League tables may never lie, though everyone knows they can be economical with the truth. By Sunday evening we will have our final Premier League table, after an extraordinarily difficult season is played out to a compromised but fair conclusion. Yet what the record books and finishing positions never quite reveal is what was expected of teams beforehand.
Some teams in the top half of the table will be disappointed with their place in the order of things, whereas some teams in the bottom half will be relieved. What follows is an attempt to break up the table into three groups: those who have done better than anticipated, those who have done worse and those who have simply completed the course with an acceptable but unspectacular score.
1) Liverpool Cynics might argue they have underachieved for the past 30 years, though when they finally got it right they blew everyone else away. Consistency is what marks out Jürgen Klopp’s side: they would have won any other Premier League title with the 97 points they gained last year. This time they were confirmed champions with a ridiculous seven matches still to play, an outstanding achievement that deserved better than being witnessed by empty stadiums.
2) Sheffield United Simply never looked like a promoted team. If the key to Premier League success is adapting quickly and looking like a side that truly belongs in the top flight, Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds could do a lot worse than asking Chris Wilder for a few tips.
3) Wolves Cannot reach the Champions League now, but they gave it a good go. Play the sort of football Arsenal and Everton fans would die for, and should take credit for finishing comfortably above those two clubs. Still in Europe and may even spring a surprise at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
4) Leicester Will be disappointed if they cannot seal Champions League football, though being in a position to claim it is an improvement on the drift of the post-title years. Even under Claudio Ranieri Leicester were never seen as a long-term top-four team; at present they are very close to achieving that goal.
5) Chelsea Perhaps not the greatest season, though factor in a new young manager, a transfer ban and the excellence of Liverpool and Manchester City and steady progress has been made with some statement signings already in the bag for next season. Frank Lampard says Champions League qualification is not the be-all and end-all, though it may not feel that way against Wolves.
6) Newcastle Controversial this, because Toon fans want to do better than lower mid-table, but considering everyone had Newcastle down as relegation candidates at the start of the season, Steve Bruce has done a fair job. Not great, but better than expected.
Par for the course
1) Manchester City Should not be too downhearted about finishing second to Liverpool, especially as they are still in with a shout in the Champions League. Not quite as imperious as in the recent past but still terrific on their day. Success in Europe, given their record, would nudge them into the overachievers class, though inevitably people would point to their spending and say about time.
2) Manchester United A satisfactory season for Ole Gunnar Solskjær in the end, even if an awful lot still rests on Sunday’s result. At the beginning of the season, with doubts over the manager’s future and questions over the club’s transfer policy, most United fans would have gladly accepted third place on the final day. Well done Bruno Fernandes.
3) Burnley This is meant as a compliment, honestly, Mr Dyche. It is too easy to say Burnley punch above their weight – they have been doing it for years. A solid, mid-table Premier League outfit, they don’t need patronising any more. Finishing around 10th is what is expected.
4) Southampton Thank goodness for Danny Ings. Turned round a disastrous start to the season but cannot be regarded as overachievers for that alone. While Ralph Hasenhüttl seems well suited to the job, Southampton seem keen to recommence their (highly successful) sideline in selling players.
5) Norwich Did not spend a great deal of money, which is fair enough, and did not adapt their game in any way to Premier League demands, which is harder to understand. Seemed happy enough to accept the quick return to the Championship that beckoned for most of the season.
6) Crystal Palace Too good to go down, not consistent enough for a top-half finish. Beating relegation while retaining a degree of dignity now seems their station in life, in addition to getting a decent price for Wilfried Zaha.
7) Brighton Same as Palace, though their relegation worries lasted a little longer. Decent first season for Graham Potter, even promising at times, but Brighton need to strengthen if this is not to be the story of every season.
8) Aston Villa Easy to say they have underachieved considering the money spent last summer, but when you come up via the play-offs a chance of last-day survival is about as much as can be reasonably asked. Deserve credit for sticking with their manager when others might have pressed the panic button.
1) Tottenham Last season’s Champions League runners-up will not even qualify for next term’s competition and José Mourinho cannot conceal his disdain for the Europa League. Or some of his own players, for that matter. Fair to say the club have failed to build on the promising foundations laid by Mauricio Pochettino.
2) Arsenal Going into the last game five points behind Tottenham, who are themselves five points off the top four, is simply not acceptable, FA Cup final or not. There is an enormous amount of youthful potential in the squad, but it has not been properly exploited this season.
3) Everton Some would say the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti represented staggering overachievement, and they might even be right, but in terms of results and the overall look of the side this has been one of the most disappointing of Goodison seasons.
4) West Ham Such consistent underachievers, a fight against relegation going into the last couple of weeks of the season might even be considered par for the course, but when the fans eventually come back it will be clear their dissatisfaction with their ground, their owners and their manager has not gone away.
5) Bournemouth Still in with a fighting chance of survival – anyone would be at Everton – but this has been a much harder season than previous ones in the top flight. Even Eddie Howe is finally beginning to look old.
6) Watford Where to begin? Seemed to have rescued themselves by bringing in Nigel Pearson, only to shunt him out with two games to go. Will need to improve on their body language from the last game to get a result at Arsenal. Possibly the club worst affected by the coronavirus shutdown.
The Guardian Sport