By J Hutcherson (May 16, 2017) US Soccer Players – Chelsea celebrated their 2016-17 Premier League title with a late winner against Watford on Monday. It was the kind of game that was entertaining if not exactly a validation of what Chelsea did this season. To their critics, and there are many, that was winning a title by beating teams like Watford. To their supporters, and again many, it was another moment in a season that ended with the only other trophy that matters.
Winning the Premier League is no joke. There’s no carryover from Leicester City taking the title last season that somehow things have changed in England. The trophy isn’t up for grabs in a way that suddenly turns underrated teams into champions. This is still the domain of the super clubs and Chelsea is certainly one of them.
That’s the type of clarification necessary in another season where the Premier League champion wasn’t playing European soccer. It’s also another season where the Champions League kept going without a Premier League contender.
Chelsea did what clubs spending more money couldn’t manage. They won consistently, doing it with a game plan that worked well enough. That might be the biggest distinguisher in the Premier League right now. Do enough so that the results follow. There’s no reason to try to reinvent Premier League soccer as we know it. No reason to spend so much money that the transfer outlay becomes an additional burden. No reason to give the fans and pundits enough to only see the flaws.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said on Monday that this season would’ve cost him his job at his previous clubs. Looking at what City did and didn’t do, it’s hard to say he’s being overly dramatic or simply feeding lines to an eager media machine. Credit him with honesty. He’s certainly in a situation where that sounds about right. His fellow super coach across town is no different. Jose Mourinho went from the Europa League’s biggest critic to its biggest advocate over a disappointing season with Manchester United. Winning the Europa League will be an event for their fans along with the lucrative reward of the Champions League, but this isn’t how United does things.
Both City and United seemed to go out of their way this season to make sure that there was always something to find wanting. They couldn’t keep pressure on Spurs, much less Chelsea. They switched their focus to Europe at times when it should’ve been on the Premier League. United in particular talked up the Europa League with its Champions League place in mind when there was a clear route to that tournament through the Premier League. Where’s the pressure to do things the hard way?
Then there’s Arsenal, still the biggest club in London. Third place this season among those London Premier League clubs, it’s the entirety of their approach still in question. This isn’t new. Arsenal decided that they could get the jump on Financial Fair Play, talking advantage when the other clubs were brought to heel at the end of a free spending period in the game. Instead, the money continues to flow and Arsenal always has a very good reason for not spending so much. It helps that they can normally slot into one of the top spots without ever dominating the competition. Arsenal ending up in the top four and beating Chelsea for the FA Cup would be just about perfect. The capper on a season when everybody short of their board wanted a new manager and approach as quickly as possible.
Amid all of this, Chelsea kept their lock on the title. It was never so impressive that it felt like the trophy was their’s to lose. Playing up Spurs in 2nd-place didn’t die down until relatively late in the season. As long as it was still mathematically possible for one of the super clubs to turn 2016-17 into a title race, Chelsea didn’t seem safe. That’s a lot to put on feeling, but that’s what this season became. It wasn’t Chelsea pushing everybody else aside to grab the trophy against the odds. It wasn’t even Chelsea reemerging following their struggles last season. Instead, it was one club doing just enough to win the title while avoiding what we saw from the other contenders.
That’s not the kind of thing that makes it into season reviews or speeches delivered while waiving the Premier League trophy around. It’s certainly not what the league successfully sells all over the world. Whatever passed for Premier League parity last season looks like Premier League malaise this season. Chelsea did the best job managing that, and it won them the title. That’s the game until someone decides to change it.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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