Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Gap at the top widens, but what a season that was
With the dust settled on the European finals and the 2018/19 season finally put to bed, it is worth having a look back at some of the stories we are left with.
Manchester City’s unprecedented domestic treble was confirmation of the qualities of Pep Guardiola as manager and the benefits of spending way in excess of your rivals in the transfer market. The club has forked out more than £760million in the last five seasons, with a net spend of £100m more than any other team in the Premier League over the same period of time.
Lavish recruitment does not guarantee success – after all, neighbours Manchester United are second on that five-year list – but it certainly helps. Perhaps that is why the treble was met with such underwhelming appreciation. Other clubs’ supporters are already weary of City’s relatively short time at the top of English football.
The FA Cup final encapsulated the apathy. Watford’s hopeless attempts to make a game of the Wembley showpiece may haunt them for some time. The match was a terrible example of the divide starting to open up in the top division. Although one wonders if Wolves had not thrown away the semi-final in the final 10 minutes, would they have been able to offer stronger resistance in the final?
The stand-out City moment of the season has to be Vincent Kompany’s long-range winner against Leicester City in the title run-in. His legendary status already assured at the Etihad Stadium, the outstanding captain was able to close the curtain on an incredible career with the club in some style.
Liverpool did well to last the pace in a gripping title race. Sadio Mane was the club’s best performer over the course of the season, managing to outshine Mo Salah in attack. But special mention should also be reserved for the indefatigable presence of the full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose energy defied belief. The sight of 20-year-old local lad Alexander-Arnold celebrating with the Champions League trophy in Madrid made a lot of us feel very old.
Chelsea were the other big winners from the season. Eden Hazard signed off in typical fashion, with a man-of-the-match performance in the Europa League final. But their season will also be remembered for the bizarre show of player power in the League Cup final. When goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted by his manager Maurizio Sarri ahead of the penalty shoot-out, it led to one of the strangest few minutes we have witnessed in years. The attempts by the club to explain the incident away in the aftermath were just as odd. Kepa’s defiance was not a pretty sight.
Spurs’ second-leg Champions League quarter-final with City has to go down as the individual game of the season, given the quality of the attacking football and the drama that unfolded. When City’s last-gasp goal was correctly ruled out by VAR, it also gave us a taste of things to come in the Premier League next season. Expect Saturday afternoon matches to go on past 5pm.
Outside the top six, Wolves’ light shone brightest. It was a fantastic first season for Nuno Espirito Santo in the Premier League, but he can expect stronger challenges from Leicester and Everton next season. Both clubs finished the season very strongly and will fancy their chances as outside challengers for a top-six spot.
The relegation battle was poor. Huddersfield challenged for the title of worst ever Premier League side. Fulham, after so much investment, did not fare much better, going through three managers in the process. Cardiff battled bravely but were so under-resourced that it was never a fair fight for them. Transcending any football matters was the tragic death of their new signing Emiliano Sala at the age of 28 in January. The plane crash also claimed the pilot, David Ibbotson, and Sala’s father died of a heart attack three months later.
Outside the Premier League, Chris Wilder deservedly won the LMA Manager of the Year. In achieving a second promotion with Sheffield United, he has finally got the shot he deserves at the Premier League. The Blades’ overlapping centre-halves were a revelation and it will be fascinating to see how they get on next season.
Luton Town’s League One title also produced the most reluctant hero across all four divisions. When manager Nathan Jones upped sticks and moved to Stoke City mid-season, recruitment director and former playing favourite Mick Harford reluctantly took the job on the basis that he could give it up the minute the board found a permanent replacement. In the event, Harford’s team kept on winning. But not even that success could convince the old warhorse to take the reins permanently.
The Cowley brothers, Danny and Nicky, worked wonders again at Lincoln City with a third trophy in three seasons. The League Two title was wrapped up convincingly. The transformation that has gone on at Sincil Bank since they took over has been incredible. Attendances have more than trebled, and who knows where the success will end?
When all is said and done, 2018/19 will go down as one of the more memorable seasons. There were enough stories across all four divisions to keep everyone interested, as well as a fantastic Champions League. The only reservation is that City look like sailing off into the distance, with only Liverpool for company. While it is unreasonable to expect a Premier League that allows a club like Leicester to win again any time soon, there needs to be more competition at the top.
Although this is a football column, there are times when it strays into music, so I’d like to finish this week’s offering by saying to those music fans off to the big gig in Wolverhampton that you’re in my heart tonight.
For Molineux regulars, it’s all over now the summer is here, and most will have said farewell to the season. But there is one more event taking place at the ground ahead of the holidays, before fans go sailing away to more exotic locations.
Music fans lucky enough to get a ticket have a chance to get out their handbags and gladrags and pop along to see the legend Rod Stewart playing at Molineux this evening, where they will no doubt be twisting the night away.
There’s every reason to believe it will be a great night on the town, but I don’t want to talk about it too much as this is a football column, so let’s get back to that. It would be out of order to change the subject, so let’s end by saying this old heart of mine doesn’t want to put a spanner in the works anymore, and will keep any foolish behaviour to football matters next week.