There was a lot to be decided on the Premier League’s long-awaited final day this morning. Two relegation spots, and two spots in the Champions League, were still up for grabs when things kicked off. It didn’t lack for drama.
At the top-end of the table, Brendan Rodgers once again saw a team face-plant at the cusp of a monumental achievement. Six years ago it was Steven Gerrard slipping and giving the ball away in midfield, and seeing his central defense torn open to lose a chance at ending Liverpool’s title drought. This time, it was Hamza Choudhury giving the ball away in midfield, the defense split open and giving away a penalty to ruin Leicester’s chances of returning to the Champions League.
These things are rarely settled in just one moment, however, and Leiceister’s collapse has been coming since the calendar flipped to 2020. They were 14 points ahead of United at one point, but just four wins in their last 17 games saw them spit up their top-four placing in true Poltergeist fashion. After the restart, they simply could not cope with the injuries to James Maddison, Ben Chilwell, and Ricardo Pereira, which robbed them of a cutting edge. Even today, they got into the right areas enough, but lacked the last pass/shot to make it count.
Combine that with counting on central defenders Wes Morgan and Johnny Evans (combined age: Wilfred Brimley) and Çağlar Söyüncü’s form dipping to somewhere around “muck,” what you get is a Europa League spot that will feel just north of Charlie Brown’s “I got a rock.”
Of course, Leicester will point to the fact that in January, United added Bruno Fernandes at a cost of $64M, slightly less than Leicester’s two record transfers in their history combined but isn’t even in United’s top five. That was the size of the task. Fernandes certainly inspired his team to a different level for just long enough to get over the line. United taking a Champions League spot over Leicester seems to only reinforce that panic-room door to the exclusive club.
For United, they weren’t exactly good (in fact they were pretty rotten today and the last few games of the season) but could stand still long enough to let Leicester pratfall right in front of them. They benefited from their 14th penalty of the season, a league record, and then watched with a grin as Leicester pawed at them helplessly.
Champions League soccer means that Paul Pogba is less likely to throw up deuces and head off to Spain, and adds to their already Scrooge McDuck-sized vault of money to buy more pieces. It also most certainly keeps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the manager’s chair, which could be a good or bad thing whether you love or hate United (there’s no in between). It’s still not clear if Solskjaer has any clue what he’s doing, but he knew enough to put Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood in a front four and instruct them to “do shit.”
Chelsea were able to see off Wolves to hang on to the last Champions League berth, though their prospects for being an unlicensed fireworks show next year wouldn’t have changed much if they hadn’t.
It is very strong work from manager Frank Lampard, who didn’t have the benefit of any incoming players thanks to Chelsea’s transfer ban and had to stay in the top four with young players and holdovers. Now Lampard gets the chance at new presents, with Hakim Zayech and Timo Werner on the way (and possibly still, Kai Havertz), though with none of them being a defender, Chelsea have every chance of being explosive at both ends next year, like hitting the taco joint at 3 a.m.
Jack Grealish got to live out most everyone’s dream. Well, most would dream of lifting a trophy for their hometown club, not saving them from relegation. But this will do.
Grealish looks like a prick, with a haircut that screams “I wear sunglasses at night and indoors.” He plays like a prick, in that no one’s told him he isn’t Lionel Messi — a style which has seen him become the most fouled player in the league (that might have something to do with the haircut, too). But maybe because of a combination of those two, and certainly the fearlessness required, Grealish is just about the only constant source of inspiration for Aston Villa.
It proved so on this pivotal day, as Grealish opened the scoring against West Ham that would lead to the draw Villa needed to avoid relegation. It was typical Grealish, dribbling past a couple defenders and unleashing what would usually be an ill-advised shot but one he got license for long ago.
It will almost certainly be Grealish’s last act as Villa player and captain, as he’s very likely to move to bigger things in the transfer window, having become Villa’s Russell Hammond (don’t take that as an endorsement of either Cameron Crowe or Almost Famous, as both blow chunks when the element of time is added, but the metaphor works best here).
He’s too good to play for a club fighting relegation, even if it is the one he grew up supporting. His status as club legend was probably cemented long before today, but certainly gained an extra sheen after his heroics.
Bournemouth showed just not quite enough just a little too late. And they’re a lesson in missing your window. By far the smallest club in the league, what manager Eddie Howe has been able to do — guiding them from England’s third tier to as high as ninth in the Premier League, in just six years — is remarkable. But there was clearly a limit to what Bournemouth could and can accomplish, and now Howe has gone from being whispered for the Arsenal, Everton, and even Liverpool job to being relegated and likely dismissed. His star players, like Ryan Fraser, Josh King, and Callum Wilson, all sensed moves to bigger clubs after last season. None got or took them, and the whole thing turned rotten when everyone stayed put. If those players move on it’ll be for a fraction of what they would have gotten the club last summer.
First rule of bear hunting: You can’t miss the bear.
Watford kept messing with their toys until they broke them. They’ve had four managers this season, and seven in the past four seasons, as owner Gino Pozzo behaves like he’s the absolute worst president of Real Madrid or AC Milan since 1997. This time it sank the club, with the Hornets losing their last two matches by a combined score of 7-2 after firing Nigel Pearson. From the heights of 11th place and a FA Cup Final last season to back to the Championship this one. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you know everything.