City lit fire­works but sea­son ends not with a bang but a whim­per

A watch­able nine months tailed off to be­come a lit­tle ho-hum

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Bar­ney Ronay

And now the end is near. And so we face the fi­nal cur­tain or at best a rather de­mob-happy, oddly ten­sion-free fi­nal flut­ter of a cur­tain that fell some time ago for most of English foot­ball’s top tier.

To­day’s fi­nal fix­tures of the Pre­mier League sea­son will be played out in the usual con­joined fash­ion, si­mul­ta­ne­ous kick-offs de­signed to of­fer last-day drama and a level play­ing field to the fi­nal jos­tle for air and space.

Ex­cept this year things are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Those shared 3pm kick-offs will serve only to il­lus­trate the lack of ten­sion, the fix­tures lined up like a taxi rank at mid­night, lights on, en­gines idling, con­tent­edly at rest.

The last re­main­ing notes of un­cer­tainty in the Pre­mier League are wrapped up in un­likely math­e­mat­ics. It is pos­si­ble Liver­pool might lose to Brighton at An­field, while Chelsea win at New­cas­tle. On the other hand, Brighton have noth­ing to play for and Liver­pool have yet to lose at home in the league this sea­son. In all like­li­hood the top four is al­ready a lock.

Be­low that the Europa League places are safely packed away. The only real drama of the past few weeks has lurked at the bot­tom. But as it stands Swansea, who can­not score, need to en­act a 10-goal swing on Southamp­ton to avoid slid­ing away along with the pre-doomed West Brom and Stoke City.

Sense of sta­sis

This sense of sta­sis is at least in keep­ing with the sea­son as a whole, nine months that have pro­vided a strange mix­ture of en­ergy, colour and sweat, laced through with a pe­cu­liar air of pre­des­ti­na­tion.

Not that the Pre­mier League’s pro­mo­tional ma­chine will be overly con­cerned. This has been another fun, colour­ful sea­son for a hugely suc­cess­ful prod­uct – lack­ing only in some vi­tal note of ten­sion.

This is un­sur­pris­ing. Never be­fore has the gap be­tween the rich­est and the poor­est been so stark. Much hand-wring­ing has been de­voted to this process over the last quar­ter cen­tury, but this sea­son feels like a sig­nif­i­cant point of de­par­ture, with the sum­mit that sep­a­rates the rich­est and most pow­er­ful dis­ap­pear­ing out of sight.

In a sense this has its own kind of ten­sion. It has be­come habit to lament the death of the FA Cup, with its folksy old notes of drama and up­set, the so­cial or­der briefly re­versed. But the Pre­mier League can pro­vide this on its own now, a be­spoke pyra­mid all in one fix­ture list.

Per­haps Hud­der­s­field suc­cess­fully avoid­ing rel­e­ga­tion is a mod­ern-day stab at a third-round Cup shock. Per­haps in time David Wag­ner’s round of on-field bumps af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle will be­come our own parka-clad mods pour­ing out onto the Here­ford mud, those mo­ments when ca­reers are made and leg­ends forged, on this oc­ca­sion sim­ply by re­main­ing in this most ver­tig­i­nously strat­i­fied league.

In many ways these are the twin themes of the sea­son. More than ever power is set one way, as re­flected in fi­nances, pos­ses­sion stats, the one-sided na­ture of so many meet­ings within the same league. Ranged against this is foot­ball’s ba­sic re­silience, the abil­ity of the game to re­sist what­ever we do to it, to keep on churn­ing out its notes of beauty and fas­ci­na­tion.

The cham­pi­ons em­body this most com­pletely. The ti­tle race to all in­tents ended in Oc­to­ber, the day José Mour­inho’s Manch­ester United went to An­field and win­kled out a cau­tious 0-0 draw from a game in which they had a sin­gle shot on tar­get.

Mour­inho de­fended his tac­tics en­er­get­i­cally, point­ing to the many twists to come, the at­tri­tional na­ture of the league sea­son. He was wrong, though. The only way of hop­ing to catch Manch­ester City is to try to win like Manch­ester City, a team so stacked with goals and tal­ent, so adept at de­priv­ing their op­po­nents of mean­ing­ful con­tact with the ball that the ma­jor­ity of their Pre­mier League en­coun­ters be­came near cer­tain­ties.

Para­dox

And still there is that para­dox. De­spite be­ing a project geared to­wards re­mov­ing un­cer­tainty and vari­ables – best tac­tics, coach, tal­ent, money – City have been hugely com­pelling cham­pi­ons, not just un­usu­ally up­lift­ing to watch but also lurk­ing on the side of the light, such is the pu­rity of Pep Guardi­ola’s com­mit­ment to his tac­tics, his abil­ity to find new depths in al­ready ex­cel­lent foot­ballers.

Record points, record goals scored: this has been one of the most watch­able one-sided win­ning runs one could hope to see.

There is an end point to this. The Pre­mier League has had noth­ing even vaguely re­sem­bling a ti­tle race since 2014, Demba Ba and all that. Even the mir­a­cle of Le­ices­ter City was some­thing of a stroll with­out its un­der­dog back­story.

The gap at the top of the Pre­mier League is even larger than it is in France, where the league re­ally is an ex­er­cise in man­ag­ing dead air. In La Liga the gap at the top is 15 points, in the Bun­desliga 24. Europe’s do­mes­tic leagues have a prob­lem, an ab­sence of in­ter­nal en­ergy. Too of­ten the late stages of the Cham­pi­ons League, where power fi­nally meets equal power, have pro­vide the only note of in­ter­est in the spring.

The Pre­mier League has at least of­fered some fas­ci­na­tion within the usual in­ter­nal tiers, the leagues within the league. Manch­ester United and Tot­ten­ham have had fas­ci­nat­ingly in­de­ter­mi­nate sea­sons, sound­tracked by a ba­sic con­fu­sion over what suc­cess is sup­posed to look like these days.

United will fin­ish sec­ond and may win the FA Cup. And yet the sur­round­ing weather has been choppy, the sense of stalled progress there in the un­ease at Mour­inho’s tac­tics, a squad packed with trapped at­tack­ing verve that has only rarely played with free­dom.

Mour­inho is al­ready sharp­en­ing his cleaver be­fore the sum­mer. An im­prove­ment in re­sults and, more vi­tally, style is re­quired.

De­mand­ing to be en­ter­tained

Lifestyle foot­ball: this has been another reg­u­lar note, with Ever­ton fans among those de­mand­ing not tro­phies or lo­cal derby vic­to­ries but an im­prove­ment on the tone and tex­ture of the foot­ball their team plays, de­mand­ing to be en­ter­tained at the very least. It is hard to ar­gue with this in the league of sta­sis, a place where there is lit­tle else to aim for with any real sense of hope.

Tot­ten­ham re­main per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing club in the up­per reaches, run at a profit, play­ing fine win­ning foot­ball but still gripped with that ba­sic con­fu­sion over what adds up to suc­cess, though not so much in­ter­nally.

For Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino a Cham­pi­ons League sea­son in the new sta­dium has al­ways been the pri­or­ity, do­mes­tic cups be damned.

Lower down the ta­ble it looked for a while as though this might be the year when the man­age­rial old guard were fi­nally junked, with shared howls of un­hap­pi­ness as David Moyes, Sam Al­lardyce, Alan Pardew and then Mark Hughes con­tin­ued to main­tain what ap­pears to be a re­volv­ing Proper Foot­ball Man job share.

The re­al­ity is per­haps a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Even slightly hag­gard mid­dle-aged men tend to have their own dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties, and Moyes de­serves credit for keep­ing West Ham in mid-ta­ble with­out any sig­nif­i­cant new man­power.

Tac­ti­cally there is, as ever, an urge to spot new trends, even if these can dis­ap­pear just as quickly as they are de­tected. Cer­tainly there has been an agree­ably at­tack­ing trend. Jür­gen Klopp’s blitz-foot­ball, those mo­ments when Liver­pool en­ter the red zone and at­tack in a dizzy­ing swarm, have pro­vided some of the mo­ments of the sea­son. The progress made by the player of the sea­son, Mo Salah, has been stun­ning, with a rare joy in watch­ing a supremely tal­ented player reach out to the far fringes of his gifts.

Fur­ther down the will­ing­ness to at­tack has also been re­warded, with Roy Hodgson pro­vid­ing one of most qui­etly heart­en­ing sto­ries at Crys­tal Palace. The free­dom with which Wil­fried Zaha and An­dros Townsend per­formed, res­ur­rect­ing a mori­bund team in au­tumn, has en­livened a league that for all its slight sense of claus­tro­pho­bia, of be­ing set­tled, re­mains im­pos­si­bly watch­able .

Of all the many farewells and end notes, one looms above ev­ery­thing. Prob­a­bly Arsène Wenger should have gone two years ago, pos­si­bly six or seven if the more dis­af­fected fans are be­lieved.

Arse­nal may now be­gin to cash in his legacy in earnest. Ei­ther way he leaves be­hind a club that will now be­come just another club like the other clubs, as­pi­ra­tional but also held in place by a hi­er­ar­chy that looks as set as at any point in English foot­ball his­tory.

– Guardian

Jür­gen Klopp’s blitz-foot­ball, those mo­ments when Liver­pool en­ter the red zone and at­tack in a dizzy­ing swarm, have pro­vided some of the mo­ments of the sea­son

PHO­TO­GRAPH: REUTERS/MATTHEW CHILDS

Hud­der­s­field Town play­ers throw man­ager David Wag­ner in the air as they cel­e­brate stay­ing in the Pre­mier League af­ter the match.

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