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Best of the 2010s: The Premier League clubs that defined the decade

A retrospective on the past decade in the Premier League to decide which team was the most era-defining of the last ten years. 

How does one go about discerning who defines a particular period of time? In football terms, does it come down to trophies won? The number of matches won? Who made the most money or sold the most shirts?

In this writer’s opinion, success matters, but even more important is how they grabbed our attention. Did they captivate us, both on and off the pitch? Some big teams were left out of this list, namely Manchester United and Arsenal. While their stories of decline and drama have been interesting, both clubs have gradually slipped out of relevancy.

This is about the teams who shook the ground beneath them and forced us to pay attention in the 2010’s.

NB: This article concerns the seasons 2010/11 to 2019/20, and considers the 2009/10 campaign as the final season of the noughties. 

5. Leicester City

Considering the fact that Leicester City were in the third tier of the football pyramid ten years ago, it’s astounding that they should be anywhere near this list, let alone on it. They were in the Championship only five years ago, and yet they have made such an impact in the past half decade alone that it’s hard to think of any club that could knock them out of the top five.

The Foxes’ return to the top flight could hardly have been more dramatic, as they staged one of the all-time great escapes to secure Premier League survival. One of the highlights of that season was their stunning 5-3 victory over Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side, a game in which Jamie Vardy announced himself to the world.

There were some lowlights, though, most of which involved manager Nigel Pearson. There was the bizarre chokehold he put on Crystal Palace’s James MacArthur in the middle of a game, called a BBC reporter an “ostrich”, called another writer a “prick”, and told a fan to “fuck off and die”.

There was also the small matter of a racist orgy that involved three Leicester players, one of whom was Pearson’s son James, which was the straw which broke the camel’s back for the manager; he was sacked in the summer.

The rest, as they say, is history. Claudio Ranieri succeeded the Englishman, much to the bemusement of just about everyone. The Tinker Man led the club to their greatest ever success, however, guiding his band of unlikely heroes to the Premier League title in 2015/16.

Again, there were lowlights: Vardy was filmed using a racial slur against a Japanese man in a casino, Leicester were found to have breached Financial Fair Play rules, and they, as well as Arsenal and Chelsea, were linked to a doping doctor in an investigation by The Sunday Times. But most onlookers were too wrapped up in the fairytale to pay much attention to those scandals.

The following campaign was never going to live up to that monumental season. Although they reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Ranieri was sacked with the club fearing relegation. They finished 12th, the worst ever defence of a title in the Premier League era.

Leicester stabilised and finished ninth in successive seasons, but wedged in between that was a deeply distressing tragedy for the club: the untimely death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who perished in a helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium in October, 2018.

As grief-stricken as the club and its supporters were, life eventually moved on, as it always does, and football, so insignificant in comparison, did so too. Manager Claude Puel was sacked later that season, and Brendan Rodgers replaced him. The East Midlands outfit now possess a young, talented squad, an accomplished manager, and a steady organisational structure.

What does the next decade hold for Leicester City?

Nigel Pearson’s chokehold and other manager meltdowns on the sideline

4. Spurs

Tottenham Hotspur will end the 2010’s without a Premier League title, but they have been one of the most interesting, captivating and engrossing clubs to follow in the past decade.

Even a brief scan over some of the players they have had on their books in that time illustrates that fact: the likes of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart, Mousa Dembele, Jermain Defoe, and Kyle Walker. And that’s before you even get to the current crop of stars, such as Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Heung-min Son, et al.

There have been some real entertainers over the years, but there have also been some stinkers. Remember Roberto Soldado? Or Paulinho? It took a few years to recover from how badly they misspent the Bale money after he absconded to Real Madrid for a record transfer fee, but they’ve managed to become one of the top clubs in the country.

It all started with Harry Redknapp in this decade, who brought Champions League football to White Hart Lane. It was the first time the Lilywhites qualified for Europe’s premier competition since 1961, and represented the beginning of a power shift in North London.

Spurs, of course, famously missed out on Champions League qualification in 2012 despite finishing fourth, thanks to Chelsea winning the trophy against Bayern Munich that same year. It felt very Spursy, but they club persevered nonetheless and, despite the odd rocky patch, have managed to remain in the top six of the table right through the decade.

The pinnacle came under Mauricio Pochettino, who almost lead the club to the title on two occasions, but they agonisingly missed out both times. There was also a Champions League final and a new stadium, but the glory was just out of their reach. After five years of high pressing football and brilliant results, the Argentine was let go and replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Tottenham are now the type of club that can attract one of the most successful managers in the history of the sport. They enter the twenties with medals on their mind.

3. Liverpool

Liverpool could have easily gone the entire decade with just one trophy to their name – in fact, even if they win the league this season, the 2010’s will see their worst return for trophies since the 1950’s – but one thing you could not accuse them of is irrelevancy.

Despite being less consistent than Spurs (Liverpool have finished outside the top six three times and have only reached the top four the same number of times) this decade, it’s fair to say their lows have been far lower than the Londoners, but their highs have been greater too.

Reds fans have had to endure the reigns of Roy Hodgson and the return of Kenny Dalglish, which was a briefly pleasant trip down memory lane before it became clear he wouldn’t bring back the good times. Brendan Rodgers came in, bringing with him an energetic and swashbuckling style, and a renewed sense of hope.

It ended in despair in 2013/14; the slip, Crystanbul, the tears, second place. It felt like a once-in-a-generation opportunity had slipped, but conversely it also showed what’s possible.

And then Jurgen Klopp arrived. The Normal One. His ideas took time to take hold, but once they did they were flying. There was a League Cup final, then a Europa League final, all in the first few months of his stint. A Champions League final followed. Each one brought defeat, but the building blocks were put in place.

Liverpool pushed one of the league’s best ever teams all the way, finishing runners-up in the table with 97 points – the most any team has accrued without winning the title. This time round they look well on course to do it. And wouldn’t that be a hell of a way to end the decade?

2. Chelsea

Can you name another club that thrives on instability as much as Chelsea? Nine different managers in ten years, and yet they’ve won the second most major honours of any English club in that period.

It began with Carlo Ancelotti, who led the club to the Premier League title in a highly impressive debut campaign, but couldn’t repeat the trick in his second season as the Blues finished second. The club replaced the Italian, who has a somewhat laissez-faire approach, with the more tactically minded Andre Villas-Boas, a former protogé of Jose Mourinho.

The Portuguese only lasted nine months, receiving his P45 after a 3-1 defeat to Napoli in the Champions League knockout stages. Roberto Di Matteo took over on a temporary basis and, in probably the single greatest performance of a caretaker manager, won both the FA Cup and the Champions League in 2012.

The former Chelsea player, previously sacked by West Brom, was handed the reins, but didn’t make it to Christmas the next season. Barely three years into the decade and it’s already been a rollercoaster ride, but there was far more to come.

Rafael Benitez came in and won the Europa League, but he was just a placeholder until the return of The Special One. Mourinho’s comeback felt inevitable after he said he wanted to manage “somewhere I feel loved” during the last year of his stint at Real Madrid. He didn’t guide the team back to the title at first, but did the next best thing: stopping Liverpool from doing so.

Mourinho won his third title with the Blues the very next season, but the reunion broke down just like it did the first time, only it was much more fractious on this occasion. Results dramatically worsened, the club were brought to court for unfair dismissal after the manager shunned the team physio, and Jose was sacked after gaining nine league wins in the opening 16 fixtures.

Their tenth place finish was the worst title defence of the Premier League era at the time, but they bounced back immediately under Antonio Conte, winning a second title in three years with 93 points. They also reached two FA Cup finals under the Italian, winning the second, but his relationship with the club also broke down and he was out the door after two years.

It was time for a fourth Italian to come in, with Maurizio Sarri hired to implement his distinctive attacking style at the South West London outfit. One of his first acts as manager was to apologise for homophobic remarks he had previously made while in charge of Napoli. Not exactly a great start, but he did win the Europa League, the club’s third European trophy of the decade.

Would you believe, he didn’t last long either and scarpered off to Juventus this past summer. There’s just no pleasing some people is there? That paved the way for club legend Frank Lampard to return as gaffer, where it looks like he will be given more time and leeway than his predecessors.

Chelsea fans are hoping for a long and bright future under a man they idolise, but if we look back for a moment, is there an argument to be made that the 2010’s were a better decade than the noughties for the Blues? The 2000’s were a glorious time in which they were transformed from serial also-rans into a trophy-winning machine, claiming their first league title in 50 years, never finishing below sixth and were almost certainly the defining team of that era.

In the tens they didn’t have the same consistency, finishing fifth, sixth and tenth in three different seasons, but they did win more trophies and, more importantly, finally conquered Europe.

1. Manchester City

Could there be any doubt about the identity of number one on this list? No other entity has done more to change the landscape of football, both in England and abroad, than Manchester City have in recent times, both in financial and football terms.

The influx of money and level of spending by the club since the arrival of owner Sheikh Mansour has resulted in the largest inflation the sport has ever seen, as well as the arrival of even more sugar daddy owners, such as Qatar’s involvement in PSG. Footballing wise, Pep Guardiola has brought the English game up another level entirely, where his challengers for the title have to be near perfect if they want to even get near his team of superstars.

But before all that came the first title, and perhaps the most iconic moment in the league’s history when Sergio Aguero scored that goal in the dying moments of the 2011/12 season. Another followed in 2013/14 under Mauricio Pellegrini, but there was a feeling that City were not taking full advantage of their resources and the talent at their disposal.

That changed when Guardiola arrived. Although he had a rocky first campaign in England, the Catalan broke so many records over the following two seasons that it’s difficult to pick out any in particular. There is a case to be made that in that two year period, Pep’s City were the most dominant team we’ve ever seen in English football.

Before the 2010’s Man City were always in the shadow of their more illustrious rivals in red, but have incredibly overtaken United in the few years since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, winning more titles in the past decade than they had in their entire history. In the future when people look back on this period, there will be one club who dominate the conversation.

Read: Best of the 2010’s – Premier League Team of the Decade

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