One of the most interesting things about a sport like soccer, with leagues across the world that players can move between freely, is that it's possible for every team in a league to get worse. That's (almost) exactly what happened in the English Premier League in the 2012-13 season.
Two English teams were bounced out of the UEFA Champions League group stages and the two remaining English sides in the competition were eliminated in the next round. It was the first time since 1996 that an English team failed to make the quarterfinals of the Champions League. This happened partially because of a questionable red card to Nani during the Round of 16 tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid, but mostly because English teams stunk this year.
This year's Premier League season was bad because the teams involved were lame, and everyone should be happy it's over. Mostly so every team can move on to what will almost certainly be bigger and better things next season, but also because this season was, at times, excruciatingly boring.
Robin van Persie's signing offset a lot of the negative things that happened to Manchester United. Chelsea's signings, early Champions League exit and their mailing in of the last league season made it impossible for them to fail to improve on their previous league finish. But despite their improved league finishes, neither team was actually better than last year's offering.
Among the Premier League's elite, only Manchester City took a huge step backwards. Vincent Kompany took a step backwards from being dominant to simply being very good, while Joe Hart took an even bigger step backwards. David Silva's injury problems and Roberto Mancini's fiddling with formations certainly didn't help City's cause either. However, thanks to the lack of improvement by the teams behind them, they comfortably finished in second place. They offered no challenge to Manchester United, but no one offered any challenge to them.
Arsenal signed a few solid squad players and saw their young players improve, offsetting the loss of van Persie. Tottenham Hotspur experienced the exact same thing with the loss of Luka Modric, their acquisitions and Gareth Bale's improvement. Neither team was significantly better or worse than they were last season, and they finished in similar spots, on more points but lower in the table.
Everton were the same team that they have been for a decade under David Moyes, since Moyes is still good and they're still broke. Darron Gibson was a good signing and Marouane Fellaini had his best season to date, but they never had the depth to seriously challenge for a top four place. They sat in Champions League spots for most of the season, but even the most dedicated of Evertonians knew it wasn't going to last. They were always going to be happy with a sixth-place finish as long as they finished ahead of Liverpool, and that's exactly what they got.
Just like they did the two seasons prior, Liverpool finished well out of Champions League, but with hope for the future. Money and new managers haven't led to success, and some fans are still waiting for Rafa Benitez to return, or for Steven Gerrard to stop being old.
Reds fans' hopes heading into this season and the season before it were mostly based on blind faith in the managers they wanted to believe in and a crest on their shirts that used to represent England's biggest team, but they have something more to believe in next year. For once, it appears that they have a manager competent enough and a stable of players young and talented enough to push for something beyond seventh place in their next campaign. A full season with Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, along with either a reformed Luis Suarez or a shiny replacement, should make Liverpool legitimate challengers to Arsenal and Tottenham.
Meanwhile, Andre Villas-Boas will have the benefit of entering a season with players he knows and who know him. Daniel Levy will almost certainly give him the funds to bring in a striker, and Sandro's return from injury will feel like signing a new world-class player for free after Tottenham struggled to replace him after he went down, but managed to finish on 72 points anyway. If Gareth Bale stays, he'll start the season in a defined role instead of taking two-thirds of a year figuring out where he plays best in Villas-Boas' system. If he leaves, it will probably shatter the transfer record for a British player and Spurs will spend most of the money brought in. It's tough to see them failing to improve next season.
It's difficult to see Arsenal and Chelsea failing to improve as well. Chelsea were coaxed into keeping Roberto Di Matteo on the basis of him simply being unsackable after two trophy wins, but he looked out of his depth before he was let go. Still, it was hard for Chelsea fans to stomach the sacking of a club legend, and harder for them to accept the hiring of Rafa Benitez. He made the same mistakes that he made at Inter Milan with inane team selections and substitutions, but Chelsea finished third and won the Europa League anyway because they were too talented to do anything less.
Benitez will be replaced by a manager of the world-class variety and he, like everyone sane (and probably even Roman Abramovich at this point), will have accepted that Fernando Torres is nothing more or less than a serviceable squad player. A couple of top quality players will be purchased. A couple of Chelsea's spectacular young players who spent the season out on loan, in the reserve ranks or injured, will be integrated into the first team.
Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla finished the season strong, Wojciech Szczesny certainly isn't getting any worse, Jack Wilshere theoretically has to put together a complete season at some point, and Arsene Wenger will probably have a decent amount of money to spend this summer without selling. Arsenal is stable enough that a big-money signing isn't going to cripple them financially if he doesn't work out as planned, and their fans are desperate for something more than fourth place and early tournament exits.
Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City will all start next season with managerial situations better than the ones they entered this season with. Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers now know their squads and have made progress in reshaping them. Their clubs' fans have high, but realistic expectations for next year. City and Chelsea went though this season with very average coaches, and both are expected to hire excellent ones. Their rumored targets -- Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, respectively -- would represent massive upgrades from Mancini and Di Matteo/Benitez.
Everton will likely fall off a bit with Moyes departing, but the other five big teams behind Manchester United should all be better next season than they were this season. It may not show in their results and point totals -- they'll have to play each other, after all -- but they will be better in every other way. Manchester United are too good to fall off a cliff even if Moyes turns out to be a poor hire. They're also not naive enough to think that he can guide a team with a patchwork midfield to a title like Alex Ferguson did. They'll buy, and the players they buy should help offset any dropoff from Ferguson to Moyes.
And then there's the matter of the Premier League's television contract. The new contract is about to kick in and every team is going to get a bigger chunk of television revenue. Just about every team -- and certainly every one of the big six teams -- is going to spend money. They're going to buy quality players away from the Championship and lower Premier League teams, but even more so from foreign leagues. There will always be enough quality players to stock a dozen European leagues with good, competitive teams, but more of the world's elite are going to start playing in the Premier League, and they're going to be spread out among six teams instead of three or four.
Manchester United don't have the best manager in the world anymore and everyone else is about to catch up to them in both coaching and on-field talent. There's going to be a real title race next season, along with a tight race for Champions League spots.
Soon, everyone will forget that this season, one of the least exciting in the Premier League's history, ever happened.
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