It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it became clear that Manchester City would strut to the Premier League title. Maybe it was when they spanked Liverpool 5-0 in September. It could’ve been that three-game run in November when the wheels were looking a bit wobbly but they beat Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham with goals in the last ten minutes. Perhaps when they beat Manchester United in December.
Whatever, Manchester City will be champions, probably by some point in April. The only question with them is now by how much they will win the league, and what other trophies they’ll gather. So what are we, the baying Premier League pack of neutrals, tuning in every week demanding entertainment and excitement to drown out the screaming voices of real life, left with?
The top four? Even recognising the importance of the Champions League in terms of prestige and finance, it’s still hard to get excited about who the fourth-best team in the division is. A few individual, showpiece games? They’re only diverting for a short period of time, and like a box of chicken McNuggets, you’re left unsatisfied within an hour or two. Rubbernecking at Arsenal? It just gets sad after a while.
Which leaves us with the nether regions of the table. In some respects the scrap against relegation has always been more interesting than the title race, because there’s something grimly compelling about desperation. But this season the Premier League is spoiling us, because half the division could go down.
More than half, in fact. Bournemouth are tenth, but are only five points clear of the bottom three with nine games to go. It would take an ego the size of, well, Sam Allardyce’s to completely rule Everton out of trouble too, as they’re eight points clear.
At the time of writing six points separate ten teams, from Bournemouth down to second-bottom Stoke. Only West Brom, seven points from safety, look cut adrift, and even then a couple of wins will put them right back in it.
The bottom half of the Premier League is a constantly undulating thing, a ladder that can be dashed up and down in only a few games. Crisis can turn into contentment in a head-spinningly short period of time. Safety into peril before you’ve really noticed.
In short, the last few months of the season should make for great fun, and chaotic entertainment. But what’s particularly interesting is that all of these clubs are in trouble for very different reasons. Clubs that have changed managers are still in trouble while teams who’ve stuck by their men have risen. Ones who swung the axe have improved while sides who kept said axe sheathed have deteriorated.
West Brom’s fall has been ostensibly precipitous, but speaks to a longer-term underlying decay. Stoke have been stagnating for a while to the point that this has felt slightly inevitable. Huddersfield and Brighton being down there is entirely understandable, while fellow promotees Newcastle are so chaotic that struggle was always going to be on the cards.
Southampton’s talent for regeneration was always going to slip at some point, while Crystal Palace made what turned out to be one calamitous error in the summer and have spent the intervening time scrabbling to fix it. West Ham’s lack of planning and a failure to act on their instincts about Slaven Bilic have cost them, while Watford’s embracing of chaos (plus a manager with a wandering eye) finally caught up with them.
A string of poor decisions have put Swansea in peril, and Bournemouth’s size means that, despite their undeniable progress since reaching the Premier League, they will always be looking over their shoulders.
Some of these issues are temporary, some of them are longer-term. Some can be fixed relatively straightforwardly, others will require complete overhauls of the clubs in question and, in more than a few cases, regime change.
What it does tell us is that gaining any sort of traction in the Premier League is a bloody tricky thing with lots of moving parts, so staying clear of bother requires plenty of things to do right, as well as a big dollop of luck.
Remaining in this division, either the best or most gaudy in the world, depending on your point of view, is an extremely precarious thing. The rest of the season won’t have many dead games, and for those involved it will be like waiting to hear from the doctor about some nasty test results, their fate agonisingly decided over a slow, slow period of weeks.
But for the rest of us, there’s entertainment in their despair. Forget the top of the Premier League, for the rest of the season, the bottom is where it’s at.