Premier League 2021-22 season review: our writers’ best and worst
Nick Ames Because he deserves the recognition: Son Heung-min. This was not Harry Kane’s finest season, despite a big uptick in its second half, but Son’s brilliance ensured that ultimately mattered little. Mohamed Salah had looked nailed on for this until the last couple of months and still needs mentioning, as does Kevin De Bruyne; his performance at Wolves, which I was fortunate to report on, was mindblowing and an already supreme Manchester City are transformed when he is at his best.
Gregg Bakowski De Bruyne. It looked like Salah would be a shoo-in halfway through the season but the Manchester City midfielder has been talismanic in the run-in, dragging his team kicking and screaming over the line with some supreme performances. A tip of the hat to Son, too.
John Brewin De Bruyne. In a season of no completely overriding star, he was the best player in the best team.
Michael Butler De Bruyne. The best midfielder in the world and the best player in the Premier League. He is more than the sum of his stats, though only five players scored more than his 15.
Ben Fisher Flip of a coin between Salah and De Bruyne. Sadio Mané has equally had an extraordinary season, for club and country.
Barry Glendenning Salah continues to amaze with his consistent excellence for Liverpool.
Daniel Harris De Bruyne. Needs to do more in Europe to be ranked alongside the greatest but is the standout player in England and has been for years – even when people thought Eden Hazard was.
Andy Hunter Salah. More goals than any other Premier League player apart from Son, more assists than any other Premier League player and in phenomenal form for most of the campaign. Had to deal with two major disappointments at international level plus the distraction of his contract saga.
David Hytner Salah. Joint-top scorer, top assister. Thrillingly unplayable at times.
Jamie Jackson De Bruyne. Imperious. Majestic. Gamechanging. Cool-as-the-proverbial. The Belgian illustrated why he is City’s big cheese by leaving his very best until the campaign’s killer phase. This was crowned by the pinpoint cross that created the Ilkay Gündogan winner versus Aston Villa that sealed the title.
Jonathan Liew Salah and De Bruyne have been brilliant in parts. But João Cancelo has been brilliant for a whole season, all over the pitch. A unique, underrated player.
Sachin Nakrani De Bruyne. Salah was the standout candidate in the first half of the season but his form and output significantly declined in the new year and, ultimately, it’s hard to look past De Bruyne. The best player for the best team, who also delivered the best individual display of the season away to Wolves in the run-in.
Barney Ronay Son. Began the season trying to work out what, if anything, Nuno Espírito Santo wanted him to do, ended it with as many goals as Salah. Gareth Bale got a £90m move by playing like this.
Jacob Steinberg De Bruyne had a slow start by his standards but he was exceptional after shaking off an ankle problem. His assist for Gündogan’s title-winning goal was an example of a big-game player showing up for his team when the pressure was at its peak.
Will Unwin De Bruyne. Dragged City to the title by inspiring them in tight games, as well as hitting four goals against Wolves.
NA Antonio Conte’s feat in heaving Tottenham to the Champions League was quite something, even if their competition was not the strongest. Thomas Frank did brilliantly to guide Brentford to mid-table and fans of ninth-placed Brighton should be aware just how lucky they are to have Graham Potter, who should be a serious contender for any top job. Mikel Arteta did well to change the feel around Arsenal, and Eddie Howe can be acclaimed for his work at Newcastle if not his ability to answer questions about the deeply sinister side of the club’s ownership.
GB Jürgen Klopp. He rotated his squad brilliantly to get Liverpool back into the title race despite losing Salah and Mané to Afcon. That he did so while making it to the final of the three other cup competitions truly is remarkable.
JB Conte. When it came to the top-four battle, Conte’s experience told against Arteta, still a relative fledgling. Why Manchester United thought Conte, a born winner, was a bad idea speaks only to the self-interest of those who decided they couldn’t face being confronted by his demand for better.
MB Potter has coached Brighton to their record points total, five points from a European place. Amazing what a trendy new beard and turtleneck can do.
BF Howe has transformed Newcastle in six months. It is easy to point to their January business and the ability to shell out almost £100m as the obvious gamechanger but he has revitalised players whose careers had gone stale, none more so than Joelinton, and gelled a squad that ended up nestling in mid-table. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have won more points this calendar year. Thomas Frank and Potter deserve a place on the podium for helping their teams punch above their weight.
BG Frank has done an excellent job at Brentford on their long-awaited return to the top flight and it will be intriguing to see whether they kick on or struggle in what could be a difficult second season.
DHa Klopp. No one else could do what he does with the players he has. More than that, though, he is a man of honesty and integrity who understands the importance of football to the people, but also that good football is no substitute for good values. The same cannot be said of all his rivals.
AH Klopp. His team played every game it was possible to play this season, winning both domestic trophies and taking Manchester City to the wire in the title race despite being 14 points adrift in January. A third Champions League final appearance in five seasons awaits. No wonder Liverpool’s owners pounced with a four-year contract extension as soon as he mentioned he was open to the idea of extending a great era.
DHy I want to look beyond the top two, for success relative to means, so step forward Potter, who got Brighton to ninth on a net spend of £15m, playing with a clear identity. Measured and assured face of the club.
JJ Pep Guardiola. Four titles in his opening six years at Manchester City is a far better ratio than, say, the great Sir Alex Ferguson, who returned zero in the same span. We are witnessing him take football into a new zone of excellence. The fun is where the likable Catalan may leave it when he is finally finished in England.
JL Klopp, not just for cajoling a tiring squad through four gruelling competitions but for his moral leadership in a game that badly needs it.
SN Frank. Having achieved top-flight status for the first time in 74 years, Brentford were meant to be immediately relegated. Instead they finished 13th. In large part that was down to the tactical acumen and motivational skills of their manager, who pulled off a masterstroke by bringing Christian Eriksen to the club in January. A hugely impressive achievement by a man who also has the best hair in the division.
BR Frank. Super-smart micro-management on a tiny budget. Changed the way his team play in mid-season. Agreeable groovy-uncle-who-used-to-live-in-Ibiza persona.
JS While Norwich and Watford sunk without a trace after winning promotion Frank performed wonders to keep Brentford up. They had their wobble but the signing of Eriksen was an inspired gamechanger. Brentford were a different team after adding Eriksen and safety was secured with relative ease.
WU Patrick Vieira. The Frenchman transformed Crystal Palace’s style and improved their league position in one season. When other clubs talk of needing seasons to turn things around, Vieira proves what can be done.
NA Should it be Salah’s scintillating solo goal against Manchester City or the equally good effort, albeit against inferior opposition, in their following match at Watford? Having been there for the latter, it gets my pick: a methodical weave through three defenders, leaving the final one on his backside, still defies belief.
GB Salah against City. He was surrounded when he received the ball but after a delicious roll of his foot to bamboozle Bernardo Silva, he tricked his way into the box, past Aymeric Laporte and fired across Ederson from an acute angle with his weaker foot. To do it against the champions in such an important game made it all the more impressive.
JB Salah v Manchester City. He faded a little as the season went on but there was a point in early season when Salah looked the best player in the world. This was his Messi moment.
MB Thiago Alcântara’s fizzing daisy cutter for Liverpool against Porto in the Champions League still makes me gawp, but domestically you probably can’t look past Salah against City. Ten perfect touches against the best team in the league. No notes.
BF Rúben Neves v Watford, for the sheer audacity of it. The Wolves midfielder, who looks set to depart this summer, nudged the ball into the 18-yard box and then looped a cheeky chip shot over Ben Foster and into the far corner.
BG I have been relentlessly pilloried for suggesting on Football Weekly that Ethan Pinnock’s tap-in for Brentford against Liverpool in September would be among the goals of the season but it ended a wonderfully clever training-ground move from a free-kick against one of the league’s best defences in one of the games of the season, so I’m sticking to my guns.
DHa Salah, Liverpool v Man City. A blur of skill, speed composure and chutzpah, in the best game of the season.
AH Salah v Manchester City. He must have been the only person inside Anfield who thought a goal was possible when receiving the ball from Curtis Jones. Astonishing belief and technique.
DHy No contest this season – it is Salah v City.
JJ Rodri versus Aston Villa. His seventh of the term is given the vote because of how vital it was and how unlikely the scorer was. City had been reeling at 2-0 down before Gündogan pulled one back with 14 minutes left. One hundred and twenty seconds later came the sweetest of long-range finishes, Rodri somehow threading the ball beyond Robin Olsen. It was an equaliser that told the rest of the Spaniard’s team, the Etihad Stadium and Liverpool who would take the crown.
JL Not Premier League but Bersant Celina for Ipswich v Crewe in November. Controls a long ball with his laces, immediately chips the keeper from 25 yards. It’s pretty good.
SN Salah v Manchester City. The turn away from Cancelo, the skip past Silva, the twisting of Laporte and, finally, the unstoppable finish past Ederson – what Salah did against City in October was as beautiful as it was jaw-dropping. No other goal came close … except perhaps the remarkably similar one Salah scored against Watford 13 days later.
BR Manuel Lanzini’s lay-up volley against Crystal Palace. One of those moments where you see suddenly that elite footballers at that level are just wired differently.
JS I have a weakness for a left-footed winger cutting in from the right, dribbling past a load of defenders and finishing off the move with a stunning finish. So it will have to be Salah’s goal against City at Anfield.
WU Bernardo Silva v Aston Villa. It would be hard to find a better technical finish. A superb first-time side-foot volley into the top corner.
NA Choosing strictly from games I covered: Watford 4-1 Manchester United, back in November. Weirdly, I never seem to catch a bad game at Vicarage Road. This one was rattling good fun throughout, Watford running all over an awful United but almost being pulled back before two late goals that confirmed the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign. For the briefest of moments it seemed Claudio Ranieri might, by contrast, be feted for his contribution to the Hornets.
GB Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City. You won’t see many better second halves. It was evident then that the two sides were head and shoulders above the rest. A thriller of the highest quality.
JB Everton 3-2 Crystal Palace. Never mind the quality of the top two, feel the chaos of a team playing for their lives. How did Frank Lampard engineer Everton’s escape? Nobody can be quite sure but a return to 1990s Dogs of War values had something to do with it.
MB Sunday’s game at the Etihad was OK, I guess.
BF How things unravelled on the final day at the Etihad Stadium takes some beating. Otherwise, Brentford’s opener against Arsenal under the lights.
BG Brentford 3-3 Liverpool demonstrated the fearlessness of the newly promoted Bees during a match in which Frank’s side threw the kitchen sink at their exalted visitors.
DHa Liverpool 2-2 Man City. Great tempo, loads at stake and the highest standard of football we saw, by far.
AH Everton 3 Crystal Palace 2 The atmosphere, the comeback and the stakes combined to make this one of the great nights at Goodison Park. A special place that will be sorely missed when it’s gone.
DHy Liverpool 2-2 Man City. The return fixture at the Etihad, which finished the same way, was written up in some quarters as the greatest game of all time. It was not even the best between the clubs this season. The Anfield showdown had it all (apart from a winner): the goal of the season, individual excellence, mesmeric skill, gutsy fightbacks and drama until the last.
JJ Manchester City 2-2 Liverpool 2. Wowee. This may be the finest contest witnessed by this writer for encompassing two supremely matched foes with Nth-degree technical and creative abilities. The two sides occupy a different plane to their domestic rivals.
JL Leicester 2-3 Tottenham. Everyone remembers the two late goals, but a superb encounter throughout, with rousing displays from James Maddison and Kane.
SN Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City. The two best sides delivered the two most high-quality games, the one at Anfield the pick of the pair. City were incredible in the first half but Liverpool hung in and made it a thrilling tussle in the second half, during which four goals were scored, including Salah’s one of stunning skill and composure.
BR Manchester City 3-2 Aston Villa. Are you not entertained?
JS The barmiest game I attended was easily Brentford’s thrashing of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It seemed like a routine afternoon after Antonio Rüdiger finally ended his ridiculous quest for a long-range goal. Then Brentford came roaring back. Ivan Toney was inspired up front and there was the fairytale of Eriksen scoring his first goal back in the Premier League. Chelsea were stunned. It was the start of their post-sanctions blip.
WU Burnley 3-2 Everton. The stakes were so high and the Clarets turned the game around. Turf Moor was rocking and it brought hope that Burnley could stay up.
NA Brentford’s flying start was a fading memory by late February. They could hardly stop losing and, make no mistake, were going down unless things turned around quickly. Enter Eriksen, the very fact of whose comeback was one of the season’s best stories. In the event Eriksen’s return offered much more than a feelgood glow: he was extraordinarily influential in his 10 starts, adding the craft and composure Brentford lacked. They only lost two of those games, sailed to survival and now sweat on retaining a player who is again sought by the big boys.
GB Marc Cucurella has been a revelation for Brighton after joining from Getafe for £15m. Skilful, fast and with wonderful passing ability, he has been a brilliant outlet at left-back and to impress in a mid-table team is no mean feat. No wonder Manchester City and Chelsea are interested.
JB Eriksen. It was a risk, and one taken only on careful medical advice, but beyond the romance of Eriksen all but coming back from the dead, he soon re-established himself as one of the best players in the Premier League.
MB Some players just kick a football differently, and Eriksen is one. Turned Brentford from efficient Moneyballers into something nice to look at, in a league they have no right to be in.
BF José Sá has been superb for Wolves, a snip at £7m from Olympiakos. Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher have been excellent for Crystal Palace and must have a good shot at going to the World Cup.
BG Bruno Guimarães took a while to bed in after his arrival at Newcastle in January but he has quickly established himself as a firm favourite of a rejuvenated fanbase that is brimful of optimism.
DHa Luis Díaz. Generally speaking, a 50% hit-rate on transfers is respectable, which is to say the game may never have seen a run of successes remotely comparable to Liverpool’s over the past few years. But even in that context Díaz is special, a bionic ball of aggression and brilliance, apparently formed from barbed wire.
AH Eriksen. The Denmark international would be a worthy winner purely on a football level as a free signing who lifted a Premier League newcomer out of trouble through sheer quality. Given what he went through before arriving at Brentford, Eriksen’s impact was nothing short of miraculous.
DHy Conte. Took over at Spurs with the team looking broken in eighth. Turbo-charged them to a Champions League return with 17 wins and five draws from 28 games.
JJ Dejan Kulusevski. Five goals in 18 league appearances since joining on loan from Juventus tells of why Conte is expected to make the 22-year-old winger a permanent Tottenham player. Shone when Spurs beat City 3-2 at the Etihad, scoring the opener.
JL Look, anyone could see Díaz was going to be a brilliant player. Cucurella, on the other hand, was a stunning find from Getafe, and one of Brighton’s players of the season.
SN Díaz. The Colombian wasn’t cheap at £37m but already looks excellent value for money. Fast, skilful, aggressive and hard-working, he has fit seamlessly into Klopp’s side and contributed greatly to their charge on all fronts, with four goals and three assists in 13 Premier League appearances alone. Put money on him to be the 2022-23 player of the season.
BR Mohammed Bin Salman.
JS Díaz couldn’t quite get Liverpool over the line but signing the dazzling Colombian winger for £37m was further evidence of their intelligence in the market. It helps to explain why Liverpool are ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United.
WU Eriksen. The Dane has been superb since joining Brentford, pulling the strings in midfield. Sometimes we just need a good-news story.
NA Manchester United’s wider environment has hardly been conducive to success but there was still much, much more expected of Jadon Sancho after his move from Borussia Dortmund. He is young and gifted enough to turn things around. Whatever the reasons and however suitable the fit, Romelu Lukaku also underperformed at Chelsea. And the Norwich sporting director, Stuart Webber, blotted his copybook badly, having done so much to abet their rise, by overseeing some poor recruitment and an inconsequential change of manager in a season that was supposed to see them consolidate but turned out abysmally.
GB Raphaël Varane. I know he’s had injury problems but for £34m I think Manchester United would have expected a bit more assurance from him when he has played.
JB Ralf Rangnick. The German’s reputation as an empire-builder, a Mr Fix It for ailing institutions, was mortally damaged by his inability to get any sort of tune out of Manchester United. The later weeks of his interim reign seemed to be spent defending that reputation.
MB West Ham’s Nikola Vlasic and Tottenham’s Bryan Gil deserve a mention but it’s difficult to look past Sancho as the standout candidate. In his defence, he does play for Manchester United.
BF A serial winner, Varane was supposed to bring some calm to the chaos at Manchester United but his signing hasn’t worked. Norwich can also lay claim to quite a few expensive mistakes.
BG To paraphrase Sheriff May in No Country For Old Men, if the version of Manchester United Erik ten Hag is taking over ain’t a mess, it’ll do til a mess gets there.
DHa Lukaku. Perhaps the worst finisher in the history of football to have scored as many goals as he has; there was no reason to think a brilliant season in Serie A had somehow improved the reliability of his touch.
AH Manchester United. A club hopelessly adrift and in desperate need of leadership on and off the pitch. The team’s performances were regularly shameful.
DHy No specific names here, rather the collective at Manchester United. An absolute shambles, starting at the very top.
JJ Rangnick. The club’s lowest Premier League points total (by six) of 58, a goal difference of zero, and Europa League football next season. What else is there to say?
JL Lukaku. It’s not just that he didn’t score. At his worst – not fully fit, not fully satisfied, not fully mobile – he seemed to gum up the whole machine.
SN Manchester United. In came Sancho and Varane, back came Cristiano Ronaldo, and with Ole at the wheel United were going to challenge for the title just like the old days. Instead they were a modern-day car crash that led to anger in the stands and Rangnick ageing 10 years in six months having been brought in as interim manager. A truly appalling season for the supposed biggest club in the world.
BR A five-way tie between Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and the entire concept, machinery and surviving infrastructure of “Manchester United”.
JS Lukaku is quite possibly going to go down as the biggest dud of the Roman Abramovich era. He cost £97.5m, he earns loads, he gave Sky that interview and he doesn’t fit Thomas Tuchel’s style. There’s no getting away from it: it’s been a total bust. After all who could have imagined that the final day of the season would feature Chelsea leaving Lukaku on the bench while Ross Barkley earned them a 2-1 win over Watford?
WU Manchester United. They’ve been terrible from top to bottom throughout the season. The managerial change has not worked and the players have embarrassed themselves. Things can only get better for them, surely?
NA The haste with which some clubs – and players – dashed to get into bed with shameless cryptocurrency and NFT companies, which monetise the concept of fan experience and offer the vast majority crumbs in exchange. The market is largely unregulated and the clubs in question are doing their fans a huge, potentially dangerous disservice: they should pull out of these deals straight away. Away from that, I’m still not having VAR.
GB The Premier League sanctioning the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle.
JB Crypto and NFTs. Who possibly could have predicted that John Terry’s NFT apes would end up being worth not much more than a box of Panini football stickers? Football’s taste for dirty cash continues to exceed itself.
MB Leading questions in post-match interviews. Was that a result that your side deserved? Am I wasting my time listening to this? The answer is nearly always yes, and the guilty party is normally someone holding a Sky microphone with a name that sort of rhymes with pet peeves.
BF The garish double-decker digital advertising hoardings that appear here to stay and, writing as one of the approximately one in 12 men who are colourblind, the lack of consideration when it comes to kit clashes. Shirt numbers are even harder to pick out and some games border on unwatchable.
BG The mental gymnastics and often comical whataboutery on social media of some Newcastle fans, who claim not to see any difference between a Saudi tyrant’s investment fund on the one hand taking ownership of their club and on the other buying shares in other businesses not steeped in more than a century of English football tradition.
DHa We must never be blithe enough to ignore the human-rights-abusing owners of Manchester City and Newcastle but to focus on the actual game, the travesty of timekeeping is its biggest problem – and one that could be easily solved. There is no connection between the time applied at the ends of halves and the time lost or wasted during them, nor any reason for the laws not to be clear and standardised: the clock should stop when play stops and be on display for everyone to see. How long is left and why that long is left should not be a secret known only by the officials.
AH FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley when there are no trains from the north-west to London – on an Easter weekend; “Please can I have your shirt?” signs; the expansion of the Champions League; the OK to Saudi Arabia; a World Cup in Qatar; yes, there are quite a few.
DHy The way that some clubs appeared to play fast and loose with the Covid rules to force postponements when it suited them.
JJ The “hilarious” one-upmanship of fans. Dressed up as “banter” and “knockabout” stuff this “my club is better than yours” discourse is one never-ending borefest.
JL Newcastle being bought by a murderous autocracy whose brutal war in Yemen has killed more than 90,000 people. It’s not really a gripe, as such.
SN The Premier League allowing a takeover of Newcastle to occur that Amnesty International described as “an extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders” and some of the club’s supporters reacting to it by dancing with towels on their heads outside St James’ Park and engaging in weapons-grade whataboutery on social media was a real low of the season. “Gripe” probably doesn’t cover it, to be honest.
BR The Premier League, while great to watch, is simultaneously eating every other league in world football by stripping those contests of any serious meaning, thereby creating the desire for the Super League model that will inevitably consume the Premier League itself in a cycle of mutual assured death by greed. Besides that, probably the phrase, “he’s going to the screen and we know what that means”.
JS Arsenal getting the north London derby called off when they had one Covid case. It felt like a cynical use of the rules, which are clearly not fit for purpose, but it ended up backfiring on Arteta’s side.
WU Cardboard signs asking for shirts – they are not cute. Go away. Although, if any professional footballer wants to send me a shirt, I do need a new one for five-a-side.