There will be some that will regard this as one of the best Premier League seasons ever, because it is so open and could yet be the year of the ultimate underdog. This has been a bizarre season in some ways, at times it’s seemed like it’s the year nobody wants to win the title.
Early in the season it was Manchester City setting the pace and blowing teams away with some scintillating attacking football. The question became how many points would they win the title by, rather than would they win it. It was theirs to lose, or so it seemed.
For City fans, the propensity of their team to lose when you’d least expect it and display vulnerability at the most inopportune moment is all too common. City had their first Premier League crown comfortably within their grasp, only to almost throw it away before dramatically snatching it back with virtually the last kick of the 2011/12 season; it was in keeping with the club’s recent history. Perhaps this season will be the same because just as Manuel Pellegrini’s side looked to be running off into the distance, they stumbled. Their game at West Ham was another example of how their midfield and defence can fragment, leaving them vulnerable and were it not for a fantastic save from Joe Hart, it could have been worse. Yet, at the other end of the pitch, with the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, they can never be counted out of a game.
Enter the surprise underdog. Leicester City were tipped for relegation this season from an embarrassing number of journalists and pundits, purely because of their appointment of Claudio Ranieri as manager. Derided as ‘the tinkerman’, the Italian’s record as a manager was dismissed and he was seen as a figure of fun by many. How times have changed, rather than ridiculed, he’s now an endearing character to his former critics, but perhaps still lacks the respect he deserves for what he and Leicester have achieved this season. Some of their attacking play has been excellent and a joy to watch, but their lack of quality in depth and experience of being in such a position at this point of the season means most expect them to drop off the pace, but their win at Stoke suggested they’re going nowhere just yet.
Leicester’s loss of form over the festive period prompted the inevitable calls of “that’s them done”, but it also coincided with Arsenal racking up win after win and step forward as the new favourites to win what would be their first Premier League title win in 12 years. Arsene Wenger’s men have put in some impressive performances this season, with Mesut Ozil the creative fulcrum of the team. However, Arsenal are another side capable of collapsing under pressure and showed some of those tendencies in their home defeat to Chelsea. Whilst Per Mertesacker’s sending off was a key moment in the game, it was another moment where his chronic lack of pace left him exposed. His glance across to check if defensive partner Laurent Koscielny would be able to cover in time, before making the challenge that brought his red card, was a glance of acceptance of his impending fate. Call it ill-discipline, call it a rush of blood, call it poor decision making, it amounts to the same thing: Arsenal picking up a red card in a high octane game. The accusations of mental fragility in Arsenal will continue to be made, unless they can change. How Arsenal react over the coming weeks will be telling for their title challenge.
The final challengers to be considered are the dark horses in this race; they have slowly made their way through the pack and are currently gathering pace. Tottenham Hotspur are the outsiders that nobody, including this writer, expected to be near a title challenge this season. Spurs are the perennial chokers, the nearly, but not quite team. However, a mixture of so many top sides being consistently inconsistent and Mauricio Pochettino instilling his organisation and pressing game, with balanced attacking football, they really are in the mix now. Their victory over Crystal Palace at the weekend displayed a level of resilience to go with their impressive football. Although much of their play relies on Harry Kane scoring regularly, Christian Eriksen, Heung-min Son and the rising star of Deli Alli have all contributed, but the unknown territory they are now entering will be the test of their true credentials.
Exciting stuff eh? It certainly is intriguing, just how this Premier League campaign is panning out. With the lead changing so often and currently any one of four teams in with a realistic chance of winning it, you could easily be excused for thinking that is a sign of competitiveness; however, I believe the inconsistency shown at the top of the table is more a damning indictment of quality, rather something for the hype machine to crow about.