Five things we learned from the final day's action in the Premier League:
1. And the losers are ... The chief issue on the final Sunday of the Premier League season was which two clubs, out of five candidates, would join West Ham and drop down a division.
Blackburn quickly removed itself from the endangered list with three first-half goals at Wolves. But at various points on a tense, volatile afternoon, all the other four teams were in the bottom four, and out of it.
For the second time this season, Blackpool led Manchester United in the second half. For the second time, the Tangerines collapsed and let in three goals. The 4-2 loss, which doomed them to a quick return to the Football League, was symbolic of a breakneck season in which wild attack was undermined by bewildered defense.
Wigan's final game also seemed to sum up its season. It somehow clung on during a first-half bombardment at Stoke before getting the goal that, at the time, it needed with 12 minutes left. It won, 1-0.
There was another unnecessary late fightback at Wolves, where the home team scored twice in the last 17 minutes as it lost, 3-2, to Blackburn. When the second goal went in with three minutes left, Wolves and Birmingham, which was drawing, 1-1, at Spurs, were set to finish level on 40 points. But that goal also meant the two teams were tied on the first tiebreaker, goal difference and Wolves held a nine-goal edge in the second tiebreaker, goals scored.
As it was, Roman Pavlyuchenko, a halftime replacement, may have bid adieu to the Spurs fans with his second goal three minutes into added time. He definitely said farewell to Birmingham. The 2-1 loss meant it was relegated in the same season it won its first trophy, the League Cup.
2. The price of fair play. After Tottenham's hopes of a top-four finish, and a return to the Champions League, ended with a loss at Manchester City, Harry Redknapp muttered that he didn't want to qualify for the second tier Europa League, a marathon which would, he felt, only undermine his team's chances of staging another assault on the Premier League top four. Normally only the fifth-place league finisher qualifies for the Europa League, but UEFA hands out three places as a reward for fair play. England, as usual, is in the top three in UEFA's fair play table. Interestingly, at the time, the top two teams in the English fair play table were also the top two teams in the league, Chelsea and Manchester United. (Are you listening Jose Mourinho?) Tottenham was third. The problem with the fair play place is that the lucky recipient must enter the first qualifying round in June, rather than joining in at the end of the summer. No wonder Spurs tried so hard as they won their last two games. They were playing for their summer vacation.
3. A predictable season where nothing changed. So another Premier League season ends with Manchester United in the top two places. Manchester United has been first or second in each of the last six seasons. Chelsea has been in the top two in six of the seven seasons since Roman Abramovich bought the club in June 2003 and started to transform the soccer landscape with a tidal wave of money. Arsenal finished in the top four again as it has in every season since 1997. The other two teams in the top five, Manchester City and Spurs, finished in the top five last year. City's leap to third gives an appearance of novelty, but its rise, along with the resurgence of Liverpool, a "big four" club after a winter spending spree, only goes to show that the Abramovich rule hasn't changed. If a club spends huge amounts of money with a modicum of intelligence, it will finish above teams with less cash.
4. A surprising season which suggests profound shifts. Yes the same old gang finished at the top, but look at the points totals. Manchester United won the title with just 80 points -- 55 of which it picked up at home. That wouldn't even have been good enough for second place in the six seasons since Abramovich arrived. Yet it still won the league by nine points. Second placed Chelsea's 71 point was a pathetic total. Two years ago it finished third with 83 -- Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, immediately paid the price by becoming the ex-Chelsea manager faster than you can say "don't let the door hit you on the way out."
At the other end of the table, Birmingham and Blackpool both went down with 39 points. No team has been relegated with fewer since West Ham went down with 42 in that Abramovich summer of 2003.
The numbers suggest the top clubs have been more vulnerable this season. Part of it could be a World Cup hangover, which affects the bigger clubs more. Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Wayne Rooney and, in a way, Rio Ferdinand are among those who have injury blighted seasons. Part of it could be the natural cycle of squads. Chelsea's has looked threadbare. Arsenal's has appeared unbalanced.
The question is whether there are also structural causes. This season saw the introduction of squad limits. Clubs can register only 25 players over 21 and eight of those must have spent years at an English or Welsh club before they turned 21. Those limits may explain the huge number of players out on loan. But many of them might have gone anyway. If toxic characters like Craig Bellamy or Emanuel Adebayor are only going to play in emergencies, you don't want hanging them around the training ground oozing bile. And a lot of the players the top clubs loaned out -- Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Danny Sturridge, Aaron Ramsey and Kyle Walker, to name a few, are precisely the sort of young English and Welsh players who don't count toward squad totals. Where the rules may bring a change is in the transfer market where, if the rumors are to be believed, homegrown players are high on the big spenders' summer wish lists and middling Premier League clubs are going to be able to charge a premium for talent they developed.
But that brings us to another proposes structural change: UEFA president Michel Platini's "financial fair play" rules which will refuse entry to European club competitions to club's whose owners have subsidized their clubs by more than €45 million ($63.58M) over the previous three years. This gives a window of opportunity to clubs not in Europe, but ultimately it will favor those with the biggest income (those already in the Champions league, for example). It'salso arguably unenforceable. What's to stop Manchester City announcing that Etihad Airways, which is also owned by the Al Nayan family, is prepared to increase its sponsorship tenfold?
So, maybe things are changing but, then again, maybe they aren't.
5. Fearing a teenage breakdown. After whining all week about Jack Wilshere's workload, Arsene Wenger still picked the 19-year-old midfielder, who he told the BBC was at the "end of his energy level" for Arsenal's last game. Wilshere's presence didn't do much good. Arsenal, needing a victory to stand a chance of overhauling Manchester City and finishing third, drew, 2-2, at Fulham. Fourth place means Arsenal will have to start its Champions League campaign n the last qualifying round in mid-August.
Wenger doesn't want Wilshere to play for England in the European Under-21 finals in Denmark in June. Wenger last week called the tournament is a "risk to his health," pointing out that Wilshere had played "almost 50 games" this season. The game Sunday was Wilshere's 52nd. One doesn't need to have Wenger's obsessive appetite for statistics to know that teenagers who play that many games almost inevitably pay a severe physical price later.
But while two of those games have been for the U-21s and one for the full England teams, the other 49 have been for Arsenal. Wilshere, a ceaseless runner and an abrasive tackler, has started 32 games in the Premier League this season and come on three times as a substitute. The only three games he missed were during a three-game suspension for a red card. Wenger has players who could have given Wilshere a break. Denilson has been complaining this week about his lack of games.
Wenger said, "I want England to well." That's a diplomatic thing to say, but he's paid to look after the interests of Arsenal not England (and not, it should be said, the players). Wilshere has been named to the England U-21 squad, but the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, reported Friday that Wilshere and Andy Carroll of Liverpool would be dropped from the squad. Maybe Wenger's lobbying had paid of. Or maybe Fabio Capello wants them for the senior England team's euro qualifier against Switzerland on June 4. If he plays then, it would be a 53rd game this season. That is an unhealthy number for any player and an irresponsible number for a teenager. Despite finger pointing, the blame lies chiefly with Wenger.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.