Monthly Archives: July 2017

Florent Malouda and French Guiana Stir Up the Gold Cup

The 2017 Gold Cup has been rocked by a match between the tiny South American-based territory of French Guiana, who is not even recognized by FIFA, and Honduras, a 2014 World Cup participant. It has all the details of a story that makes CONCACAF so very… CONCACAF-y; a World Cup star, vague non-sensible rules, a possibly forfeited match that could affect who goes through to the knockout stage of the tournament. It’s pretty much par for the course for an organization that was home to the late Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, two of the largest figures in FIFA’s recent massive corruption scandal, and faces near constant criticism for dubious refereeing and allegations of match fixing.

It all stems from French Guiana’s decision to play Florent Malouda in their second group game of the tournament. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. Malouda was a star for Chelsea and for the French national team from 2004-12. During that time he played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup, as well as EURO 2008 and 2012.

So what on earth is he doing playing in CONCACAF’s highest regional tournament?

Well, Malouda was born in Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana, which is considered an overseas department of France. Because of this, French Guiana is not a member of FIFA since it’s a part of the European nation. However, when it comes to regional tournaments, French Guiana is one of several French territories that participates as a member of CONCACAF, and those national teams are allowed to use players born in their territory, regardless of if they play for a recognized FIFA nation.

So where does the controversy come in? Malouda played three times for French Guiana, the place of his birth, earlier this year, in a friendly against Barbados, as well as in the 2017 Caribbean Cup final tournament in June against Jamaica and Martinique (another overseas department of France). As a result of the team’s third place finish, French Guiana qualified for the Gold Cup, which pits qualifying teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean against each other every two years. However, CONCACAF officials notified French Guiana about a vague rule that had been added to the Gold Cup tournament. Section XV, Clause A states, “Each participating member association shall select its national representative team from the best players who are nationals of its country and under its jurisdiction, and are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations.”

Florent Malouda training

Malouda training with French Guiana’s national team

Days before the Gold Cup began, with Malouda having already been named to French Guiana’s 23-man roster, CONCACAF officials specifically warned the team that they considered Malouda ineligible for the tournament. Typically, a match involving an illegal player is considered forfeited and a team is given a 3-0 loss, but CONCACAF also went so far as to threaten fines and other possible punishments if French Guiana used an “ineligible” player. While they looked into the situation, Malouda did not appear in his side’s opening game, a 4-2 loss to Canada. But a couple days later, not only did Malouda start the second match, but French Guiana even named him captain, as French Guiana nearly came up with a famous victory, but ultimately settled for a 0-0 draw.

The die was cast and now we wait to see what the results will be.

And while you can read plenty of hastily put together, error-filled blog posts about the match (like here and here), here are some facts about the situation. French Guiana haven’t “defied a FIFA ruling” by playing Malouda. FIFA has given no ruling on the situation, and neither for that matter, has CONCACAF. This isn’t an “automatic” 3-0 win for Honduras. Like in any situation, a panel will be convened to make a ruling on the player’s status. Until that happens, this counts as a 0-0 draw. French Guiana also aren’t “making a statement” by fielding Malouda in the side. As national team manager Jaïr Karam mentioned in interviews, “This time we read the rules and we are sure of our case and we will win it.” This was a decision made that they were within the rules to use their player and they would take their chances on a battle with the disciplinary committee, not a match that they were throwing away to try and make a point or win a moral victory by playing well. Following the Honduras match Karam threw his full weight behind his team’s case. “We made the decision from within. I didn’t want to take the risk (against Canada). Now we’re sure about our legal situation, we’ve decided to go fight, and it’s a fight we’re going to win,” Karam said.

And it’s definitely a case that French Guiana can make. Even the wording of the rule from CONCACAF is horribly vague and unclear. The last phrase in that sentence, “are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations,” really doesn’t make sense in this scenario. Yes, FIFA cap ties players to a country once they appear in an official FIFA competition match (so only appearing in a friendly would not count), but these French territory teams aren’t FIFA members and could never have participated in an official FIFA competition anyway in order to cap-tie a player. You can’t even discuss things like FIFA’s one-time transfer of international football eligibility, or FIFA’s ruling on allowing eligible players to switch to newly admitted members like what is happening now with Kosovo, because again, these teams aren’t members of FIFA! Plus, for what it’s worth, Malouda and French Guiana received permission from the France FA for Malouda to be in the squad.

Jocelyn Angloma, Loval

Jocelyn Angloma scored two goals for Guadeloupe during their 2007 Gold Cup run to the semifinals.

The rules didn’t used to be like this previously. Just look back at the 2007 Gold Cup, when another former French international, Jocelyn Angloma, a native of Guadeloupe, helped his home island nation qualify for the Gold Cup and make a Cinderella run to the tournament semifinals, where they finished a goal away from upsetting mighty Mexico. Back then, former international players from official national teams were fine, as long as it had been five years since their last international match for that country (something that would also apply to Malouda’s case here having last played for France in 2012). Angloma had played 37 times for Les Bleus, but it barely registered headlines at the time that he was competing for a national team besides France. What was bigger news in 2007 was that he was 41 years old and still playing international soccer, and scoring magnificent goals like this one.

For reasons unknown the Gold Cup’s rules changed to bring it more in-line with FIFA regulations, but why should it? CONCACAF is a region with several non-FIFA members. If a player from Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, and other French territories becomes good enough that they can compete on the world stage, they have to do it through the French national team. Their tiny home territories in the Caribbean and northeastern South America aren’t given a chance to qualify for the World Cup. And before anyone calls foul about the idea of a French international superstar representing both the European nation and their CONCACAF national team at the same time, the issue is a non-starter. Any player good enough to play regularly for the French national team (like say, Florent Malouda) is not going to be also skipping around in the summer at the Caribbean Cup. It just wouldn’t make sense for their career, especially considering they’d almost certainly be playing high-level club football at the same time.

In fact, since French Guiana, and other territories like Guadeloupe and Martinique aren’t FIFA members, club teams are under no obligation to release players to be available for their international matches, something they have to do if requested by a recognized national team. This can make it very difficult to put together your best team or even have adequate time to prepare for something like the Gold Cup tournament, where a Caribbean participant is usually a huge underdog. It’s just another example of how CONCACAF has botched this. You simply can’t pick and choose rules to apply in a situation like this. It’s the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

Again, Karam raised a good point about his team’s situation, stating, “So, what we’re asking for simply, is to have the same rights as the rest of the world. Either we’re completely in FIFA, and as such, we would have permission to get players from professional clubs, or we aren’t in FIFA, and that allows us to use former players from our related national teams.”

This most likely won’t be a constant occurrence. The only time we’ll see situations like this, that call the rule into question, are when we have either an older player, like Malouda or Angloma, whose career is winding down and days of international glory are behind them. They may have the skill to warrant a place on their native national side roster, but comparing it to having them play in their prime is like trying to compare apples and oranges. You could also have a player who got a short stint with the national team but didn’t become a regular player, and while they’re certainly cap tied to France, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to play now for their team in the Gold Cup.

Look at this situation from another way. Let’s say during the last World Cup cycle for the U.S. national team under Jurgen Klinsmann, when the stars and stripes qualified for Brazil using Jermain Jones, John Brooks, Julian Green, and other German-born players who held U.S. citizenship, only for FIFA to decide before the World Cup started that teams could only use players born in their home countries. There would be outrage at that! How could FIFA decide to change the rules in between the qualifying stage and the final tournament, to force a country to leave behind key players who helped them reach the World Cup in the first place?! The op-ed pieces from soccer journalists in this country would be unceasing, and rightly so.

Florent Malouda vs HondurasYet that is exactly the scenario that we have here. Malouda was able to represent French Guiana in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, which determined which teams qualified for the Gold Cup final tournament. Was it a one-off approval situation? No, it was totally within the rules of the tournament for French Guiana, a French territory, to use a player born in French Guiana! (It’s also worth pointing out that French Guiana had already qualified for the Gold Cup by the time Malouda started playing for the team in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, so it’s not like he’s the reason they made it.) And yet the Gold Cup tournament organizers decided to insert a rule about following FIFA’s eligibility rules for the tournament, basically acting like the spoiled kid on the playground who changes the rules to their liking midway through the game.

So again, we wait.

If everything were just in the world, French Guiana would win their case and their result would stand. It may not even change anything in the long run. The Guianans need a result, and most likely a win in their last group stage match against Costa Rica to have a chance of making the knockout round anyway. But the point has already been made by the results on the field for Les Yana Dokos. They’ve played entertaining football, scored some great goals, and held one of the strongest teams in the region to a stalemate in their first ever Gold Cup appearance.

And for his part, Malouda really seems to want to play for the right reasons, saying after the match, “It’s a great honor for me to wear the armband and represent French Guiana in this level of competition, and that’s very important for the people in my country as well, and so it’s great to be out there.”

Don’t expect this to be the end of the matter either. This is only going to get more interesting over the next couple days. Especially, if French Guiana doubles down and plays Malouda in their next match as well.

The End of Bald American Goalkeepers in the Premier League

With Brad Guzan’s transfer to newly minted MLS franchise Atlanta United complete, an era of the Premier League, nearly as long as the league’s existence itself, has come to an end. I’m talking of course, of the tradition of American goalkeepers with no hair on their heads, manning the posts for one of its clubs. Bald Yankee keepers have played a leading role in the Premier League going back to 1996 when Kasey Keller became the number one at Leicester City.

Brad Friedel, Marcus Hahnemann, Tim Howard, and Guzan followed over the years, and while not many outfield players took up spots in England’s highest division, the swarm of U.S. goalkeepers gave American soccer fans a reason to take up a rooting interest in the Premier League. And fans would notice one trait shared between these defenders of the goal… none of them had hair!

Now that’s a little bit of a misnomer. Kasey Keller started his time in the Premiership with Leicester with a mostly full, albeit rapidly receding head of hair, but quickly became the shiny-headed hero most U.S. fans will remember from his starting job in the 2006 World Cup, once making his move to Tottenham Hotspur in 2001. Friedel, Hahnemann, Howard, and Guzan all sported chrome domes from the get-go and so a tradition that spanned 16 seasons was born, with at least one bald, American keeper playing a match for a Premier League side.

History of Bald US GK in Prem

Two decades of bald American goalkeepers playing for Premier League clubs

The golden age was the 2007-08 campaign when four keepers combined to play in 125 of their club’s matches: Keller for Fulham, Friedel with Blackburn Rovers, Howard for Everton, and Hahnemann with Reading. That year saw Friedel and Hahnemann play in all 38 Premier League contests for their teams, while Howard saw action in all but two of Everton’s. Keller was brought in as a back-up at Craven Cottage but after dealing with an injury, took over the starting job for the final 10 games and earned points in seven of them, as Fulham miraculously avoided relegation at the expense of Hahnemann’s Reading side.

Friedel won plaudits for his longevity, setting a Premier League record of 310 straight appearances between 2004 and 2012 and becoming the league’s fourth-oldest player. He also helped guide the development of fellow “Brad” when Guzan joined him at Aston Villa in 2008. Keller had a similarly lengthy career. Along with Juergen Sommer, he proved that American “soccer” players could cut it in English football in the early 1990s, paving the way for future U.S. keepers. Howard has become perhaps the best known after his high-profile move from MLS to Manchester United before spending ten year’s as the number one at Everton, which coincided with his World Cup heroics and an increased American interest in the Premier League.

Marcus Hahnemann Brad Friedel handshake final

Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Friedel played every match for Reading and Blackburn respectively in 2007-08

It’s sad to see this wonderfully quirky era reach its conclusion. Howard followed in Keller’s shoes and made his way back to MLS before this past season, signing with the Colorado Rapids. Guzan has also chosen to make his return to American shores following back-to-back disappointing relegations with Aston Villa and Middlesbrough.

There appeared to be others in the pipeline ready to take up the mantel. Thinly haired Cody Cropper spent three seasons developing at Southampton, and manned the posts for MK Dons in the next level down, before returning to MLS with the New England Revolution this year. Similarly, Charlie Horton (who while not bald, could have shaved his head eventually) spent time in the Championship with Leeds United before opting for a move to D.C. United. And so the age of bald goalkeeping bad-assery ends not with a Premier League winners medal, but on the back of a 3-0 shellacking for the ‘Boro at Anfield.

Let this be a lesson to you would-be goalkeepers. If you want to eventually make it across the pond to the world of English football, bust out those clippers and lop those follicles off right now. And it doesn’t hurt if your name happens to be Brad.

2015-16 Premier League Review

*First number is where the team finished, followed in parentheses by where I predicted they would end up and how many spots I was off by.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa – Finish: 20th, Predicted: (18th), Difference: -2 

Putrid. Horrendous. Terrible. These are the words that describe a truly awful season for Aston Villa and it supporters. Villa earned the fewest points (17) since the 2008-09 season when Derby County set a Premier League record-low of 11. They won their opening game against newly promoted Bournemouth at the beginning of the season and didn’t win another until January 12th.

Their top scorer, Jordan Ayew, had just seven goals, but the young Ghanian son of former football great Abedi Pelé often looked like the only threat to an opponent in the entire Villa side. The defense was a shambles in front of Brad Guzan who spent a lot of matches looking like the main character in a Greek tragedy, betrayed and left alone to fight against vastly superior opponents.

Aston Villa definitely deserved to be relegated and there is a ton of work to be done if they’re going to avoid the fate of teams like Portsmouth, Blackpool, Bolton and Wigan before them, who suffered additional relegations after their Premier League exit. Villa have been on the decline for several seasons now, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow for supporters of a team that has been in the top flight since 1987. But changes are already in the works. Unpopular owner Randy Lerner has sold the team, and a new Chinese owner, Tony Xia, has taken over, with deep pockets to potentially buoy the club back to its former heights.

Norwich City

Norwich City – 19th (16th) -3

Every year it seems like at least one of the promoted sides gets sent back down through the trap door to the Championship, and this time around the fate went to Norwich City. The team has taken on “yo-yo club” status as it continues to bounce back and forth between the top two divisions, and it didn’t quite have enough this time around to stay up.

Things went wrong for the Canaries just after the calendar switched to 2016. After winning three out of four games, with victories over Manchester United, Aston Villa and Southampton, they went ten matches in a row without another win, dropping them into a hole they couldn’t dig out of.

The price for that could be high. Young winger Nathan Redmond finally fulfilled his potential at the Premier League level this campaign, but now looks set to exit the club rather than spend another season in the Championship. He’ll come with a hefty price tag but it’s still a blow to Norwich after years spent nurturing his development. The club still has plenty of talented players on its roster, and knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of the second division, so don’t be surprised if you see them gaining promotion as soon as 2017. 

Newcastle United

Newcastle United – 18th (12th) -6 

The list of teams that deserved to be relegated this season was a long one. So many teams played poorly from the likes of Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea, Chelsea, etc. but it’s Newcastle United who claimed the dubious honor of last team out of the Premier League.

The Toon Army has been in danger of seeing their club in the Championship for a little while now, but appeared to have taken a proactive approach by not just opening the checkbook, but just about emptying the bank account on new players. Despite spending more than $100 million on Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Chancel Mbemba, Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey among others this season, Newcastle never clicked into a cohesive unit. However, they’ll still feel hard done by, seeing as how they would have stayed up without a ridiculous late-season push by their rivals Sunderland, who leap-frogged them at the end.

Supporters still have hope though, and feel like things are going in the right direction, after ending the season unbeaten over their final six matches. The waiting game is to see if manager Rafa Benitez sticks around for the Championship season. The Spaniard looked to be a good fit after arriving in March, but ran out of time to turn their fortunes around for the season. 

Sunderland v Chelsea - Barclays Premier League

Sunderland – 17th (19th) +2 

I am now going under the assumption that just like the “Black Cats” moniker would suggest, Sunderland really do have nine lives, and therefore won’t be relegated until 2021-22, after yet another amazing escape for the fourth year in a row. Then again, this now marks 9 seasons in the Premier League since the last time they were in the second tier, so maybe this is the final chapter in this novel.

But what a final chapter of this season it was. Sunderland ended 2015-16 on a six match unbeaten run and suffered just one loss in their last 11 games. It was a spectacular turnaround overall getting points in 15 of their final 19 matches, and a lot of that credit goes to a manager that I’ve often made fun of… Sam Allardyce. “Big Fat Sam” found a way to totally reverse the Black Cats’ fortunes, from relegation shoe-ins at midseason to one of the toughest squads to get a win against in 2016. If the trend from recent years continues though, Allardyce won’t last long into 2016-17 and Sunderland will be searching for a new manager to try and claw them out of a hole.

Veteran striker Jermaine Defoe might just have logged his best season ever. The former England international had a goal haul in all competitions that equaled the number on the back of his shirt; that is to say, 18. That’s a step-up of 14 more than his first action with the Black Cats last campaign, and the 12 that came in the Premier League put him seventh on the scoring charts. Successful enough that another club may come in for his services. 

Bournemouth

Bournemouth – 16th (17th) +1 

A fantastic first season in the league for the Cherries overall. They took points in more than half of their matches to finish five points above the relegation zone. By that same margin, they were only five points below an 11th place finish, but obviously its a lot more work to carve out those few additional results.

They didn’t exactly turn the Vitality Stadium into a fortress, earning only five of their 11 total wins and allowing the second-most goals (34, one better than Aston Villa) of any club at their home ground. But that’s part of the positives to take away from their inaugural campaign. They were able to go into hostile territory, against clubs they hadn’t played before, and got results. It bodes well for their second season in the top flight, that they have some room to improve on their home form (which you’d expect could easily happen), and that could lead to a mid-table finish if they can just hold serve on their away matches.

The fact that they were without some major weapons due to injury, and there’s real belief that next season could see Eddie Howe cement his side as Premier League mainstays. Young striker Callum Wilson only got back on the field in early April, and failed to score in any of the team’s final six games. Yet he still finished with the second-most goals. A full season from him would be a big boost next year, as would another dynamic, if not more consistently scoring, year from Matt Ritchie.

Keeping Ritchie could be an issue though, as the Scottish international appears to have interest from several other Premier League clubs. Bournemouth may have trouble saying “no” to a big-money offer for their winger. 

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace – 15th (11th) -4 

Crystal Palace had the second-worst 2016 portion of the season with just 11 points in their final 19 matches. That led to a free-fall through the table, tumbling down ten spots from their fifth-place perch at mid-year. Such is the fickle nature of football that manager Alan Pardew has lost a lot of the goodwill he rightfully earned just a year ago after he dragged the club from relegation to a top-half of the table finish in just a few months.

How did it all go wrong for the Eagles? Plain and simply, the wheels came off defensively. In their final 19 contests Crystal Palace allowed two or more goals 11 times, compared to just twice during their first 19 matches of the 2015-16 season. Their scoring-by-committee approach evaporated into a scoring-by-nobody system. Influential midfielder Yohan Cabaye went goalless in the second half of the schedule but still finished second highest on the club scoring chart with his five tallies. Perhaps the Frenchman’s scoring form will return during the EURO 2016 tournament. 

Right now Palace just has the look of a squad that wants to play free-flowing football, but doesn’t quite have the players to pull it off. While they struggle to finish off attacks, other teams have punished them with much simpler, yet more efficient systems that play to their strengths and can do enough to hold off the Eagles on the other side of the pitch. As simple an answer as it may sound, another high profile signing to team up with, and take some of the pressure off of Cabaye, might just be the ticket. 

West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion – 14th (15th) +1 

A 14th-place finishing position for West Bromwich Albion seems about right for a club that had modest ambitions going into the campaign. They gave their fans some matches to cheer about with victories over Arsenal and Manchester United, and a stretch of four games unbeaten (and three victories in that stretch) from mid-February to March was a nice run. However, at the end of the day, West Brom are still a club with a lot of issues to try and fix.

Young striker Saido Berahino did his stock no favors with only one league goal since October, and may not be able to earn himself a move to a club as prestigious as what appeared to be in the works at Tottenham. It definitely appears his time at the Hawthorns has run out, but a new goalscorer is definitely needed (what team doesn’t need that though?) after failing to score more than one goal in a game over their final ten matches of the season.

Ben Foster returned from a knee injury in late January to take back the starting job from Boaz Myhill, who filled the space between the posts admirably in his absence. The defense did its part keeping the scoring down (Johnny Evans, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson deserve high praise for that), and a Tony Pulis back line is always tough to crack, but without scoring support on the other end, the Baggies will just have to be content with keeping their Premier League status. After years as a yo-yo club bouncing between the top flight and the Championship, that’s not a bad outcome, and the situation could change after a few more seasons of piles of Premier League money flowing into the club’s coffers. 

Watford

Watford – 13th (20th) +7 

Watford came back down to earth in the second half of the campaign, winning just four of their 19 games played in 2016. But that was still a lot better than the doom and gloom I predicted for them when they decided to start the season with a new manager and mostly new squad who hadn’t had much of a chance to get to know each other after the club won promotion. Maybe the Pozzo family is onto something and more teams will start pressing the self-destruct button on their squads once they reach the Premier League (or maybe they got incredibly lucky).

Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes may have only kept three clean sheets in the second half of the season, but his total of 11 was still good enough to be tied for the sixth-most shutouts by a Premier League shot-stopper. And that is a huge improvement over his last stay in the top flight that featured plenty of howlers. Plus, that scoring duo of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo managed to finish in the top ten on the Golden Boot chart with 13 and 15 goals respectively.

The latter though may be part of the reason for the slip. While 15 goals is impressive, that means he only had one in the second half of the season after his phenomenal start. It corresponded with their overall dip in goal production from 24 tallies in the first 19 matches to just 16 goals in the final 19 games of the campaign. It’s very odd to think that Watford could boast two of the top ten finishers in the Premier League, but end the season with more goals than just four other clubs.

And the manager wheel for the Hornets spins once again, as the spring slump meant Quique Sanchez Flores surprisingly lost his job. Keep your eyes peeled to see how Watford tops its crazy antics next season. 

Swansea City

Swansea City – 12th (6th) -6

Well… a 12th place finish wasn’t great for Swansea City, especially after I thought they’d be in the battle to pick up a Europa League spot after last year’s 8th place position in the table. However, they did manage to avoid the worst-case scenario with Italian manager Francesco Guidolin guiding the Swans to mid-table safety and a five spot improvement from where they stood in January.

Swansea managed to get it together at midseason enough to nearly triple their goal scoring record from 16 to 42, which was still seventh worst in the league but better than it could have been. Andre Ayew finished the campaign on a tear with four goals in three matches, but he epitomized the inconsistent displays from much of the Wales-based club’s squad. Ayew’s finish broke a nine-match scoreless streak to finish with 12 tallies, which may set him up for a summer transfer.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was by and large the team’s leading man and looks set to go into the first major tournament appearance for Iceland at EURO 2016 on a high note. But for every good campaign, there was a disappointing one, like Bafetimbi Gomis netting only six times total, even after starting 2015-16 by scoring in each of the first four matches. Swansea are in an interesting flux as they try to get back to being a top half of the table team this next year. 

Everton

Everton – 11th (10th) -1 

Everton finished last season in 11th position, were in 11th at the midpoint of this campaign, and here they sit as 2015-16 comes to a close. Roberto Martinez had an ambitious outlook though and the team fell short in its goals to push for a European Qualification and was bounced in the semifinals of both cup competitions.

Their goal scoring ways was what gave them a shot at things through the majority of the season. However, a stretch of nine games from mid-March to mid-May saw them score more than one goal only one time. They largely depended on Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku who finished third in the running for the golden boot with 18 tallies, but even that could have been much more before a drought that lasted the final ten matches of the season (only nine of which he played in). The Toffees big, $18.5 million mid-year transfer for Senegal striker Oumar Niasse has looked like a flop so far.

Goalkeeping is another tricky spot to figure out. Tim Howard had been entrenched for so many seasons it hasn’t been a position that needed to be figured out in a long, long time. But the U.S. national teamer is back in MLS and Spaniard Joel Robles may not be the answer after a so-so run of form this season.

One thing that Everton can do to strengthen their bid for European football is to solidify their points at home. The Toffees lost eight times and won only six, the latter being better than only Bournemouth, Chelsea, and Aston Villa. A much better showing at Goodison Park should be worth at least a few extra places in the table. 

Chelsea

Chelsea – 10th (2nd) -8 

Chelsea did manage to steady things after their disastrous start and somehow earned a top-half of the table finish (even if it was by a single victory). But the problems that plagued Jose Mourinho up until his firing didn’t magically disappear and the players never returned to their world-beating form from a season ago. That might be the more disturbing part. A rut, no matter how long it lasts and how deep it goes, can still be overlooked as long as you eventually come out of it, but that never happened in 2015-16 and will have to be priority number one for new incoming manager Antonio Conte.

Conte appears to be a throwback to what made most Chelsea teams great. He’s a defensive-minded manager not in the traditional sense, but as a true master of the art. He’s also the type of manager who isn’t afraid to sell off players who don’t fit his style or don’t seem to be giving 100% on the field or in training, which could shock some of the Chelsea stars back to life.

One focus may be on changing the centerback positions where John Terry and Gary Cahill appear to be losing a step in age and youngster Kurt Zouma appears to be the future. More will be needed out of Eden Hazard who went from a player who looked to be among the best in the world a year ago, to not scoring a single goal until late April. He finished the campaign with just four league tallies, his fewest number since his first full season with Lille in Ligue 1 all the way back in 2008-09.

Hazard did still play a part in deciding the title this season though, with a late equalizer against Tottenham clinching the title for Leicester City. Next year, Chelsea will just be hoping he’s winning the title for them. 

Stoke City v Manchester United - Barclays Premier League

Stoke City – 9th (7th) -2 

While they may not have hit the European Qualification hopes some held for them, Stoke City have fully cemented themselves as a club that make up the structure of the Premier League, having now finished in the top half of the table for a third straight season.

Stoke showed how much they relied on Jack Butland when the young goalkeeper was injured playing for England against Germany in March. A broken leg ended his season early and was followed shortly by three straight games where the Potters allowed four goals. They only won one of their final seven matches without Butland between the posts. They’ll look for a return to a steady back line next season.

Club-record signing Giannelli Imbula got some valuable match-time to adjust to the Premier League, with the young midfielder from France netting twice. Bojan Krkic improved on his debut season in the Premier League by scoring seven times, but the star honors belonged to Austrian Marko Arnautovic and his 11 tallies. Xherdan Shaqiri didn’t score frequently, but each one seemed spectacular when he did. Overall, Stoke have the look of a club on the rise, but perhaps just like Everton, no matter how strong they can get with the increase in Premier League revenue, the top teams will always be just a little bit better. 

Liverpool v Southampton - Barclays Premier League

Liverpool – 8th (5th) -3 

I wrote in my mid-season check-in that someone needed to step up and make the jump in the second half of the season for Liverpool. Forward Roberto Firmino, despite his big price tag, was not one that I had in mind. Yet it was the Brazilian forward who went off during the 2016 segment of the schedule, recording two multi-goal games in January and a run of three straight matches with a goal in March, to finish as the club’s top Premier League scorer.

But even a singular standout performance like that wasn’t enough to even help Liverpool improve on their mid-season position of 7th. They weren’t far off, but only one win in their final five games kept them out of a top-five spot. Part of the reason for that could just be down to exhaustion. The Reds had a cluttered fixture list down the stretch as they pushed for a Europa League title and the automatic Champions League qualification that came with it. That put a lot of extra minutes on players’ legs and also took some of the importance off of how they did in the league.

Jurgen Klopp’s side came close, losing 3-1 in the final to Sevilla, who feel like annual winners at this point. But those extra high-profile matches took their toll. Playmaker Phillippe Coutinho for example still scored seven times from the New Year on, but only three of those goals came in Premier League matches.

Now with no European football distractions to worry about, and a full offseason for Klopp to prepare, Liverpool can put their focus solely on getting back into the Top Four during the 2016-17 season. 

West Ham United

West Ham United – 7th (14th) +7 

West Ham United nabbed their best finish in the Premier League since 2001-02, coming home in 7th place and surprising me quite a bit. They also managed to exorcise some of the demons from last year after fading down the stretch following a start that had them among the European competition places. This time around, the Hammers lost just four times in 2016, and came up just two points shy of overtaking Southampton for 6th. Manager Slaven Bilic has been a fantastic choice for the club.

They remained a “scoring by committee” squad in the second half of the season, but with different contributors. While Lanzini and Payet’s goal form declined slightly, Andy Carroll picked up the slack with seven to finish as joint-top scorer at nine; his biggest performance being the hat trick in a 3-3 draw with Arsenal. Now if only they could keep the big England front man from getting injured so frequently.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that no player finished in double figures, and Enner Valencia might be the biggest disappointment, with just a return of four strikes in 19 appearances for the Ecuadorian not measuring up to expectations. West Ham also might have a problem on the horizon in keeping Payet at the club, as the influential Frenchman will have “bigger” clubs circling after his nine goals and 21 assists.

The high point of the season has to go down as their pulse pounding, 3-2 come-from-behind win versus Manchester United, which was a fantastic tribute to their fans in the club’s final ever game at Upton Park. Things are definitely looking up for West Ham as they move into the Olympic Stadium in London. 

Southampton

Southampton – 6th (8th) +2 

Talk about an organization that knows how to produce Premier League players. Despite being continuously ransacked by larger clubs for their talented youngsters (Liverpool appear to be treating Southampton as its Academy team at this point), Southampton just continue to keep playing good football and let their system drive them forward, seemingly regardless of whose on the pitch or what manager is picking the team.

It may be a new manager soon as well. Ronald Koeman may choose to jump to a “bigger” club to try and continue to build his resume, but he’ll have to be careful not to suffer the same fate of a number of former Saints who leave for what they think are greener pastures only to find themselves finishing below their old club in the league table. A sixth-place finish was a solid run this year, missing out on a tie for fourth with the Manchester clubs by a solitary victory.

It was a furious charge that fell just short. The Saints turned around their poor form to end 2015, but doubling their number of victories from the first half of the campaign (12 from their last 19 matches after only six from their first 19 games). Two separate stretches of six matches without a loss, and five wins in each of those spans, showed that they aren’t a club to be satisfied with mid-table security. They are firmly focused on following Tottenham’s lead into a constant top-four finishing club.

Fraser Forster put himself right back into the starting goalkeeper role, and did so well that Maarten Stekelenburg looks likely to move somewhere else on a permanent basis after his loan expires. All three of their strikers continued to score goals at equal pace, they just upped production with Sadio Mané, Grazziano Pellè, and Shane Long all hitting double digits. Dusan Tadic contributed to 19 different goals (seven tallies, 12 assists). At the back, Virgil Van Dijk played phenomenally alongside Jose Fonté, and now looks to be the newest Southampton target for other clubs to chase. 

Manchester United

Manchester United – 5th (3rd) -2 

So close, but so far away is the story of 2015-16 for Manchester United. The Red Devils lost out on a Champions League spot to their rivals Manchester City on goal difference A rescheduled final match of the season (caused by a fake bomb left over from a training exercise at Old Trafford) meant that United had little hope, needing to win by 19 goals to overtake their blue counterparts.

It’s a fizzling end for Manchester United after they spent so many resources trying to not only finish in the top four, but also compete for the trophy. A huge splash of cash for Anthony Martial saw the French youngster finish as the team’s top Premier League scorer with 11 strikes, but that’s not a huge amount when you look at the size of a club like Manchester United. The Red Devils have spent an insane amount of money over the last two years and it has become clear that the slide that started under David Moyes was not the manager’s fault. He managed the same type of finish without being given nearly the same resources as Dutchmen Louis van Gaal.

After uninspired football that saw the club bore their fans with five 0-0 draws in the first half of the season, drop out of a relatively tame Champions League draw at the group stage, get booed off the pitch by their own supporters on a number of occasions, and struggle the entire year simply to create chances in a system that was devoid of an offensive spark, it’s time to call “time” on van Gaal’s spell in charge. Jose Mourinho anyone?

Inadvertently, there seems to be some positives to take from this campaign going into 2016-17. The club did manage to hold onto goalkeeper David de Gea (even if by accidentally messing up his last-second transfer to Real Madrid) with the Spaniard finishing as their player of the year for the third season in a row. And teenage sensation Marcus Rashford was an accidental discovery. Forced into action through injuries and a rare United prospect without a ton of hype behind him, he burst onto the scene with 8 goals in 18 total appearances (5 in 11 in the Premier League alone).

Manchester City

Manchester City – 4th (4th) +0

It’s hard to grade Manchester City’s season in a campaign where it really doesn’t appear that the owners of the club cared if they won or not. Even while 2015-16 was happening, the focus was purely on next season with the February announcement that Pep Guardiola would be taking over as manager for 2016-17. This effectively made Manuel Pellegrini a lame duck, tasked with trying to motivate a group to chase down the league leaders even as the internal pressure to succeed softened.

It was an impossible task for any manager, and City’s form showed the ill effects of the announcement. A stretch of six games from February to March that saw them lose four times was the end of their chances to realistically win the Premier League title. Overall, during the second half of the season, the Citizens earned just two points (draws with West Ham United and Arsenal) from its seven matches with the other clubs who made up the top eight places in the table. Yes, Manchester City was capable of putting a beat down on lesser opposition (4-0 victories over Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, and Stoke City was evidence of that) but a team with this much talent on its books should be putting up a better fight and getting better results against its rivals at the top of the heap.

City still avoided the worst-case scenario, pipping United for the final Champions League spot on goal difference. But an aging and oft-injured core group of players shows that Guardiola will have his work cut out for him in his first year on the job. Luckily, the Abu Dhabi Group have plenty of resources to go after any transfer targets their new man deems necessary. Whether or not Guardiola can adjust quickly to the pressures of the England game is another matter. It will be interesting to see if he can create the type of dynasty that City’s owners so desperately want. 

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur – 3rd (9th) +6

A third-place finish would normally be nothing to frown about for Tottenham Hotspur, but 2015-16 will most likely leave a bitter taste in their mouths after seeing not only their title hopes collapse down the stretch of the season, but also featured a 5-1 capitulation to Newcastle United on the final day to allow historic rivals Arsenal to leapfrog them into second place. St. Totteringham’s Day continues for a 22nd straight year. 

That being said, there really is a lot for the club to be proud of. This is their best finish in the table since the 1989-90 season when they also finished third. Harry Kane (or is it officially Sir Harry of Kane now?) shook off his slump of one goal in the first nine matches to finish as the golden boot winner with 25 goals. Dele Alli proved to be just as valuable to the club as Kane is with 10 goals and 11 assists in the first season playing for Tottenham for the just-turned-20-year-old England man. Those two look to be a duo to keep Tottenham on top for a long time to come, and have a lot of England fans drooling about the future of the national team.

The club has an embarrassment of riches in midfield, and at the back Hugo Lloris has proven himself to be one of, if not the, best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Opposing attacks seem to just smash upon the rocks of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at centerback.

The future continues to look bright for Spurs, but with such a good squad, maybe you can understand why the fans are disappointed with a third place finish. When you have a great team, you’re only satisfied with championships, and Tottenham don’t want to miss out on their window to gobble some up. They’ll be one of the favorites going into 2016-17. 

Arsenal v Sunderland
Barclays Premier League
The Emirates Stadium
20th May 2015

Arsenal – 2nd (1st) -1

Arsenal may have finished second in the table, but that doesn’t really tell the story for the team who topped the charts when the calendar flipped to 2016. They looked to set to finally end that Premier League championship drought when they claimed a stoppage time win against Leicester on February 7th, only for the team to falter with back-to-back losses. From there, they were never really a part of the title race conversation.

The Gunners lost fewer games in the second half of the season (three compared to four), but they won a lot fewer too (eight compared to twelve). That inability to finish off “inferior” teams like Southampton, Swansea, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland ultimately cost Arsenal a shot at the crown. Now the question is raised once again about what the Gunners have to do to get over the hump. Is it time to move on from Arsene Wenger and select a new manager (Wenger currently has one year left on his contract) or do they bust open the war chest for a new striker who can pop in goals at the 20+ level?

The stats don’t show much to be disappointed in, with Alexis Sanchez hitting 13 goals and four assists. Mesut Ozil faded down the stretch, perhaps from fixture clutter as much as anything, but the German midfielder still provided six goals and 19 assists. Somehow, someway… Olivier Giroud is still the team’s top scorer with 16 despite really not playing all that well, or seeming to be that important to the club.

When you go down the roster, Arsenal are a team with a lot of players you would expect to do well, who have been putting in simply average performances. They aren’t playing badly enough that a clear-cut solution is evident, but they certainly aren’t playing well enough consistently during the season to put this team ahead of its rivals. It’s an extremely tricky situation to be in, but one that won’t be unfamiliar to Arsenal in the slightest.

Leicester City

Leicester City – 1st (13th) +12

It doesn’t seem to happen very often anymore, but once in a while, “sports” remind us why we care so much about a game when there are so many other seemingly more important things that demand our attention. Every now and again, you get a story that brings back all the emotions – the surprise, the hope, the utter joy – that we remember as children, when you believed anything was possible and sports represented all that was fun in the world.

Leicester City, and its amazing, impossible run to the 2015-16 Premier League title, is that tale. They are the Cinderella story to end all Cinderella stories; the underdog who defied maybe the most improbable odds ever, to lift a trophy that has been reserved for only the biggest and richest and most powerful for more than 20 years.

A 5,000-to-1 long shot who was nearly relegated last year, lost their player of the season to an expiring contract, and lost their manager who guided them (improbably) to safety in an offseason scandal, somehow bested Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and City, Tottenham, and Arsenal to win the Premier League for their first time.

It is not hyperbolic in the slightest to call this the greatest upset in sporting history. It will certainly go down as one when the inevitable arguments between impossible to compare sports and eras are brought up. But more importantly than any of that, this was a season to make every football fan believe in the magic, believe that their team could win it all too. From now on, every fan can take a look at their club before the start of the season and think, “maybe, just maybe we can do it too.”

The Premier League desperately needed this. The English top flight has developed a reputation as the most competitive and entertaining league in the world, where anyone can beat anybody on any given day. But despite that acclaim, it’s a league that’s been very short on surprises over its existence. Save for one surprise triumph by Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, the Premier League has been won only by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City since it began back 1992-93.

When you compare the resources those teams have, the hundreds of millions of pounds spent by each of them to build a title-contending squad, with that of little Leicester City, you can understand how impossible this all seems. The Foxes relied on the old stereotypes of underdogs, finding players who had been cast aside by others, building an actual “team” rather than just assembling a group of superstars, and finding a way to craft the chemistry where players supported each other and wanted to win for each other. Low and behold, they succeeded.

That’s now how sports are supposed to work anymore.

Manager Claudio Ranieri, “the Tinkerman”, kept his goals reasonable, targeting only Premier League survival from the beginning and not switching his focus to loftier expectations until those initial goals were completed. This might have kept Leicester City grounded where other teams have faltered after strong starts. Regardless, there was still a lot of work to do when the Foxes reached the halfway point and found themselves in second place.

And after the midseason point when all the pressure was on and the team was expected to come plummeting back down to earth? They lost just one match out of their final 20 (that stoppage-time defeat to Arsenal). They showed that they were for real when they kicked off 2016 with four wins in six matches, and five wins in a row starting in early March gave them some breathing room and heaped all of that pressure onto their opponents. Aresenal fell to the side following their victory over to the Foxes, and Tottenham, with all their firepower, simply couldn’t keep up with Leicester’s pace. Finally, a Spurs’ draw with Chelsea meant the title belonged to Leicester City and the celebration was on.

There were individual performances to acknowledge as well. Jamie Vardy set the new Premier League record for scoring in consecutive games, and his 24 goals were one shy of the golden boot. He also completed his much-talked-about transformation from non-league footballer to England national teamer. Riyad Mahrez similarly came out of nowhere to have an amazing season with 17 goals and 11 assists. He also won the vote for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award. Captain Wes Morgan anchored the defense and played every minute of every game for the champions, while N’golo Kanté put on a master class of holding midfielder capabilities, recording more tackles and interceptions than any other player. Plus, you can’t forget about goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who stepped out of father Peter’s shadow to claim his own Premier League triumph.

The glory will be short-lived as the team begins to focus on fending off overtures for its players from other clubs, and looks into adding more depth before a season that will include Champions League football. No team has won back-to-back titles in the Premier League since the mid-2000s, and Leicester City will be hard-pressed to repeat their extraordinary feat. But no matter what happens, nothing can replace what happened in 2015-16. Leicester’s win has changed world football.

Good luck getting 5,000-to-1 odds on a team to win the title ever again.