English Premier League Run-in Roundup Part #2: Surprises, Disappointments and Domestic Cups

Staying on top of everything that happens as the season progresses is daunting for even the most energetic and passionate of soccer fans, so you may be forgiven for letting the occasional detail slip through the crack as this 9 month drama unfolds before our very eyes. This three-part roundup can serve to inform you (or remind you if you are a seasoned veteran) of all the major plot-lines that have come to pass since last August and will set the stage for the critical games and trophies that have yet to be won.

View Part #1 – Who Will Win The Title RaceView Part #3 – Relegation and Roundup

Surprise Package of the Season:

Every season throws out a charming underdog that defies expectation and captures the imagination of pundits and fans alike. Last season many were enthralled with the plucky ruffians of Burnley who managed to finish 7th (earning a spot in this season’s Europa League), as they fought and ground their way up the table despite it being their 2nd season back in the top division. This season has been far less kind to Burnley, so the spot of love-able small-fry has been left available.

Who has eagerly taken the mantle this season? Wolves.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are a club with a rich legacy having won 3 First Division Titles (most recently in 1959), 4 FA Cups and 2 League Cups, but their recent history has been far less glamorous. Relegation from the Premier League during the 2011-12 season was ignominiously and immediately followed by another relegation to the 3rd division.

They bounced back to the Championship at the first try and 4 more seasons in the 2nd division finally saw them clinch 1st place last year and achieve automatic promotion under the guidance of talented Portuguese coach Nuno ‘Espirito’ Santo.

Despite this being their first season back in the Premier League, they currently sit in 7th place and have an extremely realistic chance of securing European football next season. How have they done it?

First, an extremely cozy relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes (check out his client list when you get time), coupled with new owners, have seen them attract a level of talent that is normally impossible to procure for a 2nd division or promoted club.

This relationship has allowed them to bring in some gifted players from some of Portugal’s biggest clubs – such as Ruben Neves and Willy Boly from Porto, Raul Jimenez from Benfica and Rui Patricio from Sporting CP.

Second, the hiring of Nuno Santo last season was seen as something of a coup for a Championship club, as he had prior experience working for some large clients like Valencia and, unsurprisingly, FC Porto.

His tactical acumen and dedication to playing expansive, attacking football saw them win the Championship by nine points last season, and take quite a few bigger teams by surprise this year.

They’ve managed wins against Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton, knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup and earned creditable draws against Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. That’s quite an accomplishment for a newly promoted side.

They also still remain active in this year’s FA Cup and will face Manchester United in the quarter finals on March 16th. If you are looking for an extra team (or an initial team) to get behind for the rest of the season, you could do much worse.

Disappointment of the Year:

Oh, Manchester United.

As a Liverpool fan I won’t pretend that it hasn’t been fun watching their fans be put mercilessly through the ringer since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, but it must be said that this Manchester United squad should be much doing better than they are currently.

On paper this is a team which boasts some top talent in almost every position, and let’s not forget that this same team finished 2nd last year with a miserly defense.

What happened? Jose Mourinho has always been a bit dramatic (or entertaining) during his managerial spells, but this is normally coupled with a pragmatism that yields positive results and trophies. This season has seen only one of those two things.

A disastrous start and Mourinho’s bad-tempered dealings with the press and his own squad finally saw him replaced following the 3-1 defeat to title-chasing Liverpool. At that point in time it appeared the season was almost beyond salvaging, but former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took control and seemed to almost immediately lift the gloom of negativity away from the team.

Solskjaer went on quite the tear by winning his first six consecutive league games (including a 1-0 win at Tottenham), and has promptly put Manchester United back in contention for a Champions League spot that seemed well out of their reach.

In fact, he has managed to win nine of his 11 games in the league (drawing the other 2) which puts United right at the head of the pack in terms of form. So, does this still make them the biggest disappointment of the year?

Shortly, yes. This tells us that all the ingredients were there for a successful team, but a combination of factors (including a bullish coach and deteriorating relationships in the dressing room) means that this season will likely be forgotten as quickly as possible by United fans around the globe.

Their humiliation is likely compounded by watching their two biggest domestic rivals fighting for a title they haven’t held since the departure of their legendary coach Sir Alex Ferguson six years ago. Finishing in the Champions League spots will be a silver lining for them if they can manage to hold their momentum in the face of an incredible injury list, but this is one of the biggest clubs in the world.

As much as it pains me to admit, United are one of the dominant forces in world football and they will not suffer without success for very long. Will they offer Solskjaer the role of permanent manager? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, you would expect the board and the club to spend what they need to spend to make sure this circus isn’t repeated next year.

What about the domestic cups?

England features two different domestic cups during the course of the season for reasons that can’t really be explained by anything other than a desire for increased revenue.

However, it also affords the opportunity for clubs to win an additional trophy. The FA Cup is generally viewed as the more desirable trophy to win and has a longer history (and more financial incentive) than the EFL Cup, which tends to be ignored if the fixtures are inconvenient. So, what has happened?

Manchester City won their 2nd EFL Cup in a row this weekend after besting Chelsea in a penalty shootout following a tense 0-0 draw. This result, while not even remotely surprising, was at least notable for two reasons. First, it saw Chelsea put up a much more stubborn resistance than in their recent meeting with Manchester City which City comfortably won 6-0.

Chelsea’s manager, Maurizio Sarri, was in the midst of a worrying time that had seen substantial pressure placed on his job after some disappointing results (including a 4-0 hammering by Bournemouth), so the stark improvement from his side was an indication that he still has the ability to motivate his team and get them out of their rut.

The fact that this was then followed by a confident victory over Spurs seems to reiterate that notion. Second, it saw an extremely bizarre event in which Chelsea’s starting keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (Kepa for short…) refused the orders of his coach to be substituted before the penalty shootout.

Apparently, players are allowed to refuse substitutions. It remains one of the most unusual scenes I have ever witnessed during a game of professional football and Chelsea’s manager had to be separated from his own player before a vital shootout that would decide the destination of a trophy. Chelsea lost and Kepa was fined and dropped from the starting lineup by the next game. Despite some clumsy explanations from all parties as to the source of the ‘misunderstanding’, it was a stern reminder of where the power in the Chelsea dressing room tends to stay. In the hands of the players.

The FA Cup may prove to be a more exciting cup competition (it usually is) as there are eight teams left, and still plenty of chances for upsets. Only two of the traditional big six remain in the cup (both Manchester clubs), and a host of wily outsiders will be licking their lips at the chance of a rare trophy.

The quarter-final games will take place in mid-March and are as follows:

  • Watford v Crystal Palace
  • Swansea v Manchester City
  • Wolves v Manchester United
  • Millwall v Brighton

Millwall and Swansea are the only two lower division sides left in the competition, so it seems extremely likely that a Premier League club will lift the trophy yet again.

Manchester United have already had to go through Arsenal and Chelsea away from home, but they will be cautious against a Wolves side that can go toe-to-toe with the biggest clubs.

Again, a betting man would put money on City gaining yet another trophy, but neutrals across the globe will hope for anyone else to win. A win for a club outside the big six would be delightful, and might just breathe a little bit of life back into a competition which has gone stale over the last several years. Stay tuned.

View Part #1 – Who Will Win The Title Race View Part #3 – Relegation and Roundup

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