In a season defined in many ways by misjudgments and mistakes, there was a certain irony in the fact that the final twist in the title race came in a match between two sides with the most to be proud of this season.
With nods of recognition in the direction of Southampton and Everton, perhaps no club squeezed more from their respective campaigns than Liverpool and Crystal Palace managed to this term. Yet it was ultimately the final 15 minutes of their meeting at Selhurst Park that decided the final destination of a title that it occasionally looked like no one wanted to win.
Had Liverpool not conceded in those last 15 minutes—or even just managed to limit the concessions to two—perhaps everything would have fallen into place so differently. Perhaps City, hampered by the pressure still so firmly on them, would have failed to break down Aston Villa in the penultimate game or West Ham on the final day.
Perhaps the lead would not have changed hands, back to City, for the 25th and final time in a wildly unpredictable campaign, and perhaps the team that spent 59 days at the top of the table would have won out at the end, rather than the team that barely spent two weeks looking down at all around them in the entirety of the season.
Everton (72), Southampton (56), Stoke (50), Hull (37) & Cardiff (30) all got their record PL points total this season.— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) May 11, 2014
Yet the final bell has rung, and it is City celebrating for the second time in three seasons. With the biggest wage budget and net spend in the league—the two best indicators, at least according to the soccernomists, of where success will ultimately lie—it almost feels like the Premier League trophy went to the destination we suspected all along; it was just the journey that was more eventful than expected.
The dejection on show at Anfield as the season came to an end said more than many words could. This was Liverpool’s season in almost every way except the one that mattered. Neutrals will remember Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea as the defining moment, but the way the side played in almost every other game—led by the unstoppable Luis Suarez—will long be recalled with fondness.
There is a certain grandeur in that, even if Suarez and Gerrard will not be feeling it at the moment.
Under Brendan Rodgers, the Reds played with a panache and openness that was often at odds with the league around them. On the first day they needed a last-minute penalty save to earn them three points against Stoke, and they continued in that helter-skelter vein for the rest of the season.
It led to some amazing highs—the evisceration of Manchester United at Old Trafford, the late winner against Manchester City at Anfield—but finished with some devastating lows.
“We have been on an incredible journey this year...,” Rodgers told Sky Sports on Sunday, after their runner-up finish had been confirmed. ... “Unfortunately we didn't get the title, but we have shown great hope for the future going forward. ...
“We helped the supporters dream this year and I think now this season the team on the up and our idea to continue with this momentum and with their support it will mean everything for us.”
Rodgers and his team hope this is the start of a sustained period of challenging for the title, but that remains to be seen. The welcome addition (but additional strain) of Champions League football next season will have its effect, while perhaps they also cannot expect their rivals to be quite so accommodating in the future as they were at times this season.
Liverpool may have spent nearly two months on top of the table over the course of the season, but two teams spent even more time than that, contriving to shoot themselves in the foot to let the Merseysiders, and then City, fight it out for domination.
Chelsea spent 64 days at the head of the pack, but eventually Jose Mourinho’s repeated predictions would come true—the lack of a clinical striker is costing them dearly.
“Third position is not a drama,” Mourinho claimed on Sunday. “It's a position we have to accept in this transitional period. You can't click your fingers and success arrives.”
Nevertheless, the "Special One" had previously spoken in a way that suggested that, if only he was able to click his fingers and make a world-class striker arrive in West London, then success would have duly followed.
The Portuguese made the claims so regularly they almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At Real Madrid he left amid claims that his defence-first approach improved his side’s chances in big games, but his disinterest in working on training ground methods of breaking down sides from open play—so-called "static attacking"—left them toothless in games they were expected to triumph in, a flaw that ultimately undermined them at the end of trophy pursuits.
Considering how his first season back at Stamford Bridge has panned out—two close wins over both Liverpool and Manchester City, but crunch-time losses and draws against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Sunderland—it is hard to escape the feeling that perhaps those problems remain.
Maybe it is not just a new striker that is needed. Mourinho is filing a written report with Roman Abramovich on Monday, in which he will detail his preferred transfer moves in the summer, but one wonders if it is his own approach on the training ground that most needs to be tinkered with if Chelsea are to take the final step up to win the title next season.
Meanwhile, the team that spent the longest at the top (128 days) ultimately finished where they always do, fourth. Aaron Ramsey’s long-term injury cost Arsenal dearly, but their real problem was their abject failure in big games—losing 6-0 to Chelsea, 5-1 to Liverpool and 6-3 to Man City at points in the campaign.
Once again, criticisms of Arsene Wenger’s refusal to alter his side’s approach in contests with sides of similar or superior quality, to put pragmatism over his own idealism and to get his players to curb their creative instincts in deference to the power of the clean sheet, reared its head.
Wenger’s refusal to tailor his side’s approach for these games seemed almost incomprehensible. As much as they hate each other, it is almost as if Wenger and Mourinho as a managerial tag team (Mourinho for the big, tight games; Wenger for the rest) would be a double-bill beyond improvement.
“I believe that Liverpool can be frustrated tonight, we can be frustrated, Chelsea can be frustrated, because only one team can win it...,” Wenger said on Sunday evening. “...Man City were just getting over the line without the brilliance they had shown at the start of the season, but they had experience, quality and congratulations to them.”
At least, amid any criticism, those clubs can fall back on the financial safety net of Champions League football. For Manchester United it is a season in the wilderness, the price paid for the remarkable failure of the David Moyes reign.
Crosses were David Moyes' emergency tactic and United ended the season having made 999 of them.— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) May 11, 2014
That tragedy in multiple parts opened up the European race to other teams, but once again Tottenham could not take advantage. The overhaul of the squad in the wake of Gareth Bale’s departure played its part but, even so, is there any reason Spurs could not have managed what Liverpool achieved this term? Is there any excuse for failing to at least match Everton's dogged pursuit of fourth?
Yes, Andre Villas-Boas was in a difficult period when he was dismissed in December, but it is a decision that has certainly not paid off in hindsight. The final third of the season has been characterised by the bizarre antics of Tim Sherwood, an out-of-his-depth manager who, after about two months, could not even call on the support of the board that installed him.
Another new boss will be sought in the summer, but will Daniel Levy ever stop with the self-harming mistakes? In a season where almost every top club regressed to an extent, Tottenham managed to go one step further than their rivals.
At the bottom of the table, the same sentiment rings true. In years to come surely fans of West Brom, Aston Villa and Swansea will shake their heads and wonder quite seriously how they managed to stay up in 2013-14. The answer: Three teams were even more incompetent than them.
Cardiff paid for the peculiar decisions of their chairman—whatever his issues with Malky Mackay, replacing the Scot for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not work for Vincent Tan—while Fulham paid the price for appointing a spectacularly high number of unqualified bosses in succession, tasked with overseeing a senior squad put together with little thought.
At least fans can take solace in what appears to be a very successful academy setup, one they might well have to utilise next season in the championship.
Norwich, meanwhile, left it too late to change theirs. Surely, something has gone wrong when you ask an ex-player with no previous managerial experience of note to lead your floundering team for the final five games of the season with so much on the line.
One point from that period was arguably one more than the Canaries boardroom deserved for that spectacularly botched job. One goal from record-signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel, who didn’t even make the squad on the final day, is the only epitaph their season needs.
All three clubs can have no complaints about going down; the only complaints that should be heard might be from the more caustic observers wondering why it isn’t possible to send more than three times down in any given season, should they warrant it.
Palace, in the rarefied air of 11th place, are the example to all around. Former manager Iain Dowie was a rocket scientist, but footballing success is not always rocket science. The one instance where changing manager manifestly improved the club’s outlook, Tony Pulis’ impressive campaign was built on the most basic of tenets—solid defending and selfless teamwork, playing to strengths and hiding weaknesses.
“There were lots of meetings about what we were trying to do, but the most important thing was ironing everything out on the training ground so everybody knew their role,” Pulis told the BBC recently. “Wherever the ball is they know where they should be, they have to be there and if they're not there it will cause problems.”
It is a wonder that other teams could not get to grips with such a simple blueprint.
While many teams ponder that this summer, the celebrations will continue emanating from the Etihad Stadium. Manchester City were the best of a flawed bunch; the champions by virtue of the fact their unmatched resources, and the presence of a manager astute enough to shepherd them, could overcome their various shortcomings and falterings over the course of a campaign.
"We were the best team in the Premier League,” Manuel Pellegrini asserted to Sky Sports after receiving his winner’s medal. “It was a very special season for us—we were hardly ever top, we had games postponed. But the players believed in me. It's a very special group.”
Manchester City have the vindication of winning—in the end the table does not lie; they were the best side. But not every side (no other side?) can follow their example.
That is not so for Liverpool or Everton, Southampton or Crystal Palace. Clubs of similar sizes to those four will be examining them for elements and approaches they can incorporate into their own operation, desperate for any way they can become better next season.
There is a certain vindication in that, too—even if there are no medals.