LONDON, United Kingdom
This Premier League season is difficult to review for one main reason: Though it ultimately returned to some form of order, historians will need to understand just how wild it was when looking back. On the surface, the past 12 months have been just like any other recent year in world history: A wealthy club won the league, The Walking Dead embarked on yet another series, and Jeff Bezos got even richer. Beneath that, though, it was all change; given the terrifyingly fast spread of a global pandemic, we were lucky, in some sense, to watch any soccer at all. This was typified when Shakhtar Donetsk found themselves having to play Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League, despite the COVID-related absence of ten first-team players. (Somehow, they won.) This review of the 2020-21 Premier League season is therefore written with an asterisk of gratitude to all the players, coaches, and other non-playing staff who did their best to create a spectacle in conditions that were often exceptionally grim.
Player of the Year: Rúben Dias, Manchester City
It has to be Dias, not because he was the most eye-catching player or out of sympathy for defensive players never truly getting their due, but because, in a season of unprecedented turbulence, he was quietly, magnificently steady. Being an elite center back these days, given the huge amount of ground they are asked to cover, can sometimes look like the sporting equivalent of being sent all by yourself to guard Yellowstone National Park. But Dias didn’t mind that task: He hopped off the plane from Portugal and went to work. Thanks in large part to him, Manchester City conceded less than one goal a game. Thanks to him, the light blue machine moved smoothly from zero to warp speed. His utter dominance of the backline cannot be overstated: At times, Pep Guardiola was able to cram most of his players into the final third of the pitch, knowing that Dias could regulate the play perfectly in the event of an opposition counterattack. What’s more, Guardiola knew that Dias had a range and subtlety of passing that would intimidate most central midfielders (and more than a few attacking ones).
Spirit of the Year: Jack Grealish, Aston Villa
This award is for the player whose style most embodied the spirit and soul of the season, and that is why it has to be Jack Grealish. He defined 2020-2021. Indeed, there is arguably no one with a more wholesome enjoyment of being a footballer than Grealish. He is half-man, half-calf muscle, his flailing hair barely contained by a band, his mind primed for attacking mischief. As everything we knew about the game was falling apart, collapsing into dust, there was Jack, scampering barefoot through the wreckage. He missed a third of the season with a shin injury, but he had long ago provided perhaps Aston Villa’s signature performance: a masterpiece in a 7-2 win over Liverpool, in which he scored twice, provided three assists, and even nutmegged Virgil van Dijk.
Manager of the Year: David Moyes, West Ham United
The Premier League is a manager’s league. We probably haven’t seen a depth of talent like the whip-smart minds in charge of teams all the way down the table. This season, amid unusually challenging circumstances, several of them distinguished themselves. Marcelo Bielsa was typically thrilling and strikingly effective at Leeds United. Scott Parker coached far beyond his means at relegated Fulham. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, through shrewd man management and some brave tactical tweaks, has converted many doubters with Manchester United’s second-place finish, especially given their advance to the Europa League final. Dean Smith, before injuries to key players derailed his Aston Villa team, led a joyously irreverent side to an early surge up the table. Brendan Rodgers has been excellent at Leicester City, bringing the best from their superbly recruited playing staff. Given the abundance of resources at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, it is sometimes difficult to assess the quality of his work: Limitless wealth should, in theory, mean that you win the league each year. Yet he has still managed to make his team evolve, and the game along with it. Most managers would not have regularly and successfully fielded İlkay Gündoğan as a central forward ahead of the club’s record goalscorer Sergio Agüero, but Guardiola is not most men. Yet the manager of the year, by a narrow margin, is David Moyes. He was not a wildly popular appointment at West Ham given his failures at Manchester United and Real Sociedad, and he had to contend with a fan base who were increasingly unhappy at the way the club was being run. This season, though, he has thoroughly reasserted his credentials. Under his guidance, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek have developed an excellent chemistry in midfield, and Michail Antonio has latterly found a brilliant accomplice in the form of a reborn Jesse Lingard. At one point, West Ham even put together a credible run for a Champions League spot—a scenario that was utterly unthinkable at the start of the season. Well done, David Moyes, and welcome back.
Game of the Year: Liverpool 4, Leeds United 3
The game of the year was the very first match of the season, taking place on September 12, 2020: Liverpool 4, Leeds United 3. If we were going to be dramatic, which of course we are, we would argue that this was one of the contests that proved crucial to the destination of the title. Liverpool, who had charged to their first league title in 30 years the previous season, were effectively at full strength, and were six days from signing Thiago Alcântara from Bayern Munich, who had been many observers’ man of the match in the Germans’ Champions League final win over Paris Saint-Germain a few weeks prior. Liverpool had not lost at home in the league since April 2017. They were welcoming Marcelo Bielsa’s newly promoted Leeds United, whose game of astonishing attacking intensity had won over many admirers. Bielsa, in the best possible way, showed Liverpool no respect whatsoever. Jürgen Klopp’s team, famed for their ferocity of their pressing, were introduced to a blizzard of their own as Leeds, resplendent in their all-white kit, turned Anfield into a snowstorm. Each time Liverpool took the lead, Leeds pulled them back: It was 3-2 to the hosts at halftime, and the only thing that made their visitors succumb was Mo Salah’s third and final goal two minutes from the end. Leeds left Anfield with a loss but emerged with a far greater victory: They had shown that the champions were mortal. Before Liverpool had to deal with a horrific run of injuries, they had to contend with the fact that their feared defense—which had been breached only 33 times in 38 league games the previous season—had yielded three goals in just 66 minutes. Without that match, it is doubtful that Aston Villa would have had the audacity to go at Liverpool as they did in their 7-2 win; without that match, Leeds might not have had the springboard they needed for their wonderful season.
Biggest Surprise: The Resurgence of Jesse Lingard
By the time Lingard left Manchester United on loan, his reputation as a player had suffered apparently irreparable damage. He spoke candidly last year about his mother’s struggles with depression and how it impacted his family and his performances. The statistics from his last three years at Old Trafford were utterly unforgiving. In his previous 79 Premier League games, a player best known as an attacking midfield or wide forward had found the net just 13 times. Yet when he moved to West Ham in January, he was magnificent from the outset, a blur of intelligent movement, linkup play, and goals by the wheelbarrow. Lingard struck nine times in his first 16 matches, and almost led West Ham to a Champions League place. His performance is almost as extraordinary as that of David Moyes, the man managing his comeback. In soccer, as in life, perhaps all that you sometimes need is a change of scene.
There are two main contenders for this: a loud disappointment and a quiet one. The quiet disappointment is probably what happened at Wolverhampton Wanderers. They never fully recovered from the sale of Diogo Jota to Liverpool and the loss of Raúl Jiménez to a terrible head injury in November. Beyond that, though, they were too often underwhelming, lacking penetration in attack and consistent creativity in midfield. It is no surprise that Nuno Espírito Santo paid for this inability to push on from the previous season with his job, though he might argue that he needed better reinforcements. The loud disappointment, though, and the winner of this category, is Tottenham Hotspur. When Spurs defeated Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford, there was talk of a title push from José Mourinho’s team. Just months later, so much at Spurs is in disarray: Mourinho has been sacked, and Harry Kane, the Premier League’s leading scorer this season, is eager to leave. This is a disastrous outcome, presided over by Daniel Levy, the club chairman who in his hubris considered Mourinho to be one of the two best coaches in the Premier League. There were many who feared that Mourinho’s abrasive style would see him fail quickly at Spurs, but none of them anticipated the sheer speed of the implosion.
Biggest Question This Summer
What do Manchester City’s rivals do in the transfer market? Liverpool possibly need another central midfielder. Leicester City could do with another attacker. Manchester United could do with a defender, a defensive midfielder, and maybe one more attacker. Chelsea may have to find another central midfielder and a free-scoring no. 9 (unless, of course, Thomas Tuchel brings that quality out of Kai Havertz or Tammy Abraham). City already have a clear run at next season’s title: If these teams do not recruit well, it will become a procession.