Premier League 2021-22 season review: our predictions versus reality

·13-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Manchester City: predicted 1st, finished 1st

What we said before the season: “The signing of Jack Grealish has made Manchester City look even more formidable and Harry Kane could yet jump on the juggernaut. Pep Guardiola’s vision for the season is for domestic domination to roll on and for City to claim a first European Cup.”

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What actually happened: City did not need Kane to retain their title and they were hardly reliant on Grealish either. In the end, the class throughout their squad was too much for anyone to cope with – even Liverpool.

Liverpool: predicted 4th, finished 2nd

What we said before the season: “Liverpool’s defence of their Premier League title came to a stuttering halt during their mid-season implosion but their winning mentality was plain to see as they rallied to qualify for the Champions League. Their defenders are coming back to fitness but Georginio Wijnaldum appeared in every Premier League game last season and will be missed.”

What actually happened: Having nearly missed out on this season’s Champions League altogether, Liverpool are now in the final. They won the FA Cup and League Cup but their attempt to keep up with City in the league always seemed likely to end in valiant failure. Still, amassing 92 points, scoring 94 goals and losing just two games in a season is an incredible achievement. They took the title race to the final day, which is increasingly difficult in Europe’s top leagues.

Chelsea: predicted 3rd, finished 3rd

What we said before the season: “Thomas Tuchel’s team will be full of confidence after winning the Champions League but they need a new striker and more ruthlessness to win the Premier League title.”

What actually happened: Tuchel’s team still need a new striker and more ruthlessness to win the title. The return of Romelu Lukaku has not worked. He was in and out of the team and did not manage to hit double figures for league goals. Mason Mount was Chelsea’s top scorer, which says it all.

Romelu Lukaku was meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw for Chelsea.
Romelu Lukaku was meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw for Chelsea. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Tottenham: predicted 7th, finished 4th

What we said before the season: “The Harry Kane saga is dominating the agenda in a summer when the transfer window was always going to be everything. As for new manager Nuno Espírito Santo, he was a hero at Wolves before things went flat last time out. His previous achievements in England will count for nothing at Spurs, where a section of the fanbase have been underwhelmed by his appointment.”

What actually happened: After three wins in his first three games – including one over champions Manchester City – things quickly fell apart for Nuno, who was sacked before Christmas. Antonio Conte took over and guided the club to the Champions League, overcoming Arsenal along the way. After all the talk about Harry Kane, he spent the season playing second fiddle to the incomparable Son Heung-min.

Arsenal: predicted 6th, finished 5th

What we said before the season: “Arsenal’s script is always absorbing. The bottom line is clear: the mitigating factors and excuses, some of them valid, must be cast aside now and things simply must improve. The onus is on Arteta to reverse a decline that has markedly worsened in the past half-decade. The minimum requirement will be clear evidence that his side can recover a chunk of ground between eighth place and the Champions League berths Arsenal have long since left behind.”

What actually happened: Arsenal improved on their eighth-placed finish last season but, when the opportunity to return to the Champions League opened up, they came up short. Arteta has taken his team forward but, as he said after the spineless defeat to Newcastle that ruined their chances of finishing fourth: “The performance was nowhere near the level if we want to play in the Champions League.” They remain hopeful but not good enough.

Manchester United: predicted 2nd, finished 6th

What we said before the season: “A 21st title is Manchester United’s ambition. They have been third and second in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s two full campaigns, but can he really take United that final, golden step?”

What actually happened: A season nearly every bit as bad as our prediction. What were we thinking? United were awful. They scored 57 goals and conceded 57, making this the first season in 32 years in which they have not had a positive goal difference. The only saving grace is that they avoided having to play in the Conference League.

West Ham: predicted 10th, finished 7th

What we said before the season: “David Moyes’ squad looks thin as he tries to buck the club’s trend of success being followed by a slump. Participation in Europe has usually come at a cost to the club’s domestic form. Added fixtures early in the season have had a knock-on effect.”

What actually happened: West Ham had a great season. They maintained their league form while giving their fans the joy of a cup run in Europe. Their wins in Zagreb, Vienna and Lyon will live long in the memory and victory over Sevilla gave the London Stadium its best night since the Olympics in 2012.

Leicester City: predicted 5th, finished 8th

What we said before the season: “Leicester will conclude their campaign against Spurs, Everton, Watford and Southampton. That looks a relatively benign run-in after two successive seasons in which Brendan Rodgers’ side dropped out of the Champions League places by losing three of their last four league matches.”

What actually happened: Unlike West Ham, Leicester failed to juggle their European and domestic commitments. The 14 games they played in the Europa League and Conference League held them back, as did injuries, losing players to the Africa Cup of Nations and a strange inability to defend set pieces. They never really got going.

Brighton: predicted 12th, finished 9th

What we said before the season: “Such is the quietness of Brighton’s transfer incomings that one of the biggest arrivals on the south coast has been Graham Potter’s new beard, with the manager switching vibes from primary school teacher to craft beer enthusiast. If aesthetics off the pitch have changed, on it they look largely the same.”

What actually happened: Graham Potter’s new beard did the trick. Brighton finished ninth in the top flight, the best result in their history. If they could score a few more (Leicester, who finished one place above them, scored 20 more), they could snatch a place in Europe next season. They did not score a goal at home between 18 January and 24 April, which is a testament to their away form.

Danny Welbeck was not prolific enough for Brighton.
Danny Welbeck was not prolific enough for Brighton. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Wolves: predicted 13th, finished 10th

What we said before the season: “Wolves will not be boring this season. Things could go beautifully for them under their new manager, Bruno Lage, or the whole show could be a calamity. They will be worth watching.”

What actually happened: Bruno Lage had a better season than Nuno, the man he replaced at Molineux, but there are reasons to be concerned for Wolves fans. They started the season brilliantly and looked like they might challenge for Europe in November, but their form tailed off badly. They only picked up two points from their last seven games. Raúl Jiménez struggled again and the team was far from prolific – only the three relegated clubs scored fewer goals. Their keeper, José Sá, was exceptional, but they will need to strengthen before next season if they want to stay in the top half.

Newcastle: predicted 15th, finished 11th

What we said before the season: “An awful lot of Newcastle fans think Steve Bruce has been lucky to escape two relegations. They still pine for Rafael Benítez and they suspect a squad featuring the attacking talents of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin is capable of more than mid-table finishes.”

What actually happened: The takeover changed everything. Newcastle looked destined to go down under Bruce but a combination of Eddie Howe’s management and Saudi Arabia’s millions preserved their Premier League status. This was a season of two halves: they won one of their first 20 games and 12 of their last 18.

Crystal Palace: predicted 17th, finished 12th

What we said before the season: “Patrick Vieira must transform an ageing, pragmatic side into a vibrant attacking force and give youngsters a platform.”

What actually happened: Vieira transformed the side, which is a remarkable achievement given the size of the task. He inherited the oldest squad in the Premier League and a team that had become accustomed to Roy Hodgson’s defensive style. Palace started slowly, only winning one of their first nine, but they kept improving. By the end of the campaign, they had played an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and beaten Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United in the league. On top of that, they are scoring more goals, creating more chances and having more possession – all with a younger team.

Jean-Philippe Mateta celebrates after scoring against Arsenal.
Jean-Philippe Mateta celebrates after scoring against Arsenal. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Brentford: predicted 18th, finished 13th

What we said before the season: “Everything points to Brentford being a welcome addition to the Premier League. They play a punchy, front-foot style, promote youngsters from a novel and budding B team, established after they scrapped their academy five years ago, and in Thomas Frank they have a box-office head coach.”

What actually happened: Brentford started as they meant to go on, beating Arsenal at home on the first day of the season. They have indeed been a welcome addition to the Premier League. Frank has been a star and they pulled off the signing of the season when they secured Christian Eriksen’s services.

Aston Villa: predicted 11th, finished 14th

What we said before the season: “The team are heading in the right direction under Dean Smith’s savvy coaching, but Jack Grealish’s future holds the key to this season.”

What actually happened: This was an up and down season for Villa. They missed Grealish early on and Smith was sacked in November after five straight defeats that left the club looking over their shoulders. When Steven Gerrard arrived, he guided them to a couple of encouraging wins and all seemed well again. But Villa’s form stuttered after that initial bounce and they only won two of their last 11. Signing Philippe Coutinho was a bright spot but his form seemed to mirror the team’s lack of consistency.

Southampton: predicted 14th, finished 15th

What we said before the season: The club’s fate will surely be defined by how effectively Danny Ings, their leading scorer for the past three seasons, is replaced.”

What actually happened: Yet again, Southampton sold one of their best players and, yet again, it cost them. With Ings sold to Villa, Saints’ top scorer was James Ward-Prowse. It was a drab season and their run of one win from their last 12 matches suggests there could be trouble ahead.

James Ward-Prowse was Southampton’s top scorer this season.
James Ward-Prowse was Southampton’s top scorer this season. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Everton: predicted 8th, finished 16th

What we said before the season: “Rafael Benítez has two major gaps to bridge: between himself and the fans and between the team and the European places.”

What actually happened: Benítez did not bridge either gap. The team came nowhere near the European places and he was sacked in January just six months into his reign. No tears were shed when he left. Frank Lampard took them from 16th when he arrived to 16th at the end of the season – but the fact they were even within range of the relegation battle is a disgrace given the money they have invested.

Leeds United: predicted 9th, finished 17th

What we said before the season: “A push for Europe does not seem unrealistic with Elland Road full again and Marcelo Bielsa surely about to sign a new deal. Tactically brave and exhilarating to watch, they may not retain last season’s element of surprise but have reason to believe they should prove immune to second-season syndrome that often afflicts teams after promotion.”

What actually happened: Teams worked out how to play against Bielsa’s side and he did not react. He paid the price in February, losing his job after a run of six games without a win. Jesse Marsch did just enough to keep them up but they will need to sort out their defence if they are to remain in the Premier League. Only Norwich conceded more.

Burnley: predicted 16th, finished 18th

What we said before the season: “One could be forgiven for thinking Burnley would have plans to look upwards after five seasons in the Premier League, but the strategy will be to reach 40 points and work from there. The first XI is robust and reliable but lack of transfers risks leaving the squad short of depth and angering Sean Dyche.”

What actually happened: Burnley started terribly, winning just one of their first 21 matches. Dyche, the longest-serving manager in the Premier League at the time, was sacked in April. Despite a late effort under caretaker manager Mike Jackson, they went down on the final day. They may not be back for some time.

Watford: predicted 20th, finished 19th

What we said before the season: “Our writers are certain about the likely outcome: Watford are predicted to finish last. This isn’t necessarily bad news: since they were promoted in 2015 there has only been one season when we have considered them likely to avoid relegation – and that, inevitably, was the year they went down.”

What actually happened: Our writers were right. Xisco started the season with an encouraging win over Villa but, once results soured, he was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, who was replaced by Roy Hodgson, who finished the season and retired. The usual Watford strategy of appointing as many managers as possible did not work. They went down with a whimper, winning just two of their last 26 games.

Norwich City: predicted 19th, finished 20th

What we said before the season: “It was pretty bad for Norwich the last time they were in the top flight. Two seasons ago the trajectory went from unexpected victory against the champions in September to ‘bottom of the league but playing some nice stuff’ by Christmas and laughing stock by May, when the Canaries lost their final 10 matches to become the first team to be relegated from the Premier League five times. It goes without saying that to avoid relegation this time would be a significant improvement for Daniel Farke’s side.”

What actually happened: Norwich remain too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premier League. Losing Emi Buendía to Villa was catastrophic, but at no point in the campaign did they look like staying up. They conceded more than any other club, scored fewer than any other club and won fewer matches than any other club.