FourFourTwo's Premier League power rankings 2015/16: YOUR team rated
20. Aston Villa
This is what complete failure looks like. Villa’s pre-season recruitment strategy hinted as to what 2015/16 would be and, true to their intentions, they have produced a middle-finger of a campaign which has stretched their supporters' loyalty up to and beyond the elastic limit.
The on-pitch performances were what they were and would be enough to secure last place on this list, but it's the tales of background dysfunction which have nailed it: the eye-opening revelations concerning the scouting department, the appointment and January betrayal of Remi Garde and, as a final inglorious flourish, the resignation of David Bernstein and Lord King from the board.
Over the past decade, Aston Villa have been shaped to fail and so it's hard to make a case against them being one of the most righteous relegations in Premier League history. The supporters have all our sympathy, but those in authority deserve none: they finally got what has been coming to them.
Chelsea are afflicted by a temporary malaise rather than a full-scale, permanent decline. Roman Abramovich's wealth will presumably correct their trajectory, but this season showed them at their ugliest.
Jose Mourinho and his constructed tension have a habit of creating fractures, but reports suggest that many of his players were complicit in forcefully widening those cracks – and isn't that the realisation of one of the great fears about modern football? Millionaire players whose commitment is mood-dependent and who have no obvious dedication to the shirt on their backs...
Performances improved for Guus Hiddink and Chelsea put together an impressive unbeaten sequence under the likeable Dutchman, but that really only served to emphasise how unnecessarily disappointing this year has been. The late, artificial effort against Tottenham showed the current squad at both their best and worst: powerful and talented enough to rescue a point against a challenging team, but disconnected in a way which betrayed their collective ‘when it suits’ attitude.
Too little, too late – and that doesn't just refer to this season. The delay in replacing Steve McClaren cost Rafa Benitez any realistic chance of saving the club from relegation, but Newcastle are a victim of their own culture as much as their tentative decision-making.
Mike Ashley may have invested heavily last summer, but that followed years of inertia during which sell-on values and commercial revenue had been prioritised ahead of on-pitch performance. St James' Park became the preferred destination for players who wanted to earn moves to more successful clubs and, over the long-term, that cost the squad its soul.
As Jamaal Lascelles memorably observed after being sent off at Everton, “no one gives a f***” – and he was right: up until these last desperate weeks, the collective attitude has been far short of what it should have been.
Newcastle weren't relegated solely because of McClaren or any single player, but because they have been disrespecting the unwritten rules of survival for far too long. This year, they paid for that. Lee Charnley needn't bother with that end-of-season evaluation – he should just resign and, in so doing, help to create the conditions for Benitez to stay.
A catastrophe of a season and a year during which all the concerns about Roberto Martinez were realised. The asterisk against the Spaniard has always concerned his inability to organise a defence and, reliably, he made Everton perilously fragile.
Talented centre-backs became national laughing stocks under him and the one commodity he inherited from David Moyes – rugged resilience – quickly became a distant memory.
Martinez is a wholly decent man, but the recent losses to Liverpool, Sunderland and Leicester were bordering on shameful and amplified the acrimony which rightly cost him his job. He had a gifted squad loaded with young, impressionable attacking talent and yet all he really succeeded in doing is giving that nucleus an excuse to leave.
16. Crystal Palace
An upcoming FA Cup final appearance clouds the issue, but 2016 at Selhurst Park has been very limp. Having won eight games before the turn of the year, Palace would – as is their manager's unwanted trademark – suffer a disastrous slump and slide lifelessly towards the relegation places.
Should they beat Manchester United at Wembley then that league performance will likely be overlooked and Alan Pardew will be forgiven but, given the talent available at Selhurst Park, some mandatory introspection needs to take place over the summer. The cup is a nice day out, but the league is their future.
They may be an unfashionable club playing in a restricting ground, but they boast two of the more talented attacking players in the country, a France international in holding midfield, and two better-than-average centre-halves. They must do better.
15. Manchester United
They have been the dullest club in English football, on the field and away from it.
Sir Alex Ferguson's final years are often subject to revisionism and weren't always a pleasure to watch, but under Louis van Gaal the club have become a stale side specialising in purposeless ball-retention.
Marcus Rashford's emergence has been fun and Anthony Martial will inevitably become a very fine player but, rather than 38 individual games, their season has more often seemed like one long, torturously unwatchable sequence.
In the boardroom, they look increasingly muddled. The cringeworthy fascination with unobtainable attacking talent has subsided over the past few months, but there's still little evidence of any cohesive direction. The summer will be long and, presumably, full of Neymar-themed terrors, but this must be the window during which United revert to being a club of action rather than innuendo.
More positively, though, an enormous, record-setting profit was made. Brilliant – who needs goals and good football?
Alex Neil was obviously humbled by relegation and probably directed far too much of the blame onto himself. The Scot may well have made mistakes and some of his naiveties probably were exposed, but he was also the victim of bad luck and, actually, of circumstance.
The loss of Timm Klose to injury in April was a cruel blow at absolutely the wrong time, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Norwich's squad was never quite good enough to survive. Sunderland and Newcastle were both equipped with more talent and, with the exception of Aston Villa and perhaps Bournemouth, so was every other side in the division.
Neil will learn from this year and be a better manager for it, but as and when another chance presents itself at this level, Norwich as a club need to find a better balance between ambition and restraint. They're theoretically good enough to bounce straight out of the Championship next season, but whoever is appointed as chief exec David McNally's successor will need to lead a collective re-think if they do.
13. West Brom
Without meaning to belittle them, maybe West Brom's survival is an indication of how weak the league has been this year. That sounds harsh – until you realise that Tony Pulis hasn't won a game since the first week of March.
Yes, this season has been fine in the sense that basic objectives have been met, but only because those objectives were so low to begin with. The Saido Berahino melodrama caused some unwanted ripples and provides some mitigation, but Pulis is barely making managerial par.
Over a third of West Brom's goals have come from set-pieces and only Aston Villa have averaged fewer shots per game; in exactly half their league games, the Baggies had two or fewer shots on target. It's been that kind of season and, for neutrals, it's been very hard to care. Never has victory felt more like defeat.
In recent seasons, Sunderland have created their own little tradition: they struggle listlessly for six months and then, from nowhere, miraculously escape relegation through a series of improbable results. Superficially, 2015/16 was a continuation of that but this time, under Sam Allardyce, there's a tease of future progress rather than just another desperate struggle.
The great weakness at the Stadium of Light has traditionally been recruitment, and bucking that trend has perhaps been Allardyce's biggest achievement. The signings of Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff in January provided outstanding value and Wahbi Khazri added some much-needed pep to a dull attack. Jermain Defoe's rebirth was obviously vital, but attributing the club's survival to anything other than a collective improvement would be reductive.
Allardyce has brought in better players, certainly, but also an additional layer of discipline which made Sunderland far harder to beat. After losing every game they played in December, they accumulated 27 points in 2016 alone; irrespective of how likeable or self-regarding their manager is, that's a mightily impressive statistic given the dysfunction which preceded his arrival.
Repeat, repeat and repeat again. The familiar group of derisory platitudes are being aimed at Arsenal once again and not without due cause.
It's cliched to pelt this team with accusations of emotional fragility but it's impossible to ignore the familiarly bizarre results which undermined their challenge: losing 4-0 to Southampton, being defeated by an understaffed Manchester United, dropping points to West Brom, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, and even managing to lose twice to a listless Chelsea team.
They did finish the season well enough to secure second place and extend their superiority over Tottenham but, tellingly, Arsenal only started to improve once the possibility of actually winning the league had vanished – and that’s an all-too-common scenario.
Qualifying for the Champions League again is not an insignificant achievement but, troublingly, Arsenal have become far too tolerant of failure and much too eager to celebrate a superficial type of success. This year wasn't as bad as the lunatic fringe of the fanbase claimed, but it presented no evidence that anything is really being learned from all these near misses. In fact, it seems a virtual certainty that, come May 2017, the club will have been undermined by all the same onfield shortcomings.
Defensive problems, an under-staffed midfield and an unreliable goalscorer? It's as predictable as the sun rising in the morning and, even for Wenger's apologists, it must be incredibly frustrating.
10. Manchester City
Not a disaster, because their final-day draw with Swansea kept them inside the top four and they did take part in a Champions League semi-final, but it has been hugely underwhelming – and not for the reasons assumed.
While it has been accepted that the Pellegrini/Guardiola announcement infected the squad with apathy, that's probably a simplification. City's campaign was the product of not only a cyclical decline, but recruitment errors which were made long before this season began; they have been reliant on the same core of players for five years now.
True, had Kevin De Bruyne not suffered a long-term injury, some of those imperfections wouldn't have been as visible, but as it was the side were victims of their own ageing nucleus.
Vincent Kompany has creaked all year and Yaya Toure is slipping into sharp physical decline. Even David Silva seems a step slower than he once was. Add the vulnerable full-backs, the temporary centre-half partnerships and the midfield balance issues to those problems and that provides a far more convincing explanation for this season. The hinge point between two eras can often be awkward and this one often was.
Once they escaped the bottom three's gravitational pull, the world stopped paying attention to Swansea and will have missed their quiet creep up into mid-table.
Given where they were and the problems with which they were afflicted during Garry Monk's final days, Francesco Guidolin has done a fairly spectacular coaching job. In spite of limited time, minimal investment and his own poor health, the Italian managed to cure the team's underlying fragility and, since the humiliating defeat at Oxford and humbling loss at the Liberty Stadium from Sunderland, Swansea have knocked over Arsenal and Everton on the road and beaten Liverpool and Chelsea in South Wales.
Credit to the Italian for that, but also to Huw Jenkins for recognising, after an exhaustive, confusing search, what his club needed from Monk's replacement. As often seems to be the Swansea way, cool heads prevailed and the right decision was made at the right time.
Quique Sanchez Flores will not return next season, but that seems to be more a reflection on Watford than the man himself. The system favoured by the Pozzo family appears to rely on short, frequent shocks, high personnel turnover and a well-channelled reaction.
Flores oversaw a decline in the second half of the season but, having adjusted to a different level of the game and having never been under serious threat of relegation, that was forgivable. He still managed to create one of the better defences in the league in a very short space of time, elevated the reputations of half-a-dozen players, and took the club to an FA Cup semi-final.
A very solid first season and a worthy addition to the league.
OK, so they badly ran out of steam towards the end of the season and that reflects poorly in their league placing, but Mark Hughes has evolved Stoke well beyond their old associations.
By maintaining the defensive ethos he inherited and loading the top of his formation with flair, he has preserved the old resilience and embellished it with a diverse attacking threat. The reliance on wingers and physical forwards is gone; in their place, a cluster of offensive players who can beat opponents off either foot and change the score in all manner of ways.
In time, the January addition of Gianni Imbula will also prove to be a great success and, if Hughes is backed again in the summer transfer window, European football will be back at the soon-to-be-named Bet365 Stadium.
The Europa League final aside, maybe Jurgen Klopp's arrival has been more of a stylistic success than anything else. Liverpool have enjoyed impressive wins (Manchester City, Chelsea) and tangible, sustained progress seems to be on the horizon, but Klopp appears to have transformed the attitude in the team and within the Anfield stands.
His is a bold team full of energy and intent on playing the game in an aggressive, attractive way and, since Brendan Rodgers' sacking, many of the players seem to have been infected with the German's vivacity.
Klopp's performance needs contextualising, too: he has been without Jordan Henderson for a significant part of the season, is lumbered with an imperfect defence, and inherited a goalkeeper who breeds panic. If his success doesn't quite show in the league table, then it does in the swelling momentum on Merseyside.
Having breached the survival threshold some time ago, Bournemouth rather collapsed on the finishing line: three straight wins in March (over Southampton, Newcastle and Swansea) essentially guaranteed them a second top-flight season and, since then, the air has rather come out of the balloon.
But that's fine. Given the misfortune which befell Eddie Howe at the beginning of the season – losing Callum Wilson, Max Gradel, Tyrone Mings and Tommy Elphick to long-term injuries – the Cherries have achieved something really significant. Howe is unquestionably one of the brightest English managers in the game; that his team have relied upon players who have been coached beyond their assumed abilities is testament to that.
Any finish above 18th was going to be considered a success and so, in spite of their laboured ending, Bournemouth deserve to be applauded from the stage. Once that big broadcasting payment hits their account they really must strengthen, and it will be fascinating to see what Howe is capable of cooking with richer ingredients.
A really odd season, full of contradictory sequences and anomalous results. On Boxing Day, and having been winless since early November, Ronaldo Koeman's side found time to dismantle Arsenal at St Mary's and then, following successive defeats to West Ham, Norwich and Crystal Palace, embarked on a month-long unbeaten run in early 2016 during which they didn't concede a single goal.
So, it's been strange. But viewed another way, it's been the perfect depiction of Koeman's abilities. Denied key players for much of the first half of the season and with several new components in important positions, he transformed a creaking team into one of the division's most resilient and most disciplined.
2014/15 was a roaring success and a defiance of the armies of Cortese, but 2015/16 has been further evidence of exactly why Les Reed spent so long recruiting Koeman: give him players and he'll build you a team. At Feyenoord he coached his way around financial dysfunction and limited recruitment, and at Southampton he is yet to meet a problem which he can't solve on the training ground.
3. West Ham
"Be careful what you wish for" was the message from the cabal of Allardyce loyalists last season; "don't worry, the bar was fairly low" has been Slaven Bilic's implied response.
Grinding pragmatism has been replaced by flowing flair and West Ham have won hearts and minds all over the division.
Dimitri Payet has been a genuine star of the league and was supported by a cast of players capable of approaching games in more than just one way. Footballing Swiss army knife Michail Antonio has been a great success, Manuel Lanzini's dancing feet were frequently a delight, and Aaron Cresswell and Mark Noble are both unlucky they won't make the plane to France. Bilic's diversification has been an overwhelming triumph.
It finished in a terrible, terrible way, but once the final-day humiliation at Newcastle has been processed and all the memes have been exhausted, this season will be seen as a significant stride forward.
They were the challengers to the Leicester story and the nation enjoyed their demise and eventual collapse, but Spurs’ squad restrictions and congested fixture list probably exaggerated those failings. Champions League qualification was secured, Manchester City were beaten home and away, and the Manchester United dragon was finally slain at White Hart Lane.
Yes, they were hoping for more, but there isn't a Spurs fan who wouldn't have taken this back in August; recent embarrassments aside, the club has more momentum than at any other point during the Premier League era.
The failure to interrupt Arsenal's supremacy will grate for a while but, the last month aside, they've spent the season playing some of the best football in the country and restoring some much-needed pride. In all likelihood, their rivals are laughing hard now because they might not get much chance for mirth in the future.
A bit of summer investment and this team might really go somewhere.
They didn't just win the league, they won it by 10 points. Don't call it a fairy tale, because that does a disservice to Leicester's success.
Claudio Ranieri was humble enough to tailor his approach to his side's strengths and weaknesses and Leicester are, in essence, a victory for managerial realism. They have had their highlight performers: Jamie Vardy's goal return has been exceptional, Riyad Mahrez has become a star, and N'Golo Kante is now a phenomenon, but none of those players have been more valuable than their encasing structure.
They have been a glorious surprise – absolutely – and their feat may never be matched, but their success has also been strangely logical. Between their lightning-quick counter-attacking, their ability to block up the middle of the pitch and their full-backs' tendency to deny dangerous crossing angles, they've shown their working at every turn and are not to be reduced to an anomaly.
It was a miracle but, to pay them their dues, it actually wasn't.