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May 20, 2013

Premier League report card: 1st to 10th

We kick off our Premier League report card with the top of the table. Click here for our evaluations of the bottom half.


MANCHESTER UNITED

Season in short: Got it right.

Manchester United didn't just beat their rivals to the finish line -- they opened up the throttle at Christmas and left everyone choking in the dust. Between their November defeat to Norwich and their April slipup against Manchester City, they were unbeaten, winning 16 of their 18 games. And yet you wouldn't have guessed it from the way they lost at Goodison Park in their first game of the season. Nor would you have guessed that victorious manager David Moyes would eventually end up replacing his compatriot at Old Trafford, but that's another story.

This was a typical response from the Red Devils, an emphatic riposte to Sergio Aguero's title-winning goal this time last year. While they could never be described as one of Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest teams, the Class of 2013 certainly was one of his most composed and resolute. On numerous occasions, they cruised to victory, doing just enough to secure the points even when they hadn't played particularly well. They held single-goal leads and struck late winners as if their success was predetermined.

It was fitting that Ferguson should bow out on top, no less than he deserves after such an illustrious career. Replacing him, as poor Moyes soon will discover, will not be easy.

Best player: Robin van Persie.

It's hard to imagine now, but there were those who doubted the wisdom of a £25 million move for Robin van Persie. The Dutchman had a tattered injury record and had completed more than 30 league games in only one of his eight seasons with Arsenal. But the doubters were wrong. Not only did van Persie stay fit, but he scored freely and in many cases spectacularly. He played as if he had been at Old Trafford all his life, striking an immediate bond with his manager. No wonder Roberto Mancini was upset when his superiors failed to lure van Persie to Manchester City.

Worst player: Wayne Rooney.

It seems churlish to castigate a man with 12 goals in 22 starts, but if we're judging a player on the disparity between potential and actuality, then Wayne Rooney has had an absolute peg-on-the-nose stinker. After a slow start, the chunky Englishman hit 10 goals between Dec. 1 and Feb. 2, but his form fell off a cliff shortly afterward, and he lost his place in the team. His last goal came in mid-March, and his performances after that were characterised by lethargy, a poor touch and what we in England call "a face like a slapped backside."

The future looks: Intimidating.

The good news for Moyes is that there is obvious room for improvement in this United side. A combative defensive midfielder would help, and there's a gap for another marauding full back in the squad. The bad news is that his predecessor has an exceptional record of success that will never be equaled, and comparisons will be frequent and unkind. Like anyone filling a void of that size, Moyes will have to work hard to reinforce his position, and he will have to pray that the United fans adhere by Ferguson's request to support their manager. The first three months will be crucial. (IM)

MANCHESTER CITY

Season in short: Underachieved.

City's title defense was flat-footed from the outset. Whereas United re-armed mightily with the acquisition of van Persie, City's haphazard incoming class -- including Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair, and Maicon -- appeared to be subtraction by addition. The champions proceeded to wilt behind their crosstown rival's relentless consistency, playing out a European campaign that was a damp squib.

Manager Roberto Mancini raised eyebrows in August by declaring his squad should be considered "third or fourth favorite for the title." The way he shifted formations, toyed with a back three and publicly lambasted his players made it seem as if that prophecy could come true. City were defensively inconsistent and netted 27 goals less than their title season. The once influential spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero suddenly appeared ordinary.

Though an unlikely stream of celebrities, from David Hasselhoff to Tom Cruise, paraded through the Etihad, City were never able to shake their unconvincing pallor. By the time the club announced a $158 million operating loss, Mancini's lucky scarf had begun to seem like a noose. Club and manager eventually parted ways with two games still to play, the Italian paying the price for a season in which the only thing he won was a training ground fistfight with the-soon-to-depart Mario Balotelli.

Best Player: Yaya Toure.

When City needed a goal, Plan A was to feed the ball to the giant Ivorian and empower him to charge at opponents like a siege tower trundling from the center of the field.

Worst Player: Joe Hart.

New signings Maicon or Scott Sinclair had no impact on the fringes of the squad, but goalie Joe Hart's inconsistency appeared to ripple through the team.

The future looks: Uncertain.

With the arrival of a new manager imminent and an infusion of signings expected, much will rely upon backroom football director Txiki Begiristain's ability to exorcise the negativity that has blighted the club. (RB)

ARSENAL

Season in short: Underachieved.

Arsenal's extraordinary charge to a top-four finish is a tribute to Arsene Wenger's experience at the sharp end of English football. Unfortunately, it's also a searing indictment of his team's performances earlier in the season. How can a team win nine and draw two of their last eleven games, yet offer such inconsistent, artless sludge through the winter months? How can they be so good when they've been so bad that their ability to qualify for the Champions League, let alone win it, is openly questioned?

The answer is their lack of mental strength. While it's obvious that the Gunners no longer shop in the top-end boutiques of the European transfer market, their players are not so inferior that a title challenge is out of the question. They earn the big bucks, they are pampered like big players, but the horrible truth is that they still cannot offer big performances when the pressure is on.

There aren't enough leaders on this team, there aren't enough players who can grab a game by the throat when it seems to be slipping away. Everything is in place for the football club to succeed. It's time they stopped making excuses and started delivering results.

Best player: Laurent Koscielny.

While Santi Cazorla has stolen the hearts of the Arsenal supporters, Laurent Koscielny has kept them from missing too many beats. After an uncomfortable start to life in England, the powerful French center back became a strength this season, pushing Thomas Vermaelen out of the starting lineup and catching the eye of incoming Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola. Arsenal must do everything they can to keep him. If some of his teammates had played with his composure, they might have enjoyed a less-stressful finish to the season.

Worst player: Bacary Sagna.

Since his arrival in the Premier League in 2007, Bacary Sagna has been one of the most reliable right backs in the country. This year, that trend was bucked. It was not just the stream of mistakes that ran through his season, it was the lack of fire and edge in his game that really disappointed. This partly could have been a lasting effect of two serious leg injuries, but at the age of 30, it also could signal a diminishing hunger. Perhaps a summer transfer out of London would be to everyone's benefit, especially with Carl Jenkinson showing so much promise.

The future looks: (Potentially) bright.

Next season, Arsenal must start as they usually finish. They can't continue to flounder through the darker months, only to fight their back into contention in the Spring. In the final year of Wenger's contract, there has to be a marked improvement in performances and, of course, an end to that trophy drought. There is so much talent at this football club, but the supporters continue to grow frustrated with their failure to reach their potential. Two or three well-judged transfers could change everything. But then, we've been saying that since 2008. (IM)

CHELSEA

Season in short: About right.

A team in transition played out the season like a mythological centaur. Chelsea were half human-half horse as the nuanced creativity of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata and David Luiz was welded onto Chelsea's reliable, rugged, yet aging framework. Though the team was capable of playing deft football that even haters could not help but admire, expectations were ultimately dashed. A self-destructive cycle of rumor-mongering and fan discontent fueled by the arrival of Rafael Benitez and the shadow of Jose Mourinho's second coming meant Chelsea's season was one of qualified success snatched from the jaws of relentless turmoil.

Despite the chaos, Chelsea can lay claim to being the most resilient team in football. Though Cup success swelled their season to a bloated 69 games, the squad summoned the mental fortitude to overcome a litany of challenges -- many created from within -- to cling onto third place and snatch the Europa League trophy. Hazard's mental trickery befuddled the child-sized brains of most Premier League defenders and Frank Lampard rose above nagging contract uncertainty to become Chelsea's all-time leading goal scorer. He will return next season on a one-year contract, but may be a player whose inimitable contributions will only be appreciated once he has left the game.

Rafael Benitez's November arrival as "interim manager" reinforced the surreal nature of the season. This tone-deaf appointment was received by Chelsea fans with the violence of a host body rejecting a donor organ. The former Liverpool coach was hailed as a "[Fernando] Torres whisperer," but the Spanish striker never truly looked confident, cycling through a glut of hairstyles and even facial masks to re-summon the magic. Chelsea were ultimately frustrated by their lack of genuine striking options and the fact that their best finisher, Romelu Lukaku, played for West Brom.

Best Player: Juan Mata.

The midfielder controlled games and scored big goals. In just his second Premier League season, he is already being compared to Gianfranco Zola, the loftiest of accolades at Stamford Bridge.

Worst Player: John Terry.

His Kenny Powers-ification continued. The majority of the headlines Chelsea's club captain garnered this season came during his trial for a "racially aggravated public order offence."

The future Looks: Oddly optimistic.

Especially if their next manager is you-know-who. (RB)

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Season in short: Got it right.

You'll never get the Harry Redknapp loyalists and the Andre Villas-Boas fan-boys to come to agreement, but the truth is that the young Portuguese manager has enjoyed a decent debut season at White Hart Lane. Missing out on the Champions League after enjoying a seven-point lead over Arsenal in March was a great disappointment, but there were enough bright spots to vindicate Tottenham's decision to dispense with Redknapp.

It was rarely mentioned this season, but Villas-Boas inherited a worryingly unbalanced squad from his predecessor and immediately lost his two most creative players, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart. With that in mind, finishing fifth, with a record points tally, was a perfectly acceptable achievement. More importantly, changes were made to the style of play that made Spurs more difficult to beat and more dangerous on the break. The difficult transition between Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris was handled with tact and grace, and the team looks well set up for the future.

The only regret for Spurs is that they didn't strengthen enough in the January transfer window. We all know that chairman Daniel Levy drives a hard bargain, but it would have been worth making a few concessions to ensure the winter recruitment of Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao. At the end of the campaign, Spurs found themselves short of firepower.

Best player: Gareth Bale.

There's no contest. Gareth Bale had always shown great potential, but few expected him to blossom as he did this season. A terrifying physical specimen, the Welshman has pace, power, technique and courage in equal measure, and there were times this season when he was utterly unplayable. The greatest tribute that can be paid to Bale is that he genuinely wouldn't look out of place on any team on the planet. Unfortunately for Spurs, there's every chance that that theory will be tested this summer.

Worst player: Emmanuel Adebayor.

He began to liven up toward the end of the season, but this was a miserable campaign for Emmanuel Adebayor. It's still astonishing that Tottenham elected to shell out for his services on anything more than a short-term basis. Adebayor has a history of lifting his foot from the accelerator as soon as his financial security is achieved. There were high points, notably the incredible goal he scored at Stamford Bridge in May, but five league goals is a tally almost as unacceptable as his minimalist approach to running off the ball.

The future looks: Positive.

After the short-termism of Redknapp, Spurs now have what Manchester City might call a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club. Villas-Boas has even requested a director of football to work above him on recruitment, allowing him to spend more time to coaching the team. With that kind of fancy talk, it's no wonder that there still are elements of the UK media who think he's a bit odd. With another striker, and an upgrade on Scott Parker, Spurs should break the top four next season. (IM)

EVERTON

Season in short: Overachieved.

A season that began with the promise of a 1-0 smiting of Manchester United culminated in the numbing shock of David Moyes' departure to that very club. The Glaswegian defected after 11 alchemic years coaxing above-average performances from a team that often ran on fumes, leaving behind a squad he believed was the strongest he had ever assembled.

With Moyes on the sideline barking commands as if dictating play with an Xbox controller, the 10 outfield men buzzed around kaleidoscopically. The coveted Marouane Fellaini cruised the field like a vengeful dandelion, surrounded by the fleet-footed flank threats of Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman.

Work rate and collectivity allowed the team to salvage 22 points from losing positions (second-most behind Manchester United's 29) yet their thin squad lacked a quality striker and ultimately ran out of steam. The frustration of seven draws in nine games between October and December made this a season of "what ifs?" in which Everton once more came close with no reward. The Premier League's Sisyphus United.

Best Player: Leighton Baines.

Led the league with 116 chances the season, flitting around defenders like a mouse attacking water buffalo.

Worst Player: Nikica Jelavić.

Last season's master one-touch finisher turned so cold, his name became synonymous for "Gervinho" in Croatian.

The future looks: Cloudy.

Moyes jerry-rigged success. Though a faction of fans believed he had taken the team as far as he could, his successor may discover how hard it is to crack the top six on such a meager budget. Everton fans will hold their breath as they discover who replaces him and how many members of the current squad will be pried away before next season. (RB)

LIVERPOOL

Season in short: Got it right (just).

John W. Henry must be wondering what he's gotten himself into. After 2½ years under the control of Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool finished outside of the top four again. Indeed, they've only broken into the top six once since 2009. But this really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

Brendan Rodgers is a "template" manager. He has a style, he has structure and he wants it replicated at every level of the football club. This is good in that it creates a stable platform for the future. But it's bad in that it cannot be successfully imposed overnight. New systems bring new problems, and Liverpool struggled to get to grips with the new ideology. It took until Sept. 29 for Liverpool to win a Premier League game, and they had to wait until the spring before they strung three league victories together.

For much of the season, they were flat-track bullies, pummeling the boys in the bottom half, but struggling against their rivals. This was all to be expected in a season of transition, even though there are no excuses for results such as the home defeat to Aston Villa in December. Inconsistency, sadly, is par for the course in a transformative first season.

Best player: Steven Gerrard.

Though it was Luis Suarez who scored the goals, his indefensible chomping assault on Branislav Ivanovic rather spoiled his year. Steven Gerrard, on the other hand, enjoyed an unblemished campaign. His powers fading with age, many doubted whether the Englishman could adapt to Rodgers' style of play, and he certainly looked uneasy with his new role in the opening weeks. But instead of growing frustrated, he redoubled his efforts, owned the midfield and might have played every minute of every league game had it not been for an injury in May.

Worst player: Joe Allen.

After a reasonable start to life at Anfield, Joe Allen's performances tailed off sharply before his season was ended by a shoulder injury. Heavily criticised by British pundit Alan Shearer for his cautious style of play, Allen's confidence noticeably sagged, and he lost his place on the team. At a club like Liverpool and for a fee of £15 million, players should be able to shrug off these things. Allen, a fine passer of the ball, has all of the potential to succeed at Liverpool, but next season he'll need to show that his critics have made him stronger, not weaker.

The future looks: Optimistic.

Rodgers has had a year to lay down foundations, but now he needs to push on. The former Swansea boss talks a good game, and there are certainly reasons to be optimistic, particularly after the recruitment of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Now his words must be backed with results. The Liverpool supporters have for the most part shown admirable patience this season, but if they start next season the way they started this one, that patience may run out. This year can be put down to experience. Next season, they need to push for the top four. (IM)

WEST BROM

Season in short: Overachieved.

Though their eight-place finish was the club's best since the golden days of 1980-81, the season was Jekyll and Hyde. From August until November, Steve Clarke's spirited side were the Premier League's surprise package, dropping Liverpool and Chelsea on a rude charge to third place. Yet the budget outfit's stay in the Champions League places proved brief. With safety guaranteed, the Baggies faded, ending the season with just one win in their last nine games.

On their best days, West Brom played compact, counterattacking football. Gareth McAuley, Claudio Yacob, Youssuf Mulumbu and Jonas Olsson displayed an intensity opponents could not match. The impressive Romelu Lukaku's 17 goals provided the punch. But fatigue and injuries combined to corrode the team's form and make some question Clarke's ability to adjust during the course of entire campaign.

The season was not without its trashy moments. Peter Odemwingie's shameful transfer window drive to QPR scarred the team. Goran Popov's red-card-earning spit swap with Kyle Walker provided another lowlight. Yet, late season slump aside, most West Brom fans will be delighted with their club's final position. Throw in archrival Wolves relegation to League One, and this just may have felt like the perfect season.

Best Players: Romelu Lukaku and Gareth McAuley.

Lukaku may have stolen the headlines, but McAuley was the team's leader in the locker room and on the field.

Worst Player: Peter Odemwingie.

The wantaway star's pitiful behaviour undermined the team. His presence felt like a piece of flapping skin.

The future looks: Cup half-full.

West Brom fans are pessimistic by nature and will worry about goals, with Lukaku's loan spell over. Clarke's ability to recruit squad players and reinforce the first team will determine if the club can progress. (RB)

SWANSEA

Season in short: Overachieved.

When Brendan Rodgers left Swansea last summer, the common consensus was that they would sink like a stone. Instead, they improved dramatically, adding a cutting edge to their game, occupying the top half of the table for much of the season and, of course, winning the League Cup at Wembley and securing a place in the Europa League.

Much of the praise for this must go to manager Michael Laudrup, who ignored the doubters, shrugged off the pressure and fixed something that few had supposed was broken. Even more credit, however, should go to the board of directors. While other clubs scramble over each other to hire "the flavour of the month," they continue to recruit managers who fit the existing structure of the club.

Swansea continue to play stylish football, but now they do it with a clear end in sight. Under Rodgers, they occasionally could be caught in some kind of tiki-tika temporal loop. The high point, in the Premier League at least, came in December, when they went to the Emirates Stadium and out-Arsenaled Arsenal. Had it not been for a post-trophy slump, they might have finished even higher.

Best player: Michu.

Sir Alex Ferguson had never heard of him. Arsene Wenger said that his scouting network missed him. The only radar that Michu pinged belonged to Laudrup, and how grateful Swansea were for that. Physically imposing but technically adept, the Spaniard was supposed to play in midfield, but he made the striker's role his own with a series of nerveless performances. Famously, he only cost £2 million from La Liga outfit Rayo Vallecano. He'd cost a lot more now.

Worst player: Scott Sinclair.

When you're a team like Swansea, winning a major trophy and finishing ninth in the Premier League a little more than a decade after scrapping away in the fourth division, you don't really have a "worst" player. With that in mind, perhaps it would be more appropriate to pick on Scott Sinclair. The English forward made two appearances for Swansea before making a big-money move to Manchester City, where he made a grand total of ... er ... two league starts. On the whole, Sinclair probably would have been better off staying in Wales. At least he'd have won a trophy.

The future looks: Laudrup-dependent.

So much will rely on Laudrup and his commitment to the cause. After surpassing expectations so dramatically, he may conclude that it's time to cash in his chips and jump to a bigger job. He certainly won't be short of offers. But if he is to depart, don't expect Swansea to collapse without him. The board are well practised at sourcing replacements, and there's a financial base in position to support a tranche of new players. The only concern is that the Europa League might do to their season what it did to Newcastle. (IM)

WEST HAM

Season in short: Overachieved.

Happiness is mid-table anonymity. Their football may have been conservative, direct and rudimentary, but following a recent history of struggle, West Ham fans will be ecstatic to have experienced a season in which relegation barely threatened.

While Mohamed Diamé propelled the midfield, lolloping striker Andy Carroll flung himself around the penalty box like a slightly uncalibrated anti-personnel projectile. The season's emotional high point was a barnstorming come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Chelsea, but the team, who tallied a league-low 11 goals on the road, must discover the ability to threaten away from home.

Divisive coach Sam Allardyce was rewarded for leading the team to safety. It remains to be seen if the two-year contract he received last week is a long-term blessing or a curse.

Best Player: Winston Reid.

The 24-year-old New Zealand international anchored the back line with the confidence of a veteran.

Worst Player: Carlton Cole.

The striker has lost his way and will depart after a miserable season in which he produced just two goals.

The future looks: Mediocre.

And that will delight long-suffering West Ham fans. The club's ambition will be demonstrated by their ability to hold onto both Carroll and Diamé. (RB)


Club-by-club review: 11th-20th

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