You can watch Manchester City and Liverpool hammer each other if you want, but if it’s excitement you’re after then watch the four clubs beneath them wildly swinging at each other…
If you can remember as far ago as last season – and after this long, hot summer you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a distant past – you might recall some people complaining that the title race was boring.
There was certainly something to that argument. For an entertaining title race, you need tension. And for tension, you need peril. But from March onwards, there was no peril for either of the top two sides. They were too good. They ploughed through everything in their path. Liverpool and Manchester City were essentially giant, winning robots smacking each other in unrelenting fashion. Consistent, dead-eyed excellence is something to be admired, but it’s not necessarily something to get excited about.
Neither team lost after January 29. Neither dropped a point in their last nine games. Liverpool’s 97 points would have won the league title in all but one previous Premier League season. City were behind for one minute – one minute! – in their last 14 games.
Liverpool were essentially giant, winning robots smacking each other in unrelenting fashion.
They were too good. They are too good. And the bad news, for those of us who would prefer a little more spice in the title race, is they probably aren’t getting any worse. Manchester City have strengthened just about their only weak(ish) position with the signing of Rodrigo. Liverpool haven’t bought anyone but have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back and Rhian Brewster looks like a star.
However, there is some good news, which is that the bunch of teams beneath them are in flux, and watching the bunfight between those four will provide all the entertainment that the top two won’t in the coming season.
This, admittedly, requires us all to accept that the ‘battle’ for third and fourth place is actually a thing. Football is a grim old business these days, and we have long since become browbeaten into accepting that being the fourth best in a competition when you’ve got more money and power than three-quarters of your opponents, is an achievement. But here we are, the lowly serfs forced to accept these scraps from the table.
Still, let’s assume you have come to terms with this. Here we have four teams – Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United – who come into the season in various forms of flux, ranging from slight uncertainty to actual chaos.
Spurs might feel a little hard done to being lumped in with the other three. After all, they might well be European champions were it not for a new interpretation of the handball rule which requires defenders to detach limbs in order to avoid sanction.
But for the second half of last season it felt like they were being held together with bits of string and chewing gum, their relatively meagre resources looking thinner than sugar paper as Mauricio Pochettino resembled one of those cartoon characters clinging onto the wings of a plane as it falls apart mid-air. They have added Tanguy Ndombele but, at the time of writing, have no other fresh blood in their squad, with a couple of areas screaming to be strengthened. If nobody else arrives (without even considering the possibility of Christian Eriksen or Toby Alderweireld leaving) you wonder if this is the season when things start to fall apart.
The rest of them, though: what a rabble. Arsenal’s best players are forwards, their big summer signing is a forward, their best young players are also forwards and thus have their paths blocked. But they have a moderate midfield and a slapstick defence even if Lauren Koscielny deigns to stick around.
If you want good football, focus the top two. But if it's entertainment you're after, look a little lower.
Chelsea have a transfer ban and a rookie manager who has to plug gaps with young players who are talented, but almost certainly not ready for life at the sharp end of the Premier League. They’re also a team who will have to deal with the crippling buyer’s remorse of spending £40million to make Mateo Kovacic’s season-long loan into a permanent deal, roughly the equivalent of test driving a car, discovering it has no seats and will only go 30mph, but still buying it.
Then there’s Manchester United. There seem to be about three people in the world who think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will still be their manager in 2020: Ed Woodward, Ole himself and Ole’s mum, and even Mama Solskjaer could be on the fence. Maybe they will fool us all and stumble into competence, but only the wildest optimist would be confident of that.
And all of this assumes that the traditional ‘top six’ will hold. The shrewdies seem to fancy Brendan Rodgers and Leicester to hammer down the door, Wolves looked strong last season and should remain so this term, and then there’s your Evertons and your Watfords.
Football can be good, and football can be entertaining. Sometimes it’s both, but at the moment it looks like there will be a clean split between. If you want good football, focus on the top two. But if it’s entertainment you’re after, look a little lower.
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