Thursday, April 18

In this season’s Premier League, look for the real drama | Premier league

WWhat is the opposite of a cliffhanger? As the Premier League gears up for its winter break, as those depleted muscle fibers begin to regain their tensile strength, as English World Cup glory is all but guaranteed (was this the plan? right?) for winter sun global marketing trips, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of dramatic entropy.

The Premier League has always been sold as blockbuster cinematic entertainment. As every screenwriter knows, the key ingredient in any pulp drama is tension, obstacles, plots that vibrate like an over-tightened steel guitar string. After twenty-odd games, the season has thrown up something very different.

What we have here is a first act marked by an absence of tension: the biggest league in the history of leagues being great, reimagined as a piece of Japanese anti-cinema, all mind-numbing repetition and meandering story arcs.

Can we still invent some kind of title run from this? Those hopes of a three-way chase to the line were all but extinguished with Manchester City’s annihilating 12-match winning streak from November to January. Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton, during which City had 20 shots on goal and 74% possession, is a pretty poor mush when it comes to digging up new life.

Fast-forward to early May and perhaps this perfectly calibrated machine, this suffocating blue mist, a team so perfectly timed that they have come closer than any other English team to making victory inevitable, could be persuaded to collapse in a heap of nerves and torn passes. . We could still see Pep with wet eyes, headphones attached, sticking his finger into the camera lens, saying, “I’ve kept quiet about this, but when you say that about a man like Thomas Frank, well, you can tell Jürgen, if he’s watching this…” Or maybe not.

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In reality, the most obvious drama in the Premier League lies elsewhere. The only tension near the top is the showdown to see which team gets the last spot in the VIP room, also known as The Race for Fourth Place.

There’s even a sense of slight inevitability about this. In theory, the final Champions League spot could go all the way, with Wolves still in contention from eighth place. There are interesting and evolving teams in that mix. Are Antonio Conte’s Rage-ball contortions really a sustainable plan? Will all this be too much for Tottenham’s frail, hairy heart?

Are Arsenal okay now? Is Mikel Arteta creating a new kind of energy, something homegrown and self-propelled, the first genuine post-Wenger iteration? Or is it just style, sound bites, an expensive jacket, indestructible hair, turned into an elite modern soccer drill?

It is evidence of the strangeness of the league, and indeed the herdthink of social media, that it seems possible to believe both almost simultaneously, depending on the last half hour of football and whether or not Granit Xhaka has just been sent. off or not.

Marcus Rashford (left) celebrates his final goal for Manchester United against West Ham.  Can anyone prevent them from finishing in the top four?
Marcus Rashford (left) celebrates his final goal for Manchester United against West Ham. Can anyone prevent them from finishing in the top four? Photo: Peter Powell/EPA

The most likely outcome is that the top four 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 top five highest-paid players in the league, can afford to lose £90m and have a rotating roster of attacking talent to throw against the wall when their own inconsistency begins to bite. Wealth and tortured drive are still probably enough.

The actual heat is much further down the chart. It’s probably fitting in today’s stratified landscape, with a sense 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 aspect.

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There are strong commercial reasons for this sense that lifeboats are shared. The Premier League is in the process of updating its overseas broadcast deals. North and South America have gone into lockdown in recent weeks. But outside of the upper level there is a genuine sense of change. Derby County may be the most cinematic example of commercial arrogance, but many others have gone deep into debt as well. This is not the time to get stuck in the sunken place. Hence that acute sense of danger. Forget titles and top fours. Reuse graphics. Add some minor chords to the triumphant music. Redirect the truck carrying Gary Neville and his illuminated pedestal. Who knows, we may be facing one of the great downhill races.

The margins already look tight, with seven points separating bottom-placed Burnley from Everton in 16th place. There is plenty of life there too. Anyone who was present at Selhurst Park just after Christmas to watch Norwich’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace will have assumed we had our first confirmed loss. That was the day sarcastic goal cheers became widespread, when the Norwich players seemed too timid and shattered for their battle.

Fast forward three weeks and Dean Smith’s team is 17and in roll. The return of key players has helped, with six changes to his Palace starting XI in the team that beat Watford on Friday. Norwich have a tendency to assert their own game against weaker opponents and then fail against teams that can also pass and keep the ball. But it might be enough, because frankly, it’s chaos down there.

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Leeds are arguably the safest of the back markers – drawn into this by circumstance, but still there, just above the edge of the hole. Otherwise, that race to the bottom is wide open. Watford look the most doomed, a club where this kind of danger is built into the business model, although the appearance of Roy Hodgson adds an intriguing note of pragmatism. Hodgson is now 74 years old, but he does know how to organize a team.

Roy Hodgson adds an intriguing note of pragmatism to the relegation battle at Watford.
Roy Hodgson adds an intriguing note of pragmatism to the relegation battle at Watford. Photograph: Darren Staples/PA

Burnley have the drive to challenge the limitations of an aging team. They have also played four fewer games than Norwich and five fewer than Brentford, who have lost six of their last seven and really need a deep breather and some time out over the winter break.

As much as it might irritate a previously irritated fan base, Newcastle’s relegation would be one of the stories of the season in European football. But it seems unlikely from here. The sheer, ruthless genius of paying £25m for Chris Wood could yet be the key blow, a chess move that hurts Burnley more than Newcastle.

This is where instant liquidity and the freedom to throw that money away without consequence really makes a difference. Eddie Howe is looking smart and hungry. 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.

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On the other hand, Newcastle’s last five games include Liverpool, City and Arsenal, who always beat them, plus visiting Norwich and the appetizing Burnley prospect on the final day. Things may settle before then. But a big final act is brewing here, a breath of competitive life in a dying year, and a proper sense that the actual game, at this point, is simply surviving.

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