The 2022/23 Premier League season is no more, but it bowed out with another vintage slice of final-day Barclays.
1) Leeds and Leicester fans may disagree but final-day Barclays really is the very best of Barclays. Even when there’s not all that much at stake. Maybe even especially when there’s not all that much at stake because that’s where the magic lies. It’s only the wonderful freedom from consequence that allows things like Liverpool going 2-0 up at Southampton only for Southampton to go 4-2 up only for Liverpool to come back and draw 4-4. Or Granit Xhaka being on a hat-trick after 14 minutes. Or Man City phoning it in at Brentford. Or Lucas Moura managing to use his final half-dozen touches as a Spurs player to score an absurd farewell goal and definitely the most memorable injury-time involvement of his years in north London. Or Chelsea not losing.
2) But you do still need things to matter somewhere or it’s all for nothing. The relegation picture was the one and it was absolutely vital to the day’s events that Everton not be one of the teams who disappeared into the sunset early in the first half because that would have made the day awful dull from an Actual Context perspective.
Not a bit of it, though. Everton got the win they needed but in suitably fraught and tense fashion and settled by an Abdoulaye Doucoure thriker that was absolutely worthy of its significance in Toffees history.
Most importantly, though, there was a spell when thanks to Leicester taking a deserved lead against West Ham, Everton found themselves inside that bottom three despite starting the day as by far the likeliest survivors and ending up right where they started. Also correct that 10 added minutes at Goodison meant all eyes were on the game that mattered most for the frantic closing moments.
3) Leicester took care of their own business in good but distinctly bittersweet style. While Everton endured a horribly tense and nervous afternoon, and Leeds showed their whole entire arse against a long-broken Spurs team, Leicester actually looked like what they really ought to be: a perfectly decently functioning Premier League football team. Glib and easy and moot to say it, but still impossible not to: had they played like this all season, they wouldn’t be back in the Championship seven years after winning the title.
Their story is a stark reminder to everyone without the cushion of impossible wealth that no matter how good and how well-run a football club you appear to be, you are only one or two mistakes away from it all falling apart. Leicester have made those mistakes and now become the most expensively assembled and well-remunerated squad (the seventh highest wage bill in the Premier League) ever relegated from the top flight.
It should never have come to this. The decline under Brendan Rodgers was allowed to continue unchecked for far too long on the assumption (admittedly one shared by most observers) that with this squad and so many other teams in trouble it would all work out in the end.
Watching Harvey Barnes, Kelechi Iheanacho and James Maddison lead West Ham’s European finalist defence a merry dance in the first half in particular was to marvel at how this was a team that had somehow amassed only 31 points in its previous 37 games. Every relegated team has its carcass picked over by the vultures but it’s hard to think of any where the pickings have been this rich. There are some very high-level Premier League ballers in this disaster of a team.
4) And talking of high-level ballers in a disaster of a team, let us turn to Harry Kane.
There is a case to be made that his, not Erling Haaland’s, is the absurd outlier among strikers this season. His double against Leeds featured two expertly-taken goals at crucial moments in the game as well as technically-not-an-assist-but-still-great for Pedro Porro’s second in which he flicked the ball over one defender and headed the ball past two more before playing a pass that Pascal Struijk could only divert into Porro’s path.
Only twice since the Premier League reduced to 38 games has a player scored 30 goals and not won the Golden Boot. In both instances, that player is Kane, having lost out first to Mo Salah and now Haaland. But this year his absurd individual numbers have only been able to carry Spurs to eighth, with the stark contrast between his own individual contributions never clearer than in a run-in where Spurs collapsed from Champions League contenders to missing out on Europe altogether while Kane himself scored 10 goals in 11 games. That run started with the infamous 3-3 draw at Southampton that ended Antonio Conte and send Spurs spiralling. Despite Kane’s contributions, Spurs managed just 12 points from those 11 games while conceding 26 goals.
Has one Premier League player ever been operating on levels so conspicuously higher than those of his team-mates? Probably not since Matt Le Tissier’s pre-conspiracy-theorist playing days.
5) The way Spurs celebrated Lucas’ grand final moment minutes after Aston Villa’s win had confirmed there would be no European football for Tottenham next season showed they really didn’t care once it wasn’t going to be Europa League. It’s very possible that they’re right not to care as well. But it’s damning: it’s a club admitting that they have so very much to sort out next season that the new manager (whose identity is but one of the trifling things that needs sorting out) will need every available moment to work without the distraction of Europe’s third-tier competition. For a club that could really do with winning some kind of trophy, it’s a grim position to be (very possibly correctly) celebrating the reduction of next season’s possibilities from three to two. (We’ve ruled out winning the league already, sorry Spurs.)
6) Kane’s obvious and known brilliance aside, hard to read too much into Spurs’ final-day smashing of Leeds at Elland Road because the hosts were utterly abysmal. They were always the outsiders of the three fighting for survival but at least the other two fought. Leeds ended not with a bang but a whimper as Sam Allardyce picked six defenders for a must-win home game and got thrashed 4-1 by a broken team whose previous Premier League away win came in January. No wonder the mood grew so toxic with the owners the subject of frequent and pointed criticism from the stands.
7) Leeds’ final four games have also been a personal disaster for Allardyce, albeit one that half-a-million quid will probably salve to an extent.
But only to an extent. He will, presumably, have seen this as a very lucrative free-hit, where relegation couldn’t be pinned on him but survival could see him walk out of West Yorkshire a hero with his firefighting reputation restored. But Leeds have, from a very low base, contrived to get worse than ever during Allardyce’s brief reign. The nature of the capitulation in their last two games surely means this will be the last time any team in dire straits ever breaks the glass and hits the Big Sam Panic Button. He couldn’t even manage heroic failure.
The fact Leeds simply cannot defend is not really Allardyce’s fault, of course, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the timing of today’s concessions given what was at stake. Within two minutes of kick-off. Within two minutes of the second half kick-off (after the players had been sent out pointedly early by the manager). Within two minutes of pulling a goal back. It points to something fundamental, and there is no real shame in Allardyce not being able to turn it around in so short a time. But to not even be able to address it a little bit? To not even be able to maintain the already meagre level of the team?
Who knows what happens next for Leeds now, a club in a fragile state with a jumble of a squad and an unclear plan about how or even if they get back into the top flight having bungled every major decision – hiring and firing – since Marcelo Bielsa’s probably necessary departure. Uncertainty reigns at Elland Road, where the only certainty on a grimly disappointing day is that Allardyce is surely done. It would take far more than a fancy foreign name to save him now.
8) Sean Dyche and Everton survive, though, and on the basis that three teams did worse than them they deserved to survive. Everton, apparently, simply cannot be relegated by conventional methods. We’re sure there are some kind of ancient spells cast into the very fabric of Goodison Park, which also explains why Everton have never managed to get round to building that new stadium.
This is the second year in succession that the Premier League’s flakiest ever-presents have flirted with disaster, but they do appear better placed now to kick on to something at least less terrifying and bleak next year. They do at least have a proper manager in charge, and one who was quick to temper the understandable celebrations at survival being achieved by acknowledging that the position Everton found themselves in was an unacceptable one. Surviving with a win, doing it themselves rather than relying on assistance from elsewhere, makes it sweeter but 36 points from 38 games is a reflection of a season lived on the very edge of disaster throughout.
Dyche has now at the very least earned a chance he’s always craved and one we’ve always idly wondered about. What can he do given the time and opportunity for more than a fire-fighting mission at a big club? They’ll either be top eight next season or Dyche will be sacked by November before another final-day survival under Big Bloody Sam.
9) Right this way for a whole other 16 Conclusions on Everton, if that’s your thing.
10) If the keenest drama was inevitably to be found in the relegation battle and the daftest fun in the games involving teams in flip-flops smoking cigars, the most impressive story was surely to be found at Villa Park where the hosts got the win it soon became apparent they would need over Europa League qualifiers Brighton to seal their own return to European competition for the first time since 2009. To say this was not on the cards when Unai Emery walked through the doors would be an understatement; back in November, the idea that Villa had something to play for on the final day of the season would have filled supporters with dread for it could surely mean only one thing. A team with 12 points from its first 13 games of the season had been unable to climb decisively away from relegation trouble.
And yet here they are, 25 games and 49 points later sealing seventh spot at the expense of a Spurs side who had a 14-point headstart when Emery took charge. Can you bottle the race for a Europa Conference League spot?
It’s worth emphasising again quite what a preposterous effort that has been from Emery, even if he did have at his disposal a squad that always appeared less than the sum of its parts under Steven Gerrard.
In a league table since Emery took over at the start of November, Villa sit fifth but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. In that table they are four points behind Arsenal, three behind Manchester United and two behind Liverpool with a game in hand on all three. They have two points more than Champions League qualifiers Newcastle, five more than Brighton from a game fewer and 15 more than Spurs.
And as with West Ham this year, better the Conference spot goes to a team that really wants it than a team who treat it as an unwanted inconvenience.
11) The team on the biggest hiding to nothing today was, of course, Arsenal, for whom almost all available results would have been further evidence of them being Bottley McBottlejobs who deserve nothing but memes and recriminations for the rest of their days after finishing *checks notes* second in the Premier League.
That said, a freewheeling 5-0 win with the pressure off after the events of recent weeks might be the greatest self-own 5-0 win of all time. The only moment in the entire match with even the tiniest hint of anything riding on it was Granit Xhaka getting the chance to score one of the great final-day Barclays hat-tricks. And he ballsed it up.
And City’s carefree defeat at Brentford only makes matters worse for the Gunners, meaning an eventual margin of just five points makes it seem much closer than it really was but also makes it look even more of a bottling than it ever was. Harder to make that “How do you compete with City, though?” defence stick when the answer, however misleadingly, turns out to be “beat Southampton and Nottingham Forest and don’t throw away a 2-0 lead against West Ham”.
12) Southampton, though. Let’s talk about them. Long since relegated of course, but ending the season in magnificently Southampton fashion with a daft 4-4 draw against Liverpool. It’s been a horrific season but you can’t deny Southampton have stayed true to their traditions by, even now at their very lowest of ebbs, being an absolute menace to the Big Six. They didn’t lose to Arsenal, beat Chelsea home and away (ironically the only thing about Chelsea this season that suggests they remain a big club), snatched the absurd draw that finally tipped Antonio Conte over the edge at Spurs and ended it by drawing 4-4 against Liverpool in a game in which they trailed 2-0 and led 4-2.
In hindsight, we all knew it would end like this.
Perfectly, Southampton’s final four Premier League points for who knows how long came in a winless 13-game conclusion to the season. Those points, in a run that included defeats to Palace, West Ham and Forest, came via a 0-0 draw at Manchester United, 3-3 draws against Spurs and Arsenal, and today’s nonsense. Follow this logic to its inevitable end point, and they won’t get a single point in the Championship next season. Could be a legendary FA Cup run, though.
13) Brentford’s final-day win over Manchester City couldn’t lift them higher than ninth with both Villa and Spurs also winning in the red-hot BATTLE FOR THE CONFERENCE but it remains their best finish for over 80 years and a fine end to a remarkable season. Ninth is impressive enough, but even that tells only half the story; Thomas Frank’s side ended the season only three points off the top sixth but seven points clear of 10th-placed Fulham and 14 clear of the bottom half.
Sealing the double over City, even if today’s was at best a half-arsed City with both eyes fixed on the two weekends ahead, is another lovely little bit of final-day business.
14) A word for Taiwo Awoniyi and his magnificently significant purple patch for Nottingham Forest. They may have already been nice and safe with a game to spare thanks to the Nigerian, but his goal in the 1-1 draw at Palace to close out the season means he has scored six goals that have led directly to seven extra points in the final four games of the season for a team that stayed up by four points. That’s how you do a dramatic late contribution, Sam.
15) A battling point against Champions League qualifiers? Surely someone will now take a punt on Frank Lampard next season. He’s earned the right. Come on, let’s give our young English managers a chance.
16) Finally, a broadcasting gripe if we may. It strikes us as entirely perverse that the Barclays final day is such a great event so poorly served by TV. There is no acceptable reason at all why every game cannot be broadcast live. No reasonable earthly reason why fans who chuck £100 a month at three different companies for the right to watch Premier League football legally can’t get so much as a proper final-day live goals show. That Liverpool fans who would happily pay to watch Roberto Firmino’s final game for the club on TV have no legal means of doing so if they live in the UK.
It’s ludicrous that this wildly outdated broadcast model still exists in 2023, but even more so when the greater number of games shown live on TV during the covid appeared to represent a Rubicon crossed.
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