Football Features

‘He is everything Man Utd dreamed of’ – Winners and losers of the Premier League’s top-four race

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:10, 26 July 2020 | Updated: 9:51, 30 March 2021

In a tight and tense final day of the Premier League season, Manchester United and Chelsea secured Champions League football next season with Leicester just missing out after losing 0-2 to The Red Devils.

Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Bruno Fernandes

Manchester United last lost in the Premier League on 22nd January, 2020. Bruno Fernandes made his debut for Manchester United in the next game on 1st February, 2020 against Wolves. It ended 0-0, and United were 14 points behind Leicester in fifth, but Bruno showed plenty of promise that he could be the man to energise and lift United up. 13 games later, Bruno has scored 8 goals and made 7 assists, and Manchester United are four points above Leicester in third.

It’s obviously not all about Bruno Fernandes, but it kind of is all about Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese has been the attacking talisman the side has been crying out for since Zlatan Ibrahimovic got injured. He has been a phenomenal fulcrum in attack, linking with his team-mates and elevating the level of the entire team. He drives off the ball, he threads the eye of the needle on it, he shoots often and he scores penalties with a nerveless ease just like he did today.

Fernandes didn’t have his best game at the King Power Stadium, he looked tired and disjointed and United were struggling as a result. But when it came time for The Red Devils to strike a decisive blow, Bruno stepped up and calmly passed the ball into the back of the net to win the game for United (Jesse Lingard added a second late-on). No one has directly contributed to more goals in the Premier League since Fernandes’ debut than his own 15. He is everything United have dreamed of and more, their no. 10, their talisman.

Winner (and Loser, kind of): Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was tasked with saving Manchester United and after an initial high, a long low, and finally another high that looks much more sustainable, he has gotten The Red Devils both back into the Champions League and looking like a proper threat again. The Red Devils finished this season with a 14-match unbeaten run and plenty of fantastic football played along the way. So why is he a loser?

Because United haven’t charged over the line as it looked like they were going to when they beat Aston Villa, but have instead limped to success with a handful of risible performances punctuated by moments of excellence that ensured United picked up points. The penalties helped, as well.

And that end to the season is troubling for a side about to enter the Champions League, because their undoing has been brought about by teams realising (thanks to Southampton) that a simple mid-block press stifles the vast majority of their creative talent. Leicester squeezed United in the middle, just as Southampton did, and West Ham, and even Crystal Palace. And in all of those games, United were flat and Solskjaer had no answer, no ability to adjust his line-up or tactics in-game; he just ran his best XI into the ground.

The opponents awaiting United in next season’s Champions League will execute their tactical plans with greater rigour than the opponents that have troubled United at the end of this season, and if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks he can bring these Baby’s First Tactics into the European Cup and not get excessively embarrassed he is sorely mistaken. Post-match he said that the players have to get “fitter, stronger, more robust” in terms of being able to play every three days, rather than speaking about needing to improve United’s puddle-deep squad pool to allow for more frequent and intelligent rotation. A bafflingly naive statement from the Norwegian.

As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Winner: Frank Lampard

Super Frank Lampard came into his first season as Chelsea boss with no transfers, his best player by a mile having just left, and a massive expectation for him to “blood the kids” with no one really having any idea if anything like that was even possible. He ends his first season as Chelsea boss in fourth place and with an FA Cup final to look forward too.

It’s been nothing but good times for Lampard, who has managed to blood the kids, turning Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori into something resembling bonafide Premier League starters in just one season. Chelsea have been sensational entertainment pretty much all season even if there are obviously weaknesses in their side that could come back to haunt them in Europe. But Lampard’s mentality is exemplary, saying post-match: “we have to be careful getting too excited by top four finishes” indicating that he is in no mood to coast on his laurels. Things can only get better for Super Frank.

Loser: Chelsea’s New Gronkjaers

In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and needed to win to qualify for the Champions League. Jesper Gronkjaer picked up an assist and scored a goal to secure a huge 2-1 victory and put the Blues into the big time.

The following seasons, as Roman Abramovich’s money transformed Chelsea with illustrious new talent, Gronkjaer became an afterthought. He played one more season before being sold to Birmingham and isn’t remembered as a Chelsea legend even though his goal essentially allowed for Chelsea’s meteoric rise under José Mourinho to actually happen.

In 2020, Chelsea played Wolves at Stamford Bridge and needed to win to (be certain of) qualify for the Champions League. Mason Mount opened the scoring before half-time and then picked up an assist moments later when he set up Olivier Giroud for Chelsea’s second. They won the game for Chelsea, but the success they have brought to the Blues makes them long-term losers.

Giroud has been superb up-front for the Blues, but is set to be replaced by the soon-to-arrive Timo Werner. And Mount has proved himself an incredible talent too and was the decisive figure against Wolves, but with Hakim Ziyech due to star for the Blues next season and the pursuit of Kai Havertz, it’s hard to see young Mount truly expanding on his role next season. You worry that for all his importance to Chelsea in securing Champions League football for next season, he will be sidelined behind bigger names, just as Jesper Gronkjaer was.

Winner: Jamie Vardy

He may have missed out on the Champions League, but Jamie Vardy has finished the season as top scorer in the Premier League. Even when Leicester won the league title in 2015/16, Vardy was beaten to the golden boot by Harry Kane. In the season’s that have followed he’s continued to rattle in goals but still that golden boot proved elusive and now he was well into his 30’s, he had to fear he’d missed his shot.

Vardy? Miss his shot? Not likely. This season the Englishman went on a tear pre-Christmas, and even though he has struggled since the New Year he found enough to bag the goals needed to stay ahead of the chasing pack. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mané, even Danny Ings in the form of his life… none of them could catch Vardy to the extent that even though he was held goalless on the final day of the season, he finishes the season as the winner of the golden boot.

Loser: Brendan Rodgers

As much as Manchester United need to be credited for their incredible finish to the season, something has to be said for Leicester who at one point were 14 points ahead of Manchester United. Fourteen! That is an absolutely ridiculous advantage to throw away.

Alright, injuries and suspensions definitely played a part in their miserable end to the season as they faced United today without James Maddison, Caglar Soyuncu, Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira. After the match Brendan Rodgers said: “I look at James Justin and his performance. He lost his father a few months ago, he’s come in from League One. He’s played in three different positions. He was outstanding today. We need mentality like that,” so he wasn’t lamenting his thin squad, plus they’ve been dropping points all over the place, as much as it all came down to this one game it was about so much more than this one game.

“Our plan was to get through to the final drinks break and then push, but we conceded the goal just before that moment,” said Rodgers of the gameplan against United. It seems odd that Leicester wouldn’t come out swinging and try to catch an unsure United cold, instead trying to play cat-and-mouse and let the game drag out. It leaves you open to get punished, and as much as Rodgers said the penalty “could easily have not been given,” it was a fairly straightforward award brought about by self-destructive play.

Taking that kind of absurd risk is part of why Leicester have faltered so much. Rodgers also said: “the quality at the top end of the league is really high, and we have competed with that, but we’re short of that,” and whilst that’s true, Rodgers’ tactics were overcoming that quality gap until the end of the season, so what gives?

“I can’t fault the spirit. Next year it’s about ambition,” said Rodgers. And let’s see where that ambition takes them. Rodgers coaches his sides to play excellent football, but they seem to have a soft centre and lack conviction to get things over the line. Look at how they underperformed against big teams this season, or how Rodgers’ Liverpool side buckled so absurdly in the 2013/14 title race. No one could question his coaching acumen, but his man management? His ability to sustain over a whole season? These things have to be questioned now.