LIVERPOOL were the best attacking team, and Chelsea boasted the meanest defence, but when it came to the final reckoning, Manchester City were crowned Premier League champions because they could do a little bit of everything better than anyone else. In the end, all-round excellence trumped superior brilliance at only one end of the field.
City’s second title in the space of three years has been damned with faint praise in many quarters, reflecting a lingering resentment that financial muscle has ultimately won out. Yet to write off the success of Manuel Pellegrini’s side as merely par for the course given their astronomical expenditure under Sheikh Mansour is to ignore the qualities that ultimately enabled them to finish two points clear of their rivals.
When they lost at Sunderland midway through November, they were eighth. From that point onwards, they made up six points on Chelsea, eight on Liverpool and overhauled a 13-point deficit to Arsenal. By anyone’s standards, that is a remarkable second half of the season.
That they did it without key players such as Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero for large periods makes their achievements all the more impressive, and ultimately, City’s superior squad depth has been a telling factor. While Liverpool’s key players ran out of steam in the final month of the season, and Chelsea’s attacking failings eventually told, City discovered their best form when it mattered most. That is what champions tend to do.
Pellegrini deserves a great deal of credit for pulling the whole thing together, and the Chilean’s placatory style, which saw him devolve considerable power into the hands of his senior players, was clearly more to his squad’s liking than Roberto Mancini’s combustibility.
Pellegrini was decisive when he had to be though – dropping Joe Hart in the first half of the season, and steadfastly refusing to give up on Martin Demichelis in the second – and both decisions reaped rich rewards.
Then there was Yaya Toure of course, a colossus of a player who was overlooked in favour of Luis Suarez when it came to dishing out the end-of-season awards, but who more than anyone else personifies the blend of skill, athleticism and power that has made City such a potent team.
Talk of Suarez prompts a reflection on just how close Liverpool came to pulling off their first title success since 1990. A failure to break down an obdurate Chelsea and a 13-minute implosion against Crystal Palace was basically all that separated Brendan Rodgers’ men from what would have been a hugely emotional success so close to the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
At the start of the season, Rodgers would have snapped up the offer of a second-place finish and an automatic place in the Champions League, but having come so close, there will be understandable anguish at Anfield that the most exciting Liverpool side in a generation was incapable of finishing the job.
The thrill of some of their attacking play will live long in the memory, most notably thanks to a truly sensational opening spell against Arsenal and a magnificent rollercoaster of a game with Manchester City, and from a neutral perspective, it has been refreshing to see so many young, English players involved in a squad that was challenging for the title.
Defensive reinforcements are clearly required though, and for all the talk of bids for Diego Costa or Adam Lallana, strengthening the back four has to be Rodgers’ priority this summer.
Chelsea’s backline remains as reliable as ever, and while Jose Mourinho was derided for ‘parking the bus’ when he swung the title race away from Liverpool by engineering a win at Anfield, it takes a special managerial talent to win as many big-game tactical battles as the Portuguese does.
Somehow, Mourinho managed to drag one more year out of the likes of Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard, and in the likes of Ramires, Oscar and Andre Schurrle, he possesses midfielders capable of carrying out his instructions to a tee.
It is further up the field where things fell down at Stamford Bridge, with far too many points dropped as a result of being unable to break down lesser opponents at home. Had Chelsea possessed a Suarez or an Eden Dzeko, they would probably have won the league. Mourinho might not agree, but Romelu Lukaku, who was released on loan to Everton, might even have sufficed.
Arsenal were Arsenal – unplayable before Christmas, occasionally unwatchable thereafter. If the Gunners lift the FA Cup tomorrow, Arsene Wenger can point to a trophy and another year in the Champions League as an acceptable return. With money to spend though, it is impossible not to wonder if the Gunners boss is a hindrance to a sustained title challenge rather than a help.
Everton and Tottenham filled the Europa League places, with the former continuing to overachieve under the astute guidance of Roberto Martinez and the latter continuing to underachieve as a revolving-door managerial policy accounted for first Andre Villas-Boas and then Tim Sherwood.
Speaking of revolving doors, who would have foreseen David Moyes struggling at Manchester United? Plenty of people actually, but few expected the transition from Sir Alex Ferguson to be quite as chaotic or challenging. Moyes has gone, but so many of the problems he was unable to overcome at Old Trafford remain. If Louis van Gaal is to be the next boss, he will almost certainly have his work cut out.
Perhaps Manchester United should turn to Tony Pulis, whose achievements in keeping Crystal Palace in the top-flight when all looked lost were truly exceptional? Or maybe one of their former players, Mark Hughes, who quietly set about transforming Stoke City into a footballing team in the top half of the table?
At the bottom, Fulham were the biggest surprise amongst the relegated sides, paying the price for twice changing their manager during an unexpectedly disastrous campaign.
The introduction of goalline technology passed off without problem, although refereeing controversies continued to hog the headlines. Paolo Di Canio goaded his own supporters at the Hawthorns, Andre Marriner sent off Kieran Gibbs because he thought he was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alan Pardew head-butted David Meyler.
Just another standard season in the weird and wonderful world of the Premier League.