(Here is Part Two of Euan Dewar’s Premier League 2014-15 Review.)
Manchester United (Finished 4th)
Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure was always going to leave Manchester United in a tough, transitional period, although you’d wager the fans didn’t expect that uncertainty to last an unfamiliarly difficult two years. David Moyes’ short and ill-fated tenure as manager meant that whoever followed him had a very simple job: Get United back into European football at any cost. Louis van Gaal has achieved that, although his pedigree suggested more might have been possible.
A possibility that seemed very real given some strong pre-season performances and a few huge signings in the transfer window. A Manchester United with Falcao up front and Ángel Di María running around pulling the strings alongside Ander Herrera? It’s a prospect that should terrify any team. In the end, however, it was about as terrifying as a sleeping kitten.
They lost their first game against Swansea and drew the next two against Sunderland and Burnley. Most astonishing was an extraordinary match in which they were up 0-2 away to Leicester only to end up losing 5-3. Falcao was a distressing shadow of his former self, so shaken it seems by the injury which kept him out of the World Cup that he could only manage a profligate four(!) goals all season. The beginning of November through to the start of 2015 saw an impressive 10 match unbeaten run, yet the results hide the turgid performances behind them. Grinding them out in the truest, most unexciting sense, earning a lot of jibes for ‘long-ball football’. Lumping it up to big man Fellaini and hoping it works out in their favour.
Obviously it’s more nuanced than that, but all of this posed a tough question, one mostly asked by the fans: Shouldn’t Manchester United, a club with such a history of playing exciting football, be living up to that reputation? A string of exciting wins saw them just do that, particularly with an away win at Liverpool which saw Juan Mata sum up his fantastic second half of the season with a fantastic goal. The rapid, direct style was back with Ashley Young having easily his best season yet, terrorising various teams on the wing.
These impressive performances started to become inconsistent and the campaign petered out in an uninspiring manner. Albeit one that was very representative of the season as a whole. Van Gaal clearly has a lot of work to do; the signings haven’t worked out and the team’s best matches have come as a result of him making tactical decisions begrudgingly. There’s plenty to build on there, especially if he can bring the appropriate players in (including a replacement for their outgoing play of the season David de Gea. It’s hard to see them having such a great summer that they’re able to challenge consistently for the title next season, however they will be expected to do more than the minimum of what is expected.
Manchester United’s Season In a Word: “Transitional”
Newcastle (Finished 15th)
It’s tough to know where to start with Newcastle this season. This season could be seen as the inevitable nadir that comes as a result of the destructive way they’ve been run by Mike Ashley. Having no ambition to do more than avoid relegation (as well as avoid the Europa League), not caring one iota about the cups and forcing whoever’s manager to operate with the most minuscule of resources to replace the players that are constantly being sold off. It’s a club that has been squeezed of it’s desire, one that doesn’t deserve the passionate fans that support it.
2014 was strange. Under Alan Pardew they didn’t win any of their first seven games, however this was followed by five wins in a row as well as being the first to beat a high-flying Chelsea team. At the end of the year the managerial position at Crystal Palace became open with the sacking of Neil Warnock. Pardew, someone with a great past connection to Palace, decided he’d had enough of the turbulence he’d experienced at Newcastle and left to take the job. What came next was flat-out dire.
John Carver was appointed caretaker manager (and later made given the position officially until the end of the season). From his first match until the last they won three, drew four and lost twelve including a breathtaking eight match losing streak. It’s relegation form and, sure enough, the club that looked secure in mid-table was dragged into that relegation fight, only escaping on the final day of the season with a win at home to the thoroughly on the beach West Ham.
That match did however highlight the one positive story in Newcastle’s season: Jonás Gutiérrez. After successfully fighting cancer he came back into the side, scoring a goal and assisting one in that crucial last game. The fans adore him, which of course means his deal was not renewed. Something he was told on the phone before being asked to hand it over to Ryan Taylor so he could be told the same thing. Classy stuff.
Carver was never a proper replacement. He was an easy choice for Ashley, an assistant manager with a great love for the club who could be seen like ‘appointing a fan’. But that’s now what they need, they need a proper manager. One who doesn’t accuse his players of trying to get sent off and tell them to watch wrestling instead of football. Ashley says he wont be leaving until they win a cup or qualify for European competition, also claiming he’ll run the club in such a way that sets them up to do so. Big words for sure, and it remains to be seen whether he can walk, the walk but, going on recent history, it seems like Newcastle fans are going to be stuck with his poisonous presence for some time to come.
Newcastle’s’s Season In a Word: “Desperate”
QPR (Finished 20th)
There’s a perception of Leicester and Burnley by neutrals as the typical ‘plucky’ promoted clubs. Teams that have punched above their weight or, in Burnley’s case, gone back down again with heads held high. If that’s the case then QPR are the opposite. They were promoted on the back of a lucky playoff win with a nonsensical business model that spends freely and poorly. Although not many will be ‘happy’ to see them go down exactly, few will be mourning their absence next season.
QPR’s ill-advised approach can be summed up with the early season appointment of Glenn Hoddle as part-time first-team coach. He was brought in by manager Harry Redknapp to help which coaching the 3-5-2 formation that they planned to use, the setup on which all of their summer business was based. That formation was abandoned just a few games into the season, making Hoddle’s job essentially void and leaving them with a bevy of out of position players on high wages. They didn’t win an away game until the 10th February, a few days after Redknapp because of ‘problems with his knee’.
It’s been a disastrous one, with a serious amount of rebuilding to be done in the summer. Getting rid of all the dead weight and relying more on youth as well as players like Charlie Austin, their top goalscorer this season, who show a real desire to perform for the club. There is at least some solace to be found in the fact that Chris Ramsey has been given the managerial position. You need someone who knows and respects the club enough to implement these sweeping changes. Ramsey fits the criteria perfectly.
QPR’s Season In a Word: “Thoughtless”
Southampton (Finished 7th)
Rewind to a year ago and you’ll find just about everyone predicting worrying things for Southampton in 2014-15. They had just been downright plundered for their talent, losing just about all of the players that brought them to an 8th place finish. Internally though, they kept calm about things. Making an astute managerial appointment in Ronald Koeman as well as some equally smart summer signings like Graziano Pellè, Fraser Forster and Ryan Bertrand among others. And how we are now looking at one of the most consistent teams in the league, with a bright future ahead.
Defensive solidity was the key. Koeman has instituted a level of consistency and discipline that has resulted in just 33 goals conceded in the league, second only to champions Chelsea with 32. That’s not to say they were unimpressive going forward either. Their goalscoring tally at 54 isn’t the most thrilling in the league, but some of the stylish attacking movement they’ve been able to piece together has been sumptuous to watch. Two of the most remarkable demolishings we’ve seen this year have come from them; an 0-8 win away at Sunderland as well as a 6-1 at home to Aston Villa, a match that also saw Sadio Mané score the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history!
When you look at how well run they are there’s little doubt that Southampton will consolidate their position; one doesn’t expect to see them anywhere near that relegation battle next year or any year for the foreseeable future. The early season run that saw them in among those top four places dropped away once their forwards started to become just a bit too inconsistent in front of goal. If they want to progress further and fight for those Champions League spots they need to start as strongly as they did and keep at it for the long haul. It’s a tough ask, yet if any team seems capable of answering it it’s them.
Southampton’s Season In a Word: “Underestimated”
Stoke (Finished 9th)
Stoke are a team that generally drift unnoticed throughout a season. They’re thought of as your typical mid-table side, playing competent but uninspiring football and never doing much that is worthy of note. Whether that perception has been true in previous seasons is up for debate, but it definitely hasn’t been true of this season. They may have finished in the same position as last season but the way they’ve gone about it has been markedly improved.
Mark Hughes had a rough time of it prior to joining Stoke but appears to have found his groove in this second season. His intentions can be epitomised in the unexpected signing of former Barcelona lad Bojan Krkić. One could be forgiven for incredulously wondering how he was going to fit in, but he has proven any doubters wrong, going on to be one of the standout players in the league before a terribly unfortunate injury in January that kept him out till the end of the season.
Nonetheless, Stoke haven’t collapsed without him, far from it in fact. They certainly didn’t need him for their 6-1 embarrassing of Liverpool on the final day of the season in which Charlie Adams, Steven N’Zonzi and myriad other players showed what quality there is throughout this squad. Their performance in the cups was disappointing, going out rather torridly in the FA Cup with a 4-1 loss at Blackburn. However that is one of few blights on an otherwise strong season. Fans must be anticipating Hughes’ third season with glee.
Stoke’s Season In a Word: “Unheralded”
Sunderland (Finished 16th)
The Mackems’ ugly season has been much like their Newcastle neighbours’, albeit without one consistent, clear target to rally against. Their problem, for much of the campaign, has been the draws as much as it has been the losses. Eeking out 1-1’s and 0-0’s was keeping Gus Poyet and his team just above water early on the season, but at some point you need to start winning games of course.
Poyet was sacked in March but the writing was on the wall long before then. An 0-8 home loss to Southampton showcased a squad that could collapse horrifically at the first sign of danger, and a similarly 0-4 loss to Aston Villa put the final nail in the coffin. The Uruguayan was both accepting of blame and deferential of it, making it very clear that he wasn’t going to be the man to replicate the miracle that kept them up at the end of last season.
Dick Advocaat was perhaps a surprising appointment as an end of season magic man, but he turned out to be an intelligent one all the same. It wasn’t pretty, and it involved a good deal of luck, but he managed to get them doing the basics well enough to earn the necessary points (as well as complete a contrary double over their rivals).
Advocaat is the type of manager who could really build something at Sunderland, so it’s to their benefit that after some deliberation he has decided to not retire and will stay on. Now the money men at the club need to get behind him; provide him with the investment to make sure they aren’t scrambling to stay up again next season. There is a sense that there are some gremlins lying deep below the surface at the club, some deep-seated that are very easily dredged back up when times are tough. If they’re to have any hope of overcoming these demons they need to stick with their man.
Sunderland’s Season In a Word: “Precarious”