Back on August 13, the 20th season of the Barclays Premier League kicked off and what a season fans were treated to. Right up until the final day on May 13. It was a 9 month rollercoaster for fans of all teams as they experienced the highs and lows of league football and then some more. Since the early part of the 2000’s the league has been dominated by the Big 4 of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United but in the last 2 seasons the Big 4 has been brought back to earth than this year more than ever solidified the notion that the pack has caught up. The three teams that rose to contention were Manchester City, funded by a family of Middle Eastern billionaires, Tottenham, who have risen slowly to the top and Newcastle, who came out of nowhere this season looking to relive the club’s former glory days. Liverpool were the first club to drop off two seasons ago and this year found themselves mired in a battle of mediocre mid-table teams and Chelsea who, despite their solid runs in the FA Cup and the Champions League, were left wanting as they dropped down to 6th spot. While Manchester United and City set themselves apart from the pack up top and Wolves were a way off at the bottom, the 17 other teams gave us a topsy-turvey season where fans could realistically hope their team could pull off a dream result on any given match day. At the end of the day, City added their name to the list of Premier League champions, joining United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn.
Bringing the big 4 back to the pack emboldened many of the “lesser” teams this year as smaller clubs such as the freshly promoted Norwich, Swansea and QPR all held themselves quite well in their return to the top flight. At the end of the season all three teams had managed to survive (QPR only just staying up on the final day) for the first time since 2002. A credit has to go to Norwich and Swansea especially who refused to bow to the pressure or the Premier League and brought their own styles of play with them and it served them well. that approach had its pitfalls as they suffered tough losses but they also produced great results such as when Swansea came out and dominated Arsenal in January. The main reason fans prefer watching the Premier League to the Spanish La Liga is the fact that it is a much more competitive and less predictable league. In Spain 2 teams rule the roost and the rest are left to scrap for the remaining prize money. The 2011/2012 season is a great example of how the game has evolved to allow any team a legitimate shot on any given day.
Over the course of the season, 1066 goals were scored in the 380 matches equating to around 2.8 goals per game, a new high for the Premier League in its 20 year history. That was helped by the combination of some awful attempts at defending (Arsenal being the prime example) and teams opting for free flowing, attacking football (Man City) over the pragmatic, defensive approach made famous in the middle of the last decade by Chelsea. While some football purists deride the attacking approach, the fact remains that the fans love an exciting, high scoring game that is in doubt till the final minute. Fans will remember Arsenal upsetting Chelsea 5-3 back in October, not the poor defending shown by both sides. They will remember the back and forth nature of Swansea drawing 4-4 with Wolves and how gripping that game was to watch. A low scoring game can be exciting if it is played with the right attitude but there is a big reason as to why the high scoring ones will always be referred to as the Premier League Classics and this season gave us plenty.
The 10 Minutes that Decided the Title
Flashback to Sunday October 23 at Old Trafford, it’s the 81st minute of the Manchester Derby. A 10 man United team has just scored a consolation goal to make it a 3-1 game against their local rivals and biggest title threats Manchester City. While a comeback is probably out of the question, fans are aware that in a season such as this, goal difference will make a massive difference come the end of the season. If United can keep the defeat at a respectable score by not conceding again, or even scoring another, then they would not lose too much ground in the goal difference column, which is the first tiebreaker when teams are level on points.
Unfortunately, having been reduced to 10 men early in the second half, United were out on their feet by this stage chasing City’s extra man for the better part of 40 minutes. City took advantage of this fatigue towards the end and scored 3 goals in the final minutes of the game. When Eden Dzeko completed his brace by scoring City’s 6th on the day, the commentator described it as a seismic day in English football. With a final score of 6-1 to City, the ramifications of the champions being routed at home would be felt for the rest of the season. That six goal swing in goal difference (+3 for City, -3 for United) would be one of the key factors in the race for the title on the league’s final day.
Going into the final day of the season, City and United were locked on 86 points apiece with City holding the advantage on goal difference being +63 to +55. If that Manchester Derby back in October stayed at 3-1 to City and the season played out the way it did, it would have been +60 to +58, a much more manageable number to chase on the last day or god forbid pulled another one back to +59 each. If United only needed to outscore City by 2 you know that they would have gone all out and chased the goals rather than sitting back and being content with the 1-goal lead.
Of course it is just as easy to point to other ways where United may have lost the title, for example blowing a 4-2 lead at home to Everton to draw 4-4 is up there, as is going out with a negative approach in the return Manchester Derby when a win would have sealed the title. The same can be said for City who earned the title in other ways such as stealing a win on the final day, but the key result will always be that 6-1 as it meant that the final day would be decided on straight up results, not who could score the most goals. In those final 10 minutes at Old Trafford, City won the title with their ruthless closing out of a game, and United lost it by being overrun when down a man.
Not all positives, some bad moments as well
For all the positives that could be taken from this season there were two issues that looked to mar the season. Firstly there were the two allegations of racial abuse against Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Chelsea’s captain John Terry in October. On the 15th, Manchester United faced Liverpool at Anfield and Suarez was accused of racially vilifying United’s captain, Patrice Evra. According to documents released by the Football Association (FA) on their investigation into the matter, Suarez was reported to have said that he kicked Evra “because he was black” and that he “did not speak to blacks” during a heated on field argument between the pair.
After being found guilty of racial abuse Suarez was suspended for 8 games, a decision that his club did not agree with as they felt he had been found guilty based only on hearsay and unreliable evidence. Unfortunately for the fans, this was not the end of that incident as the return leg was just as fiery as the original confrontation. When the teams met for their return fixture on February 11, Suarez ignored Evra’s hand despite having promised Liverpool he would honour the tradition. Early on in the game fans nearly got to see their dream clash as Suarez and Evra both went for a loose ball before United defender Rio Ferdinand got in the way to clean up. After United won the game 2-1 Evra took the celebration a step too far running down in front of Suarez to enjoy the moment in front of his face. While he was understandably excited that taunting was probably a bit much.
When Chelsea faced Queens Park Rangers just 8 days after the Suarez incident, the game at Loftus Road was memorable in its own right without the negative incident that came to light in the days afterwards. QPR pulled off a stunning upset over a Chelsea side that was reduced to 9 men thanks to 2 red cards giving them temporary bragging rights over their local rivals. After the game however the result was overshadowed by an allegation that John Terry had racially vilified Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand calling him a “f—ing black c–t” in the middle of the game.
While no formal action was taken by the FA against Terry, the police force opened an investigation and just before Christmas Terry was formally charged with using racist language and will face trial in July 2012 after the European Championships. As tempting as it is to speculate about what possible punishments Terry could face if found guilty, all that really should be said is that this sort of racism has no place in the game whatsoever and if Terry is guilty (he has entered a plea of not guilty) then he deserves to be punished. Racism is still an unfortunate part of football in some parts of the world that players and fans still have not evolved past. Hopefully something can be done in the very near future to eradicate it completely; unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to cure the ever present issue of stupidity.
As well as the unfortunate racism incidents which plagued the league this year, there were some major errors by match officials that lead to games being decided by mistakes rather than the players on the field. Manchester United’s winger Ashley Young was caught diving twice in the space of a week against Queens Park Rangers and his former club Aston Villa to win penalties on both occasions. The saddest part of it all was that this level of cheating went unpunished by the league despite the clear evidence and they benefitted his team greatly as the incident against Queens Park Rangers lead to a red card that killed the game as a contest.
The day before Young’s dive against QPR, another game was decided thanks to two refereeing errors. Chelsea escaped with a controversial 2-1 home win against Wigan with a stoppage time winner to Juan Mata where both their goals came from an offside position. In all fairness to these match officials these guys are human and they will make some errors but you have to think that with the amount of training they receive they should be able to get most of the calls correct at this level.
Overall, football fans were treating to the best season in English football for a long time with the title going down to the final seconds of the final game before being decided. Teams had their dreams realised, exceeded and others have had their hearts shattered. But above all else, the best part of the Premier League remains the fact that in 94 days, we get to go through it again as a new season starts off with new dreams, new hopes and new stars waiting to be discovered.