Premier League roundtable: Assessing a season full of goals, asterisks and VAR rage

Oliver Kay, Carl Anka and more


The 2023-24 Premier League season concludes this afternoon.

Most people expect to see Manchester City crowned as English champions for the fourth year in a row, but Arsenal fans are hoping that two decades without a Premier League title ends today instead.

Elsewhere, the three promoted teams are heading straight back to the Championship unless Luton Town conjure up an extraordinary final game. Above them, Everton survived their points deduction(s) and Nottingham Forest should too but it was a sometimes messy season in which people became familiar with the concept of profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) and increasingly cross with the workings of the video assistant referee (VAR) system. There were leaking roofs, a record number of goals and Unai Emery leading Aston Villa to the Champions League.

Here, four of The Athletic’s writers offer their thoughts on another memorable campaign.


What was the most enjoyable moment of the season?

Oliver Kay: There have been so many entertaining games — 3-2s, 3-3s, 4-3s — but I can’t look beyond the 1-1 draw between Liverpool and Manchester City in March. It was chaotic in a way that top-of-the-table encounters rarely are and high quality in a way that most goal-fests are not. It was thrilling to witness. It felt like the moment the season peaked. And more generally, I’ve enjoyed Aston Villa’s resurgence.

Carl Anka: You’re not meant to attempt an overhead kick three minutes into a game. People are still finding their seats in the stadium. The TV broadcasts are still promoting QR codes and other graphics on the ticker. Not every player has touched the ball to switch on. It’s a little rude to try something that brilliant, that early on. To score with an overhead kick so early into a game is meant to be unfeasible. Impractical. Some might even describe it as gauche.

Yet in late November at Goodison Park in Everton’s first game since being awarded a points deduction, here was Alejandro Garnacho, the 19-year-old Manchester United forward, throwing himself into the air to score one of the greatest goals in Premier League history. He loses a few style points for celebrating his strike with a Cristiano Ronaldo “Siuuu” but what a goal. What a moment.


(Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

Nick Miller: That moment during the absurd Tottenham vs Chelsea game where, with nine men, Spurs were still playing with all eight outfield players essentially in the centre circle, and you realised there was no way they were going to shut up shop. That, or a couple of Arsenal’s late winners earlier in the season, before they turned into control merchants who bulldozed everyone: Declan Rice’s against Manchester United in particular, to the backdrop of dozens of fans leaving the ground because they thought United had won 2-1 and had missed Garnacho’s goal being disallowed, only to discover Arsenal had actually won 3-1

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Tottenham’s high line was mad, misguided – and so much fun

Tim Spiers: Football stadiums don’t really shake anymore, but then Goodison Park isn’t a stadium, it’s a ground. Since the turn of the century, Everton had beaten Liverpool on just five occasions (to their rivals’ 28 wins) and not at all at home in the previous 14 years. There was also Everton needing to preserve their Premier League status, wanting to end Liverpool’s title bid, their fierce, deep-seated local rivalry, Jurgen Klopp’s final visit to Goodison, anger, fury and injustice from two points deductions… all of that coursed into a sound so extraordinarily intense and impassioned that it caused the rustic old ground to shake.

At its best, Goodison generates a different kind of noise to your average Premier League arena. It is 38,000 people screaming into an empty tin can. Two-nil to Everton. “You lost the league at Goodison Park,” they sang over and over again as they danced and hugged and jumped around the tightly packed streets outside. A throwback, feral night in April.


(Michael Regan/Getty Images)

What was the worst thing about the 2023-24 Premier League season?

Carl Anka: A spate of injuries has seen so many players miss key points of the season. FIFPro, the footballers’ union, has been warning us about this scenario for years. Asking players to commit to a 38-game season at the Premier League’s frenetic pace is a difficult task. Asking them to do that after adding at least seven minutes of stoppage time onto almost every game is a further challenge. Add to that cup games and international duties, and the cumulative effects of so many seasons played in quick succession after Project Restart… is it any wonder players are beginning to break down?

Everyone agrees that there are too many games in the football calendar, but no one can agree on which games should be removed so everyone can catch a breather.

It’s also been uncomfortable watching the frequent spikes in bigotry and abusive behaviour (both online and in real life) continue to plague the game. A remixed design of the St Georges’s cross should not have sparked the tawdry conversation it did.

Oliver Kay: The mess at Everton. I’m talking less about the points deductions than the reckless, unsustainable spending that meant they were heading for trouble longer before the sanctions hit. I’m talking about Farhad Moshiri’s persistent attempts — in the face of so many red flags — to sell the club to 777 Partners. And I’m talking about the ongoing threat to the club’s future unless, after six months of Moshiri/777-induced limbo, they can find someone to undo the horrible mess of the last eight years.

Whatever the fans’ frustrations with the Premier League, several of which I share, there should be some realisation that if this had happened a decade ago, Everton would have gone the same way Portsmouth did — and the 777 takeover would have been waved through with a smile. The Everton mess is a perfect illustration of why football needs more regulation, not less.

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Nick Miller: When Liverpool started dropping points in April, having dangled the rare dream of a genuine three-way title race — that was quite annoying.

Tim Spiers: I hesitate to bring it up really because you’re all sick of reading about it and I’m sick of writing about it, but VAR — both the incessant discourse around it and the seeming ineptitude of those running it — is utterly wearisome and soul destroying. After five full seasons, the delays don’t feel any shorter, the decisions don’t feel more accurate and the frustration of supporters, players, managers and owners seems to have increased this year, not lessened. Eradicating a few howlers does not feel worth it for the anger and confusion VAR creates, nor the joy it takes away.


Wolves supporters: not fans of VAR (David Rogers/Getty Images)

What was the silliest decision by a club this season?

Nick Miller: Manchester United thinking they could reintegrate Mason Greenwood into the first team, seemingly assuming that everyone would just be cool with it and there wouldn’t be too many problems. Nope.

Oliver Kay: Again, I would look at Moshiri and his attempts to sell Everton to 777 — but a) it’s a lot more serious than “silly” and b) it’s an owner decision, not a club decision.

That’s the thing. Owners dictate everything these days. Without wishing to sound like an old man shouting at clouds, I do miss the days when clubs’ values and fortunes were shaped largely by their players and their managers rather than by the wealth and whims of their owners. I preferred it when Nottingham Forest, for example, were Brian Clough FC rather than Evangelos Marinakis FC.

Carl Anka: Hanlon’s razor is about never assuming malice in situations where incompetence will do. Howard Webb’s desire to make the workings of PGMOL, the body that oversees professional referees, more transparent was a noble (if misguided) attempt at reminding football fans that referees are human just like you, that they sometimes make mistakes and that fans should give them grace and patience. Instead, we got a huge increase in conspiracy theories and allegations of refereeing bias, culminating in a stunning tweet from Nottingham Forest after their 2-0 defeat to Everton.

“VAR is a Luton fan” is a sentence now burned into the footballing part of my brain.

Tim Spiers: It is generally quite difficult to get excited about Burnley, but with Vincent Kompany in charge of a team that played gorgeous football in the Championship on the way to winning the title with 101 points, there was something to be genuinely intrigued about. Some idiots (hi) even predicted they could trouble the top half of the table.
Kompany knows his business better than I ever will, but dismantling that hugely successful team — their opening match of this season featured six new signings — felt quite silly.


Burnley had some tough moments in 2023-24 (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

How will the final day play out?

Carl Anka: You remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where an extravagant assailant confronts Indiana Jones so he simply pulls out his gun and shoots him? Manchester City are Indiana Jones.

Nick Miller: Arsenal will go 2-0 up inside 20 minutes and spend the rest of the game fretting. Manchester City will be weirdly nervous and it will be 0-0 at half-time. West Ham United will score after 47 minutes, everyone will panic. City will then equalise on 70 minutes but the game will end 1-1. Arsenal then concede two quick goals to Everton, draw 2-2 and realise they have blown their chance. Sean Dyche will cackle himself unconscious on the touchline.

Oliver Kay: I’ll cut straight to the final whistle. A celebratory pitch invasion at the Etihad Stadium, sky-blue ticker tape, Premier League officials — but not chief executive Richard Masters — looking incredibly awkward at the trophy presentation. And an overwhelming and justified sense of pride at Arsenal, along with unspoken feelings of “If not now, when?”

Tim Spiers: Manchester City to go 2-0 up inside 10 minutes. Cut to the two security guards at the end of The Truman Show. “What else is on?”


Where would you rank 2023-24 in the pantheon of Premier League seasons?

Oliver Kay: In terms of the quality-versus-entertainment equation, this season scores well: unpredictable, with goals galore and a title race that has gone all the way to the final day. But I’ve sometimes been left with the feeling that the standard hasn’t been quite where it should be, given the financial resources and the playing and coaching talent within the league. It’s a familiar feeling and it’s probably wrong, as I highlighted here back in 2020. But with the resources the Premier League clubs have, the standard could — and should — be even higher.

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Tim Spiers: If Liverpool had kept their title challenge going until the final day it probably would have gone down as one of the great Premier League seasons. Instead, it’ll mostly be remembered for goals. Lots of goals.

The main protagonists Manchester City have been a level below their sumptuous best for most of the season, and Arsenal have often chosen control over adventure, so it’s not been a vintage year for quality — but on the whole, it has been extremely enjoyable, largely thanks to the generous football circuses of Manchester United and Chelsea.

Carl Anka: At the start of April, I wrote about how this season had descended into playground football and it has smashed the competition’s goals-per-game record, as well as seeing a record number of 3-2 wins. Every season since Project Restart has had some sort of odd occurrence that means you can decry it as “non-canon”, but 2023-24 truly has been a silly, sugary mess. Fun for the neutral, agony when your team fails to defend a 2-0 lead. Call it a top five for entertainment but only top 15 for the more nebulous concept of ‘footballing quality’.

Nick Miller: Pretty low. I don’t know if this is just me getting old, but I’ve found the whole thing pretty punishing. There has been some really good football at times and those few weeks where we thought there was going to be a three-way title race were fun, but the constant complaining about referees that has now given way to conspiracy theories is just so tedious and draining. Everyone just seems very angry all the time… I think I’m going soft.


Who is your player of the season?

Carl Anka: Martin Odegaard is a wonderful reminder that classic playmakers aren’t dead. They’ve just been remixed and now press relentlessly when out of possession. The Arsenal captain is blessed with a painter’s eye, a drummer’s timing and a boxer’s sense of how to devastate an opponent. His superb combination of skill, balance and drive means he often finds an extra half-second in and around a box to play a final ball that defenders cannot predict. He has a pleasingly consistent goal catalogue too. There are few players in Europe who are better at striking the ball home from the edge of the box. He is a joy to watch.


(Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

Nick Miller: If you’re measuring it by the impact they’ve had on their team, it’s either Cole Palmer or Rice, but if you’re measuring it by the player I like to watch the most, it’s Odegaard. There’s a simple elegance to everything he does, which is generally what you say about a player who was brilliant in the 1970s but could never hack the pace of today’s game, but he somehow manages to make everything around him slow down. They’re different types of players, but he’s similar in that respect to Luka Modric.

Tim Spiers: Sometimes the player of the year is blindingly obvious but this season, you could make a case for four or five players; Rodri, Phil Foden, Palmer, Odegaard and Ollie Watkins. But then Rice has been outstanding. Erling Haaland has scored 27 goals in 30 league games for crying out loud and no one is talking about him for this award. For his age (22) and inexperience and the ineptitude of those around him, it’s Palmer.

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Oliver Kay: I voted for Phil Foden and I’m happy with that choice because he’s a player I’ve loved watching since I first saw him in Manchester City’s under-17s and it’s been wonderful to see his talent flourish the way it has. But I would also very happily make a case for Rodri, who is horribly under-appreciated in these conversations, Watkins and several players from Arsenal.


Who or what is your biggest disappointment of 2023-24?

Nick Miller: The three promoted clubs going down so meekly was theoretically disappointing, but I didn’t expect much more from them. Ivan Toney’s form over the last few months has been pretty disappointing — four goals in his first five games after his ban, then nothing for Brentford since the middle of February.

More broadly, it would be clubs raising ticket prices by astonishing amounts, then justifying it all by shrugging and saying things like, “Revenue streams are more important than ever to compete”, implying that if you as a fan don’t doff your cap and shovel more of your money into their hands, you’re harming the team.

Oliver Kay: Disappointed for or disappointed by? I was disappointed by Manchester United and Chelsea, but it’s hard to be disappointed for them when their struggles are largely self-inflicted. Who was I disappointed for? Rob Edwards and his Luton Town team, who gave it everything but found that the financial divide was impossible to overcome. And I’ll be disappointed for Arsenal if, as I suspect, they don’t win the title.


(Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

Tim Spiers: For Manchester United to regress from third to eighth with a goal difference of -3 going into the final day — despite a net spend of £124million ($158m) — is pretty wild. Certain players, including Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount and Antony, have been a huge disappointment, as has manager Erik ten Hag. It’s not all his fault and it appears that he has a toxic dressing room to manage, but how anyone can look at his tactics, his man management and his record and say he’s worth persevering with is beyond me.

Carl Anka: Manchester Un…

No, no I’ll instead focus on the travails of the three promoted clubs. The last time all three promoted teams were immediately relegated was in the 1997-98 season, with Crystal Palace, Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers. Sheffield United have spent much of this season going through the motions before their inevitable demise. Burnley served as another example of the difficulties you can have when you go from dominating possession in the Championship every week to being on the back foot in the Premier League, while Luton Town ran a lot of the big teams close but fell apart after the 80th minute in too many games.

It’s rude to say we expected more, but their travails are a concerning illustration of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the top flight.


Who is your favourite breakthrough player?

Oliver Kay: There are honourable mentions to be made elsewhere, but it’s obviously Palmer, isn’t it? I went from thinking, “Let’s not go overboard. Most of his goals have been penalties,” to finding myself transfixed as the season went on. He’s such a talent. I’ve heard and understood Pep Guardiola’s explanation for selling him, but it’s hard not to see that as a rare misjudgement by him and Manchester City. He wanted to go? Make him want to stay. He’s that good.


Breaking down Cole Palmer’s astonishing season at Chelsea


Tim Spiers: Micky van de Ven’s debut season in the Premier League has been pretty revelatory. When you’ve spent most of the year tidying up after and covering for two of the most attacking full-backs (Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro) and the utterly nuts Cristian Romero, everything from now on should be a breeze. The fastest player in the division has the potential to become one of the best defenders in Europe.


(Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Carl Anka: I’m going to assume one of my much smarter, much funnier, and much more professional colleagues will wax lyrical about Palmer here, so instead I’ll key in on Crystal Palace’s Adam Wharton. The 20-year-old midfielder has something of Michael Carrick about how he receives the ball from deep before playing intelligent through balls into the final third. He and Kobbie Mainoo are the types of midfielder the England team have needed for years. I’ll be watching their careers with great interest going forward.

Nick Miller: The actual answer is Palmer, isn’t it, but also nods for Murillo, Wharton, Mainoo and, depending on how you define “breakthrough”, Michael Olise, who has gone from ‘yes, obviously good’ to ‘OK, he’s genuinely elite’ this season.


(Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Name your Premier League XI of the season

Oliver Kay: (4-3-3) Emiliano Martinez; Ben White, Antonee Robinson, William Saliba, Gabriel; Rice, Rodri, Odegaard; Palmer, Watkins, Foden

Nick Miller: (3-2-4-1) David Raya; Tosin Adarabioyo, Saliba, Van de Ven; Rice, Rodri; Palmer, Odegaard, Foden, Anthony Gordon; Haaland

Carl Anka: (4-2-3-1) Raya; White, Van de Ven, Saliba, Lucas Digne; Rice, Rodri; Saka, Odegaard, Foden; Watkins

Tim Spiers: (3-2-3-2) Jordan Pickford; Saliba, Virgil van Dijk, Van de Ven; Rice, Rodri; Palmer, Odegaard, Foden; Watkins, Haaland.


One word to sum up the 2023-24 Premier League?

Carl Anka: Farcical

Nick Miller: Exhausting

Oliver Kay: Asterisk

Tim Spiers: Football

(Header photos: Getty Images)





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