The alternative Premier League table, do Chelsea top the pile?
With May having drawn to a close, clubs are reflecting on the season just passed, and as always some are looking back with far greater satisfaction than others. The final table of any league which is played out over nine months and where each side plays the other home and away is the most accurate indicator of a team’s true worth – the best sides will inevitably be at the top, with those suffering relegation knowing they didn’t do enough to merit staying in the division.
However, success is relative and it can happen that a team which finished 17th and just beat the drop will be much happier with their lot, and will be viewed to have done far better, than a second-placed finisher who had their eyes on top spot but missed it by a distance. Here, I take the risky step of power ranking each Premier League club’s 2014/15 campaign to produce an alternative final table. I ask you to consider that the ranking of each team (accompanied by a rating out of 10) reflects a combination of pre-season expectation, performance from August through to May and their ultimate final position.
1. Chelsea (9)
In winning the 2013/14 Premier League, Man City topped the table for a mere 14 days throughout the season. In stark contrast this term, Chelsea led from week one and never relinquished their grip on first place, ultimately winning the title a full 21 days before the final day. Jose Mourinho’s side were criticised for being “boring” at times but in reality they had impressive strength in every sector of the field, more so than any other team in the league. Eden Hazard was outstanding while the summer arrivals of Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa all played key roles in the Blues’ fourth Premier League triumph. Chelsea lost just four games in all competitions this season, one of those when the title was already sewn up, and their only home defeat in 2014/15 was the FA Cup shock inflicted by Bradford. Mourinho may have moaned a lot this season but even he ought to be thrilled with how it turned out.
2. Southampton (8.5)
After last summer’s mass exodus, the forecast was bleak for Southampton, but clearly nobody told Ronald Koeman. The ever-cheerful Dutchman shrewdly reinvested the transfer war chest and Saints went into December second in the league. A four-game losing spell before Christmas could have totally derailed their season but then came magnificent wins over Arsenal and Man Utd to reignite their unlikely push for Champions League football. They couldn’t quite keep the chase up towards the final weeks, the injury to Fraser Forster not helping, but not even their own supporters could have envisaged them finishing seventh after the key figures from last year’s campaign departed. Koeman is manager of the year in my book.
3. Swansea (8.5)
A steep learning curve awaited Garry Monk ahead of his first full season in management, but didn’t he handle it so effortlessly? Victory at Old Trafford on the opening day set the tone for another excellent season for the Swans, who might have been expected to linger in lower mid-table but instead spent the entirety of the campaign nicely in the top 10. The sale of Wilfried Bony could have left them badly lacking for goals, but instead Bafetimbi Gomis picked up where the Ivorian left off and there were also impressive contributions in this department from Jonjo Shelvey, Ki Sung-yeung and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Swansea even had their eyes on a possible Europa League place going into the final couple of weeks and have not compromised on the enterprising approach which previous managers favoured and which made them so admired in the first place. Doubles over Man Utd and Arsenal encapsulated a fine season for Monk and his players.
4. Stoke (8)
Much like Swansea, the Potters have made a habit of cosying themselves in mid-table ever since arriving in the Premier League and, while clubs of superior resources and history were left scrapping to stay up, Stoke dutifully earned another top-half finish. They caused one of the early shocks of the season when winning at Man City and Mark Hughes’ men also sent Arsenal and Liverpool packing with their tails between their legs in later months. The mid-season injury to ex-Barcelona wonderkid Bojan Krkic could have left a massive void, but fellow strikers Peter Crouch, Mame Biram Diouf and Marko Arnautovic all compensated for the Spaniard’s absence. All in all, another more than satisfactory season at the Britannia Stadium.
5. Arsenal (7.5)
Until their mid-January meeting with Man City, the 2014/15 season was threatening to be a disastrous one for Arsenal. Far from competing for the title, the Gunners had a battle on their hands to preserve their long-standing place in the top four, but then a tactically outstanding 2-0 win on the defending champions’ turf changed the course of their season and the vocal doubters of Arsene Wenger retreated into their shells. A superb run in the Premier League pushed them into the top three, notably sending them directly into the Champions League group stage rather than necessitating a fourth play-off in five years. Their successful retention of the FA Cup ensured that the season ended on a high, but Arsenal fans may well have a sense of regret that they began the campaign so poorly. In a similar vein, the kamikaze Champions League round of 16 first leg against Monaco meant that an admirable attempt at a rescue act in the return fixture in the French Riviera was in vain.
6. Leicester (7.5)
On Good Friday, Leicester had just 19 points on the board and, having won just two of their previous 26 league games, looked certainties for relegation. Nigel Pearson’s tiffs with his own fans, James McArthur and a few journalists hadn’t helped their cause, either, but the Foxes had been unlucky on a few occasions throughout the season and last-gasp wins over West Ham and West Brom triggered a sensational run-in. They won seven of their last nine matches to more than double their pre-Easter points tally and even ensured their survival on the penultimate weekend of the season. The Premier League has seen some remarkable escape acts over the years, but Leicester’s successful battle against the drop in 2014/15 surely ranks among the top of that list.
7. Manchester Utd (7)
After a slow start to the season, Man United hit form in late 2014 and rediscovered a knack for scoring crucial late goals, a hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at the club. Louis van Gaal left many people’s heads scratching with some of his tactical decisions and press conference quips, but his United was a distinct improvement on the team overseen by David Moyes a year earlier and a fantastic run in March and April even led some fans to believe in an outside chance of pushing Chelsea for the title. Three consecutive defeats put pay to that notion, but the pre-season target was a return to the Champions League and, assuming they get the business done in the play-off round in August, it is mission accomplished on that score.
8. Crystal Palace (7)
The shock departure of Tony Pulis two days before the start of the season rocked Palace and the reappointment of Neil Warnock did not have the desired effect, with the Eagles’ presence in the relegation zone halfway through the season prompting a third managerial change in just 15 months. That left a void for Selhurst Park hero Alan Pardew to try and keep the club in the top flight and he made an immediate impact, getting the best out of roving midfielders Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha. Despite having the worst home record of any team in the division, Palace proved adept at collecting points on their travels and relegation fears were soon quashed as they surged to mid-table comfort, ultimately achieving a top half finish. Pardew was never a fans’ favourite at Newcastle but he can certainly lay claim to such a status at his current club.
9. Tottenham (6.5)
Mauricio Pochettino took a brave step when he swapped a sure thing at Southampton for the potentially reputation-crippling environs of White Hart Lane. His cause wasn’t helped by some horrendous results at home in the early months of the season, but he put his faith in Harry Kane ahead of the misfiring Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado and it proved one of the masterstrokes of the season. The young Englishman had a tremendous campaign and Spurs developed a happy knack of scoring late winning goals in away fixtures. They claimed excellent wins over Chelsea and Arsenal but, in their other meetings with the Premier League’s top brass, they were a distinct second best and they were left hugely reliant on Kane, Christian Eriksen, Hugo Lloris and Nacer Chadli. Fifth represents a decent final position, although Pochettino will need to strengthen his squad if Tottenham are to return to the Champions League ranks.
10. West Brom (6)
After flirting with relegation last season, West Brom were again scrapping in the lower reaches of the table under dour Scotsman Alan Irvine, who failed to get The Hawthorns faithful on his side. With the exception of Brown Ideye, the Baggies’ new recruits made zero impact and a predictable, mediocre team looked set for another tough year. Irvine got the chop midway through the season and they turned to Tony Pulis to drag them out of trouble. It was the ideal appointment, with the renowned ex-Stoke and Crystal Palace manager taking little time to improve West Brom’s fortunes. The January arrival of Darren Fletcher also brought some much-needed experience to the side and the Baggies finished the season strongly to finish a respectable 13th. It was certainly a positive placing when you consider where they were at the turn of the year.
11. Manchester City (5)
Man City fell way short of defending their title when they were reigning champions in 2012/13, so the pressure was on them to at least be in contention all the way this time around. Instead they again stood still and allowed the chasing pack to zip past them and their home form, so imperious in last season’s title success, was decidedly poor. Stoke and Arsenal both won at the Etihad Stadium, where relegated Hull and Burnley each collected a point. Sergio Aguero and Joe Hart were outstanding, but too many of their high-profile team-mates severely underperformed and even when they bridged an eight-point gap to Chelsea in January, you never felt that City would really be consistent enough to beat the Londoners to the title. Manuel Pellegrini’s men didn’t truly challenge and that, coupled with another iffy Champions League campaign, could spell the end of the Chilean’s time in Manchester. Second place domestically and the second round in Europe would satisfy most clubs, but not this one.
12. West Ham (5)
Sam Allardyce needed a strong season to win over his many doubters at Upton Park and he couldn’t have been happier with their early form, the Hammers spending most of the first half of the season in the top six. Summer signing Diafra Sakho was prolific during that magnificent spell, but a long-term injury to the Senegal striker coincided with a rapid downturn in West Ham’s fortunes after the New Year. They tumbled from the European places to the bottom half of the league and Allardyce came in for heavy fire once more. It was no surprise that he left the club as soon as an anti-climactic season ended and while 12th was no disgrace, it was a disappointment considering how well they had begun the campaign.
13. Burnley (4.5)
Very few pundits gave Burnley a chance of staying up and they unsurprisingly spent the entire season in the lower reaches of the Premier League, but Sean Dyche deserves massive credit for sticking true to the attack-minded principles which got them promoted last season when there must have been a temptation to adopt a more cautious approach in the top flight. The early season form of Danny Ings ensured that they would never tail off at the bottom of the league, but they worryingly picked up only two wins by the midway stage of the season and when Ings’ goals dried up, it became a real uphill battle. A superb win over Man City in March took them out of the bottom three, but then Burnley didn’t score at all in their next six games and even victory over Hull with two weeks to go wasn’t enough to save them from relegation. They were always likely to suffer that fate, but Dyche and his team admirably kept the fight going almost to the finish.
14. Everton (4)
Last season, Roberto Martinez continued very nicely where David Moyes had left off but the Spaniard found his second year at Goodison Park a lot tougher. The permanent signing of Romelu Lukaku ought to have been ideal, but the giant Belgian was nowhere near as good this year as he was last, just like the Toffees in general. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines, so superb in 2013/14, had quiet seasons while the normally reliable Tim Howard was hugely disappointing. Instead it was youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones who impressed most for Everton, who could at least claim to be the last English team standing in Europe before their five-goal crash away to Dynamo Kiev. Martinez won’t have to juggle domestic and continental competitions next year, but he will be expected to restore the club to a position where they will at least be challenging to get back into the Europa League.
15. Aston Villa (4)
Another difficult year at Villa Park, where a battle to beat the drop has worryingly become the norm in recent times. Fine away wins at Stoke and Liverpool at the outset of the campaign hinted at better things, but with Christian Benteke sidelined for most of the season, Villa were hopelessly feeble in front of goal and, when Paul Lambert was inevitably sacked after defeat to Hull in mid-February, they had registered an inept total of 12 goals in 26 games. The no-nonsense Tim Sherwood came in to pick up the pieces and, buoyed by a most welcome FA Cup run, the Premier League ever-presents enjoyed a resurgence which made sure that they retained such a charmed status. The return of Benteke was critical to their survival, which was guaranteed despite a 6-1 drubbing by Southampton in May. Their improvement under Sherwood, though, wasn’t sufficient to stave off the reality that this was another poor campaign for Villa, reflected in their finishing position of 17th and their humiliation in the FA Cup final.
16. Newcastle (4)
It’s quite appropriate that Newcastle play in black and white, because there never seems to be any middle ground with this club. A woeful first two months of the season had them rooted to the bottom of the league, before a win over Leicester in mid-October sparked a fantastic couple of months which saw them maraud into the top five. Then came another fall and the removal of Alan Pardew, with assistant John Carver stepping up to take the reins for the rest of the season. Newcastle dropped from a similar position at a similar stage in 2013/14, but this time the decline was much more alarming and a disunited club hurtled towards the relegation zone again. The atrocious display at Leicester, after which Carver hung Mike Williamson out to dry, hinted that the Magpies were destined for the drop and they left it until the final day to get the victory over West Ham which spared them from falling into the Championship. It was heartwarming to see Jonas Gutierrez score in that game after everything he has been through, but he will not be at St James’ Park next season and, on the evidence of the last few months, neither will Carver.
17. Sunderland (3.5)
Similarly to Aston Villa, Sunderland have become embroiled in a near-annual battle to avoid relegation, their inability to turn one point into three so often their downfall. Their tally of seven wins was the joint-fewest in the Premier League, but for all their struggles they only lost 14 times, the same as Europa League-bound Southampton. Some of those defeats, though, were harrowing, such as the 8-0 drubbing by the Saints and the 0-4 home shellacking by Aston Villa which cost Gus Poyet his job. Veteran Dutch boss Dick Advocaat took the challenge of keeping Sunderland in the top flight and a derby win on Easter Sunday drastically changed the mood on Wearside. In the end, they again did just about enough, but Advocaat took his leave of the club once he achieved his clear objective and, while the Black Cats can look forward to a ninth consecutive Premier League season, the fans will not tolerate another campaign as mediocre as this one.
18. Hull (2.5)
Just as Norwich did last season, Hull paid the price for being toothless in front of goal with their Premier League lives. They didn’t look like relegation contenders until a terrible run before Christmas dropped them into the bottom three and then the worries set in. There was some welcome improvement in February, when they drew at Man City and beat fellow strugglers Aston Villa and QPR, but they could never pull comfortably clear and the morale began to sap out of the squad after a late defeat to Chelsea in March. Senior players such as Tom Huddlestone and Sone Aluko didn’t perform while they were badly let down by the ill-discipline of Abel Hernandez and the stupidity of Jake Livermore. Their final day draw to Man United summed up their season, a gallant effort but a sore lack of cutting edge, which is why Hull have gone down. They will hope to follow Norwich’s footsteps in a different manner of speaking by returning to the Premier League at the first attempt.
19. Liverpool (2)
Despite the summer departure of Luis Suarez, there was still plenty of grounds for optimism around Anfield as the season began, but that positivity quickly disappeared, as did Liverpool’s chances of another push for a first Premier League title. While losing Daniel Sturridge to injury for most of the season didn’t help, the Reds could not excuse a chronic start which left them in mid-table at Christmas before a 13-game unbeaten run reignited hopes of a top four finish. However, in crunch games against Man United and Arsenal prior to Easter, Liverpool fell short and their season really fizzled out after an insipid defeat to Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-finals. Most of their much-touted summer arrivals flopped, in particular Mario Balotelli and Dejan Lovren, while the circus surrounding Raheem Sterling didn’t help matters either. The exit of Steven Gerrard and the utterly disgraceful 6-1 hammering by Stoke served only to heap further misery on Kopites as the season mercifully drew to a close. Brendan Rodgers’ reputation, so lofty just one short year ago, is now in the gutter.
20. QPR (2)
They weren’t quite as unforgivably bad as in their previous Premier League season, but QPR’s class of 2014/15 were still pretty dire. It took them just three games to get a first win on board this time, as opposed to 15 a couple of years ago, but the Hoops’ away form was wretched. In fact, they hadn’t even drawn on their travels until mid-February, by which stage Harry Redknapp looked at his squad and decided he had suffered enough. Chris Ramsey was promoted from within to try and stave off a seemingly inevitable relegation and while a couple of impressive results at West Brom and Aston Villa briefly took them to 17th, hope was fleeting and the 6-0 drubbing by Man City which consigned them to the Championship summed up their season. With the honourable exceptions of Charlie Austin and Robert Green, plus a smattering of young players who were given their chance towards the end of the campaign, QPR’s players just didn’t do enough. They bounced back up straight away after their previous relegation but, with the competitiveness of the Championship this year, I can’t envisage them making another immediate return to the Premier League.