Premier League’s high-end soap opera returns with promise of real title race

By Barney Ronay
Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea will resume a finely-poised title race with plenty of subplots elsewhere.
Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea will resume a finely-poised title race with plenty of subplots elsewhere. Composite: Getty Images; Shutterstock

It was another autumn international break, almost exactly five years ago, that ignited Chelsea’s push to their most recent Premier League title. It is a little startling that what seems now like a mundane shift of shape, Antonio Conte’s quantum leap from two to three central defenders, should have had such a profound effect on Chelsea’s season. But at the time this felt bold and fresh, an act of subtle tactical voodoo.

Conte had toyed with the idea of wing-backs during the summer. The despair of a 3-0 first-half shellacking by Arsenal forced his hand. An angry, glowering half-time rejig was followed by an angry, glowering mini-break in Italy from which Conte returned with a winning formula.

David Luiz was transformed from the defensive equivalent of a notably frisky labrador puppy wheeling around in a cardboard head trumpet into an assured central colossus. Victor Moses tore up the right flank like few players – least of all Victor Moses – have since. And it remains a significant moment in other ways too.

Chelsea inherited the trophy from Leicester that season, a rare note of diversity at the top. In four years since, the title has been safely divvied up between Manchester City and Liverpool. Until now that is, and another run towards Christmas that may just see a more widespread change of gear.

The Premier League really doesn’t need any more hype. The styling, the tone, is always major chord, always epic. But even a maniacally over-excited clock tells the right time twice a day and it is hard to remember when the table has felt so distinctly well-poised at this stage. Who knows, it could even dish up that rarest of things in European club football, an actual multi-pronged title race.

Antonio Conte is now the manager at Spurs, five years after turning Chelsea into title winners.
Antonio Conte is now the manager at Spurs, five years after turning Chelsea into title winners. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty Images

To date the story of the season has been more soap opera. The news this week that the Premier League’s US TV rights have been sold to NBC for an upgraded £2bn felt significant. The Premier League may be entertainment-ball, and occasionally pantomime. But it is high-end, A-list pantomime.

Witness, for example the fact that the biggest story of the opening 11 games has been the cinematically bloated struggles of the sixth-best team in the league, buoyed by the bolt-on magnetism of the Ronaldo industrial complex, prodded along by the chorus of Easter Island heads on the punditry stools.

You really couldn’t dream up a TV vehicle this successful, a kind of angry real-time football Gogglebox. The paradox of Manchester United being “in crisis”, while also dominating every metric across every digital platform, will not have been lost on the club’s marketing arm. But it would be nice to focus on some real-life football from now.

No doubt the delayed effects of the Covid season have taken a while to work through the system, with the sense of elite football still trying to shed the last of its jet lag. The opening 11 games have felt like a period of manoeuvring. Chelsea’s haul of 25 points is at the low end for a table-topping team at this stage (Liverpool had 31 in their title season, Manchester City 31 and 29 either side of that). Mainly there is a sense of powder still dry, of some high-grade teams that are all in some way interestingly flawed.

A little under the radar, the European champions are three points clear at the top with only four goals conceded. All this while struggling to integrate a club record signing in a role where they have no realistic alternative.

No doubt Thomas Tuchel has been cloistered away, Conte-like, boggling at his data banks. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with after 13 days of cold turkey sifting the patterns of his evolving team. Romelu Lukaku is not yet ready to return. But there is a sense, even as they top the table, of so much strength in reserve, of gears as yet unlocated.

West Ham are having the time of their lives as they push for a top-four finish.
West Ham are having the time of their lives as they push for a top-four finish. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

The same goes for Manchester City. There have been sublime moments, notably the win at Stamford Bridge, a performance of silky strangulation. This is also a team with an obvious flaw, the lack of an orthodox cutting edge, but City are yet to show their hand, still waiting to make the jump to hyperspace.

Liverpool look more of a known quantity. Again this is a brilliant team with identifiable flaws, in this case the step down in quality that will come when players are injured or depart for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Peak Liverpool are still pretty much the same well-seasoned crew of buccaneers. Sustaining a title challenge past Christmas will be a test. But it would also be no great surprise to see a fit and available best XI win eight games in a row and make a genuine go of it. Salah-dependencia looms vaguely. They really do need other members of that forward line to hit a prolific streak.

The Battle for Fourth Place is a routinely depressing phrase, but it looks an open battle, with West Ham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Wolves, Brighton, Spurs and Leicester lurking hopefully. While Michail Antonio stays fit West Ham will remain the real deal, a well-drilled, powerful team who look as if they’re having the absolute time of their lives. Conte’s presence at Spurs and Arsenal’s resurgence add their own layers.

There is a separate mid-season preview to be written about the relegation struggle, where at least seven clubs will be scanning the key fixtures into the spring. The Newcastle story is fascinating. Never before has a group of players been told repeatedly they are inadequate, then asked to do the team that will replace them a favour by staying up. Eddie Howe’s basic vigour may provide the right kind of tonic.

And so here we are, with the pistons once again beginning to churn. The Premier League so often defies expectations, a dizzy, overblown, morally weird thing that still manages to emerge as a robust piece of hard-edged sport.

But for angry scenes on the streets last summer we might have been witnessing its early death throes, neutered at a stroke by the dreaded Super League. For now, this odd, apparently unsustainable thing just keeps coming back, all light and heat and noise, always on the verge of some alarming next-step evolution, but still an object of unignorable fascination.


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