What a wild ride it's been. The title race was decided weeks ago, Manchester City ended up with a frankly ridiculous 100 points and the relegation battle was all but over going into the final day.
What does this say about the competitiveness of English football? Frankly, I couldn't care less. When it comes to stealing taxis, fisting pitch invaders, shit commentary, doing the Milly Rock, indulging in anti-European parochialism and NSFW self-exposure, the Premier League is still hands down the best league in the world. Here's all the madness from the closing weekend.
Our Father, Who Art Arsene Wenger
How, really, can I be expected to write a fitting final tribute to Arsene Wenger? I could write about his decency, his humanity, his philosophical spirit, his profound thoughtfulness and his beautiful turn of phrase. This is the man whom the president of Liberia and former Ballon d'Or winner George Weah credits with giving him a chance at Monaco "when racism was at its peak" in Europe; the man who arrived in English football to a backdrop of 35-pint benders and left it a place of balanced diets, multivitamins and healthy electrolytes; a man who once said that team spirit is "like a flower… you have to take care of it and look after it every day or it will slowly die", which basically makes him football's answer to William Blake.
This a man who showed intense personal loyalty to players like Robert Pires, Eduardo, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla when they suffered horrific and debilitating injuries; a man who gave so much of himself in times of adversity even when he was viciously maligned by some of those he was trying to please and entertain; a coach who nurtured whole generations of footballers, despite how often they unceremoniously abandoned him and, first and foremost, someone who tried to live up to his principles in a flawed and often amoral game.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the impression Wenger has made on those of us who have grown up with him as Arsenal manager is that, in so many of the tributes written in light of his departure, fans have identified him as a father figure. Were Wenger actually to have fathered all the people who have claimed he is their dad in recent weeks, he would leave English football not only as Arsenal’s most successful coach but also as the most genetically prolific human being ever. While avoiding the cringeworthy cliche of "Arsenal DNA", Wenger has left a little strand of his ideals in all those who have appreciated his contribution to football. Obviously, that's excluding the idiot who spent his Marbella 2k18 budget on a protest flyover for Wenger’s final game.
The Argument for Mass Relegation
While the bottom three was essentially decided midweek, when Swansea lost to direct rivals Southampton, it was at least something of a surprise given the situation a few weeks ago. Having appointed former Sheffield Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal in December, Swansea experienced the fabled "new manager bounce" and put a four-point cushion between themselves and the drop. Unfortunately for them, Southampton put together a mini-bounce of their own under new boss Mark Hughes – a manager who had previously been leading Stoke inexorably towards the Championship – and in the great shit-off between the bottom few teams this season turned out not to be as shit as their fellow contestants.
In all honesty, though, the Premier League would be no worse off were the entire bottom ten relegated immediately. Of all the ridiculous reforms to football that the game’s bureaucrats have tried to make over the years, the most productive would be to simply bin off half the Premier League each season. Barring a few charitable exceptions – Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton as the newly promoted sides, maybe – nobody from 10th downwards is bringing anything new or interesting to the table. In fact, let’s relegate two of the top six while we’re at it, and let Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Millwall have a go at winning the league for a change.
Looking back on it now, Rafa Benitez probably feels he was treated quite badly at Chelsea. Having taken over at Stamford Bridge following the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo in 2012, he was met with a wall of boos and laminated A4 protest banners in literally his first game. Having cultivated a fierce rivalry with Jose Mourinho while at Liverpool, and having often got the better of Chelsea in Europe – once because of the famous "ghost goal" by Luis Garcia – Benitez was an unpopular choice with Chelsea fans. Given the humiliating title of "interim manager" and hounded through much of his single season in west London, he nonetheless finished a respectable third and won the Europa League with two fingers up at the haters.
As such, it was a satisfying twist this weekend when Benitez’s Newcastle side helped to ensure Europa League football for his former club next season. Chelsea lost 3-0 at St James' Park, just the latest confirmation that Antonio Conte started his summer holidays some time around February. Had results gone their way, Chelsea could have qualified for the Champions League at the expense of Liverpool. Naturally, as the score filtered through at Anfield, Liverpool fans could be heard chanting Rafa's name.
The Bad Boys of Brexit
One of the prevailing themes of this season has been whether or not the old guard of British coaches has still got what it takes to manage in the Premier League. Starting with Sam Allardyce's claim back in October that British managers are "deemed as second class because it is your country… the Premier League is the foreign league in England now", the top flight has taken on a distinctly Brexity feel. In the one corner are the entitled baby boomers who hark back to a golden age when Britain was still British, before foreigners came along with their diving, their VAR and their sophisticated tactics, ruining it for everyone. In the other corner are the know-it-all millennials, who think management should be done exclusively through a laptop, and that all the best coaching methods originate from the Mighty Magyars.
Where the truth is probably somewhere in between – imagine a manager with Big Sam's man management but Pep Guardiola's Cruyffian tactical outlook: he'd be unstoppable – the Brits have scored a Pyrrhic victory this season when it comes to proving their effectiveness. Roy Hodgson has saved Crystal Palace from relegation, David Moyes has trudged miserably to safety with West Ham, while Big Sam has led relegation-threatened Everton to eighth and still somehow made himself their most unpopular manager in recent memory. Much like leaving the EU, then, the cost of British sovereignty in the Premier League has been excruciatingly high. That’s not even counting Alan Pardew's time at West Brom, which was roughly equivalent in Brexit terms to the economy self-immolating and banter becoming our main unit of measurement.