‘Abandon hope all ye who play here’ – Diego Costa, circa 2016/17
Looks like it’s that season again. For the third time in a row, one team is walking the league and the others fall off through a simple process of elimination. Yesterday, Hull were kicking and screaming, playing maybe their best game of football in months. It didn’t help. Once again, Diego Costa took what belongs to him and from then on, it was smooth sailing. For the third year in a row, the blue shirts are coasting to final victory by keeping in deafeningly quiet at the back and finding their one outlet upfront. Costa, Vardy or Costa again – the names are secondary to the pattern. Again, the champs have no other competitions to wear them out; no squad rotation on injuries to halt them; no secret weapons other than dedication and consistency. And it is enough – because frankly, no one else deserves to win it all. Nobody. I mean – just look at them!
As good as they’ve been looking recently – Manchester United does not deserve to win it all. It’s now 17 games unbeaten in all competitions and not a single defeat in eleven weeks. True. On the other hand: the only top 6 side Red Devils have beaten are Spurs, in December. An embarrassment at Chelsea; a clear home loss in derby; two colourless draws with Liverpool and one with Arsenal – those are the signs of a team that does not really feel comfortable in the crucial six-pointers. Was last summer really MU’s great leap forward? A year ago, after 22 games, Louis van Gaal’s goal difference was 27 to 20. Now, one Mourinho, one Bailly, one Pogba, one Mkhitaryan and one Ibrahimović later, it’s 33 to 21. No, wait: 28 plus 5 scored from offsides that clown referees elected to ignore. That cost £150 million in transfer fees alone. Elsewhere, tiny Bournemouth are only one goal short; bus-parking West Bromwich are trailing by three. Even with Zlatan, the firepower is far too weak here.
Books have already been written on why Manchester City does not deserve to win it all. There is a wide range of reasons, take your pick. £63 million spent on a defender who cannot defend and a goalkeeper that cannot goalkeep. A full-back pretending to be a centre-back after thirteen years of professional career spent in a different role. Another veteran full-back pretending to be a defensive midfielder and teaming up with a 33-years old mercenary, who should’ve been out the door a year ago. A bunch of attacking midfielders made purely out of passing and technique and without an ounce of finishing. A world-class striker incompatible with Guardiola’s system. Kevin de Bruyne having to do literally everything by himself and not clever enough to consider cloning… We get it, Pep – your lads are looking amazing with that shiny 75% of time when they’re on the ball. Now, go fix the abysmal 25%.
Who’s next… Oh yeah. A team that loses at home to the league’s tail-enders does not deserve to win it all. A team that concedes twice from the simplest ball-to-the-wing-and-cross situations does not deserve to win it all. A team that gets an international clearance for their best centre-back and still doesn’t field him – does not deserve to win it all. A team that loses easy fixtures like Burnley, Bournemouth and Swansea does not deserve to win it all. A team that sheds further six points against West Ham, Sunderland and Southampton – does not deserve to win it all. At team that needs three hours of tortures to knock out Plymouth Argyle out of the League Cup does not deserve to win it all. You can make all excuses in the world about Coutinho’s legs crooked by Mackem bastards or Sadio Mané’s safari excursion, but… Sorry, Liverpool – nice goals, but you’re still not good enough.
Yup. FC Bayern assistant manager has won with Swansea at Anfield after just 3 weeks in charge.
Then, there’s Tottenham. What’s even up with those guys? Second season in a row, those guys are starting slowly. Then, they slip on a fifth gear after one, crushing victory over some Premier League cannon fodder – and thrive on this momentum, until a sudden crisis hits them. Once they drop about 10 points, there’s yet another hammering victory over the relegation side – and a second win streak follows. When Spurs are on a high, they’re good enough to beat Chelsea. On the other hand: when they’re slumping, they’re just drawing with everyone. Last weekend, at Etihad, they even had to be pulled out of their self-made tomb by Andre Marriner’s incompetence. Didn’t they get a memo from Everton, on how to win this fixture? It’s been issued just a week ago. My sympathies for Pochettino, who’s built a great squad for pennies – but his team still does not deserve to win it all.
Alexis Sánchez FC does not deserve to win it all either. Sánchez does – and, for this season alone, his employers should rename Emirates to Estadio AS or at least erect a bronze statue in honour of the Chilean in front of the entry gate. That guy is the player of the season so far – a hero among the plebeians; a warrior for the lost cause. It is as if the fate has decided to link his lifeline with that of Luis Suárez’s all over again. Thirty months ago, they’ve passed each other by on their respective Barcelona flights. Today, Alexis is exactly the same guy Luis used to be at Anfield: an ingenious winner trying to drag his sub-par team to the success with very little help from other players that are supposed to aid him. And because football is still a team game, we might see yet another world-class lad hiding his tears with a shirt after some heartbreaking Crystal Palace draw. Because Arsenal, as a team, does not deserve to win it all.
What does it all mean, then? Nothing that we didn’t know already. First and foremost: it’s the proper defending that wins you the league. Secondly: if you’re an English club playing for both continental and domestic success, you will achieve neither and your players will drop like flies through exhaustion injuries, suspensions and/or poor form. Thirdly: whenever a great player emerges with great form, the lesser lads around him must follow. And finally: signings absolutely do not guarantee anything other than putting more money on the ‘expenditure’ side of the balance sheet. In fact, the only actual, bulls-eye transfer of the summer was a 35-years old striker brought to Manchester United for free from a one-team league. Interestingly enough: it corresponds well with the last years’ narrative, when EPL was being ran by two lads brought to Leicester for pennies.
Of course, some people will insist that nothing has been decided yet. Chelsea are having Liverpool and Arsenal coming up next and hypothetically, the eight-point gap could be cut down to just two by the start of February. There are only two problems with that. One is that Chelsea will not lose both to Liverpool and Arsenal – not in the form those three contenders are in right now. The other one is: even if by some miracle that happens, there will be still enough other games for Blues to start running away and for Reds/Gunners to bottle it all over again. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time it happened: Arsenal fans remember that feeling from their last years’ thriller 2-1 win over Foxes and Scousers from a 3-2 success when faced with Manchester City. In both cases – those were just the fake glimmers of hope before everything has caved it.
The most competitive league in the world? Perhaps. But not when it comes to the top spot.