Known unknowns of Premier League plot indicate close-run season finale
Winners and losers are emerging but we can’t yet say how the season will pan out
Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal holds off Kevin Nolan of West Ham United during the St Stephen’s Day match between the two at Upton Park which Arsenal won 3-1. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images
West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce: Today’s clash with West Brom is a “must-win” for his relegation-threatened side. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA
Arsene knows. Everyone at Arsenal used to say so; now even Arsene Wenger must shy away from it, because no one knows.
We are halfway through a season but we’re not sure if we’re halfway to knowing what the outcome will be. Arsenal are top of the Premier League, but who knows if they will be there tomorrow, never mind on May 11th?
And the not knowing is invigorating. Eight points cover the top eight; eight points cover the bottom 11. True, there are reminders of long-standing quibbles about quality, but there is no escaping increasing intrigue.
Halfway through the season, and halfway through the fizz-wallop Christmas period of four games in 10 days, we have half conclusions.
There are already winners and losers emergent – Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton at the top; Sunderland, Fulham and West Ham at the bottom. What is freshly entertaining is that we cannot say with authority if it will stay that way.
There is an appealing uncertainty. And if the Premier League did not contain characters such as Sheikh Mansour, Roman Abramovich or Vincent Tan, you could almost apply descriptions such as democratic.
Maybe this sense of flux will retreat, but as it stands, we don’t know in the way that we once did know what comes next.
What is sure is that the absence of a serial winner and mood maker, Alex Ferguson, is central to the drama. Go back a year and Manchester United were top of the Premier League, four points clear of Manchester City and already 13 clear of Arsenal. As 2014 dawned, that gap to City was seven points and to Arsenal, 18.
Ferguson, still crimson at the loss of the previous league title to City in the last minute of the last game of the season, kept pressing. It was not a vintage United team but they won by a distance. It was like watching AP McCoy.
Remove McCoy from any race and the dynamics change. Others feel free to breathe. Ferguson has gone and United, essentially the same squad, have been less. They are 12 points worse off than at the same stage last season.
That can change. The expectation is that with each week and month, United will gather a new understanding with David Moyes. Given the shock home defeats to West Brom, Newcastle United and Everton, and the difficult nature of the transition post-Ferguson, there may even be an acceptance at Old Trafford in May that if they have run the eventual champions close and shown signs of development, then next season is the priority.
A couple of serious signings in January – perhaps even one – might transform that view. But there is a wait-and-see atmosphere around the reigning champions.
It can also go the other way. The way United defended at Hull City on Thursday says anything is possible.
That is all part of where we are. The art of defending has been on the wane for some time and so far only Everton in the Premier League have conceded less than a goal a game – Moyes’ legacy? A year ago, Manchester City, Chelsea and also Stoke could all claim that statistic.
The belief is still widespread that City have the squad and January resources, if necessary, to push on, but they could have lost to Liverpool and not felt aggrieved. City’s winner was a fluke mistake by Simon Mignolet, while defensively City were pulled all over the pitch by Luis Suarez.
Suarez’s brilliance means that we have another dilemma: how good are Liverpool? The facts state that Brendan Rodgers’ team, in their second season under the Antrim man, are 11 points better than in the first.
That’s quite an improvement. Some of it is down to Rodgers, a lot to Suarez and some to the way the club is run. Liverpool look stable.
They reacted to that horrible performance at Hull with four straight wins.
Now we await the reaction to Man City. It begins at Chelsea tomorrow.
Rodgers spent four years coaching at Chelsea and is close to Jose Mourinho. Their conversation will be interesting because the managerial certainties Mourinho personifies are not in evidence in his Chelsea second coming.
Mourinho’s situation is a puzzle rather than an angry debate. Chelsea are just two points off top but Mourinho is making anguished statements about his players. Maybe it will be seen as clever.
Chelsea play Liverpool, Southampton and Man United in three of their next four games. So we shall see.
Arsenal’s next quartet is less daunting. And if it begins well at St James’ Park tomorrow, then Wenger will be confident of beating Cardiff and Fulham at home and Aston Villa away.
Villa, of course, caused Wenger alarm on the season’s opening day. Arsenal seemed a long way from being champions then. Few predicted such an impressive recovery, but Mesut Ozil wasn’t around then.
Yet Arsenal could easily succumb to Newcastle. We just don’t know. Even Wenger, who knew, doesn’t know. And it’s good to know that.