The Premier League season is a brutally long slog through 38 games from August to May, where teams must balance ambitions on as many as four fronts, while managing health and keeping everyone happy. It’s about not breaking down as much as it is about throttling every opponent. So it’s easy to lose the fact that tiny little moments can turn the whole thing on its head. You won’t win unless you can survive, but you also won’t win without The Fates breaking your way a few times. You have to be lucky and cohesive, consistent and opportunistic.
Today, all four of England’s top four teams played each other, and both games hinged on improbable goals. If Mark Clattenburg makes the right call and Danny Welbeck doesn’t hurry back from an injury, the contours of the EPL title race would be wildly different after this morning’s pair of games. But as it stands, we have the most open and dramatic chase for the top spot in years on our hands.
Arsenal hosted EPL leaders Leicester City at the Emirates in the early game, and, in traditional Arsenal fashion, they let the Foxes take an early lead on a Jamie Vardy penalty. Flopping when they have a real opportunity to reverse their sad sack narrative seems to be woven into the fabric of their DNA as a club. After a red card and a Theo Walcott goal, it was all but sewn up as a 1-1 draw. And then, chaos:
The late winner, in Welbeck’s first game of the season, gave Arsenal an extra pair of points that closed their gap to Leicester to two. The Gunners have steadily found ways to collapse into a heap of nerves and trip over themselves in big games all year. There was that ugly 1-0 loss to Chelsea, that 2-1 defeat to West Brom, and the late capitulation against Liverpool that let them sneak in for a draw. 95th minute winners tend to happen to them. Not today.
They might be the best positioned squad to take over from Leicester by their construction, and failing to take advantage of their position would be a crippling failure. They’ve never been closer to the title or this far above all the EPL’s traditional power teams this late in the season. They have arguably the league’s best player (Alexis) and he’s finally healthy. Leicester (and now Spurs) are ahead of them, but they’re better than both. Whether they’ll cast aside their history of turning back into pumpkins when the clock hits Matchday 38 is a thornier prospect to figure out.
Of course, Leicester are still atop the table and they have the easiest remaining schedule of the four title chasers, as well as the benefit of no continental competition to worry about. If they can fight off North London’s best, it’ll be the most improbable title in 20 years. Certain projections still don’t give them a chance, but remember; this is a club that looked like a certain relegation bet last year.
However, Arsenal, for all the smoke I just blew up their ass, aren’t even in second right now thanks to Mark Clattenburg. Early in the second half of Tottenham’s trip to Manchester’s Etihad Stadium, Danny Rose sent an innocent cross into the box, where it bounced off of Raheem Sterling’s back. Clattenburg, who had a great view of the kick, whistled immediately for a penalty. It was the wrong decision, and it swung the game for Spurs.
We haven’t written about Spurs that much this season, but they’re now second, above Arsenal on goal differential. Mauricio Pochettino’s squad is full of effervescent attackers, and he has the best young striker in England (2018 Real Madrid Player of the Year Harry Kane) as well as an overflowing fullbacking corps that allows Spurs to push and attack with numbers when they want to overwhelm opponents in the box. They’re real damn pretty to watch, and they have, statistically speaking, the best defense in England. They also have a history of blowing it late in the season, but this is a new, dangerous Spurs team, full of venom and swagger.
Lingering behind all three lies Manchester City. Lame duck coach Manuel Pellegrini has his squad four points back of the North London clubs, and six back of Leicester. I don’t think they can recover this late in the season, but the Chilean has a habit of getting his teams to make late charges at the title. However, with their easy Champions League Round of 16 draw against Dynamo Kyiv, it might be wiser to take a shot at that trophy.
But even if City punt on the league (which they won’t), we still have the best EPL title race we’ve seen in a long time. Not only is it full of teams who haven’t sniffed the trophy this decade, it’s incredibly close. You can’t always call the race two-thirds of the way through the campaign, but usually there are two clubs head and shoulders above everyone by now. England tends to be a league where the rich crush the poor ones, where mid and lower-tier clubs can take a game here and there off Chelsea or United in the league, but never their positions in the Champions League.
What’s so exciting about this year is that the EPL table, for once, doesn’t read like a ranking of club resources. Spurs and Arsenal are relatively rich clubs, but they don’t have the galactic spending ambitions of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea. March 7's North London derby will be one of the first title-deciding matches in the fixture’s long, contentious history. Smart money says if someone manages to win that one, they’ll be the odds on favorite to take the Whole Shit, but if there’s been any through-line lessons to this year’s EPL season, it’s that all you can truly count on is turmoil.
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