What’s the opposite of a cliffhanger? As the Premier League packs up for its winter break, as those depleted muscle fibres begin to regain their tensile strength, as English World Cup glory is all-but guaranteed (this was the plan wasn’t it?) by winter sun global marketing trips, it is hard to avoid the sense of dramatic entropy.
The Premier League has always sold itself as blockbusting cinematic entertainment. As every screenwriter knows the key ingredient of any pulp drama is tension, obstacles, storylines that twang like an overtightened steel guitar string. Twenty-odd games in, the season has dished up 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 great, reimagined as a piece of Japanese anti-cinema, all soporific repetition and meandering story arcs.
Can we still fluff up some kind of title race out of this thing? Those hopes of a three-way pursuit to the line were all-but extinguished by Manchester City’s annihilating 12-match winning run from November into January. Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton, during which City had 20 shots at goal and 74% possession, is pretty thin gruel when it comes to dredging up some new life.
Cut forward to early May and perhaps this perfectly calibrated machine, this suffocating blue mist, a squad so perfectly grooved it has come closer than any other English team to making victory an inevitability, might be persuaded to collapse in a heap of nerves and shanked passes. We might yet see a damp-eyed Pep, headphones clamped, finger jabbing 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 perhaps not.
In reality the most obvious drama in the Premier League is located elsewhere. The only tension close to the top is the run-in to see which team gets the final place in the VIP lounge, also known as The Race For Fourth Place.
There is even a sense of mild inevitability about this. In theory the final Champions League spot could go down to the wire, with Wolves still very much in contention from eighth place. There are interesting, evolving teams in that mix. Are Antonio Conte’s rage-ball contortions really a sustainable plan? Is this all going to be too much for that furred and fragile Tottenham heart?
Are Arsenal good now? Is Mikel Arteta creating a new kind of energy, something homegrown and self-propelling, the first genuine post-Wenger iteration? Or is this just styling, soundbites, an expensive jacket, indestructible hair, spun out into a simulacrum of elite modern football?
It is evidence of the strangeness of the league, and indeed the herd-think of social media, that it seems possible to believe both of these things almost simultaneously, depending on the last half-hour of football and whether Granit Xhaka has just been sent off or not.
The most likely outcome is that the top four will remain as it is now. City, Liverpool and Chelsea are already out of sight. And for all their flaws Manchester United have four of the five best-paid players in the league, can afford to drop £90m footballers and have a revolving roster of attacking talent to hurl at the wall when their own incoherence starts to bite. Wealth and tortured momentum are still probably just about enough.
The real heat is located much further down the table. It is probably apt in the current stratified landscape, with a sense of the world being divvied up into the saved and the damned, that the battle to remain in the Premier League is by some distance its most vital strand.
There are hard commercial reasons for this sense of lifeboats being divvied up. The Premier League is in the process of refreshing its overseas broadcast deals. North and South America have been locked in over the last few weeks. But outside the top tier there is a genuine sense of flux. Derby County may be the most cinematic example of commercial hubris, but plenty of others have also taken on vast debt. This is not the moment to get stuck in the sunken place. Hence that sharpened sense of jeopardy. Forget titles and top fours. Repurpose the graphics. Add some minor chords to the triumphant music. Redirect the truck carrying Gary Neville and his lighted plinth. Who knows, we may be in for one of the great relegation races.
The margins already look tight, with seven points separating bottom-placed Burnley from Everton in 16th. There is plenty of life down there too. Anyone present at Selhurst Park just after Christmas to see Norwich’s 3-0 defeat by Crystal Palace will have assumed we had our first confirmed casualty. That was the day the sarcastic goal-applause went mainstream, when Norwich’s players just looked too timid and broken for his battle.
Fast forward three weeks and Dean Smith’s team are 17th and on a roll. The return of key players has helped, with six changes to their Palace starting XI in the team that beat Watford on Friday. Norwich have a tendency to assert their own game against weaker opponents then fall away against teams that can also pass and keep the ball. But it might just be enough, because, frankly, it’s chaos down there.
Leeds are surely the most secure of the back markers – dragged into this by circumstance, but still there, just above the lip of the pit. Otherwise that race to the bottom really is wide open. Watford look the most doomed, a club where this kind of jeopardy is factored into the business model, although Roy Hodgson turning up adds an intriguing note of pragmatism. Hodgson is 74 years old now, but he does know how to organise a team.
Burnley have the unity of purpose to defy the limitations of an ageing squad. They have also played a massive four games fewer than Norwich and five fewer than Brentford, who have lost six of their past seven and really do need a deep breath and a time-out over the winter break.
Much as it might rile a pre-riled fanbase, Newcastle being relegated would be one of the stories of the season in European football. But it seems unlikely from here. The pure, ruthless genius of paying £25m for Chris Wood might yet prove to be the key stroke, a chess move that hurts Burnley more than it aids Newcastle.
This is where instant liquidity, and the freedom to chuck that money around without consequence, really does make a difference. Eddie Howe has a sleek, hungry look about him. Kieran Trippier is a very smart signing, and also tactically on-trend: gamechanging emergency right-backs are the new gamechanging emergency centre-forwards.
On the other hand Newcastle’s final five games include Liverpool, City and Arsenal, who always beat them, plus Norwich away and the mouthwatering prospect of Burnley on the final day. Things may well settle before then. But there is a grand final act in the making here, a breath of competitive life in a moribund year, and a fitting sense that the real game, right now, is simply surviving.