Our review of the 2016/17 season picks out the key stats, 10 best goals and the impact of Antonio Conte, while we ‘mourn’ the Championship play-off final between Reading and Huddersfield.
MANAGERS STOLE THE HEADLINES – BUT CONTE PROVED THE MASTER TACTICIAN
The excitement a new season brings is often heightened by the arrival of new players – but never have the managers stolen the headlines as much as they did last summer.
The Premier League has always had its share of big-name bosses, of course, but the 2016-17 campaign saw it reach a whole new level.
Suddenly there was a great concentration of them as some of the men regarded as the greatest thinkers and tacticians in the game settled in England.
Manchester seemed the epicentre with the revered Pep Guardiola landing at Manchester City, just a few miles away from where serial winner Jose Mourinho was pitching up at Manchester United.
With Jurgen Klopp already settled in at Liverpool and the highly-rated Ronald Koeman heading to Everton, talk was as much about the people behind the teams as it was about the teams themselves.
In comparison to the Manchester clubs, the appointment of Antonio Conte at Chelsea slipped under the radar.
While City laid on a party for fans as they unveiled Guardiola, and Mourinho walked into Old Trafford with his usual cocksure swagger, Conte made an understated entrance at Stamford Bridge.
On the face of it the Italian had the biggest job, needing to haul a side up from a disappointing 10th-placed finish the previous season. Yet it is he who adapted to his new surroundings the quicker and made the biggest impression, restoring Chelsea to the dominant position they held in 2015.
There was a sluggish start but the tactical nous that previously served Juventus well and earned Conte a shot at the Italy national job soon came to the fore. He realised as early as September that his plan A did not suit the squad he inherited and switched formation to their now familiar 3-4-3.
The Blues stormed to the top of the Premier League with a run of 13 successive wins through the autumn and did not look back. Tottenham did briefly flicker in response but Chelsea never lost control of their destiny and eased to the title.
Their march was one many expected City to be making after Guardiola arrived in Manchester with such a bang. City won their first 10 games in all competitions and played some spellbinding and innovative football along the way – but it was not to last.
While Guardiola, not surprisingly emboldened by the winning of 21 trophies with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, wanted to stick to his philosophies of quick, flowing attacking football and playing out from the back, opponents learnt how to expose their vulnerabilities.
Mistakes were readily pounced on and points were dropped too frequently for a serious title challenge to be mounted. Bold decisions, notably the one to replace the reliable Joe Hart with a specialist ball-playing goalkeeper in Claudio Bravo, backfired.
For the first time in his managerial career, Guardiola ended a season without a trophy and he is now left to contemplate something that certainly was not in the script at the Etihad Campus – a major squad rebuilding job.
Mourinho’s impact at United also did not match the waves he twice created when setting out at Chelsea and the excellence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for most of the season, masked some weaknesses. Yet after three years of stagnation at Old Trafford, Mourinho won the EFL Cup, has reached the Europa League final and restored some belief. The Portuguese looks to have a better base to build on than a year ago as he bids to take United back to the top.
Elsewhere, Koeman’s arrival at Everton was positive with the Toffees hitting form in the second half of the season and challenging for Champions League places before finishing seventh.
Claude Puel took Southampton to the EFL Cup final and Marco Silva impressed hugely after arriving at Hull mid-season, although he was ultimately unable to prevent relegation. Paul Clement made a positive impact at Swansea and did beat the drop.
The manager to lose the most was perhaps David Moyes. After failed moves to United and Real Sociedad, Sunderland offered a chance to relaunch his career. With the Black Cats relegated after a dismal season, the Scot’s reputation suffered considerably.
THE KEY DATA POINTS OF THE 2016/17 PREMIER LEAGUE SEASON
Longest winning streak: 13 – Chelsea, October 1 to December 31
Longest losing streak: 6 – Hull, September 17 to October 29; Crystal Palace, October 15 to November 26
Best home record: Tottenham – Won 17, drew 2, lost 0, scored 47, conceded 9
Best away record: Chelsea – Won 13, drew 3, lost 3, scored 30, conceded 16
Worst home record: Sunderland – Won 3, drew 5, lost 11, scored 16, conceded 34
Worst away record: Hull – Won 1, drew 3, lost 15, scored 9, conceded 45
Most points won from a losing position: 18 – Liverpool
Most points lost from a winning position: 22 – West Ham
Fastest goal: 30 seconds – Pedro (Chelsea) v Manchester United, Romelu Lukaku (Everton) v Bournemouth, Tom Davies (Everton) v Leicester
Latest goal: 97 minutes, 14 seconds – Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) v Burnley
Most goals in single match: 4 – Romelu Lukaku (Everton) v Bournemouth, Harry Kane (Tottenham) v Leicester
Most successful managerial change: Paul Clement, Swansea – 1.44 points per game, compared to 0.63 per game before he took over
Most goals from a Premier League new boy: 17, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Most red cards: Team: 5 – Hull, Watford and West Ham. Player: 2 – Miguel Britos (Watford), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Most yellow cards: Team: 83 – Watford. Player: 14 – Jose Holebas (Watford)
Most penalty awards: 10 – Bournemouth
Fewest penalty awards: 1 – West Brom
Best penalty conversion rate: 100 per cent – Burnley (6 of 6)*
Worst penalty conversion rate: 50 per cent – Southampton (3 of 6)*
Most drawn matches: 15, Manchester United
Longest unbeaten start to the season: 12 – Tottenham (Won 6, drew 6)
Most improved Premier League side: Chelsea – 2015-16, 10th, 50 points; 2016-17, champions, 90 points from 37 games
* – where teams are tied on penalty conversion rate, the team named is the one awarded most penalties
READING V HUDDERSFIELD: THE FINAL NOBODY WANTED
Once the four play-off spots for the 2016/17 Sky Bet Championship season were confirmed, you could be forgiven for leaning towards two clubs as a preference for a final.
Reading occupied third spot after a solid and consistent season under Jaap Stam, while a late run from Sheffield Wednesday saw them snatch fourth.
The ‘Wagner Revolution’ at Huddersfield Town saw them clinch fifth spot and Fulham usurped Leeds United with three games left to claim the final place.
It was widely documented by fans of opposition clubs that Fulham played some of the most attractive football in the league, showing the progress Slavisa Jokanovic has made with such a young squad.
However, they never really got out of the blocks against Reading in the first leg of their semi-final at Craven Cottage and were lucky to take a draw to the Madejski as Tom Cairney’s header cancelled out Jordan Obita’s opener.
Free-scoring Fulham scored a joint league high 85 goals in the regular season led by the likes of Cairney, Malone, Martin, Aluko, Kebano and Piazon. That included hitting Huddersfield for nine with a 5-0 win at home and a 4-1 win late in the season at the John Smith’s Stadium, and beating Reading 5-0 at Craven Cottage.
Somehow, when the spotlight was on, they drew a blank. The youth and inexperience showed as Jokanovic’s side failed to take their chances and Yann Kermorgant’s penalty proved to be enough for the Royals to book a place at Wembley.
In the other semi-final, Sheffield Wednesday were firm favourites to progress and book a bank holiday date in the £180million game. Rhodes, Fletcher, Forestieri, Winnall, Bannan and Hunt were meant to be too much for Huddersfield, not to mention the Owls being the biggest club in the play-offs.
However, much like Fulham, they froze on the big stage. A 0-0 first-leg in Huddersfield set them up for a comfortable progression at home and Steven Fletcher’s second-half opener at Hillsborough seemed to put them on their way, but the Terriers roared back.
What David Wagner has done at Huddersfield Town this season is nothing short of a miracle. Their starting XI cost around £5million, roughly half of what Wednesday paid for Jordan Rhodes. More than half of that £5m was spent on defender Chris Schindler (£1.9m) and striker Nahki Wells (£1.3m).
Many fans would have predicted Sheffield Wednesday to face Fulham in the Wembley final, a contrast in styles; solid but effective vs. open and pleasing on the eye. That’s the final we now have, but the Owls are now the Royals, and the Whites are now the Terriers.
Huddersfield dropped out of the top six for one game all season, and a spell of 11 wins in 13 league games between 10 December and February 21 had them firmly in the top two hunt, where they remained until the final few games of the season.
Meanwhile, Reading climbed into the top five on 29 October and stayed there for the remainder of the campaign, eventually claiming third.
The consistency is evident; while Jokanovic and Carvajal can be proud that their respective clubs took it all the way, but will be left rueing missed opportunities while Stam and Wagner stroll out at Wembley.
It might not have been the final everyone expected or wanted, but it’s the final that is deserved.
TEN OF THE BEST PREMIER LEAGUE GOALS THIS SEASON
10. JESSE LINGARD – Middlesbrough v MANCHESTER UNITED, 19/03/17
Lingard was handed his first start in seven matches by Jose Mourinho and took full advantage of his chance to stand out. The 24-year-old picked the ball up just past the halfway line and as the Boro defence backed off, he fired off a shot from 30 yards into the top right-hand corner.
9. EDEN HAZARD – CHELSEA v Arsenal, 04/02/17
Hazard was in his own half when he latched on to a loose header in midfield but a combination of strength, twinkling feet and searing pace left Arsenal’s defence for dead. He jinked away from Laurent Koscielny and shook off Francis Coquelin before finishing off a brilliant run with a close-range shot past Petr Cech.
8. ANDY CARROLL – WEST HAM v Crystal Palace , 14/01/17
Carroll has endured another season blighted by injury but he can be dynamite when he plays, as proven by his superb bicycle kick against Palace. Michail Antonio’s cross was slightly behind the striker but he quickly adjusted, flinging himself into the air and slamming an acrobatic volley into the net.
7. SADIO MANE – Arsenal v LIVERPOOL, 14/08/16
Arsenal did not look in any danger when Mane collected possession on the right flank but in a blink of an eye Cech was picking the ball out of his goal. Mane tore past Calum Chambers, cut inside and unleashed an unstoppable left-foot finish into the far top corner.
6. JORDAN HENDERSON – Chelsea v LIVERPOOL, 16/09/16
For a straight-forward piledriver, few come better than Henderson’s at Stamford Bridge. Gary Cahill’s clearance landed right at the feet of the midfielder, who took one touch to control and then with his second sent a dipping drive flying past Thibaut Courtois.
5. GASTON RAMIREZ – MIDDLESBROUGH v Bournemouth, 29/10/16
Boro have not scored many goals this season and certainly none better this one by Gaston Ramirez. The ball spilled out from a Bournemouth corner and Ramirez, starting midway in his own half, sprinted the best part of 60 yards before cutting inside Andrew Surman and slotting into the net.
4. ALEXIS SANCHEZ – West Ham v ARSENAL, 03/12/16
This was a potentially simple finish made delightful by Sanchez, who was sent one-on-one with West Ham goalkeeper Darren Randolph but instead of shooting, sold his opponent with an elaborate dummy-shot and then tapped home all in one fabulous movement.
3. EMRE CAN – Watford v LIVERPOOL, 01/05/2017
Can’s overhead kick was technically superb but also instinctive as the German darted in behind, sized up the chipped through ball and threw himself into the air. Watford’s defence could only watch as Can caught it perfectly with his back to goal, leaving Heurelho Gomes stranded.
2. OLIVIER GIROUD – ARSENAL v Crystal Palace, 02/01/2017
Arsenal’s speedy six-pass counter-attack was impressive enough but the Frenchman’s ‘scorpion kick’ – an improvised flick with the back of his foot – added a stunning final flourish. Giroud would still be celebrating the goal a week later by imitating his own piece of genius.
1. HENRIKH MKHITARYAN – MANCHESTER UNITED v Sunderland, 26/12/16
Giroud’s inventive effort was good but it was Mkhitaryan who did it first, the Manchester United midfielder flicking in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cross with the back of his foot. It was a fantastic piece of skill and even Ibrahimovic looked shocked at what he had just witnessed as the Armenian was mauled by his team-mates.
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