Report Card: Man City, Man Utd, Newcastle Utd, Stoke City & Sunderland

It's time for the third installment of FourFourTwo.com's Premier League report cards. Today we look at four teams who had a very good season, and one who did alright for six months or so... Our ratings are a reflection of pre-season expectations and the campaign as a whole - not just the Premier League.

Manchester CityLeague position: 3rd - W21 D8 L9 F60 A33 Pts71FA Cup: WinnersLeague Cup: Third RoundEuropa League: Last 16RATING: A

Having narrowly missed out on Champions League football a year ago, the task for Manchester City’s expensively-assembled squad was straightforward. So to have pipped Arsenal to third spot as well as ending the club’s 35-year wait for a trophy represents a job particularly well done for Roberto Mancini’s men.

The Blues’ lavish spending showed no signs of slowing two years on from Sheik Mansour’s acquisition of the club, with Mancini handed more than £100 million to bring in Yaya Toure, David Silva, James Milner, Mario Balotelli, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng.

But it was the ‘new’ arrival who had cost nothing, Joe Hart – back from a beneficial loan spell at Birmingham – who stole the show in City’s opening day stalemate at Spurs, with a midfield three comprising of Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong raising eyebrows among fans expecting flowing football from their galaxy of stars.

A 3-0 drubbing of Liverpool helped allay some of those fears, but the Blues continued to splutter in the early stages of the season, losing at Sunderland before being held at home by Blackburn.

However, victory over Chelsea at Eastlands reaffirmed their belief that they could mount a serious challenge at the top of the table, as back-to-back defeats to Arsenal and Wolves in October proved merely a blip as the Blues embarked on a run of just two losses in 16 league games from November to February.

A strong end to the campaign – winning seven of their final 10 matches – coupled with Arsenal’s implosion means that Mancini’s men won’t even have to negotiate what would likely have been a tricky two-legged play-off tie to reach the lucrative Champions League group stage.

City were able to make their home a fortress, losing just twice there all season and conceding 12 league goals – as many as champions Manchester United, although they netted 15 fewer than their neighbours on their own patch.

But the Blues were often left to rely on talisman Carlos Tevez – who scored 19 times in 25 games at one stage – as Mario Balotelli and particularly Edin Dzeko, a £27 million arrival from Wolfsburg in January, struggled to shine.

Whether or not the Argentine remains in Manchester this summer could prove pivotal to City’s hopes of continued progression both domestically and abroad next term, but even if he moves on Mancini will have the resources available to try and find an able replacement.

STAR MAN Yaya Toure. A defensive linchpin for Barcelona, the gangly Ivorian was allowed to advance further forward and scored an unlikely 12 goals, including two winners at Wembley to end City’s long wait for a trophy triumph

Words: Gregg Davies

 

Manchester UnitedLeague position: 1st, W23 D11 L4 F78 A37 80ptsFA Cup: Semi-finalistsLeague Cup: Quarter-finalistsChampions League: FinalistsRATING: A

So much is written about Manchester United that it's hard to avoid cliché. Everybody with a pulse will know that they've won their 19th league title. Any sentient football fan sentient a decade ago (or internet-connected this year) will know that this means Sir Alex Ferguson has finally and fully knocked Liverpool off their perch by overtaking the Anfield outfit's number of league titles – although in truth Liverpool have been down the pecking order for the thick end of the last two decades.

Liverpool fans will still wave their five-starred flags to celebrate their continental superiority. It's in some ways a quibbling caveat but it's important not just to the Merseysiders; while seldom neglecting to mop up trophies at home, Ferguson's main focus has long been Europe.

It's therefore interesting to ask what was behind his smile at the end of his side's latest final-hurdle humbling by Barcelona. As he strode onto the Wembley pitch to gracefully congratulate his vanquishers, Ferguson was beaming. Undoubtedly it masked his own disappointment, but perhaps it was genuine pleasure at the level of football he'd just witnessed, a domination that he will well recognise from his own side's march to their latest league triumph.

Those who claim this is a poor United side are simply professional quibblers. Ferguson shuffled his pack excellently, and their home record was quite simply astonishing. They won 26 of 29 games at Old Trafford, losing none, averaging well north of two goals per game. There are justified reasons for United fans to complain about ticket hikes, but poor performance isn't among them. 

United battered all visitors with a relentless fluidity they found harder to replicate on the road – Blackpool won as many league trips as the champions – but they only lost five times in 28 away games, and only the successive losses at Stamford Bridge and Anfield in early March will have really stung. (They were particularly obdurate in Europe, conceding just four goals in 12 games before the final.) 

The trips that hurt the most may have been the ones at neutral Wembley. Barcelona are obviously far in advance of all others, but losing the FA Cup Semi-Final to noisy neighbours Manchester City may have Ferguson checking the rear-view mirror. The Blues ended the season qualifying automatically for the Champions League and are certainly the coming force.

Wayne Rooney was absent in the FA Cup semi but by that time he could have been playing in blue. City's huge wealth hung over United like a fist during October's ugly contract-renegotiation shenanigans, when it looked like he might be making another controversial move. United made it worth his while to stay at the club but Ferguson will know he won't be given a wage budget to match City's. In replacing players like Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes and possibly Dimitar Berbatov and the creaking Rio Ferdinand, he'll have to find younger men whose hunger matches his own. It seems a tall order but few will back against him doing it.

STAR MAN Javier Hernandez. This was supposed to be the year he settled into England, but his boundless enthusiasm and Solskjaer-esque finishing saw him relegate record signing (and leading scorer) Berbatov to the bench. What's that about hungry young players?

Words: Gary Parkinson

 

Newcastle UnitedLeague position: 12th – W11 D13 L14 F56 A57 Pts 46FA Cup: Third RoundLeague Cup: Fourth RoundRATING: B-

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Newcastle fans have high expectations. But after a humbling relegation to the Championship, even the Toon Army were content with mid-table respectability in their return to the top flight.

Things didn’t look as positive after the graceless sacking of Chris Hughton in December. Faring adequately after a successful promotion season, the almost universally popular former Spurs No.2 found himself cut adrift after a largely inconsequential defeat to West Bromwich Albion. Yet, however unmerited, his dismissal and Alan Pardew’s subsequent appointment proved not to be disastrous.

Pardew led Newcastle to a more than respectable league finish; one that bordered on the miraculous once Andy Carroll was sold in the dying minutes of the January transfer window with no time to find an adequate replacement.

Bizarrely, Newcastle still scored plenty; their average of 1.47 goals per game was higher than any team besides Manchester City and the traditional Big Four.

Shola Ameobi, Peter Lovenkrands and Leon Best conspired to net 18 times between them, more than useful in the circumstances, while Kevin Nolan contributed 12 from midfield. Admittedly, Shefki Kuqi was an unneeded panic signing and Nile Ranger – he of the 23 sub appearances but only one start (and no goals either) – could only look threatening when holding a gun, but things could have been significantly worse.

There were also losses at the other end to be dealt with, with regular No.1 Steve Harper injured for much of the season. Though there would be no harm in firming up the defence with a small portion of that £35 million ‘replacement for Carroll’ kitty, Jose Enrique and a revitalised Fabricio Coloccini put in assured performances, the former doing enough to stir links with Liverpool.

Joey Barton vastly matured - when he wasn’t declaring himself the country’s best midfielder since Stanley Slicedbread, and Hatem Ben Arfa looked a quality signing before his season was cut brutally short. Cheik Tiote, too, was superb when he wasn’t jaundiced, his Premier League record-equalling total of 14 yellow cards helping Newcastle to a league-topping tally of bookings.

There was the odd embarrassment: namely, four-goal defeats to Stoke and Bolton, not to mention five bookings in the opening five games for James Perch, woefully out of his depth, and the fact they paid Sol Campbell a wage for a year only for the veteran defender to play less than nine hours of competitive football. But an especially enjoyable 5-1 demolition of fierce rivals Sunderland, plus an ego-boosting 6-0 thrashing of Aston Villa and that legendary made-for-DVD comeback against Arsenal, won’t be forgotten.

And with ready money to spend after some shrewd business acumen / sheer bloody luck over the Carroll transfer, next year could be even better.

STAR MAN Kevin Nolan – his leadership was crucial during the rockier periods, and at times he looked to be Newcastle’s only goal threat

Words: Huw Davies

 

Stoke CityLeague position: 13th - W13 D7 L18 F46 A48 Pts46FA Cup: Runners-upLeague Cup: Fourth roundRATING: B+

Although ending the season in 13th place in the Premier League represented Stoke’s worst finish since their return to the ‘big time’ in 2008, this season was almost certainly the most successful the club has enjoyed since the mid-70s.

This was, of course, thanks to the Potters’ run to the first FA Cup Final of their 148-year history. And while they didn’t have to overcome any of the big guns to get there, their path was not the most straightforward. They faced tricky-looking trips to Cardiff and Wolves, followed by a quarter-final tie with a West Ham side who at that point, for once, were actually in form.

With those hurdles successfully cleared, Bolton lay in wait in the Wembley semi-final. Most pundits were predicting a closely-fought match between two groups of players desperate for a rare shot at glory, yet it would ultimately prove to be the most one-sided FA Cup semi since 1939. A masterful display caught everybody - not least a shell-shocked Bolton - by surprise. The 5-0 score-line was a fair reflection of the gulf between the two teams on the day, and the performance did a lot to dispel a few common and startlingly persistent misconceptions about this Stoke side.

Despite the perceived wisdom that they are solely a ‘long ball’ side reliant on set-pieces, the Potters’ two key players - both in the semi-final and over the course of the season - have been fleet-footed, technically-gifted wingers. With Jermaine Pennant working the right flank and Matthew Etherington bombing down the left, Tony Pulis’ side have added an extra dimension to their play. As Stoke fans are quick to point out with their ironic chants, they no longer only score from throw-ins.

This made it all the more baffling that they appeared to revert to type in the final against Manchester City, creating little from open play and rarely giving the opposition defence much to think about as they were defeated 1-0 thanks to a second half goal from Yaya Toure.

Despite the defeat, the Potters won a place in next season’s Europa League, meaning they will play in competitive European competition for the first time in over 30 years. Who knows, should the unlikely happen and Barcelona finish third place in their Champions League group, we could be about to see whether Messi and co. really could do it on a wet and windy midweek evening at the Britannia…

STAR MAN Matthew Etherington. The Cornish wide-man just edges out Pennant. The biggest shame was that he wasn’t fully fit for the FA Cup Final.

Words: James Maw

 

SUNDERLANDLeague position: 10th - W12 D11 L15 F45 A56 47ptsFA Cup: Third RoundLeague Cup: Third RoundRATING: C

When Sunderland sold Darren Bent to Aston Villa in mid-January, wise men said that it was a good deal for the Mackems. Bent had submitted a transfer request, £18 million (and rising) was a good price, there was time to sign a replacement and Steve Bruce had other options already on board anyway.

Wise men were wrong. Although Sunderland won their next game (at Blackpool), they got one point from the next 27, plummeting from Europe-chasing sixth place to just five points above the drop zone.

At the heart of the bad run was a lack of goals. Asamoah Gyan had purple patches but also went six weeks without scoring on three separate occasions, Manchester United loanee Danny Welbeck seemed the heir apparent to Bent but missed swathes of the season through injury, while Fraizer Campbell also spent almost all the season on the treatment table.

While Bent banged in nine in 16 games for Villa (and two in two for England), over the season only Wigan, Birmingham and West Ham scored fewer league goals than Sunderland's 45 – and that figure would have been much lower without the four against Wigan and three against Blackburn, West Ham and Chelsea away.

That last game was perhaps the result of the season, although Newcastle will point with glee to a 5-1 derby win at St James' Park. Sunderland got a soupçon of schadenfreude in revenge when Gyan's 94th-minute leveller denied the neighbours a double, and the Mackems nipped above the Mags on the last day to retain local bragging rights.

The question is whether that's enough for Sunderland. Their fans will tell you all day that they're a huge club, and with a billionaire chairman and a famous manager they should be aiming higher than parochial one-upmanship. A cup run wouldn't go amiss either: their fans watched them limp out of the League Cup at the second hurdle to West Ham and embarrass themselves in the FA Cup Third Round against third-tier Notts County.

Bruce will say he's taking the club in the right direction âÂ
“ their finishing position of 10th was their best in a decade – but they need to be chasing a top-eight place as a matter of course rather than an occasional fancy. One of the most hurtful things about Bent's move was that at the time Villa were 11 places below Sunderland, yet still perceived by many (including Bent) to be a bigger club. Bruce needs more consistency and determination from his men to prove Bent wrong.

STAR MAN Phil Bardsley The right-back would happily have joined Blackpool last summer if they'd matched his wages. Instead he buckled down, playing at left-back when necessary, and broke into the Scotland set-up. Sunderland need more like him.

Words: Gary Parkinson

Report Card: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Blackburn & Blackpool Report Card: Bolton, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham & LiverpoolReport Card: Tottenham, West Brom, West Ham, Wigan & Wolves

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