Paul Nicholson reflects on the climax of the Premier League regular season and discusses whether Michael van Gerwen can bounce back to former glories.
Glen Durrant, Peter Wright, Nathan Aspinall and Gary Anderson can now begin their preparations for next month's Premier League play-offs but shockingly there will be no Michael van Gerwen for the first time since he made his debut seven years ago.
The five-time champion, who had topped the table in each of his seven previous seasons, finished the regular season in sixth after an 8-2 hammering at the hands of rock-bottom Daryl Gurney on the last night and also ended up with a negative legs difference, which is remarkable when you consider his previous worst was +28!
Van Gerwen's alarming struggles are the hot topic in the game right now and former major winner and commentator Paul Nicholson shares his verdict in this latest column.
The Asset also hails the achievements of Durrant in becoming the third player in history to top the standings behind Phil Taylor and MVG while he also assesses the performances of Anderson, Wright and Aspinall.
Era of dominance crumbling?
At the start of the season, if you’d said that Michael Van Gerwen would finish sixth with a negative leg difference, nobody would have believed you.
There are different schools of thought about why it hasn't worked out for MVG in the Premier League and I think it's still a bit of a mystery, but I personally think it's because everybody else is playing better.
We've never seen a stronger overall Premier League before and the fact Rob Cross, who won both the World Championship and World Matchplay in the past few years, got eliminated at Judgement Night speaks volumes.
Michael wasn't under a great deal of pressure to start with when the season resumed but when it began to grow, he ultimately wasn't able to handle it, and that took us all by surprise.
I think his defeat to Glen Durrant was a glimpse of what the future of darts could look like when it comes to his opponents not being afraid of him anymore. We saw this with Phil Taylor when players learned from each other about the ways to beat him and the fear factor lessened.
Now it's time to put it right and I have every faith that Michael is going to come back from this difficult period. Not so much in terms of reclaiming his old level of dominance, but maybe more mentally astute as he tries to right some of the wrongs of the last few months.
Over the course of his 10 matches in Milton Keynes, he did average above 100 on a few occasions but there were other times – such as against Daryl Gurney on the final night – when his levels dropped well below what we’ve always been used to seeing.
However, over the last couple years there have been more and more performances creeping in like that. This hasn’t just been a complete falling off a cliff moment from nowhere. Think about when he lost to John Henderson at the Grand Prix and Steve West at the European Championship, for example.
You could therefore argue he may have already played the best darts of his career and he's not going to reach those sky high standards again on a consistent level. We just don't know and that's the beauty of this conversation.
Even if he can attain the heights of those 120-plus averages every now and again, it'll be more difficult than ever to win a huge amount of titles per season because we have more world beaters within the top 10 now than we have ever had before.
Glen Durrant will be in there soon, Peter Wright is unflappable, Nathan Aspinall’s star keeps rising, Gary Anderson is still in there fighting – not to mention Gerwyn Price, Daryl Gurney and Michael Smith!
Stars such as Dave Chisnall and James Wade weren’t even in the Premier League and there’s so many more players below them who are only heading in one direction.
Overall, 2020 has been unacceptable by his standards but he’s still got the UK Open in the bag and a couple of Summer Series titles, so I'll be interested to see what MVG turns up in Germany for the Autumn Series this weekend and in the coming months.
I think the pressure will be firmly on him from day one to get a win early and keep the naysayers away, but he’s certainly not the only great player to be under intense scrutiny.
Look at Eric Bristow. He was so dominant between 1980 and 1986 but after losing the 1987 final, the pressure escalated on him to try and reclaim the world title. He never won it again so what if Michael’s defeat to Wright in 2020 final was his 1987 moment?
If he doesn't win a world title in the next few years, it is conceivable that he won't win another one. That’s why it’s so very crucial to assert himself as quickly as possible because if he manages to lift the trophy at the next World Championship – assuming it happens – then all this will be forgotten. Otherwise pressure will mount to new levels.
Nevertheless, it’s still amazing that he’s even created the same kind of debate about his career at the age of just 31 that we saw surrounding Phil Taylor when his majors started to dry up in his early 50s.
We're automatically putting MVG in the same bracket as Phil because he’s been consistently winning titles for a long period of time but his eight to 10 years at the top is still a lot less than how long the Power was around!
I think if MVG never played again, hypothetically, he would still be classed as maybe the best standard player of all time because he's done it more times than anybody else. I think he has raised the bar standard-wise and for me, MVG’s overall best game is better than Phil Taylor’s.
When we finally get back to normality, we may look at this period as a storm in a teacup as far as Michael Van Gerwen is concerned.
I feel the calendar disruption has hurt him more than people realise, especially with the lack of competition in Europe where he’s usually in his comfort zone and racks up the titles.
The Milton Keynes setting with no fans did not suit him at all and didn’t help him attain usual adrenaline levels.
He is still adjusting to his new darts of course, which has added an extra pressure in 2020 on top of everything else, and you get the feeling that of all of the sets he has designed, he’s not yet 100% on which is right.
This is why he has to practice harder now than ever just to try and figure out which set he needs and he's going to have to go through some sort of Peter Wright process and figure out the exact setup from the stems and flights to the length, weight and grip pattern of the barrel.
Glen Durrant can fluff his pillow and say he’s finally arrived in the PDC because he’s now in pretty illustrious company as a Premier League table-topper.
I was so fortunate to call all three of Glen’s three Lakeside titles and you knew back then there was something special about him and his incredible mental strength.
He's proved that in the PDC up to this point with four major semi-finals, but if you’d asked him before the restart whether he thought he’d top the table, the humble nature of him would have said no. He’d have said he might make the top four but nothing more than that.
Looking ahead to the play-offs, he has every right to feel super confident now because he won the most points, had the best leg difference and held himself together as a front runner really well.
Other players need to follow his example and use psychological coaching to get that extra percentage out of themselves, because that’s what got Glen to the top of this table.
He knows how to time his preparation better than most and really thrived with the one match per day format. There’s also a bit of fire inside him that we see now and again – like against Gerwyn Price – but he only uses it if necessary. Glen prefers to keep calm and stay in a zen-like mode although he’s perhaps not quite as cool as Peter Wright.
Glen had experience of harnessing his mental techniques to reach the top in the BDO and stay there, and he’s starting to learn what it takes to get to the top of the PDC.
However, the clock is ticking for him at 49 to remain in the elite section of the rankings and he’s probably got around five years left to try and win some of the biggest trophies.
Flying Scotsman up and down
It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for Gary Anderson, who finished in fourth despite starting the final night as mathematically the only player who could have caught Glen Durrant.
This summed up his inconsistencies in recent times but if the best version of himself turns up on play-off night, then he’ll be crowned champion for the third time. And everyone knows this.
Let's first remember that the playoffs is one night. If Gary Anderson is on that day, he wins this and everyone knows it because the first day of the Premier League return in Milton Keynes, he turns up and goes bananas.
He turned on the burners against Michael Smith on the first day of the restart despite his struggles in the World Matchplay final at the same venue while there were plenty of other superb performances along the way to seal his top-four spot.
The thing about Gary that everybody seems to forget is that he's incredibly adaptable and if he starts to struggle with something, he's not afraid to make the change to get back to where he should be.
This time he knew, and it's something that I've seen for the best part of a year that those darts weren't working. They weren't balanced right for the way he was twisting the dart towards his face.
The fact that he made the Matchplay final with those darts was miraculous to me and then he comes back to the Premier League with these scalloped, heavier looking darts to get more grip and better weight distribution when it hits the board.
Despite barely practicing with them, he’s still able to play against the elite guys and get the results. It just goes to show the level of natural ability he has and can harness it in a very short space of time.
He's going to have more time with those darts before the play-offs and although he’s not going to the Autumn Series or The World Series Finals, he’s going to practice in the way he sees fit for the World Grand Prix and the play-offs in October.
So is he going to be dangerous? Absolutely. I don’t think he’ll catch Glen Durant cold but it will be a fascinating clash of styles and be very tight.
The Wright stuff
The thing that impressed me most about Peter Wright through the entire campaign in Milton Keynes was just how level-headed he was and how he downplayed some of the sensational darts he was throwing, even after his nine-darter and near nine-darter attempts.
I'm watching this at home thinking “at what point do you say you played well?!”
It reminded me when he had a 119 average the night before he won the UK Open in Exeter and said he just played OK – so it just goes to show the standard he’s trying to get out of his game. It’s scary for everyone else!
Even after he thrashed MVG 8-1, he said had problems with his contact lens and eyesight!
You can see from the way that Peter is just going in to retrieve his darts and bouncing back towards the back of the stage that he doesn’t have a worry in the world right now and is enjoying himself.
What has winning that world title done to him? It’s taken all the pressure of his shoulders and now he's an even better player than when he won it.
I really think major titles are going to fall in his lap in the next 18 months if he keeps this up.
In terms of the consistent standard of his performances, he was absolutely the best player in Milton Keynes and it’s not really up for debate.
Whereas Glen Durrant is really squeezing the orange for every bit of juice and Aspinall is grinding with everything he has, Peter is just in a ball pit having fun. Maybe this is why he’ll finally win the Premier League title this year.
Aspinall’s star still rising
I'm not ashamed to say that Nathan Aspinall is one of my favourite players to watch. I love the way he plays the game. There's a bounce in his step. I love the story of the way he resurrected his career in the last couple of years.
This is what inspires people and the smile he has is enough to grace the front of any magazine. The PDC need to jump on this because he really is one of the big stars for the future of this sport.
Unlike Gerwyn Price’s polarising intensity with the fans, the way Aspinall visibly fights and battles for every single point and leg is a positive intensity, which makes him so unanimously popular with the public.
He worked really hard for those 19 points throughout the campaign and I bet he was exhausted on Sunday morning. His work ethic hasn’t changed since rocketing up the rankings and earning the big money, and now he can play with far more freedom and confidence.
There’s many more titles to come – potentially even on Premier League finals night – and more thrilling chapters to come in this incredible book that I’m going to read in 10 years.
Price almost right
Gerwyn Price would have been disappointed about not nicking the last play-off spot but he can be more satisfied than Michael van Gerwen and Michael Smith.
He put himself in position at the very end after a stumbling start to the campaign with far too many draws, while he initially took longer to adjust to the behind closed doors setting at the Marshall Arena.
Nevertheless, he recovered to finish with a flourish and ended the campaign with a bigger legs difference than two of the players in the top four, which is some consolation,
I don't think he should be disheartened with the way his campaign has gone. He may have missed out on the play-offs but still provided a lot of entertainment and showed a lot of quality to give him encouragement for the rest of 2020.
As for Michael Smith, his scoring and 180 hitting was phenomenal, but he missed far too many doubles and the seeds of doubt about his finishing have been planted.
It might be time for him to change his practice routine because whatever he’s doing now doesn't seem to be clicking and he’s struggling to finish his opponents off at the end of matches.
It’s a shame because I love watching him play probably more than anybody else and he makes the game look so simple. The problems at the end of matches are happening too many times now and he has to fix it.
He needs to follow the lead of Glen Durrant and seek the advice of a sports psychologist to help him unlock something that hasn’t been found yet.
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