Ohat is the opposite of a cliffhanger? As the Premier League packs up for its winter break, as those exhausted muscle fibers begin to regain their tensile strength, as English World Cup glory is all but guaranteed (that was the plan, right?) by the global marketing trips of the winter sun, it is hard to avoid the feeling of dramatic entropy.
The Premier League has always sold itself as blockbuster cinematic entertainment. As every screenwriter knows, the key ingredient in any pulp drama is tension, obstacles, storylines that resonate like an over-tightened steel guitar string. In about twenty games, the season has offered something very different.
What we have here is a first act marked by the absence of tension: the greatest league in the history of leagues being big, reimagined as a piece of Japanese anti-cinema, all repetition soporific and meandering story arcs.
Can we still squeeze some sort of title run out of this thing? Those hopes of a three-man chase to the line were all but dashed by Manchester City’s devastating 12-game winning streak from November to January. Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton, in which City managed 20 shots on goal and 74 per cent possession, is pretty thin mush when it comes to dredging up new life.
Fast forward to early May and perhaps this perfectly calibrated machine, this suffocating blue haze, a team so perfectly crisscrossed that they have come closer than any other English team to making victory a foregone conclusion, could be persuaded to crumble into a pile of nerves and back passes. . We might still see a wet-eyed Pep, headphones tight, finger poking into camera lenssaying, “I’ve been silent about that but when you say that about a man like Thomas Frank, well, you can tell Jürgen, if he watches that…” Or maybe not .
In reality the most obvious drama in the Premier League lies elsewhere. The only tension near the top is the run-in to see which team gets the final spot in the VIP lounge, also known as The Race For Fourth Place.
There’s even a sense of slight inevitability about it. In theory, the final Champions League spot could be down to the wire, with Wolves still very much in contention from eighth place. There are some interesting and evolving teams in this mix. Are Antonio Conte’s rage-ball contortions really a sustainable plan? Is this all going to be too much for that hairy, fragile heart of Tottenham?
Are Arsenal good now? Is Mikel Arteta creating a new type of energy, something local and self-propelled, the first true post-Wenger iteration? Or is it just styling, soundbites, an expensive jacket, indestructible hair, turned into a simulacrum of modern elite football?
It’s proof of league weirdness, and even social media herdthinking, that it seems possible to believe both of those things almost simultaneously, depending on the last half hour of football and if Granit Xhaka has just be sent disabled or not.
The most likely outcome is that the top four will remain as they are now. City, Liverpool and Chelsea are already out of sight. And for all their flaws, Manchester United have four of the five highest-paid players in the league, can afford to drop £90m footballers and have a rotating roster of attacking talent to throw at the wall when their own inconsistency starts biting. Wealth and tortured elk are still probably just about enough.
The real heat is much lower down the chart. It’s probably fitting in today’s stratified landscape, with the feeling that the world is divided between the saved and the damned, that the battle to stay in the Premier League is by far its most vital part.
There are hard commercial reasons for this feeling of lifeboat division. The Premier League is in the process of renewing its overseas broadcast deals. North and South America have been on lockdown for the past few weeks. But outside of the upper level, there is a real sense of flow. Derby County is perhaps the most cinematic example of commercial hubris, but many others have also taken on huge debt. Now is not the time to get bogged down in the sunken place. Hence this acute sense of danger. Forget titles and the top four. Reuse graphics. Add some minor chords to the triumphant music. Redirect the truck carrying Gary Neville and his lighted plinth. Who knows, we might be in one of the big relegation races.
The margins already look tight, with seven points separating Burnley from Everton in 16th place. There is a lot of life there too. Anyone present at Selhurst Park just after Christmas to see Norwich’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace will have assumed we had our first confirmed victim. It was the day sarcastic applause at goal became common as Norwich players looked too shy and broken for his battle.
Fast forward three weeks and Dean Smith’s side are 17th and in rolls. The return of key players has helped, with six changes to their Palace starting XI in the side that beat Watford on Friday. Norwich tend to assert their own game against weaker opponents and then fall to teams who can also pass and keep the ball. But maybe that’s enough, because, frankly, it’s chaos out there.
Leeds are surely the safest of the back scorers – dragged into this by circumstances, but still there, just above the pit rim. Otherwise, this race to the bottom is really wide open. Watford look most doomed, a club where that kind of danger is factored into the business model, although the arrival of Roy Hodgson adds an intriguing note of pragmatism. Hodgson is now 74, but he knows how to organize a team.
Burnley have the unity of purpose to challenge the limits of an aging squad. They have also played four fewer games than Norwich and five fewer than Brentford, who have lost six of their last seven games and badly need a deep breath and time out during the winter break.
Although it might annoy a pre-pissed fan base, Newcastle’s relegation would be one of the stories of the season in European football. But that seems unlikely from here. The sheer, ruthless genius of paying £25million for Chris Wood could yet prove to be the key move, a chess move that hurts Burnley more than it helps Newcastle.
This is where instant liquidity and the freedom to throw that money away without consequence really makes a difference. Eddie Howe has a stylish, hungry look on him. Kieran Trippier is a very smart signing, and also tactically fashionable: the game-changing emergency right-backs are the new game-changing emergency centre-forwards.
On the other hand, Newcastle’s last five games include Liverpool, City and Arsenal, who have consistently beaten them, as well as away Norwich and the tantalizing prospect of Burnley on the final day. Things could be fine by then. But there’s a big final act in the works here, a breath of competitive life into a moribund year, and a fitting sense that the real game, right now, is simply surviving.