the top half of the table and the same as 15th-placed Brighton.
Having huffed and puffed into fourth place, Lampard will be boosted by the arrival of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner ahead of next season. The duo will significantly strengthen Chelsea’s attack but Lampard will also look to add a few more defenders to help close in on Liverpool and City.
The club also has an FA Cup final to look forward to. If they win it, Lampard will not have done worse than what Chelsea achieved last season under Maurizio Sarri – Champions League qualification and a trophy.
It would be a good foundation for Lampard, 42, to build on. Given the circumstances at the beginning of the season, Chelsea won’t be too disappointed. For Solskjaer, 47, and Lampard, having completed first full seasons at clubs where they played with distinction, the real test will come next term when expectations will be higher.
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