Biggest surprises in Premier League
Even by the standards of the Premier League, this has been a gloriously unpredictable season. With one match left to play for each club, so much is yet to be decided -- the title, two Champions League places and the final relegation spot.
Manchester City is set to win the title despite Roberto Mancini saying it was impossible a few weeks ago. Wigan has survived despite the fact it was at the bottom for long periods and midtable has been tight all season. Here are five of the most surprising things we've seen in the Premier League in 2011-12:
1. Performance of the newly promoted clubs
If Queens Park Rangers survive on Sunday afternoon, it will be the first time since 2001-02 that all three newly promoted clubs have escaped relegation. Neither Swansea nor Norwich has been seriously in danger of the drop for months, and their current positions of 12th and 13th don't quite illustrate the impact they've had on the Premier League.
Swansea is wonderful to watch because of its controlled, patient, passing football -- only Arsenal has enjoyed more possession, on average, than Brendan Rodgers' side this season. Sometimes passing moves are too slow, and often players hold the ball too long in defense. But it's still remarkable that Rodgers has created such a cohesive side from a group of players with very little Premier League experience before this season.
Norwich, meanwhile, has taken a very different approach. Whereas Swansea plays the same way each week, Paul Lambert is a more pragmatic coach who changes formation according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Often this is seen as a defensive move, but considering that only the top six teams have scored more than Norwich, and only the bottom three have conceded more, there's been no shortage of excitement.
If Bolton survives ahead of QPR, the side's 4-0 win at Loftus Road on the opening day of the season will be a huge factor. Back then, QPR was in the midst of a takeover bid from Tony Fernandes, in a state of limbo and hadn't assembled a squad fit for the Premier League. On current form, QPR is the better side and a favorite to beat the drop.
2. Post-Christmas dips
Had David Silva continued his pre-Christmas form across the rest of the season, it would have been one of the best-ever Premier League seasons from an individual, rivaling the seasons of Alan Shearer's 1994-95, Dennis Bergkamp's 1997-98, Thierry Henry's 2003-04 and Cristiano Ronaldo's 2008-09. But Silva didn't, underlining how difficult consistency across a nine-month period is.
But Silva wasn't the only one. Juan Mata started his Chelsea career in stunning form and seemed to adapt to the league quicker than Silva had done a year ago, but his form also dropped in 2012. Liverpool's Jose Enrique was the best left back in the league until January, then looked exhausted, demonstrated by his feeble attempt to tackle Ramires in the FA Cup final this past Saturday.
It's not just Spanish players affected -- Scott Parker was superb for Tottenham at the start of the season but has never fully recovered from a knee injury picked up on New Year's Eve, and Demba Ba was on fire in 2011, but the signing of fellow Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse has marginalized him. The PFA Team of the Year is always announced before the end of the season, but that was a particularly risky game this season, with so many stars fading late.
3. Crazy scorelines and poor European displays
Games between the big sides produced some ridiculous results: Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal, Manchester United 1-6 Manchester City, Tottenham 1-5 Manchester City, Chelsea 3-3 Manchester United, Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham, Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal.
Each of these games was highly entertaining, yet there was a suspicion that the matches were simply too open -- that sides had abandoned defensive organization and structure in favor of an all-out attacking approach that would see them embarrassed in European competition. So it proved: The Manchester clubs got dumped out of both continental tournaments, while Arsenal nearly fought back against Milan after a pathetic 4-0 defeat at San Siro. None of the sides that started the Europa League performed impressively.
Only Chelsea enjoyed a good attacking run -- and that was after the Blues got rid of Andre Villas-Boas, who insisted upon a high defensive line and heavy pressing, resulting in goals at both ends of the pitch. His replacement, Roberto Di Matteo, focused on defensive structure, which was crucial when parking the bus at Camp Nou to progress to the Champions League final.
Put simply, no one saw this coming. It was clear that Newcastle had bought intelligently in the summer -- Yohan Cabaye had just won the French double with Lille, while Demba Ba had impressed during his short spell at West Ham.
But its performance over the course of the season has been remarkable, with a solid defensive unit impressive at the start of the season, then attacking flair becoming more obvious in the closing stages, with Hatem Ben Arfa's run against Bolton and Papiss Demba Cisse's ludicrous boomerang shot at Chelsea among the goals of the season.
Much of the credit should go to Alan Pardew for evolving his side midway through the season. The foundations for the defensive performance were two banks of four, with Demba Ba upfront scoring a worryingly high proportion of goals, and Ben Arfa often benched toward the end of 2011. Yet Cisse's arrival meant a brave switch to a more attractive 4-3-3, and Ben Arfa restored to the side on the right. Newcastle is back where it belongs -- challenging near the top of the league, and now bringing its stereotypically exciting brand of football, too.
5. Lack of consistency
All the big clubs suffered from a sudden burst of disastrous form -- Arsenal at both ends of the season, Chelsea in the winter, Manchester City around Easter, Tottenham while Harry Redknapp seemed likely to become England manager, and Liverpool throughout the spring. Football coverage is always highly reactionary -- "You're only as good as your last game" being the cliché that sums it up nicely -- but a decent number of clubs have been genuinely close to crisis.
The most surprising dip in form was also the most crucial. When Manchester United opened an eight-point lead on Easter Sunday, the title race was apparently finished. Yet its defeat at Wigan and home collapse to Everton (admittedly, these games sandwiched a comfortable home win over Aston Villa) set up a title decider against Manchester City -- when United looked drained of any confidence, and didn't record a shot on target.
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This seemed to be the classic Manchester United season. It wasn't a spectacular side, but appeared consistently ruthless and unflappable going into the final weeks. The title was there to be won, and United's likely failure is the biggest surprise of all.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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